Ahead of the publication of the EHRC’s investigation of how the Labour Party handled allegations of antisemitism, HOPE not hate’s Deputy Director Jemma Levene shares her own reflection on the impact the crisis has had on Jewish people across the country.
The Labour Party, antisemitism, and the impact on Jewish people
The publication of the EHRC report into antisemitism within the Labour Party is a milestone moment on a journey that has not yet ended. It does however provide an opportunity to pause and reflect on what has gone before, where we are now, and what can happen next.
Let’s start by stating unequivocally that we are here because a prejudice has played out, and there are victims of that prejudice. Make no mistake, the victims of the antisemitism that was perpetrated by those in or close to, or in the name of, the Labour Party, and which has been investigated by the EHRC, are Jewish individuals. That may seem an obvious point, but in the turmoil and passion around disagreements between different factions and moments of political success and failure, too often over the last four years, too many people have failed to focus on the victims themselves.
These victims include Jewish people working for or very close to the Labour Party, Jewish people working in progressive ‘left’ settings and organisations, and finally Jewish people in the widest sense, living in Britain.
There is value in reflecting on and listening to testimony from all three groups of Jewish victims of left antisemitism as outlined above, as there are different things to learn from each group.
Perhaps rightly, up to this point, most testimony on the impact of antisemitism in Labour has been heard from Jewish people working as Labour MPs, and from councillors, activists, or staff of the Labour Party. It was this group who gave their time and energy to fighting for their Jewish and Labour values in British politics and instead felt they had to defend their basic right to be there. They were also often called upon to provide support to their fellow Jewish members and supporters in dealing with constant reports of and discussions about antisemitism.
For most Jewish people, their anger, pain or fear was from seeing headlines about various antisemitic incidents but the incidents themselves rarely impacted them directly. However, Jews within Labour, particularly in positions of responsibility, were subjected to horrific online and verbal abuse including multiple threats of physical violence from Labour members. Physical threats received by Jewish MPs and Councillors from Labour members often co-opted far right tropes and slurs in a belief that a socialist agenda was somehow being advanced. This led to Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger and others needing increased security measures to safeguard them from members of their own party.
It was not just MPs and Councillors who were directly affected by this. The majority of Jewish activists in Labour, found that when they attended local meetings or campaigning sessions, at best they felt forced to regularly discuss the issues of Labour and antisemitism with other members. In many cases they were met with denial, equivocation or even abuse and targeting. There were only three options left for Jewish Labour members who experienced this. The first choice was to hide their Jewish identity and ignore issues of antisemitism. The second option was to be the ‘Jewish voice’ in the room, calling out antisemitism and continually raising it as an issue, to the extent that when they would rise to speak at a meeting, they would get taunted with ‘here comes the Jew/Zio’. The final option was to leave, take their passion, energy and commitment to progressive causes and find different avenues for them. None of these options were fair for Jewish members to have to choose between.
The response to the election of Keir Starmer from actively Labour-supporting Jews was telling. There was a feeling of a collective sigh of relief that the experiences of the previous four and a half years were coming to a close. This instinctive reaction said less about their particular affinity with Keir Starmer and much more about the feeling that any change in leadership would have the potential to lead to a genuine commitment to tackle the issue of antisemitism. But this hasn’t meant that those who left or those who stopped engaging with the Labour Party have suddenly jumped back into Labour activism. The culture of antisemitism denial or minimalisation in closed Facebook groups, at local meetings or when campaigning has not disappeared overnight. Many still don’t trust the Labour Party to take the issue seriously and won’t until structural and wide-reaching changes are made. This is why Labour’s response to the EHRC investigation is so key to the restoration of the confidence of Jewish Labour members.
Jewish people are not a faction within the Labour Party, or a political mindset, or so many faceless lobby groups, they are individuals, and we have to consider the trauma they have been through and each take responsibility for helping them to recover and rebuild trust.
Within the progressive Left
Since the 2019 General Election, I have spoken to many Jewish people working in public life who engage with politics through a range of topics and interests, and I’ve found a consistent view expressed from them of pretty much constant feelings of anxiety and fear around the issue of Labour antisemitism in the last four years. Jewish people who I had seen as being strong, confident, experienced leaders have told me that they felt physically ill throughout the 2019 General Election period. Even those who had access to data that meant they knew that Labour had no statistical chance of winning the General Election told me that they were living with a visceral fear of what could happen to the Jewish community in the UK under a government that not only failed to recognise and address antisemitism, but that would perpetrate antisemitism.
