Today, seven British MPs -- including Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna -- announced they were leaving the UK Labour Party and would sit in Parliament as independents. It is, as I understand it, the biggest breakaway of sitting MPs from Labour in recent history (the last comparable action was in 1981, when four senior Labour officials -- two of whom were MPs -- left to form their own party).
There were quite a few issues that prompted these MPs to decamp, including perhaps most prominently the almost complete failure of Labour to commit to fighting against Theresa May's Brexit catastrophe. But of course, looming large on the horizon was the ongoing problem of antisemitism -- a disease ripping through Labour at both the grassroots and at the most senior levels.
The Democratic Party in the United States is not like UK Labour. People who try to argue otherwise are acting in transparent bad faith -- and not just because three-quarters of Jews voted Democratic in the last election, while Corbyn's Labour party polls below 20% in the Jewish community. It is insulting to the American Jewish community to suggest that we can't see antisemitism before our eyes; if the Democratic Party was a toxic place to be a Jew, we -- by which I mean Jewish Democrats, the Jewish majority, not whatever ZOA hack is tweeting their 304th comment of the week at Ilhan Omar -- would be saying so. In reality, Jews remain well entrenched in the Democratic community. Antisemitic incidents remain quite rare, and when they do occur they're handled with considerably more grace and decisiveness than comparable acts across the aisle.
However, as I stressed in my last post, this is not a series about what is, or even what is likely. Unthinkable Thoughts is about what could be, what is now within the realm of possibility. The question, then, is what happens if the Democratic Party becomes "Corbynified"?
Last week, referring to the great Ilhan Omar "AIPAC!" controversy, Anshel Pfeffer declared that Jewish Democrats had just experienced their first "Corbyn moment". The main feature of that moment was not what Omar said, exactly, or in how it was responded to by the Democratic Party as an institution. Indeed, along those metrics, this scandal was a rather minor affair: she did trade upon antisemitic tropes, but she quickly apologized and the party as a whole disavowed them. Can't ask for a better result.
Rather, the scary portion of the incident was in the metadebate -- the discourse about the incident that coursed through sectors of the internet in the hours and days following. It was here where things went well beyond (fair) critiques that Omar's words are the subject of a multi-day media frenzy whilst GOP antisemitism of comparable gravity are given a pass. Instead, we saw the development of a narrative where Omar did nothing wrong, and the contention otherwise is yet another case of Jews smearing good patriots with illegitimate "antisemitism" charges, acting as Israeli stooges, being the face of American racism, and just in general sabotaging the left. Along side this condemnatory narrative was a celebratory one -- that Omar was speaking forbidden truths, that she was telling it like it is, and -- most importantly -- the fact that it made Jews uncomfortable is a point in her favor. In this corner of the internet, Omar scored points because of, not in spite of, how she upset the Jewish community.
This, for me, is the heart of what I mean by "Corbynifying" (at least along the axis of antisemitism). It denotes a state of affairs where Jewish terror and misery is part of the point -- it's an active desideratum, it signals that one's orientation towards the Jewish community is on track. With a few exceptions (exceptions who are both quick to be trotted out but whose loyalty to the cause is always kept under close watch), in a Corbynified party Jews are viewed as part of the enemy camp, and so complaints from Jews about antisemitism are viewed much the same way as complaints of racism are heard by the GOP -- presumptively in bad faith, and if anything a signal that the party is getting things right.
This is, as I've written before, the antisemitism that keeps me up at night. And we're at the point where this future is, if not yet "likely", than certainly "thinkable".
It's worth noting that a "Corbynified" Democratic Party does not necessarily mean a friendly Republican Party. More likely, it'd mean a Democratic Party and Republican Party that are deeply hostile to Jewish values. I've remarked before that trying to imagine what I'd do as a Jewish voter in the UK is the one thought-experiment that generated sympathy for the predicament of "Never Trump" Republicans, and that sentiment carries over.
And it must be stressed: right now the Democratic Party as an institution is not "Corbynified", or anything close to it. It's just not, and the people insisting otherwise are almost exclusively those for whom Corbynification is clearly their desired political future.
Yes, there is a loud cadre of self-described leftists on the internet that is ecstatic about any seeming break-up between Jews and Democrats. Then again, there's also a loud cadre on the internet that is screaming "Barbara Lee is a sellout!" because she endorsed Kamala Harris instead of Bernie Sanders. I feel pretty confident the latter will be very disappointed by the outcome of the 2020 primary. Loudness on the internet is not a reliable proxy for actual popular support.
