2018 05 – Parliamentary Notes

Parliament Notes

by Dick Barry

Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, opened a debate on antisemitism on 17 April. We publish below the speech of his opposite number Andrew Gynne, who spoke on behalf of the Labour party, and those of Labour members Luciana Berger, John Mann and Ruth Smeeth, with a brief comment from Labour’s Ian Austin.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)

I want to begin by addressing the comments made by the Secretary of State. As politicians, we all—and I mean all—have a duty to root out anti-Semitism, but recent events have shown that we in the Labour party need to be better at policing our own borders. The Labour party was formed to change society and to give a voice to the oppressed. Reflecting the existing defects of society can never be enough. It is our responsibility to show that we have zero tolerance of anti-Semitism in the Labour party. There is no place for anti-Semitism in the Labour party, on the left of British politics or in British society at all. End of.

As the Secretary of State said, the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party has adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, and we have written our outright opposition to anti-Semitism into our own party rules. In the light of recent events, however, I acknowledge that much, much more work needs to be done. That includes, among other things, the overdue full implementation of the recommendations of the Chakrabarti report, including a programme of political education to increase awareness and understanding of all forms of anti-Semitism.

No political party has a monopoly on vice or virtue, but we will put our house in order. Let me be clear today that if anyone is denying the reality of anti-Semitism on the left, they are not doing so with the endorsement of the Labour party or its leader. Prejudice against and hatred of Jewish people have no place whatsoever in society, and every one of us has a responsibility to ensure that they are never allowed to fester again.

I welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue today. It is sadly long overdue. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has sought support from the Government to bring this issue to the House for several years, and I pay tribute to the work he has done in this House over a long time. I also pay tribute to the work of Rabbi Herschel Gluck and the Shomrim volunteers in London. Rarely do those men and women receive the recognition that they deserve for the commitment that they give to their communities. I also want to pay tribute to the Community Security Trust for its defending of our synagogues and our schools and for its continued work in shining a light on ant-Semitism in the United Kingdom.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab)

Let me be clear about this: Ken Livingstone claimed that Hitler was a Zionist. That is anti-Semitism, pure and simple. It happened more than two years ago, and there has been ample time to deal with it, so it is a disgrace that it has not been dealt with. Kick him out immediately. It should have been enough when the Community Security Trust, the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Jewish Labour Movement and the Jewish Leadership Council all said that it was enough, but we even had the Chief Rabbi speaking out and still nothing has happened. It is a disgrace. My hon. Friend should stand at the Dispatch Box and tell the leader of the Labour party that Livingstone must be booted out. Boot him out!

Andrew Gwynne

My hon. Friend makes his views very clear. I do not share Mr Livingstone’s views, which are abhorrent, and the Labour party will go through the processes that are well applied to each and every member of the Labour party. That needs to be done far more quickly, but it needs to happen as it would for any member.

As we have heard, this year’s CST report found that hate incidents have reached a record level in the UK, including a 34% increase in the number of violent anti-Semitic assaults.

In last year’s statistics, where it could be determined, 63% of incidents were described as being far right in motivation, 6% were described as being Islamist in motivation, and 30% showed anti-Israel motivation.

The CST reports that 88 incidents targeted Jewish schools, schoolchildren or staff, with 50% of those incidents taking place as Jewish schoolchildren made their journeys to or from school. In one incident, fireworks were thrown at visibly Jewish people in public in November; in another, Jewish schoolchildren were hit, kicked and punched on the bus home, but were ignored by the driver when they tried to get help—the children fled the bus at the next stop but were followed, and found safety only after they entered a kosher shop and asked for help. It is a mark of shame on our society that our Jewish schools need security guards to protect their children.

On social media, as we have heard, anti-Semitism is in plain sight on the most heavily used sites. In January 2018, the World Jewish Congress found a 30% increase in anti-Semitic posts since 2016 and almost twice as many posts denying the holocaust.

