Unravelling the charge of Labour Party anti-semitism

By myself and Sue Lukes, Morning Star Friday 27 May 2016

The Chakrabarti inquiry into anti-semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party is an effective response to the chorus of outrage, much of it manufactured, from press and politicians about an issue that has become toxic, write Liz Davies and Sue Lukes

A s Labour Party members, we welcome the Chakrabarti inquiry into anti-semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party.

Its chair, Shami Chakrabarti, and vice-chair, David Feldman, are both internationally known as expert, fair and able.

The inquiry is an effective response to the chorus of outrage, much of it manufactured, from press and politicians about an issue that has become toxic.

We encourage Labour Party members to send submissions in. The question:- “Is there anti-semitism in the Labour Party?” has been endlessly discussed in recent weeks by media commentators, many of them hostile to the Labour Party, some of them not particularly friendly to Jews: step forward the Daily Mail which hounded the Labour Party’s previous leader.

Our answer is “Of course there is.” Like other manifestations of racism, anti-semitism is deeply engrained in Britain and the Labour Party is not immune.

Our view, as people who have spent hundreds of hours in Labour Party meetings and campaigning on the doorstep, is that there is no more antisemitism in the Labour Party than there is in society in general and, because the Labour Party is a progressive movement, probably rather less.

Have incidents of anti-semitism increased since Jeremy Corbyn became leader? This is the charge levelled by right-wing commentators and people in the Labour Party who are hostile to Corbyn’s politics. They insinuate that, because Corbyn is a longstanding supporter of Palestinian rights, then those of his supporters who share that commitment are more likely to be antisemitic than others.

That is a slur on a number of levels: against Corbyn personally (whom even his harshest critics have accepted is not anti-semitic), against the new membership of the party identifying as corbynistas, against the Palestinian solidarity movement and, by Islamophobic innuendo, particularly against Muslim members. Our answer is an emphatic “No.”

Most of the incidents of undeniably antisemitic comments date from before last year, well before Corbyn became leader and the massive increase in Labour Party membership took place.

However, those comments are now being dug out to feed a completely false story that associates a move to the left with antisemitism.

What are these incidents of antisemitism? And how worried should we be about them? All of the reported incidents are comments — some of them we do not believe to be anti-semitic, others are offensive, anti-semitic comments, which have no place in a progressive Labour Party, but they are words rather than actions.

The Royall inquiry into allegations made about the Oxford University Labour Club has not yet been published, but Jan Royall has gone on the record saying that she found no evidence of institutional anti-semitism.

No Labour MP has organised nazi uniforms for the guests at a themed stag party for which the groom was prosecuted under hate legislation in France — step forward Aidan Burley, happy recipient, while a Tory MP between 2010 and 2015, of funding from Conservative Friends of Israel.

This is why this issue has been difficult to disentangle and also why the Chakrabarti inquiry has taken on a difficult task. We know what pogroms are, we know that spreading lies about Jewish conspiracies was an essential precursor to the Holocaust. And we know that blaming victims for their fate is another form of racism.

Step forward Ken Livingstone, former and much-loved London mayor, previously respected for his courageous and consistent support for so many oppressed groups.

He chose to make public, crass and grossly offensive comments impliedly blaming victims, and then he refused to put matters right by withdrawing and apologising. The party is right to suspend and investigate. The row has been a gift to those who would rather see the Labour Party and Corbyn labelled as anti-semitic than actually work to eliminate anti-semitism in the party.

We are more concerned about some of the other suspensions. Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, reposted anti-Israel posts on social media in 2014 — at the height of the Gaza bombardment by Israel — a year before she stood for office.

As reported, those postings are unacceptable, but it is not an easy issue to unpick. Criticisms of Israel’s actions as a state are quite legitimate and utterly necessary given its record of human rights abuses, tolerance of genocidal actions and statements against Palestinians, comprehensive refusal of refugee rights (urged on by racism from many Israeli politicians) and support for illegal land occupations.

But demanding the removal of all Jews from any territory is racist. Blaming all Jews for Israel’s actions is racist. Shah has apologised, has a good record of working with Bradford Jewish communities, has met Jewish groups and has pledged to work further on this.

We need to recognise that in the Labour Party there are many people, particularly those who come into politics fired up by injustices against Palestinians, many of them young, who do not understand the distinction between legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and blaming Jews for Israel’s actions, but who are willing and able to learn.

