An important meeting for Labour Party members about antisemitism was held in central Manchester in April. Ian Parker was there.
We know very well that Jeremy Corbyn has been under attack from the right for many things, and most accusations – that he was a Czech spy, for example – can be laughed off. In fact, poll ratings for the Labour Party increased during that ridiculous attempt to smear him. What cannot be laughed off are accusations of antisemitism, and so members of the Labour Party in Manchester who do take this issue extremely seriously, and have done so for many years, took the initiative to set up a forum on 18 April for discussion in which all members of the Labour Party could participate.
Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, a member of Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), and well-known for her intervention during Labour Party conference, travelled up from London to address an audience of over 100 people packed into the Upper Hall of Friends Meeting House. There were councillors from Gorton and Rusholme, and candidates in the up-coming elections on 3 May, and some of these comrades participated in the discussion. Security was tight and so was the organisation of the meeting. Unfortunately it needed to be. And so, those attending registered on Eventbrite, and were required to show their Labour Party membership cards to get entry to the room. At least one comrade who had travelled some distance by bike had to be turned away because he did not have his party card, and there was no one there who knew him to vouch for him. He was understandably annoyed, but the organisers of the meeting knew that the right would seize on anything to discredit this important event.
In fact, even though the chair of the meeting Alison Harris (who is also chair of the Socialist Health Association in Manchester) told the audience that there would be one official video recording of Naomi’s opening talk and full audio record of the event, and that there should be no other recording, there was a mole in the meeting who tweeted throughout about and against Naomi and the discussion which followed. The organisers guess that it was the bodybuilder-looking guy in his 20s or 30s with a tan T shirt. That guy, just so you know where he was coming from, also tweeted the day after this: ‘Holy shit I came out of the theatre and the whole world is just delegitimizing the left and its beautiful All choked up Mum punching the air Kicked a bin over’.
The group of stewards for the meeting was headed by Stella Power who is also chair of the Socialist Education Association in Manchester, and she had control of the microphone, an additional but necessary expense. The organisers were well aware that similar meetings in London have been disrupted by those intent on suppressing left discussion on these issues.
Naomi provided a wide-ranging historical introduction to the emergence of antisemitism, and to the background to the Zionist response to this at the beginning of the twentieth century which resulted in the arrival of settlers in Palestine and the formation of the Israeli state. She clearly differentiated between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, while also pointing out that Jewish Voice for Labour does not take an ‘anti-Zionist’ position. Mr Mole tweeted that ‘The JVL meeting in Manchester began relatively sensibly’. There are many Jewish anti-Zionist groups, those are the ‘bad Jews’ who have been singled out by the media and mainstream Jewish community leaders who are keen to be thought of as good Jews. But although some anti-Zionists also participate in JVL, it is a much broader organisation, bringing together Jews as members and non-Jewish supporters as associate members who are in solidarity with JVL and with a more open debate than has been possible in many public contexts in the last month, including in some Labour Party branch meetings.
Jewish Voice for Labour is an organisation of the left, that was clear, and Naomi quoted Marek Edelman, whose words about standing with the oppressed were on the JVL banner beside her, pointing out that Edelman, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, had been shunned by the Israeli state because of his criticisms of Zionism.
This was an opportunity for discussion that members of the audience made full use of, with questions and contributions on a range of issues connected with the broad title of the meeting ‘What is antisemitism?’ Apart from the historical background to these debates, crucial to making sense of how we can build a Labour Party committed to allying with the oppressed rather than the oppressors, the discussion enabled Labour Party comrades to air their frustration and concerns with the way that the accusations against Jeremy Corbyn have been handled so far. There were useful contributions on the care we should take to refer to ‘Zionists’, not assuming that we and our audience always know exactly what we mean, acknowledgement that this term, which is used by zealous supporters of Israel as an apartheid state, is also used by antisemites as a code-word to attack Jews. There was discussion of the focus on certain Jewish figures such as Rothschild and Soros, of the way that simply naming them as the enemy thoughtlessly plays into antisemitic conspiracy theories.
Mr Mole even tweeted, among all the other really hostile stuff, ‘Worth saying that audience was people who care about Palestine in good faith. They aren’t holocaust deniers or antisemites’. Indeed they were not. Things were said at the meeting that I disagreed with, but that’s what you should expect at any such event, at any Labour Party event. This was a place where people could speak and listen to others and learn something, the kind of meeting we need more of.
It was an expensive meeting to run, and money was raised at the end by the sale of three books and some good donations. One book was Paul Kelemen’s 2012 The British Left and Zionism: A History of a Divorce which Paul kindly donated. Another was Gill Seidel’s 1986 Holocaust Denial which traces the way that such denial takes different insidious forms, and the third was Steve Cohen’s 1984 classic controversial text That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic. Steve, a comrade well-known in Manchester for his work as an activist and immigration lawyer, had been part of the ‘Beyond the Pale’ publishing collective with Libby Lawson and Erica Burman, one of the organisers of this meeting. Erica donated copies of Gill’s and Steve’s books.
Steve Cohen’s book, about which there were many disagreements in the collective, explored the way in which anti-Zionist rhetoric on the far left sometimes shades over into antisemitism. The attacks on Jeremy Corbyn make it seem as if antisemitism is a new problem, and as if his leadership has somehow made it worse, and as if the left cares nothing about it. Yes, as many of those at the meeting said, these attacks on the Labour Party are designed to smear and undermine Corbyn, and we shouldn’t be frightened of saying so, and we were also clear that the fight against antisemitism is part of internationalist socialist struggle. This meeting affirmed that message, and Jewish members and their allies also decided to set up a network of JVL in Manchester, a very good outcome of the meeting, something that augurs well for the Labour Party here in the local elections and beyond.