But anti-Semitism not only appears as swastikas, brown shirts and jackboots; it also haunts our society as coded language and dog-whistle euphemisms. In the 1930s, the terms “usury”, “money power”, “alien” and “cosmopolitan” were used as coded references to Jewish people. Today, Jewish people in the public eye are marked out as “globalists”, “rootless cosmopolitans” and the “metropolitan London elite”. It runs through conspiracy theories, as holocaust inversion and holocaust denial, in anti-Zionism and in claims of secret plots against our country that are little different from those seen in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

In 2011, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), who is now deputy leader of the Labour party, spoke in this House about Fox News propagating disturbing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about secret plots involving holocaust survivor and businessman George Soros. Those views continue to be broadcast. Only last week, the use of anti-Semitic imagery featuring Soros led to the electoral success of the Fidesz party in Hungary. Thankfully, the importing of those conspiracy theories on to the front pages of UK newspapers generated the outrage that it frankly deserves.

We have seen the debate change since 2016, with triple parentheses to identify individuals being employed as an online dog whistle to single out targets by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and those who share their views. Each of the three parenthesis represents anti-Semitic claims of Jewish involvement in mass media, mass immigration and global Zionism. These people even developed an app to help them to better co-ordinate and target individuals. Earlier this year, the CST reported that online abuse had fallen slightly from last year, in part due to improvements in the policies adopted by social media companies and better reporting, but anyone who uses social media can see that this remains a very serious problem.

So I do want the Government to act more strenuously with social media platforms to ensure that these abhorrent views are removed, and removed quickly. As the Secretary of State has rightly said, we need to ensure that rightful critique of Israeli Government policy, which is legitimate —as it is against the Government of any nation state—is distinct from spreading the demonisation of Zionism and of the right of existence of the state of Israel itself —that is not legitimate.

But criticism of the Israeli Government, just like criticism of the British Government, is absolutely crucial, because that is part of our democratic process. Those who cross this distinction have no role to play in the struggle to put an end to anti-Jewish oppression within the United Kingdom, and they have no role to play in the process to establish peace and reconciliation in the middle east.

That peace will only come through engagement and deep mutual recognition between the two peoples—a recognition of Palestinians’ struggle for freedom and human dignity; and of the centuries of attempts by the Jewish people to flee forced conversion, violence and expulsion. Jewish oppression affects all Jews, in all economic classes, and the oppression of Jewish people cannot be ended without transforming social injustice as a whole.

I want to make this clear in my closing remarks: Zionism is not an insult. It is not a catchphrase, a code word for racism or imperialism, or a name for unpleasant things done by Jews. It stands for a huge range of beliefs and believers. When we fail to recognise this, we assist those on the extremes as they use anti-Semitism to cover up the roots of injustice and shift the blame on to those who are most oppressed. On Yom HaShoah last week, families across Britain lit candles for loved ones who were lost in one of the most evil acts in modern memory. Families remembered how almost one third of all Jewish people were targeted and murdered because of their faith. This day is a reminder that we all have a duty to ensure that such an event can never happen again. Words never seem able to capture the bureaucratic and calculated way in which such a raw and hideous act was allowed to happen.

We know that monsters exist in our world, but they are too few to be dangerous on their own. More dangerous are those who are prepared to act without asking questions. It is our job—the job of all of us in this place—to ensure that questions are asked, that anti-Semitism is called out, and that anti-Semitism is rooted out wherever it exists. There is no place in British society, and in British politics, left or right, for anti-Semitic views— end of.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op)

I beg the indulgence of the House to tell my story, which I hope will go some way to explain how anti-Semitism can manifest itself in our country.

I come from a family that is drawn from many corners of the Jewish diaspora: I am of Dutch, Polish, Russian, Lithuanian and Turkish heritage, and I am a mix of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions. My Dutch family was traced back to the Jews who were expelled from Spain in the 15th century, and in Britain we found our home. While we are small in number, the Jewish community has proudly been a part of British society and has made many great contributions to all aspects of civic life for hundreds of years.

I grew up in multicultural north-west London and went to a Christian school. I had friends of all faiths and none. I had never seen anti-Semitism as a child, but I knew from my own family history what anti-Semitism was. During a debate in 1938, Commander Robert Tatton Bower MP told my great uncle, the hon. Member for Seaham, across the Floor of the House to “go back to Poland”. The most pernicious and haunting examples came from the holocaust. On my mum’s side alone, we know that more than 100 members of her family, aged from four to 83, were sent by the Nazis to their death in the gas chambers of Treblinka, Sobibór, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, for no other reason than that they were Jewish.

