THE LABOUR PARTY AND ANTI-SEMITISM
Anti-semitism is an inexcusable stain upon the history of Europe, and I am proud that my first-ever letter to the Newton News was to oppose anti-semitism. It has been described as the canary of racism – whenever racism starts to infect a society, it often begins with attacks on the Jewish community – and so I personally welcome the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ and the Jewish Leadership Council’s ringing of the alarm bell. And it absolutely correct that the Labour Party should be the political party directly to do something about the evil of anti-semitism.
Many people would see anti-semitism simply as hatred of Jewish people for being Jewish. This unfortunately exists in British society today. It is often found in far-right political parties but, if any Labour Party members are sending the openly-racist tweets that some MPs have received, then they need expelling. I have not met anybody who disagrees with this.
However, what fewer people realise is that society’s definition of ‘anti-semitism’ has expanded. It is not enough just to ‘not-hate’. Things are being said which are deeply insulting to the Jewish community and – just as we took the racist image off our marmalade jars – there are ‘anti-semitic tropes’ which need discarding.
MANIFESTATIONS OF ANTI-SEMITISM
Although there are many definitions of anti-semitism, the one favoured by the Board of Deputies and the JLC is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition (bit.ly/2qkXzfr), which outlines what it calls ‘manifestations of anti-semitism’. The idea is that, if someone does or says certain things, then that is a sign that person harbours anti-semitic attitudes.
Thus, by the IHRA definition, it is an act of anti-semitism to downplay the Holocaust. Again, this is mainly found in right-wing groups, but there are Labour members currently undergoing disciplinary action for this – including (e.g.) one member who last year shared a link on his Facebook page to an article claiming that the death of 6 million Jews was a “hoax”.
Some of the hurt of Jewish people comes from having to listen to vicious conspiracy theories endlessly repeated – e.g. that there is a world conspiracy of Jews to control the economy, that the Rothschilds banking family run the world, that ISIS terrorism is a fake front for Israel etc. These have to stop.
Other manifestations of anti-semitism concern how people write and speak about Israel. The IHRA definition says that it is anti-semitic: to deny the right of the state of Israel to exist, to blame ordinary Jews for what the state of Israel does, or to compare the state of Israel to the Nazis. Much boils down to the intention: who is being attacked – the state of Israel, or the Israelis? The same goes for the word ‘Zionism’ (supporting the state of Israel) – it is ok to use it factually, as I am doing here … but to use the term pejoratively, or the abuse-word ‘Zio’, is deemed anti-semitic.
LABOUR AND ANTI-SEMITISM
In 2016, Shami Chakrabati conducted an Inquiry into anti-semitism in the Labour Party. Although she found that “the Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism”, she did acknowledge “minority hateful or ignorant attitudes and behaviours festering within a sometimes bitter incivility of discourse”. Chakrabati made twenty recommendations, including improving the Party’s disciplinary procedures, and banning abuse words, stereotypes, Nazi metaphors, and minimising of the Holocaust (bit.ly/2HoOcT7).
However, it is clear that the Board of Deputies and the JLC want the Labour Party to take much firmer steps. They recently asked Jeremy Corbyn to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-semitism, to allow oversight of the Party’s disciplinary process … and, particularly, to ‘expedite’ the ongoing disciplinary cases of Ken Livingstone (who said Hitler was a Zionist) and Jackie Walker, who said that Jewish people financed the slave trade (bit.ly/2r6VR1D).
That said, there are broader, less prescriptive definitions of anti-Semitism, and there are Jewish groups supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, and hostile to Israel and to Zionism. So, between the obviously right and the obviously wrong, there is perhaps a discussion to be had, which will need tolerance and empathy. Above all, we need a process of political education so that honest Labour Party members – who believe with all their heart that they do not have an anti-semitic bone in their body – should not unintentionally fall foul of an anti-semitic trope of which they were unaware.
John D Clare