Anti-semitism and the Labour Party: a personal view and a resolution to the City of London branch

10/03/2020 Comments Off on Anti-semitism and the Labour Party: a personal view and a resolution to the City of London branch

This issue is fraught because:

I. Differing views inside the Party

1. Important information is not public, specifically the details of accusations of antisemitism against people in the Party, the content of the formal processes against them and the basis of decisions, e.g. expulsion. Do we agree this should take place behind closed doors? Court cases are open to the public.

2. People who know those who have been expelled often speak out publicly in their support, saying the accusations are false and unjust, while those of us who don’t know the people or the history don’t know what to believe. See, for example, the film: WitchHunt, a documentary film by Jon Pullman.

3. Some Jewish Party members say they have never seen or experienced antisemitism in the Party. That does not mean that it’s not there. But it does say something about the extent of it. A lot of the antisemitic diatribe being called out apparently takes place on social media. Those of us who do not do social media neither see nor experience it. It has also not been shown that the antisemitism experienced by some Party members is all coming from other Party members, as opposed to coming from other people/groups. Moreover, there is an important distinction between offensive remarks by individuals and discriminatory treatment of Jews as a group. Although the one may result in the other, the distinction is rarely touched upon.

4. There are two Jewish-identified groupings in the Labour Party, who are at odds with each other, who both have the words Jewish and Labour in their name –

i) the Jewish Labour Movement, which is affiliated to the Labour Party. JLM was known as Poale Zion from 1903 to 2004. “Poale Zion” means Workers of Zion. It was a movement of Marxist–Zionist Jewish workers founded in various cities of Poland, Europe and the Russian Empire after the Bund, a socialist, internationalist Jewish grouping, rejected Zionism in 1901. The JLM are claiming 100 years of affiliation to the labour movement / Labour Party this year. Last year, they published “Solidarity and Discord: A brief history of 99 years of affiliation to the Labour Party” with a foreword by Tom Watson, in which the central topic is the “crisis in the Labour Party over antisemitism”. It is my understanding, correct me if I’m wrong, that you do not have to be Jewish or a member of the Party to be in JLM. They have led much of the condemnation of the Party and of individual members.

ii) Jewish Voice for Labour – which is not affiliated to the Party – and whose affiliation I believe was rejected. The members of JVL are all Jewish and Labour Party members, with a separate category for others as supporters. JVL claims historical connections to the Bund. JVL does not accept that there is a “crisis of antisemitism” in the Party, although they recognize there is a small minority of antisemitic members. They supported the people in Jon Pullman’s film who were expelled, such as Jackie Walker. They publish articles and commentaries and share articles written in other publications, such as New Statesman and New Socialist, on all these issues on an almost daily basis. I would know nothing about what is happening without that news.

5. There are many opposing views on the fact that the Equality & Human Rights Council (EHRC) is reviewing the issues in the Labour Party. Interestingly, according to a HuffPost article of a few days ago, the Muslim Council of Great Britain submitted a dossier to the EHRC with 150 cases of Islamophobia in the Tory Party, and the EHRC has failed to respond or do anything for 10 months now. The caseload they presented has now been added to, and there are now 300 cases. It seems the EHRC report is due out soon, which is likely to cause great controversy no matter what it says.

6. Many people think that what is going on as regards the accusation of a “crisis of antisemitism” is a political witchhunt against the Labour Party, using antisemitism as a weapon, which it is impossible to respond to effectively, because access to the facts, whatever those might be, is so limited and contested. From what I can see, the Jewish Labour Movement is encouraging this. It is obviously an important reason why we lost the last election. The accusations seemed to be aimed at Jeremy Corbyn individually, at least initially, but the onslaught is being continued with a vengeance now, because it was so successful in demonising and destroying him. I think we are very wrong not to call this out and condemn it.