I was 19 when I received my first piece of hate mail—it described me as a dirty Zionist pig—and so started my 18-year experience of contending with anti-Semitism. As a university student and activist, I was attacked from all quarters from the far right to the far left. I had members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an anti-Semitic and homophobic organisation follow me and camp outside my house. I received countless anti-Semitic emails and letters condemning my work as the convenor of the National Union of Students anti-racism campaign. When I was selected as a Labour council candidate in 2009, people publicly challenged how I could possibly represent anyone from the Bengali community because of my faith, and since my selection and election as the Member of Parliament for Liverpool, Wavertree, I have received a torrent of anti-Semitic abuse.

In total, four people have been convicted since 2013 for the anti-Semitic abuse and harassment they have directed towards me. Three of those were imprisoned; they were of a far right persuasion, including a member of the now proscribed National Action organisation. In the wake of one of those convictions, a far right website in the United States initiated the #filthyjewbitch campaign, which the police said resulted in me receiving over 2,500 violent, pornographic and extreme anti-Semitic messages in just one day alone. There is currently one more person on remand, having made threats to my life because of my faith.

I am fortunate—I have said it publicly, and I will say it in this House—that I have a platform, as an MP, that affords me the opportunity to speak out, and I happen to be pretty resilient. I say that I have spoken out, but it is important to say that I have been able to speak out because I am resilient, but at a later moment my mental health may mean I am not in a place where I have the opportunity to speak out. I am grateful to my family, friends and team of staff, and my constituents and supporters, who serve as a welcome antidote to the bile that gets hurled in my direction. I will not be cowed in using the full force of the law that we have in this country to hold people to account. Having heard victim impact statements read out in court of people who have not been able to speak out—people so negatively impacted that they are now unable to work or to maintain relationships, and who have had their mental health affected—I know that just one instance of racism can have a devastating impact on an individual’s life.

I make no apology for holding my own party to a higher standard. Anti-racism is one of our central values, and there was a time not long ago when the left actively ​confronted anti-Semitism. The work done by the previous Labour Government to move the equality goalposts in this country was one of the reasons why I joined the Labour party in the first place. One anti-Semitic member of the Labour party is one member too many.

Yet, as I said in Parliament Square outside this place—it pains me to say this as the proud parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement—in 2018, anti-Semitism is now more commonplace, more conspicuous and more corrosive within the Labour party. That is why I have no words for the people purporting to be both members and supporters of our party and using the hashtag JCforPM who have attacked me in recent weeks for my comments, for speaking at the rally against anti-Semitism, and for questioning the remarks of those endorsing the anti-Semitic mural. They say I should be de-selected, and they have called it all a smear.

There are people who have accused me of having two masters. They have said that I am Tel Aviv’s servant, and called me a paid-up Israeli operative. Essentially, this is anti-Semitism of the worst kind, suggesting that I am a traitor to our country. They have called me Judas, a Zionazi and an absolute parasite, and they have told me to get out of this country and go back to Israel.

I am grateful to the Community Security Trust and to the police for their work to keep me and my family safe, and for all that they do for the British Jewish community to keep our Jewish schools and our places of worship safe, but they should not have to do that. When it comes to what needs to be done about it, I know that many colleagues will be putting forward very practical suggestions of what can be done to contend with this very serious issue, but the hurt and anguish of the Jewish community must be understood and must be taken seriously. This is not the time for games or divisive engagement.

For the Government, there is a massive priority to conclude their work urgently, better to protect everyone in this country online from the comments that are made on a daily basis, and just in response to this debate. I urge the Secretary of State to see some of the comments that are already on Twitter, since we have started this engagement.

And my party. My party urgently needs to address this issue publicly and consistently, and we need to expel from our ranks those people who hold these views, including Ken Livingstone.

We have a duty to the next generation. Denial is not an option. Prevarication is not an option. Being a bystander who turns the other way is not an option. The time for action is now. Enough really is enough.

I want to conclude with the eloquent words of the former Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, who said that “an assault upon Jews is an assault upon difference, and a world that has no room for difference has no room for humanity itself”. [Applause.]

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab)

When my family helped to form the Labour party in Leeds in 1906, they suffered terribly because of that. The Jewish community in Leeds stood alongside them and supported them. That is why 13 years ago I took on the role of chairing the all-party group against anti-Semitism. I did not expect today, when Labour Members stand in solidarity with our Jewish colleagues and with the Jewish community, not just no solidarity but to be targeted by an organisation called Momentum, which has happened to all of us who stood in solidarity. But worse than that, there is explicit targeting of Jewish members of the parliamentary Labour party because they are Jewish. That is what is going on at the moment.

