Antisemitism in the Labour Party

17 02 19

Over the last few years, the Labour party, and, since his election as leader, Jeremy Corbyn himself, have become embroiled in numerous allegations of antisemitism and failing to deal adequately with those members and supporters who are perpetuating it.

In 2012, while still a backbencher, Jeremy Corbyn offered his backing to an artist whose clearly antisemitic mural was to be removed. It depicted profiteers with exaggeratedly large noses gathered around a board game, held up by the subjugated masses. A video has recently surfaced, filmed not long after this, in which Corbyn responding to a question by saying that Zionists “clearly have two problems. One is that they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either”, mobilising old antisemitic tropes of Jews as outsiders, lacking loyalty and not belonging in the UK.

This was just one of several instances involving Jeremy Corbyn. While Corbyn has now spoken out about antisemitism on the left, many people have questioned his understanding of contemporary antisemitism, and how seriously he takes the issue. The problem of antisemitism within the Labour party goes well beyond Corbyn however, and the lack of action by the party has caused great worry amongst large sections of the Jewish community.

a picture of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn with newspaper front pages superimposed in the background, talking about antisemitism in the Labour Party

In 2018 seven elected Labour representatives were suspended or resigned after making antisemitic comments. These suspensions we held up as a potential signal that finally, after an extremely slow start, concrete action against antisemitism is being taken. However, the quiet readmission of members formerly suspended for investigation, without full transparency on the disciplinary process they underwent has led to concerns that the Party approach has been to try to make the problem of antisemitism go away, rather than to tackle the root causes. So much more is required to root out antisemites and to create a zero-tolerance approach of deeds as well as words.

There are cases which have resulted in no tangible repercussions. MP Chris Williamson recently signed a petition in support of Gilad Atzmon, an individual who is infamous for having promoted Holocaust deniers and spread antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Williamson’s belated but barely credible apology was taken at face value by the party and no action – not even an investigation – resulted.

Likewise, there was real reluctance from the party leadership to deal with Pete Willsman, a long-time colleague of Corbyn’s, after he accused Jewish “Trump fanatics” of making up allegations of antisemitism in the party.

Although dropped by Momentum, he was nevertheless re-elected to the NEC in 2018 as an independent candidate.
Even pro-Corbyn Jewish leftwingers like Jon Lansman and Rhea Wolfson have been on the receiving end of antisemitic abuse.

Disgracefully, some of those who have faced the worst antisemitic abuse from within the Labour Party are Jewish Labour members of parliament. 

In a House of Commons speech in April, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North (and former Deputy Director of HOPE not hate) Ruth Smeeth explained in no uncertain terms the deluge of antisemitism she had experienced from the left such as: “Hang yourself you vile treacherous Zionist Tory filth. You are a cancer of humanity”. The chair of the Jewish Labour Movement’s parliamentary group, Luciana Berger, has faced abhorrent abuse online simply for highlighting instances of antisemitism within the Labour movement.

Encouragingly, there have been signs from within the left, most notably from the Jeremy Corbyn supporting group Momentum, of an awareness that this is a serious problem requiring serious action. They have produced a series of videos opposing antisemitism, and have run social media campaigns to expose left-leaning antisemites, warning supporters to steer clear of groups masquerading as Corbyn supporters which also post racist content. But much more needs to be done to reassure people that the Labour party is taking the issue of antisemitism seriously.

Some have sought to play down the threat posed by antisemitism in the Labour party by pointing to antisemitism emanating from the far-right or Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. However, what worries so many within the Jewish community is the prospect of a mainstream political party, possibly a party of government, having a problem with antisemitism which is not only not taken seriously by its leadership but emanates from it.

Within this concern is a feeling that Jewish people are not considered ‘victims’ of racism and prejudice in the same way that other minority groups are, and that the Jewish community is powerful enough to look after itself, which of course is an age-old trope. 

The family history of so many members of the British Jewish community includes first-hand experience of persecution. Many people in the Jewish community therefore identify with a sense of the precariousness of their safety, where material security and educational attainment are not seen as guarantors of security and safety. The inability of the Labour Party leadership to understand and acknowledge this experience is particularly chilling when the Labour Party and the left in general hold values of equality and antiracism as core to their identity.

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