The other feeling that the overwhelming majority share is a real anger that they were forced to consider not voting for Labour at two of the most important General Elections in decades. Not everyone made the same decisions, some voted Labour in one or other of 2017 and 2019, others gritted their teeth and voted Tory, some did not vote at all, but the pain and anger at not feeling able to vote for a Party that could not recognise the reality of modern antisemitism is real and it is huge.
In addition to this pain and anger, there is a sense of fear and loss of trust that people have told me they felt and continue to feel, of spaces where they should feel safe but have not, and this comes for some with feelings of grief at losing their political home.
Jewish people have spoken to me of their feelings of being watched for reactions each time a new story on left antisemitism broke, or feeling unable to express opinions or reactions, of always being viewed as ‘Jewish’ in a negative sense at work, and even of being treated as if they represented some kind fifth column disrupting the progressive space they were working within.
They express a sense of betrayal, that those around them did not seem to want to address or, much of the time, even recognise antisemitism, for fear perhaps of damaging the ‘bigger’ cause of electing a left wing government. Their own feelings of being unsafe and fearful were not acknowledged or understood. Moreover, the lack of recognition of the vulnerability that the wider Jewish community was feeling was something they were not given the opportunity to articulate in progressive spaces, and if an opportunity did arise, they were not listened to, because the Jewish community was not seen through the lens of oppression.
At the same time, they were caught in a balancing act, where within their wider, perhaps less ‘political’ Jewish social circles of friends, families and fellow congregants, they were seen as culpable, or implicated in the mess of left wing antisemitism, and somehow responsible for the wider impact being felt by the British Jewish community.
In both arenas, people felt an inability to articulate that they were suffering, because each way they looked, people were suffering more – whether they looked at the abuse Jewish women MPs were getting, or at Jewish friends literally preparing to leave the country, or whether, in the course of their own work or activism, they were working on other urgent inequalities faced in society.
Throughout the last four years, the overwhelming testimony I have heard is that Jewish people in progressive spaces have felt helpless and hopeless in the face of an ongoing unvoiced anxiety and pressure.
Far too often, progressive organisations and leaders have let down their Jewish friends, colleagues and employees, and this needs to be faced and addressed just as any other prejudice and oppression needs to be addressed.
The wider Jewish community
The widest group of victims of the Labour antisemitism scandal are the Jewish people in the UK who were impacted indirectly by witnessing antisemitism, or at least the discussion of antisemitism, at the heart of one of our leading political parties.
To understand why those who do not have a direct connection with party politics, or who did not experience any direct contact with antisemitic ideas directed at them personally felt impacted, it is necessary to take a step back.
The vast majority of Jewish people in the UK have a family story of exile, expulsion and becoming refugees, mostly within the last 100 years, and for many, within living memory. For those forced out of countries like Germany, Hungary and Middle East and North African countries like Iraq, families went from a position of being well-integrated and prosperous to losing all security overnight.
A response from within the wider Jewish community to a growth in antisemitism which others might see as ‘hypersensitive’ is based on an innate sense of insecurity, an identity which leads to being fearful when antisemitic ideas are on the rise.
During the past few years, when Jewish people expressed comparisons between what has been happening in contemporary Britain and Germany in the 1930s, they were often considered to be hyperbolic and hysterical, and even that they were accusing the Labour Party of being fascists. In almost all instances, this was not the case. What people were articulating was that in the 1930s in Germany, Jewish people were integrated into all areas of society, were able to access all levels of education, choose any career and participate fully in social and cultural spaces. And yet, into that liberal space came first words, then propaganda and ideology, and then a chain of events that led to genocide. The ease and speed with which that happened is part of Jewish living memory, and as such, any rise in acceptance of antisemitic ideas in political spaces and more generally in society is deeply worrying and traumatising for the vast majority of adult Jewish people.