When I took on this voluntary cross-party role, I did not expect my wife to be sent, by a Labour Marxist anti-Semite, a dead bird through the post. I did not expect my son, after an Islamist death threat, to open the door, when he was in the house on his own as a schoolboy, to the bomb squad. I did not expect my wife, in the last few weeks, from a leftist anti-Semite in response to the demonstration, to be threatened with rape. I did not expect my daughter similarly to have to be rung up in the last few weeks by special branch to check out her movements in this country. No, I did not expect any of that.

I will tell you the principles we have operated on, from the very first speech I made on this 13 years ago in this Chamber: every party in this House should look after its own backyard first. I have said that repeatedly on hundreds of occasions since. I have specifically, in private letters to every party in this House, repeatedly challenged anti-Semitism. For years, action was taken, and it was painful action. I am not sure that people in all parties welcomed getting the letters and the discussions that they had with me, but that was the principle that we have operated on, and we have worked cross-party.

I recall that Jewish people used to say when I held meetings, “Is it true that there is a growth in anti-Semitism?” We identified 13 years ago the three forms of anti-Semitism: Islamist anti-Semitism, traditional right anti-Semitism, and the anti-Semitism of the new left. That was all documented and has all been discussed in here. It is not new, and those who say that it is a smear to raise this issue need to publicly apologise and to publicly understand what they are doing, what they are saying and the dangers. It does not end with me and my family. It does not end with Jewish Members of Parliament here. Where this stuff ends is with what happened in Copenhagen, in Brussels and in France repeatedly, including four weeks ago: people murdered because they are Jewish. That is where this ends, and we know where history takes that. That is the reality now.

It is constant. This weekend in my constituency and last night in my constituency—it is constant. There is explicit anti-Semitism, and then there is the bigger group—the excusers of anti-Semitism, the people who say, “This is something to do with who the leader of the Labour party is and challenging him.” No, it is not—in the 13 years I have been doing this—and what Jewish people say to me now is different from what they said 13 years ago, when they asked, “Is it true that there is growth in anti-Semitism?” Five years ago, Jewish people would come up to me and say, “We are concerned that there is a rise in anti-Semitism.” I am stopped in the street everywhere I go now by Jewish people saying to me, very discreetly, “I am scared.” Young people and old people say, “I am scared.” We see what happened in France, in Belgium and in Copenhagen and we understand why people are scared.

People—young Jewish members—are scared to go to a Labour party meeting with me, because they are fearful that they will be intimidated and threatened and that their identity will be challenged. Any Jewish person is entitled to say that they are, to define themselves as, an anti-Zionist, or a non-Zionist, and I have no right to challenge them. Any Jewish person, as the vast majority do, is entitled to say, “I am a Zionist,” and I have no right to deny them that. Those that do are racists. Just a change in language—in the use of the word “Zionist” as a pejorative insult—by the Labour party would alter the dialogue in this country in a very big way.

We all have a choice in what we do. Stand in solidarity with the Jewish Members of Parliament under attack today. That is the role of parliamentarians.

Ruth Smeeth (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab)

 I am devastated that we are discussing this issue in this place. We should never have had to reach a point at which we are discussing one of the oldest hatreds and how it is back in our political discourse as a norm. However, I am proud to be supported by so many of my friends and colleagues on both sides of the House. Specifically, I stand here in awe of the bravery and strength of my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). It is their dedication and commitment that inspire and ensure that we stand united against the politics of hate and scapegoating. Today I find myself in the bizarre position of feeling obliged to state for the record that my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests is in fact accurate and that I have not failed to report any additional employment. Specifically, Madam Deputy Speaker, I feel I must inform you that I am not a CIA spy. I am not a Mossad agent, nor am I an MI5 operative. I can assure people who are occasionally foolish enough to google me—although I would urge Members not to; it can be unpleasant reading—that I work not for the people of Tel Aviv, but for the people of Tunstall. Those are just some of the regular anti-Semitic tropes that have become normal in my world. Let me also make clear—just in case I need to say it—that I am not, and nor have I ever been, a lizard, trans-dimensional or otherwise.

