Antisemitism in the Labour Party: where to go from here

Nick Lowles - 03 04 18

Last Monday, I wrote a blog in which I called on Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to apologise for seemingly defending a clearly antisemitic mural by the street artist Mear One. Over the next few days I and HOPE not hate have been inundated with angry comments claiming my blog was part of a wider attempt by Corbyn’s opponents to undermine his leadership. I was personally called a “baby killer” by one person, who claimed that my blog made it easier for Israeli warplanes to bomb innocent civilians in Gaza. In 29 years of fighting fascism, I have never experienced the level of abuse we have received this week. The fact this abuse came from people purporting to be from the left has made it all the more shocking.

Do I think there is a problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party today? Yes, I do and this week has sadly reinforced and hardened that view. 

For the record, I did not write my blog with the intent of undermining Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. HOPE not hate has never taken a view to who should be leader of the Labour Party. Some of our team supported Jeremy Corbyn for leader, others did not. There are others still who are not Labour Party supporters and had no view on the issue. I wrote the blog because I am an anti-fascist who wanted to speak out against something I thought was wrong. Corbyn, through a spokesperson, expressed “regret” at his Facebook comment, but to me “regret” was not enough. The mural was clearly antisemitic and he needed to apologise and to apologise sincerely.

Do I think there is a problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party today? Yes, I do and this week has sadly reinforced and hardened that view. We have seen several Labour council candidates exposed as antisemites and Holocaust Revisionists; we have seen the Sunday Times investigation into thousands of abusive, racist and antisemitic posts on Facebook and we have seen a Labour MP ask for a Thurrock-based activist who was expelled from the Labour Party after writing the most obscene antisemitic garbage on Twitter to be given a second chance.

There should be a zero tolerance attitude to antisemitism in the Labour Party and that clearly should include a much faster system to review and deal with cases than currently exists. 

However, that is not to say that I think the Labour Party is crawling with antisemites. I think the number of out and out antisemites in the Labour Party is small and represent only a tiny minority of Labour Party members, just as there is a minority in society as a whole who are antisemitic. But there are others who have unconscious bias and are sadly ignorant of what antisemitism actually is and others still who are so opposed to the policies and actions of the Israeli Government that they – at best – have no sympathy for British Jews and – at worst – hold them responsible.

There should be a zero tolerance attitude to antisemitism in the Labour Party and that clearly should include a much faster system to review and deal with cases than currently exists. I doubt anyone would disagree with that and when I announced on social media over the weekend that I was reporting a Jeremy Corbyn supporter who had espoused Holocaust Denial on Facebook to the Labour Party I was warmly applauded by hundreds of people from across the Left. However, it is a scandal that the Chakrabarti Review, which many thought did not go far enough, has yet to be fully implemented.

There is the bigger problem, rooted in the debate about the policies of the Israeli government, which does need urgently tackling. It is clear that a driving force for antisemitism and milder anti-Jewish views is the actions of the Israeli Government and the suffering of the Palestinian people. Too many people – mainly on the left but across the political spectrum – despise the Israeli Government so much they refuse to have sympathy for Jewish people in Britain, or even hold them responsible for what is happening in the occupied territories. This too is wrong and has to be condemned.

We need to separate out the two issues. People should be able to criticise the actions of the Israeli Government whilst also opposing antisemitism in Britain. We need leadership here, not only to make it clear that Israel and antisemitism should be two separate issues, but also in ensuring that in our support for the Palestinian cause we do not make alliances with people who hate Jews. It is morally repugnant to make common cause with those who deny the Holocaust, and it of course undermines the Palestinian cause.

Likewise, there is clearly an issue of unconscious bias and lack of understanding to what antisemitism is that needs addressing. I doubt many of the 2,000 people who backed the pro-Corbyn letter condemning “the very powerful special interest group mobilizing its apparent, immense strength” and which “employ the full might of the BBC to make sure its voice is heard very loudly and clearly” are hardline antisemites. They were either ignorant of antisemitic tropes that they did not understand the language or were so determined to make a stand in support of their leader they simply didn’t care or bother to read the letter properly. Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell saw the letter for what it really was and, not for the first time, stepped in to correct a wrong, calling it “an antisemitic stereotype that undermines not supports Jeremy”.

Owen Jones has courageously spoken out on many occasions against left wing antisemitism and while understanding that there are some antisemites in the party, thinks that lack of political education is the key problem. In an insightful article in Huck magazine, he traces this to the collapse of socialism in Britain and its subsequent re-emergence in 2015:

“Socialism ceased to exist in Britain as a mass political force for a generation, possibly longer. In 2015, although the appetite and potential for left-wing politics already existed, socialism suddenly re-emerged as a mass movement and a contender for political power, and two years later, it was consolidated. But from the start there was always an extremely weak institutional and intellectual underpinning for it. The active labour movement was hollowed out. The traditional Labour left had almost ceased to exist: all that was left were near insignificant fragments, where the same old faces appeared at sparsely attended conferences year on year.”

Finally, I welcome the statement put out last night by Momentum which accepted that antisemitism was more widespread in the Labour Party than previously thought and that “accusations of antisemitism should not and cannot be dismissed simply as rightwing smears nor as the result of conspiracies.”

Momentum also called on greater political education within the Labour Party to challenge antisemitism and other conspiracy theories. HOPE not hate is happy to collaborate with them and anyone else in the Labour Party to make this happen.


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