With Jeremy Corbyn under intense scrutiny from Jewish leaders, re-read Kieron Monks's piece from earlier this month. Can Labour ever regain the trust of the Jewish community?by Kieron Monks / March 3, 2018 / Leave a comment
Bangers and mash. Salt and Pepper. Antisemitism and the Labour party.
Barely a week seems to pass without a new iteration of a scandal that has plagued Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and threatened to tear the party apart.
Labour’s own MP Ruth Smeeth claims that antisemitism has become “normal” in the party. The international Anti-Defamation League has accused of Jeremy Corbyn of “excusing antisemitism.” Prominent Jewish author Howard Jacobsen believes Labour is now an “enemy of the Jews,” and Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard has denounced a “party of bigots and thugs.”
Each flare-up prompts a fresh bout of hostilities between critics who believe the party is institutionally antisemitic and loyalists who argue the issue is a confected smear designed to undermine the Labour leader.
The truth is, of course, more complex.
Labour cannot and does not claim to be free of anti-Jewish prejudice. Activists, councillors and MPs have been exposed for offences that include praising Hitler, posting cartoons of hook-nosed Jews, and attacking Holocaust victims. Many cases have resulted in suspension or expulsion, and dozens more are going through the party’s disciplinary process.
Yet three separate enquiries have declined to label the party as institutionally racist—as the MacPherson report branded the Met Police—and a comprehensive study from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found the prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes was no higher among typical Labour voters than elsewhere on the political spectrum. The party professes to be dealing with fewer than 100 complaints from a movement of around 600,000 members.
Much of the challenge for Labour lies in identifying problematic tendencies within its movement, as antisemitism can be better disguised than other prejudices.
“People are very familiar with the type of racism that is based on skin colour and treating minorities as having lesser value,” says Dave Rich, head of antisemitism watchdog the Community Security Trust. “Antisemitism doesn’t operate like that.”
“Antisemitism can operate through conspiracies, myths and stereotypes that portray Jews as all-powerful …. the left has always had its own particular type of antisemitism that connected Jews to capitalism, finance and globalisation.”
A Labour movement that proudly positions itself against ‘the 1 per cent,’ fuelled by narratives excoriating greedy bankers and corrupt politicians bought by shadowy lobbyists, can be fertile ground for such theories. The potential for overlap with antisemitism is demonstrated by the memes circulated online by avowed Corbyn supporters that portray demonic elites, sometimes making the connection explicit by naming the villain: “Rothschilds.”
Prejudice can manifest in other forms. One Labour councillor was suspended for the risible cliché that Jews have big noses. Jeremy Newmark, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, has seen cases of “hardline Iranian-type Islamist antisemitism” from members. (Note: Jeremy Newmark resigned his post shortly after being interviewed.)
But the most common source of complaints, and controversy, is over Israel, Zionism, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Adam Langleben, a Labour councilor in the London borough of Barnet, made headlines in November with a detailed account of antisemitism from a Labour member. Examples of her prejudice included the claim that “Jews kill and kidnap their way around the world,” an attack on “Wall Street Jews,” approving use of swastikas, and a campaign against a proposed Holocaust memorial.
Langleben says he received support from many of his party colleagues and the local branch of Momentum, and that the party is handling his complaint properly—but he was disturbed to find other Labour members excusing obvious racism.
“They said it was all about Israel and nothing to do with Jews,” he recalls.
The above examples are extreme, but Langleben says he also often experiences “soft antisemitism” within his party. He describes the reaction when he mentioned his work with the local Jewish community at a recent fundraiser.
“The first question I was asked presumed my politics on Israel; that I hate Palestinians, support settlements and endorse occupation,” he says. “When I say I’m Jewish, I get this reaction.”
The “litmus test” on Palestine
According to Gary Spedding, a campaigner for Palestinian rights and against antisemitism, such reactions are too common within Palestine solidarity activism—a cherished cause within Corbyn’s Labour party.
“Jewish people should not have to do a litmus test of whether they are progressive on Palestine,” he says. “It’s important not to rehash the Israel-Palestine conflict every time antisemitism is bought up.”
He gives an example of people posting pictures of the Israel-Palestine conflict under articles about Holocaust Memorial Day, which he calls, “insensitive, inappropriate, and wrong.”
Spedding has worked to highlight what he calls “tolerance” of antisemitism within pro-Palestinian activism. He tells me about an incident from a recent Palestine solidarity event in Newcastle.
“Somebody in the audience said ‘we’ve got a big orthodox community in Gateshead. Should we put posters and flyers up there and target them because they’re responsible,” says Spedding. “It is absurd and disgraceful to blame our Jewish communities for what’s happening in the Middle East.”
Since the early days of Corbyn’s leadership, and a barrage of headlines about his meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah, the party has struggled to find an effective response on antisemitism.