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II. The differences within the “Jewish community” and the demands by some in the Jewish community on the Labour Party 

Add to these difficulties the fact that the so-called “Jewish community” – in whose name some powerful people say they speak – is not one homogeneous group, all of whom have the same politics, but a very diverse set of people – of whom some 50% consider themselves secular and the rest belong to a number of different branches of religious Judaism, of all political hues and persuasions, including some who do not recognise the state of Israel.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews, which describes itself as “the largest and oldest Jewish communal organisation in the United Kingdom”, has begun to act as if it is the Vatican and has the right to speak for all Jews in the UK. They work closely with the Chief Rabbi, who identifies with the Conservative Party politically and is a close friend of Boris Johnson.

Their claim of hegemony makes many of us invisible, and even worse, we are often labelled as anti-Semitic ourselves, to try to silence us. People like me are not the right Jews to listen to. Do you know how many of the people kicked out of the Labour Party for antisemitism are themselves Jewish? Watch Jon Pullman’s film.

Many in the religious Jewish community, including the Chief Rabbi, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, some synagogues and Jewish media, have inserted themselves into Labour Party politics. On Google, I was unable to find any so-called “Jewish hustings” before late 2019. Yet four “Jewish hustings” were organised in London in late 2019 and 2020 – one before the December election with the City of London candidates for MP and three early in the Labour leadership process, one in St Johns Wood, one in a synagogue in Harrow West, and one in a synagogue in Brent North.

What does this mean: “Jewish hustings”? Are there Catholic hustings, Church of England hustings, Muslim hustings? Do we want to support and participate in religiously-sponsored hustings? I think not. I believe religion and politics should stay as far from each other as possible. Yet neither the Party nor the candidates have had the courage to question any of this out loud, let alone refuse collectively to participate in them and behave in some instances cravenly in them when challenged on their views.

At the hustings in Harrow West in December 2019, local candidates for Parliament from several parties were invited, and other topics were discussed as well as antisemitism. However, the synagogue’s report said:

In his opening statement Mr Gareth Thomas described the anti-semitism in his party as a “scourge” and apologised to the Jewish community and in particular for the way in which fellow Co-operative sponsored MP Louise Ellman had been forced to quit Labour. When asked by the chairman, journalist Steve Levinson, why Jeremy Corbyn found it so difficult to apologise in the same way he said he did not understand his leader’s stance.

The big leadership hustings in St John’s Wood in February, with an audience of 700-750 people, was hosted by the Jewish Labour Movement in partnership with Jewish News and Labour Friends of Israel. It began with the question: what will you do to rebuild the Jewish community’s trust? The report in the New Statesman is worth reading. Not only about how Rebecca Long-Bailey had to twist herself in knots (unsuccessfully) to give the audience the replies they wanted, but how badly they treated her when she didn’t – shouting, heckles, laughter. The last question of the event was to ask all the candidates if they identified themselves as Zionists. All except Keir Starmer said yes. He said he didn’t identify as Zionist but that his parents’ family were Jewish and they had extended family in Israel, so he understood, sympathised and supported Zionism. Am I the only person who finds this outrageous?

The New Statesman didn’t mention this in their article, but according to Jewish News: “The 90-minute hustings saw all candidates vow to implement recommendations made by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission [sic] following their investigation into allegations of antisemitism in the party. All candidates pledged to offer an apology and financial settlement to former staffers who spoke out against the party’s handling of antisemitism cases in the BBC’s Panorama programme, broadcast last year.” Am I the only person who finds this outrageous too? This is blackmail.

Have you seen the Panorama programme? I think it contained grossly biased reporting. All those former staffers, I have been told, are members of the Jewish Labour Movement, but they didn’t say so on TV, and I wonder if the BBC even knew.

I conclude that the candidates were invited to these hustings in order for them to outdo each other in trashing our party and leader publicly. Is this how we agree to do politics and win elections from now on?

But it wasn’t just at these “Jewish” hustings that candidates trashed the Party. At the recent Cooperative Party hustings, Rosena Allin-Khan, standing for deputy leader, said: “My first priority would be to listen to the voices of those who have lost faith in our party – people from every race, region and background, including the Jewish community, who we have hugely let down.”