We expect the inquiry to tackle these complex issues. We hope it will produce good and effective guidance on use of language and on actions.

The UCU, for example, has issued comprehensive and clear guidance on anti-semitism which states that: “Freedom of expression is crucial for a civilised society but must be in the context of tolerance, good relations and respect for the rights and dignity of others.” UCU guidance may serve as a model for the Labour Party.

There are other cases where the context makes clear that the person was making a legitimate political point, rather than expressing anti-semitism.

The most high-profile case is that of Jackie Walker, vice-chair of Thanet South Labour Party until her suspension on May 4. We should say that she is a friend of each of us. Her case is utterly different from that of Livingstone and shows how cynically the right wing in the Labour Party is prepared to use allegations of antisemitism in order to de-stablise Corbyn.

Walker is a well-known left and antiracist activist, and vice-chair of Momentum. She played a vital role in ensuring that Nigel Farage did not become Ukip MP for Thanet South at the last general election.

She was suspended for comments made in a semi-private discussion on Facebook, several months ago, when she and others were discussing her family history and what it said about the argument that Holocaust might legitimate the actions of the Israeli government.

That is a legitimate topic of conversation. Once the context of those comments is considered, it is clear that the comments are not antisemitic. One of the many shocking features of her case is the lack of due process. She was told by another party member (who had read it on social media) that she had been suspended. She only learnt of the reasons, and of the allegations against her, when she read an account in the Jewish Chronicle.

It seems that an organisation called the Israel Advocacy Movement had dredged social media, looking for remarks that could be interpreted as anti-semitic and then passed those comments straight on to both the Jewish Chronicle and the Labour Party.

The party, specifically as we understand it the Compliance Unit, suspended Walker without knowing the full context of her remarks or asking for her side of the story.

Three weeks later, she was told some of the case against her. If suspension eventually results in disciplinary action, there might be some due process.

However, the suspension itself had no due process to it; it simply took the word of either the Israel Advocacy Movement or Jewish Chronicle without ever asking Walker for her response.

One wonders whether the Compliance Unit is equally compliant on receipt of all complaints — does it always suspend first and ask questions afterwards?

Within all the frenzy about antisemitism, it is worth remembering that offensive remarks, which bring the Labour Party into disrepute, are not confined to remarks that may, or may not, be anti-semitic, racist or Islamophobic.

John Mann MP, who seized on Livingstone’s public comments to castigate him in front of television cameras, has form in wanting to destabilise Corbyn. The Compliance Unit remains untroubled by his presence.

It is right that individual cases are investigated, although in the case of Walker the allegations are so clearly spurious that she should be reinstated immediately and apologised to for the slur on her reputation.

In other cases, individuals have apologised (as Shah did) and that should count to their credit. However, the myth that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is particularly anti-semitic needs firmly knocking on the head.

The Chakrabarti inquiry has a vital and difficult task. On the one hand, the Labour Party cannot tolerate hate speech. On the other, the party must encourage freedom of expression, including robust debate.

And intelligent debate is particularly important to encourage on dealing with human rights abuses. It would be appalling if members did not feel free to speak their minds on Israel-Palestine.

But given the difficulties already highlighted, party officers, representatives and members will need guidance about how best to do this.

This raises another difficulty for the party: there is no caucus or organisation open to all Jewish Labour Party members. The Jewish Labour Movement is affiliated to the World Zionist Movement and so excludes those who do not sign up to its enthusiastic support of many Israeli government actions. It clearly, therefore, cannot welcome or represent all Jews.

The inquiry has to disentangle genuine concerns from fake outrage. Too many of those expressing outrage about anti-semitism are motivated by hostility to Corbyn’s leadership or the desire to associate anti-semitism with all criticism of Israel. That does not mean that their particular accounts might be untrue, but it does mean that their motivations might be suspect.

Tricky issues, all of them, but we have confidence that the inquiry can navigate its way through them, with the active support of Party members and its leadership.

We wish Chakrabarti, Feldman and all those involved good luck.

  • Liz Davies was a member of the Labour Party from 1979 – 2001 and rejoined in 2015. She is a barrister specialising in housing and homelessness cases.
  • Sue Lukes has been a member of the Labour Party since 1982, works as a specialist in migration and is a trustee of many charities including Kehillah North London.

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