Rich believes the associations made a bad first impression with many Jewish voters, which Corbyn cemented by failing to properly address his personal baggage.
The first wave of antisemitism allegations under Corbyn’s leadership concerned incidents that took place under Ed Miliband, Labour’s first Jewish leader. But his administration has been criticised for indecisive handling of antisemitism cases, such as that of former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who remains suspended rather than expelled after causing profound offence in 2016 with comments suggesting Hitler supported Zionism. (Livingstone’s suspension has now been extended indefinitely pending the outcome of his case—reportedly at the behest of outgoing General Secretary Iain McNicol.)
“Allegations against high profile figures should not been left unresolved for two years,” says Newmark.
Progress is being made
The criticism is accepted by Rhea Wolfson, a Jewish member of Labour’s governing National Executive Committee (NEC). But she also believes progress is being made.
“I think the party could have acted faster in lots of ways that would have prevented some damage being done,” she says. “It’s taken a long time to get to where we are. The party has staffed up and we are getting up to a reasonable length of time between issues being reported and dealing with them … What we haven’t got right yet is our ability to communicate what has happened.”
The system faces a stiff test with some high-profile cases including a new hearing for Livingstone and activist Mike Sivier, who has been accused of Holocaust revisionism and wrote in defence of a comment that Tony Blair was “unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisors.”
The latter case prompted fierce criticism after Sivier was referred to a training course rather than expelled—an option he rejected.
But education is core to Labour’s strategy on antisemitism and Wolfson is determined to persist.
“We decided at the last NEC Disputes panel to give people the opportunity to go the education route instead of going straight to disciplinary,” she says. “Some cases are so hateful that we have to expel…But if we can deal with antisemitism cases head on, and challenge behavior and language, people who learn from those experiences are much better advocates for antiracism.”
“People wrongly see education as a get out of jail free card but it’s actually more challenging and a much better route to go down if we genuinely believe in changing society.”
The JLM has encouraged a greater role for education, Wolfson says. It was also a recommendation of Shami Chakrabarti’s report into “anti-semitism and other form of racism” which Corbyn commissioned when the row first blew up. Wolfson cites the rehabilitation of MP Naz Shah, who—unlike Sivier—underwent training after admitting to using anti-Semitic language, as a positive example.
Shah’s wholehearted embrace of education included close engagement with the Jewish community in her constituency of Bradford. The party as a whole is seeking to follow her example.
“Labour is actively engaged with Jewish organisations across the country,” says a spokesman from the leader’s office. “We are campaigning to increase support and confidence among Jewish people in the UK.”
Questioning the language
Spedding believes relations could also benefit from Labour leaders being prepared to discuss antisemitism specifically and in detail, educating supporters on the subject, as opposed to Corbyn’s approach of condemning “all forms of racism.”
Jewish advocacy groups have criticised this approach as inadequate, and Labour’s own peer Lord Levy has demanded a “statement that is specific and categoric against any form of antisemitism.”
The party might further require a new language on Israel and Palestine. All three enquiries addressing antisemitism in Labour raised concerns about the use of “Zionist” as a term of abuse, as well as variations such as “Zio,” which Chakrabarti recommended,“should have no place in Labour Party discourse.”
The Corbynite and Jewish NEC member Jon Lansman has suggested that Labour members stop using the word Zionist altogether, arguing that the majority of Jews identify as such and that the term is too ambiguous to have clear meaning, encompassing political beliefs that range from “Greater Israel” annexationism to support for Palestinian statehood and civil rights.
Palestine solidarity activists and non-Zionist Jews have pushed back at what they see as efforts to restrict free speech on Israel and Zionism.
The Palestinian cause, always a totemic issue on the radical left, has come into the mainstream of Corbyn’s Labour. But a higher profile has been accompanied by harsher scrutiny.
Pro-Palestinian activism has faced growing restrictions as it is increasingly associated with hate speech. Solidarity events and academic conferences have been threatened and cancelled after being labeled antisemitic by MPs and Jewish advocacy groups.
Government ministers have condemned Israel Apartheid Week as racist, although the term ‘apartheid’ is a staple of discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, invoked by observers including former Israeli President Ehud Barak, former US President Jimmy Carter, and Amnesty International. New laws have been introduced against the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Britain, France and the US.
Palestine Solidarity activists fear the response to antisemitism in Labour could lead to further restrictions. Anti-Zionism has been heavily criticised over the course of Labour’s trials, with Michael Gove and Simon Schama among the figures to argue it is antisemitism and must be treated the same.
This argument has been rejected by British courts, such as in a 2011 tribunal that ruled: “a belief in the Zionist project or an attachment to Israel or any similar sentiment cannot amount to a protected characteristic. It is not intrinsically a part of Jewishness.”
