SIMON JOHNSON

Let Blatter and Corbyn look to Jewish teaching

THE arrest last week of Michel Platini, one of Sepp Blatter’s key lieutenants at FIFA, was a news story that provided a distraction for me from writing yet more letters and statements complaining about more incidents of anti-Jewish racism within Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

It brought me right back to my FIFA days when rumours of corruption abounded.

This brought to mind a talk which I gave earlier this month at South Manchester Synagogue in Bowdon, Cheshire.

I talked about how two people, Sepp Blatter and Jeremy Corbyn, had dominated my professional work over the last 10 years, and wondered if there was anything that they had in common. I have dealt with both of them — from a distance and close up — and have formed a view about their characters and motivations.

If you were to ask the average person what are the first words that come to mind when you mention these names, what might be the answers?

What do you associate with Sepp Blatter? Perhaps it is corruption and the abuse of power.

What do you associate with Jeremy Corbyn? Well, it is now absolutely clear that around 30 per cent of the wider population would associate antisemitism or, as we prefer to call it, anti-Jewish racism.

For us in our Jewish faith, a good name and reputation is of paramount importance.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, which we read on Shabbat afternoon through the summer months, Chapter 4 Verse 17 reads:

“There are three crowns. The crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name surpasses them all.”

How fair is it then that history will record Sepp Blatter and Jeremy Corbyn in the way that we have described them?

Blatter was elected four times as president of FIFA. He himself might not have been corrupt. But there is no doubt that he allowed a culture in which corruption was tolerated to flourish during his time as president of FIFA.

For him, it was the pursuit of power that was most important. He saw the role of president of FIFA as his passport to a place in history.

Rumours of corruption dogged him from his first election. But the stench of corruption was strongest around the bidding for the right to host FIFA World Cups.

When it came to the bid for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, FIFA told us it would be the most open, the most transparent, the most objective bid process FIFA had ever conducted.

In the end, and as history has recorded, it was the least open, the least transparent, the least objective and the most corrupt process they had ever run.

As we now know, gifts, deals, financial promises and straightforward cash payments were a feature of what the EXCO required to make their decision. There were complex trading of voting blocs.

It has even emerged that Blatter had tried to fix the process from the start to ensure that Russia got the 2018 World Cup and America got 2022. He thought that this would secure him the Nobel Peace Prize and that this would be his legacy.

It was clear that he, too, wished to use the position to secure himself a good name.

How ironic that he was prepared to tolerate corruption and bribery to achieve such a lofty goal. And yet he ended up being arrested, suspended from FIFA and with his reputation in tatters. Perhaps Blatter should have heeded the words of King Solomon in the Book of Koheles: “A good name is better than good oil.”

Our sages believe that a man’s goodness comes from the deeds they do. It is always your actions that count. Your legacy comes from your actions and not your name.

Let’s turn now to Corbyn. There is quite a debate whether he is an anti-Jewish racist or not. He may or may not be.

But there is no question that, under his leadership, a culture has been allowed to flourish in which anti-Jewish racism is tolerated. He has surrounded himself with key advisers who seem to do nothing to fight the allegations of anti-Jewish racism within the party.

Corbyn believes with every fibre of his being that he is not a racist. That is because his definition of anti-Jewish racism is dangerously narrow.

That is why the Labour Party argues that the issues to do with antisemtism are just about process, and the party’s speed of its disciplinary procedures.

It is not. The failure to deal with anti-Jewish racism is linked to the ideology of the leader and those who sustain and support him. A culture of misogynist, racist bullying has taken hold in the Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership.

When we challenged him in a meeting last year to take firm, visible and decisive action to deal with this, he agreed to none of the demands we made. In fact, he simply shrugged his shoulders, slumped back in his chair and lost interest.

This for me is his legacy and how he will be remembered. Shrugging his shoulders and neglecting to do anything to counter the anti-Jewish racism within the party that he leads.

There is a Talmudic principle of shtika kehoda’ah — that silence is the same as agreement. Applying this principle, our belief would be that, if Corbyn is silent about confronting the anti-Jewish racism in his party, it is the same as if he agrees with it.

In our tradition, it is critically important to ensure that people do not think badly of you. Whatever Corbyn’s own views, he is seen as being silent in the face of racism, and that is the reputation that he carries.

A good name is like good oil. Perhaps Blatter and Corbyn ought to have heeded our Jewish teaching.


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