This isn't about two wings of a party fighting for supremacy. It's about complicity—and whether or not you believe my identity mattersby Steve Bloomfield / July 31, 2018 / Leave a comment
I’m Jewish and a member of the Labour party. Those two facts have never had much to do with each other until recently. They are two parts of my identity that have existed for as long as I can remember, each as important to me as the other. The idea of having to choose between the two was impossible to imagine. But that thought—that one may not be compatible with the other—has slowly lodged itself inside me over the past three years.
There has always been anti-Semitism on the far left. As a student, demonstrating during the build-up to the Iraq War, I saw it on protests, at rallies, in political meetings. The way everything would somehow slide towards a debate about Israel, the comments about Jewish influence, about how many Jews were in the media.
It was surreal—but it was a fringe. Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, the fringe has entered the party’s upper echelons. And the explanations and the excuses have racked up. Don’t worry, nobody even knows who Jackie Walker is. That’s just Ken, he’s being an idiot. That’s just Christine Shawcroft, she’s an idiot too. Look, it’s just a few random councillors. I know, there are loads of #JC4PM-types saying some pretty nasty stuff—but who knows if they’re even party members. The mural comment looks bad, yes, but it was a long time ago and he’s apologised now. The code—well the thing about the code is you have to see both sides…
Until last week I’d never heard of the IHRA code. Being Jewish, I didn’t need a definition of anti-Semitism. I’ve read it now, like most of us have, and there are lines here and there which I might take issue with. Among Jewish friends and family I’d happily debate it. But no, not with you. Not here in public. Not in 280 characters.
Parsing the code is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is this: the Labour party will not allow Jews to define anti-Jewish discrimination.
This shouldn’t be controversial. The left and liberals have long believed that those who experience discrimination are best placed to define it. Not everyone agrees with this principle, of course, but in those cases, their disagreement is universal—they don’t pick and choose which minorities are allowed this right. If a coalition of prominent black MPs, activists and community leaders drew up a code defining anti-black racism the Labour party would not accept a majority white committee telling them they knew best.
Just treat us the way you treat other minorities. That’s it.
For us, this isn’t a political row. I know it feels like that for many Corbyn supporters—another attack on your leader, including from some of the same people who opposed him in 2015 and 2016, who would oppose him regardless of this issue. They see the bad faith allies and they suit up, taking on the right-wing commentators who seem to care deeply about anti-Semitism in the Labour party, but don’t appear to think it’s worthy of a column when it falls from the mouth of a far-right thug.
But the quickfire tweets, the glib responses, the joy of the counter-attack—that all takes on a different texture here. It’s not two wings of a party fighting for supremacy. It’s you telling me that my identity doesn’t matter.
I listened to the Pete Willsman tape last night. For those who haven’t heard it yet, it’s a recording of a member of the Labour party’s ruling body, the NEC, ranting about Jews. (Willsman has previously sat on the party’s disputes committee, which deals with—among other things—antisemitism.) Transcribing his words does not do them justice. You need to listen to him, listen to the hate in his voice, the way his voice rises, full of righteous anger as he dismisses all complaints of anti-Semitism; suggests the online abuse may have been fabricated.
Having now apologised, the party will not discipline him. Willsman is currently running for re-election, and has every chance of being successful.
Why? Because he is backed by Momentum, running under the banner of the “JC9”, a slate whose name is meant to indicate the candidates’ support for Jeremy Corbyn.
The Labour leader was in the room when Willsman was speaking. He heard Willsman demand that the 68 rabbis, representing a broad spectrum of Jewish opinion in Britain, who have warned of anti-semitism within Labour, provide “evidence”—in that tone—and stayed silent.
Now, the tape has been released for all of us to hear. Still, he remains silent.
It is this silence, this complicity, that worries me. The willingness, over decades, to hear anti-Semitic remarks, to speak alongside anti-Semitic speakers, to make friends with people who hold such views and to say nothing.
Being a member of a political party involves compromises. During my lifetime the party has always been a broad church, stretching from one Tony to the other. The differences were political—one wing saw the world in a different way to the other.
Some policies, positions or comments make you angry, but you remain because the overall package is still the right one for you and the way you see the world. In the 22 years since I first joined I’ve railed against vouchers for asylum seekers, tuition fees, immigration detention, more tuition fees, the war in Iraq, 90 days, 42 days and many, many more. I’ve weighed them up, I’ve made my choice, I’ve stayed. This is what it means to be in a political party. I just never thought I’d have to make such a judgment on my own identity.
It is a compromise I cannot make. Others will, and I don’t judge them for that. We all have to make our own decisions and I know that some people will disagree with me. But I no longer feel that these two parts of my identity can be reconciled. I’m Jewish and I’m no longer a member of the Labour party.