The Jewish Socialists Group also objected to the conflation of Zionism and Judaism in their submission to the Chakrabarti report, citing research showing that 41 per cent of British Jews do not identify as Zionist.
The JSG complained that non-Zionist Jews have not been represented in the debate over antisemitism in Labour, and that this imbalance has allowed criticism of Israel or Zionism to be “falsely cited as examples of antisemitism.”
The party’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism has also ruffled feathers among some on the left, as it contains criteria governing discussion of Israel.
A motion on the definition was fiercely opposed by pro-Palestinian activists at a fractious council meeting in Haringey—which was itself presented as evidence of antisemitism. The definition has, it is worth saying, also been criticised by leading lawyers including Hugh Tomlinson QC, who said the wording was “unclear and confusing,” with the potential to have a “chilling effect” on free speech.
There is also frustration within the Labour party that they must filter genuine cases of antisemitism from false, malicious or opportunistic claims, often from political opponents.
Jeremy Corbyn’s recent Holocaust Remembrance Day (HMD) message was condemned as a slight on the community for not mentioning Jews, although neither did Theresa May or Vince Cable, and the Labour leader addressed Jews in a longer tribute. (Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard retracted his criticism after seeing Corbyn’s full tribute.)
Baroness Jan Royall found “at least one case of serious false allegations of antisemitism” in her report on the Oxford Union Labour Club, a case that became a national scandal as it was held up as emblematic of Labour’s deep-rooted problem.
Jeremy Corbyn and Jon Lansman are among the leading Labour figures to have been personally accused of antisemitism based on guilt by association, rumor, or inference. Far-right groups including the British National Party (BNP) have accused Labour of institutional racism with no apparent irony.
The Huffington Post reported that the first act of the new left-wing chair of the NEC, Christine Shawcroft, was to reduce the penalties for antisemitism cases, before correcting the article to reflect that she had not.
Rhea Wolfson accused internal opponents of leaking false information that was “harmful to the party, our relationship with the Jewish community & our fight against anti-semitism.”
“We can deal with genuine cases of antisemitism, but we can’t deal with rumour and mistruth,” she says.
Labour’s response to antisemitism could play a decisive role in the shaping the party’s electoral prospects.
Four London constituencies with major Jewish populations—the so-called “bagel belt”—were among the few to resist Labour’s sweep of the capital in the 2017 General Election, which may have been enough to keep the Tories in power. Pre-election polling showed the party on just 13 per cent of the Jewish vote, falling below even Ed Miliband’s derisory share of 18 per cent in 2015.
Labour campaigners in those seats faced searching examinations, and sometimes hostility, on the doorsteps.
“It was like there were two campaigns in Golders Green,” says Newmark, who stood as the Labour candidate for Finchley and Golders Green. “One regular election campaign and another inside the Jewish community with potential and former Labour voters who felt this antisemitism issue was a block.”
Hope for the future
But the party did gain 3,000 votes and 4 per cent of the vote in the seat from their share in 2015, coming close to an upset victory. Newmark also found new Jewish supporters and activists, with something of a “shy Labour” phenomenon of local Jews working with Labour but not telling their families.
He believes the party may have slightly outperformed pre-election polls among Jewish voters. On current trends, Newmark is confident Labour can take the seat at the next election.
Langleben is also confident of making gains at the upcoming local elections in Barnet, which is home to thousands of Jewish voters. He believes that much of the community is socially liberal and open to Labour messages on domestic issues.
“Labour has worked hard over the years to build strong relations with the Jewish community here in good times and bad and I hope people will think about that when casting their vote,” he says.
Newmark says there have been “pockets of progress” that will allow him to make a stronger pitch to Jewish voters. He believes the leadership is more engaged on antisemitism than before, citing the passage of a new directive on racism, and a more robust process is in place to handle complaints—although he feels it is still too slow.
But there is widespread agreement among Labour activists and officials that party still has an uphill struggle and much to prove in order to regain Jewish support.
Hard-won gains could easily be lost over how it is perceived to be addressing antisemitism, such as the case of Ken Livingstone—who remains unrepentant and has declared that he was suspended “for telling the truth.” The party would certainly face a severe backlash were Livingstone to be readmitted to the party after his hearing in April, just before local elections.
There is acceptance that many Jews will not be converted to Labour. The party’s Jewish support had slumped before Corbyn’s leadership for a variety of reasons. But the antisemitism scandals have inflicted new damage on relations with the community and driven more Jewish voters away. Some will not consider the party under its present leadership.
But if Labour can succeed in making antisemitism as unacceptable throughout the movement as it has with other forms of prejudice, and establish the “gold standard” that Corbyn aspires to, a poisonous cloud will be lifted from the party, activists will hold their heads up on Finchley doorsteps, and maybe—just maybe—Jewish voters will help carry Labour back to power.