The problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party.
by Eamon Dyas
This piece was originally submitted to the Facebook page “Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party Forum” on 3rd September in advance of the following day’s meeting of the NEC where the adoption of the IHRA code on antisemitism with all its examples was due to be discussed. It was blocked by the administrators of that social media site. Despite several attempts to procure an explanation as to the reasons why it had been blocked the only response was that there is no rule that compels the administrators to provide an explanation in these circumstances. In the context of the emerging ethos within the Labour Party and the new sensitivities associated with that ethos is this kind of rejection to become commonplace on Labour Party social media sites?
A mass political party elects a leader who has shown throughout his career to be a consistent and principled opponent of all kinds of racism and fascism, has a record of speaking out against foreign militarist adventures that have destabilised whole regions of the planet to the detriment of the welfare of its populations, and has consistently sided with the oppressed and downtrodden.
In the Spring of 2016, in advance of the May local government elections some opponents of the leader of the party embarked on a campaign which sought to show that anti-semitism was rife within the party.
In response to these claims the leader of the party established an inquiry which was to be led by a barrister and well-known civil rights advocate.
The report of the Inquiry was published on 30 June 2016 and included the following recommendations and conclusion:
- Abusive references to any particular person or group based on actual or perceived physical characteristics and racial or religious tropes and stereotypes, should have no place in Labour Party discourse. These epithets includes terms such as “Zio” and “Paki.”
- Labour members should resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons in debates about Israel-Palestine in particular.
- There should be procedural rule changes to improve the party’s disciplinary process and the adoption and publication of a complaints procedure.
- The appointment of a general counsel to the Labour Party to give advice on issues including disciplinary matters and to take responsibility for instructing external lawyers.
- The party should increase the ethnic diversity of its staff.
The report rejects the idea of a lifetime membership ban from the party for anyone deemed to have used racist language, and suggests a moratorium on retrospective comments.
Crucially the report also found that: the party “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or other forms of racism,” but has suffered from an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” and “too much clear evidence [of] ignorant attitudes”.
Professor David Feldman, the director of the Pears Institute for the study of antisemitism welcomed the report and went on record to state: “This is an important document at a time, when more than ever, we need to stand firm against all forms of racism and intolerance. The report marks a positive step towards ensuring that the Labour Party is a welcoming place for all minority groups. It recommends steps to ensure that members act in a spirit of tolerance and respect while maintaining principles of free speech and open debate. The recommendations are constructive and provide a sound basis on which the Party can move forward.”
That the party does not have a disproportionate problem with antisemitism was confirmed later in 2016 when in October the House of Commons all-Party select committee published its findings on the wider problem of antisemitism in the United Kingdom. That report concluded: “. . . there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party that’s in any other political party.”
And yet the charge persists that the party constitutes a hot-bed of antisemitism and in fact poses an existential threat to the Jewish people in Britain – a change that has become the focal point around which the leading strands of opposition to Jeremy Corbyn have coalesced.
There is obviously a problem of perspective at work here and we get an insight into what this might be when we look at the reaction to the Chakrabarti report in 2016. On 30 June, while discussing the content of the report, the party leader Jeremy Corbyn, told activists: “our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.”
These comments offended the sensibilities of the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, who described them as “offensive”, and said that rather than rebuilding trust among the Jewish community, are likely to cause greater concern.” In other words the Chief Rabbi was determined to confront any criticism of the actions of the state of Israel with the charge that such criticism would alienate the Jewish community.
This is symptomatic of the problem the Labour Party now has with antisemitism. It is not that that the party suffers from what is generally recognised as antisemitism on a scale disproportionate to any other party. It is rather that the charge of antisemitism has become synonymous with legitimate criticism of the actions of the state of Israel in its policies towards the Palestinian people – the plight of which Labour Party members are more likely to sympathise with than any other major political party.
So the choice for the party is a simple one. Either the party adopts policies that effectively curtail criticism of the actions of the state of Israeli for fear that such criticism will be construed as antisemitism – or it remains confident in the fact that it is not an antisemitic party and does not pose an existential threat to the Jewish community. The adoption of one choice will constitute not only a betrayal of the Palestinian people but make the party complicit in future actions of the state of Israel. The adoption of the second choice will ensure that the party remains true to its sense of justice and contribute towards a solution to the Palestinian question that is in the long-term interests of the Jewish people of Israel themselves.