But still. It's easy to forget that when Corbyn first entered the race to head up Labour, he was considered a fringe joke (a mistake that was also made about our current President). It turned out there was a very large swell of latent progressive energy waiting to be activated, and -- worse yet -- one of the things that activated and mobilized them was the antisemitism. Again -- this is central to Corbyn's appeal in the same way that Trump's racism was central to his appeal. Part of what Corbyn's voters like about him is that they view him as putting the Jews in their place. And so the question is whether there is a similar latent energy in a sector of the American people that burns with a similar desire.
It is a feature of Jewish history that these things can seemingly turn on a dime (I just read an account of how Jews reacted to emergent antisemitism in late 19th century Germany that felt alarmingly topical -- one of the main themes was how the community went from "we're basically fine, outside a few cranks anti-Jewish sentiment is a thing of the past" to having a 5-alarm fire raging around them). Yes, right now Jews are well entrenched in the Democratic Party. But can I imagine a world where Jewish Democrats are systematically targeted for primary challenges -- always somehow being viewed as "too conservative", "too accommodationist", "too establishment", "too Clinton-esque"? I can. I don't think it's likely, and I don't think they'd necessarily succeed. But yes, I can imagine it.
More importantly, we need to reflect seriously on how antisemitism can generate votes and energize coalitions. Too often it is taken as an article of faith that "antisemitism hurts our movement" -- that an antisemitic party is weaker than the one which is successfully fighting antisemitism. I don't think this can be taken for granted. Antisemitism is one of the most powerful mobilizing forces the world has ever seen. It seems wholly within the realm of possibility that a political movement which successfully harnesses antisemitism will be more successful than one that does not. The effectiveness of the "Soros" line of attack is demonstrative of this -- antisemitism, right now, is aiding conservative political movements in America. The Republican Party at least seems to believe that deploying these antisemitic tropes makes it stronger than it would otherwise be.
Indeed, the ties that bind antisemites together often cross normative partisan lines, and that creates significant opportunities for political growth. Antisemitism links together a range of vaguely "anti-establishment" and "anti-elitist" perspectives that, paradoxically enough, mean antisemitism is likely a great entry point for a host of new Democratic voters (consider the left-right convergence around the French "yellow vest" movement).
It would not remotely surprise me if there is a decent-sized clutch of independent-to-right-leaning voters who are suspicious of big financial institutions and angry about what they see as corruption in Washington, who tend to associate Democrats with coastal elitism and "New York money", and for whom Jews represent at least a plausible avatar of what connects what they think is wrong with America and what they think is wrong with Democrats. If this is right, then the path to resolving the "What's the Matter with Kansas" question is making a grand gesture that says "I reject coastal financial domination." We joke about how antisemitism is the "socialism of fools", but the reason it's earned that label is because the easiest way to signal "I'm standing up to the banks", "I'm standing up to the elites", and "I'm standing up to the unaccountably powerful" -- all in one go -- is to signal "I'm standing up to the Jews". Such a message, it's plausible to imagine, be very well received among that set. It offers a pathway to turning reddish-purple voters blue.
Finally, it has to be emphasized that this is not solely a home-grown problem of the left. The right -- and particular Bibi Netanyahu -- shares a sizable chunk of the blame. Indeed, it is actively and I think intentionally trying to accelerate these dynamics. Much of contemporary politics is organized around negative partisanship, and the brazen of alignment of Netanyahu with Trump and other forces of far-right reactionary politics has very predictable effects. We can have a thousand conversations about nuance and Israeli society not being a monolith, but the fact is low-information voters aren't going to know much more about Israel than what it's government is doing, and if the government of Israel is blasting "WE, THE JEWISH STATE, ARE JUST LIKE TRUMP, ORBAN AND BOLSONARO" at 160 decibels, it's going to leave a sour impression on those people for whom Trump, Orban, and Bolsonaro are not friendly faces.
But the fact that blame would be overdetermined is not much of a consolation for ensuing political homelessness. If the Democratic Party ceases to be a home for the Jews, it would signal more than just a realignment. It would almost certainly mean that the liberal politics that much of the Jewish community has rallied behind for the past half-century will have finally failed. And it's hard to imagine that any of the candidates that might emerge in its place -- from Corbynista socialism to Trumpian authoritarian populism -- will be particularly favorably disposed to the Jews.