Anyone who naively believed that the resignation of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader would bring an end to the antisemitism witch-hunt will have received a sharp reminder of reality with recent developments, writes Roland Rance. This onslaught was never about Corbyn alone, and his departure will reinforce rather than lessen the accusations. After all, what has worked once can work again.
The allegation of antisemitism did not come up often when I was canvassing in the general election (in Chingford and Westminster), though there have been reports that elsewhere it was more persistent. But it undoubtedly contributed to the general image of Corbyn as a dangerous extremist, “unfit” to be Prime Minister according to Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the turncoat former MP Ian Austin, the loose-tongued shadow health minister Jonathan Ashworth and the once left-wing New Statesman. Battling against such a joint onslaught consumed time and drained energy which could have been better used attacking the Tories and
promoting Labour’s radical plans for a more just and sustainable future.
As we have frequently noted, the claim of institutional antisemitism is completely without foundation, and most of the specific charges against individuals are seen to be groundless when the evidence (such as it is) is investigated. Nevertheless, a perception has developed that the Labour party is indeed riven by antisemitism. In a recent important report, the Glasgow University Media Unit found that members of focus groups believed that 34% of party members had been charged with antisemitism, although the true figure was just 0.08%. The reason overwhelmingly offered for this belief was the media coverage.
This does not mean that we should reject out of hand the reported discomfort of British Jews with the Labour Party. It is clear that, despite all evidence to the contrary, a very large number of British Jews felt personally threatened by the prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour government. And the reason for this groundless fear, as for the more general perception of “Labour antisemitism”, is not hard to establish. There has been an unprecedented press onslaught aimed at creating this false belief.
Jeremy Corbyn has been an MP since 1983. A press search for articles containing the terms “Jeremy Corbyn” and “antisemitism” for the 32 years between his election to Parliament and his election as Labour leader in May 2015 turns up just eighteen articles, none of which suggested that he was antisemitic. For the period from May 2015 to March 2019, researchers found an astonishing 11,251 articles. Either for decades before his election as leader, the press was derelict in not exposing his rampant antisemitism, or the allegation is a complete falsehood. This is what has been described as the “weaponisation” of antisemitism. It has served both to undermine the Labour Party, and to discredit the use of the term and obscure the real instances of antisemitism.
While the media have focussed obsessively on this almost non-existent “Labour antisemitism”, relatively little attention has been paid to the growing number of anti-Jewish attacks, which are part of a rise in all forms of racism across the world. The USA saw a murderous attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Last year, there were armed attacks on synagogues in California and Florida, and in December four people were murdered in a shooting at a kosher supermarket in New Jersey, while five were injured in a knife attack on a Hanukkah celebration in New York. New York police recorded at least thirteen antisemitic attacks in just ten days at the end of December.
In Britain, too, Jews are increasingly the targets of racist attacks. Over the past year, there have been several incidents of Jewish cemeteries desecrated and swastikas graffitied onto synagogues and kosher restaurants. In November a rabbi was beaten in the street in Stamford Hill, and there were at least two cases of Jewish kids being physically attacked on London busses.
In nearly all of these attacks, the targets were Haredi Jews, the most visibly Jewish (and often the poorest) Jews in what had long been seen as the safest places in the world for Jews. And these attacks come in the wake of dog-whistle antisemitic remarks by Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and other right-wing political leaders. But all of this context is lost in the drive to equate antisemitism with anti-Zionism and support for Palestinian rights.
Meanwhile, local authorities and universities continue to adopt the discredited International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “Definition of Antisemitism”, while the Tory manifesto promised to support “community cohesion” by banning public authorities from directly or indirectly supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activity.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign warned that such a law could lead not only to a ban on the use of council facilities by supporters of Palestinian rights, but even to the denial of council housing to members of Trade Unions which support BDS. Last year, Tower Hamlets council banned the use of a local park for the end of the Big Ride for Palestine fundraising cycle tour; this January, the same council banned a local Holocaust Memorial Day event from council property because JVL secretary Glyn Secker was invited to speak. In the latter case, Stand Up to Racism not only failed to resist this censorship, but themselves disinvited Glyn.