When Margaret Hodge was investigated by the Labour Party for calling out antisemitism, she remarked that it made her think about her father constantly saying: ‘You’ve got to keep a packed suitcase at the door Margaret, in case you ever have to leave in a hurry.’ At that moment she did not literally think the Nazis were on their way, but that she had grown up conditioning herself to be prepared to protect her own life whenever she felt an innate sense of insecurity.
This was the existential threat that Jewish people were speaking of, and this was the reason that so many people were questioning whether their family would have a future in the UK under a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. For those people who think this debate was mythical, let me assure you, it definitely was not. I lost count of the number of conversations I had at shabbat dinners and Jewish events, where people discussed in detail at what point they planned to leave the country, where they would go and whether or not they would be able to secure employment and an education for their children.
Finally, because of the history of Jewish persecution through the centuries, from wherever an increase in antisemitism arises, the fact that there is a rise at all is enough to make most Jewish people unnerved. The fact that it was emanating from the left, from the Labour Party, which stands for equality and diversity was more shocking and disconcerting, and I think it is fair to say that it made it harder to counter. Antisemitic ideology that comes for the far right is easier for people to identify and to condemn. Antisemitism coming from people who claim to be ‘lifelong anti-racists’ is much harder to unpick, without going into a complicated history lesson and explanation of ancient tropes.
When a far-right group posts an antisemitic idea or meme on an obscure online forum, it is very unlikely a Jewish person will come face to face with that idea or meme. Each time an antisemitic trope or idea is used, goes unchallenged or is denied by a mainstream public figure, the mainstream nature of that incident means that Jewish people are more likely to encounter it. The fact that it is shared in a mainstream space means the chances of other ‘regular’ people believing it and repeating it are far higher too.
The potential for physical harm from left wing antisemitism is tiny compared to that perpetrated by contemporary far right antisemites but the antisemitism seen growing in mainstream political discourse over the past few years has had a breadth of harm which is far wider, and has had a real-life impact on far more Jewish people in the UK today.
The harm that unaddressed left-wing antisemitism has done in the past few years has impacted on Jewish people in the UK, whether or not they are politically active, whether or not they identify with Labour values or not.
It will now take a long time to fix that, and a long time to rebuild trust. The onus must not be placed on the victims to bear the emotional burden of creating positive change. The Labour Party and all progressive spaces need to allow Jewish people to feel heard, but they should not automatically expect Jewish people to have to lead on the changes that need to take place. Jewish input will be valuable, but it must be voluntary and it must be sought in a way that allows Jewish people to say when they need to step away from the process to maintain their own sense of wellbeing.
What happens next?
We need to be open about the fact that the lack of action on antisemitism, and the perpetration of antisemitism by those seen as leaders on the left in the last four years has led what I would call a soft radicalisation process. The left now faces a genuine problem. Huge numbers of politically active people in the last few years have to a greater or lesser extent adopted these problematic views:
That is not to say that these people are necessarily antisemites (although some certainly are). In the same way that you don’t have to be a racist to not recognise racism, you don’t have to be an antisemite to not recognise antisemitism. If you don’t recognise antisemitism, you don’t recognise when you are expressing a view with undertones of antisemitism, and nor do you recognise when you are being complicit when more overt antisemitism is being perpetrated by your allies.
The publication of the EHRC findings provide an opportunity to make real change. During the Corbyn leadership, the return to a Labour government was an immediate tangible possibility, and perhaps that made it impossible for those who wanted to talk about antisemitism to have an impact on those who didn’t want to recognise antisemitism. Too much was at stake for all concerned. Now, in 2020, with no prospect of a General Election on the horizon, there is time and space for the Party, and the progressive left in general, to spend some time on education and learning on antisemitism.
What we need to do with that time and space is to revisit the problem, and to start looking at how contemporary antisemitism manifests. While never forgetting the danger of the very extremes of antisemitic ideologies, when we look at the impact of antisemitism on society we need to focus less on ‘antisemites’ and more on ‘antisemitic ideas’. There is an excellent article on this written in the Political Quarterly and available online.
I would suggest that any training on antisemitism needs to incorporate these ideas in order to make real progress rather than being simply a box-ticking exercise. The HNHCT Education and Training Unit has years of experience in creating training programmes that are not just informative but which allow the participants to self-reflect and to absorb ideas in a way which can be put into practise once the training session is over. This model can help transform movements, and will be the most impactful if applied well.
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