If we’re such a terrible antisemitic party, with such a terrible leader, letting so many good people down, why are all these people standing as Labour candidates to be our leader? I no longer want to vote for anyone of them, and I’m far from alone in this.

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III. Israel

I’ve left the subject of Israel till last. But the Israeli government and uncritical supporters of Israel are the reason why so many Jews like myself are accused of antisemitism. I reject Israel’s violation of the rights of Palestinians to citizenship and all the other human rights abuses arising from their being denied citizenship. This is the most conflictive issue amongst and between Jewish people. It affects every last Jewish person and on many levels, and has done so for at least three generations now. I wonder how many people who aren’t Jewish understand the depth of this. It arises from the Holocaust and the political force that Zionism became after World War II, and the role taken by Israel and its Jewish leadership, both right- and left-wing, of both victim and self-righteous aggressor for many decades now.

The confusion between “supporting Israel’s right to exist” and “supporting an Israel where citizenship and rights are for Jews only” should not, I would think, be confusing at all. Does anyone support any other State in claiming that only one religious group born within its borders has a right to citizenship? Well, Prime Minister Modi in India does, for one. I call that fascism. Who is allowed even to criticise Israel for many decades now of the same behaviour and for passing the same law? No one.

I was very glad to see on 9 March that East Chesterton, Romsey and Trumpington Branch Labour Parties have shared a new resolution in JVL’s newsletter. The resolution is by Cambridge CLP, which is soon to be debated in Cambridge. The text of the resolution is below. The resolution regrets the willingness of all the Leadership and Deputy Leadership candidates, with the exception of Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler, to sign up to the Board of Deputies’ 10 “pledges”, made public in January 2020. These pledges are a set of demands (see below) allowing the Board of Deputies to monitor and control the Party, clearly thinking we are all on our knees to them. I tabled this resolution in the City of London branch last night, 11 March, where it was amended and passed. The text below has been amended today 12 March and is the one that was passed.

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Resolution: City of London branch, 11 March 2020

by Marge Berer

We urge all candidates in the elections for leader and deputy leader to drop their support for the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ “Ten Pledges”.

i) While recognising the need for ongoing vigilance in relation to all forms of prejudice, we reject the notion of an “antisemitism crisis” within the Party.

ii) We urge all candidates to drop calls for the Labour Party to hand control of its complaints process to an external agency and to divulge case details to third parties. Under GDPR rules the Party is
required to recognise the right to refuse access to personal data by any such agency or third party. Any such process is highly unlikely to be practicable or to command the confidence of the Party
membership.

We recognise that guarantees of the integrity of the complaints process are vital to all concerned.

In addition, the call for all remaining reforms recommended by the Chakrabarti Report to be implemented is reiterated.

iii) We urge all candidates to drop calls for the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) to lead the Party’s programme of training on antisemitism. We do not believe that the JLM has the necessary expertise or professionalism to fulfil this vital role. We note that Party staff and NEC and NCC members currently receive antisemitism training from the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, whose expertise is unparalleled, and believe this arrangement should command widespread confidence.

iv) We urge all candidates to reject the demand that the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism should be used “with all its examples and clauses, and without any caveats” as the basis for considering complaints of antisemitism. We note that senior British jurists have drawn attention to the danger to freedom of speech represented by the IHRA Working Definition, and that its original author has described the Definition’s use to suppress debate on UK campuses as “chilling and McCarthyite”.

We reject any implied conflation of criticism of Israel’s unlawful treatment of the Palestinian people with antisemitism. We recognise that Zionism is a political creed like any other and note that the Home Affairs Select Committee has acknowledged that Zionism is a valid topic for political debate. We consider that anti-Zionist critiques of Israel are, in principle, entirely compatible with Labour Party values.

v) We believe that it is discriminatory for the Board of Deputies to try to monopolize dialogue between British Jews and the Labour Party, and equally discriminatory for others to concede them the power to do so. We recognize that the Jewish community is as complex and diverse as any other and has no unitary leadership. We consider that the attempt to ban engagement with groups and individuals labelled as “fringe” may constitute an offence under the Equality Act.

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