This Tory offensive is being driven by those well-known anti-racists Eric Pickles (Britain’s delegate to the IHRA) and John Mann (as the grandchild of refugees who fled to Britain as refugees from Tsarist antisemitism, I find his designation as “antisemitism tsar” to be particularly insensitive and offensive). Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick has written to all local authorities and universities threatening to cut their funding if they do not explicitly adopt the IHRA “definition”.
Having successfully used false allegations of antisemitism to delegitimise Corbyn and help prevent the election of a Labour government, Israel’s apologists are determined to continue setting the agenda for the Labour party. To this end, the Board of Deputies has demanded that all leader and deputy leader candidates sign up to their new “Ten Pledges to end the antisemitism crisis”. These go far beyond the IHRA “definition” in their attempt to police freedom of speech and thought.
Their starting point is that the IHRA definition, with all of its examples and “without any caveats” (such as the Labour Party’s ineffective insistence that “this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians”) should be used as the basis for disciplinary cases. This would mean that stating that Israel is a racist state would, without any possibility of defence, be grounds for expulsion. They go beyond this, to insist that “prominent offenders” (they libellously specify Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker” should never be readmitted to the party.
They further demand that anyone who supports, campaigns or provides a platform for anyone so suspended should themselves be suspended – and then, presumably, anyone who supports these further victims of the witchhunt, and so on ad infinitum. They demand that party disciplinary procedures be carried out by an “independent provider” – ie, not by the democratic bodies appointed by the Labour Party itself; that details of all cases be given (in apparent breach of data protection regulations) to “representative Jewish bodies”; that the Jewish Labour Movement (an affiliate of the World Zionist Organisation as well as of the Labour Party) be appointed to conduct antisemitism training, instead of the respected and non-partisan Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck University; and that the Labour Party cease to engage with “fringe organisations and individuals” (ie, Jewish Voice for Labour).
These extreme demands are clearly unsupportable. And, according to former MP Louise Ellman (who remains chair of Labour Friends of Israel and president of the Jewish Labour Movement despite resigning from the Labour Party), “this is just the beginning, it is not the end”. Nevertheless, all of the candidates for leader, and all but two for deputy, have agreed to support them. Only Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler – and, while he was still in the running, Clive Lewis – have refused.
Most candidates have gone even further. Keir Starmer has hired as his deputy chief-of-staff Matt Pound of Labour First, a key figure in the witch-hunt of pro-Palestine activists. Starmer has also made it clear that he will do whatever is necessary to encourage people such as Ian Austin, Joan Ryan and Luciana Berger to return to the party. This aspiration has been echoed by Lisa Nandy, who – despite being chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East – has pledged to work with the Board of Deputies and to ignore progressive Jewish activists. Emily Thornberry – who was photographed a couple of years ago at a social event leaning adoringly on the shoulder of Israel’s liar-in-chief Mark Regev – has gone further still, promising to “get down on her hands and knees” to beg forgiveness.
Disappointingly, even Rebecca Long-Bailey, the only left candidate remaining in the election, has also signed up to the BoD’s demands (perhaps at the prodding of her campaign managed Jon Lansman). In response, Labour Against the Witchhunt initiated a petition asking her to reconsider.
As all experience has shown, and as Louise Ellman’s remarks make clear, no amount of grovelling will satisfy the demands of Israel’s apologists, and each concession leads to even further and more outrageous demands. Whichever candidate is elected as Labour leader will continue this witchhunt – some with greater enthusiasm than others. And we must be prepared to resist this, both in defence of Palestinian and Jewish comrades, and in order to maintain the Labour Party as an independent political organisation.
The fight has not been lost, but we stand no chance of succeeding if we concede every demand of our political enemies.