What I am, Madam Deputy Speaker, is a proud trade unionist, a Labour party activist for over 30 years, and a lifelong anti-racist. I also happen to be a British Jew. In three decades of political activism, there has never come a time when those four parts of my identity have produced any form of conflict—until now.

I used to run HOPE not hate, with the wonderful Nick Lowles. I was the Jewish community’s anti-British National party campaign co-ordinator. I first stood at a demo against the National Front when I was 12. I have spent my life campaigning against the politics of hate and extremism. I have witnessed anti-Semitism and racism from the far right—after all, that is what those people do—and, honestly, I had become desensitised to it.

Over the past two years, however, I have experienced something genuinely painful: attacks on my identity from within my own Labour family. I have been the target of a campaign of abuse, attempted bullying and intimidation from people who would dare to tell me that people like me have no place in the party of which I have been a member for over 20 years, and which I am proud to represent on these Benches. My mum was a senior trade union official; my grandad was a blacklisted steelworker who became a miner. I was born into our movement as surely as I was born into my faith. It is a movement that I have worked for, campaigned for and fought for during my entire adult life, so it was truly heart-breaking to find myself in Parliament Square just over three weeks ago, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish community against the poison of anti-Semitism that is engulfing parts of my own party and wider political discourse.

If the House will indulge me, I would like to read out a small sample of what I have received on social media, but before doing so, I have to thank the dedicated team at the CST who have protected me, shielded me from as much of this abuse as possible, and worked with the police on the occasions when abuse became threats. As others have said, they should not be necessary, but personally I would be lost without them. They have also worked their way through the thousands of pieces of anti-Semitic abuse I have received to provide the following greatest hits, although I must warn the House that my fan-base has shown scant regard for appropriate parliamentary language, so I apologise in advance:

“Hang yourself you vile treacherous Zionist Tory filth. You are a cancer of humanity.” “Ruth Smeeth is a Zionist—she has no shame—and trades on the murder of Jews by Hitler—whom the Zionists betrayed.” “Ruth Smeeth must surely be travelling 1st class to Tel Aviv with all that slush. After all, she’s complicit in trying to bring Corbyn down.” “First job for Jeremy Corbyn tomorrow—expel the Zionist BICOM smear hag bitch Ruth Smeeth from the Party.” “This Ruth Smeeth bitch is Britainophobic, we need to cleanse our nation of these types.” “#JC4PM Deselect Ruth Smeeth ASAP. Poke the pig—get all Zionist child killer scum out of Labour.”

“You are a spy! You are evil, satanic! Leave! #Labour #Corbyn.” “Ruth you are a Zionist plant, I’m ashamed you are in Labour. Better suited to the murderous Knesset! #I Support Ken.” “Your fellow traitor Tony Blair abolished hanging for treason. Your kind need to leave before we bring it back #Smeeth Is Filth.” “The gallows would be a fine and fitting place for this dyke piece of Yid shit to swing from.”

This is merely a snapshot, and the comments are those that I would feel comfortable—if that is the right word—to say in this place. It is a glimpse into the abuse that now seems par for the course for any Jew who has the audacity to participate in this political world.

But this is not the worst of it. There have always been racists and anti-Semites in our country, lurking on the fringes of our society—both left and right—and I dare say there always will be. What is so heartbreaking is the concerted effort in some quarters to downplay the problem. For every comment like those we have just heard, we can find 10 people ready to dismiss it—to cry “Smear”; to say that we are “weaponising” anti-Semitism.

Weaponising anti-Semitism! My family came to this country fleeing the pogroms in the 19th century. Of our relatives who stayed in Europe, none survived. We know what anti-Semitism is; we know where it leads. How dare these people suggest that we would trifle with something so dangerous, so toxic and so formative to our lives and those of our families. How dare they seek to dismiss something so heinous and reduce it to the realm of political point scoring. How dare they, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am speaking not just for me, but for the young Jewish people I meet across the country who are beginning to fear they do not have a place. These are young people who are braver, tougher and better than I could ever be—the kind of young people who make us feel that our future is in safe hands, but right now they do not feel safe.

There is something more fundamental at stake here than any party’s policy platform or electoral performance: the right of Jewish people to participate in the politics of our country as equals. Last month we heard a plea: enough is enough. I stand here today to say that we will not be bullied out of political engagement, that we are going nowhere, and that we will stand and keep fighting until the evils of anti-Semitism are removed from our society. [Applause.]