Corbyn, Labour, and Antisemitism
Is the British Labour Party Normalising Antisemitism?
According to Lord Falconer, former Lord Chancellor under Prime Minister Tony Blair and appointed by Jeremy Corbyn to oversee the handling of complaints about antisemitism, the process “is being used to protect those who line up on the side of the anti-Semites” (Times, June 29, 2019). Falconer, who was appointed but has yet to take up the role of an internal investigator of the allegations, said:
“Can antisemitism be detected in the party’s processes, attitudes or behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping? Looks frighteningly like it as every day goes by.” (jewishnews.timesofisrael.com)
For the past four years since Jeremy Corbyn was elected Leader, the Labour party has been deeply mired in the issue, and is accused by the Jewish community, the media and many of its own MPs and party members of not only harbouring anti-Semites within its midst but actively promoting an anti-Jewish ethos and discourse.
Hundreds of accusations and complaints have emerged saying that the Labour Party is targeting its Jewish members with an aggressive campaign of racial abuse, antisemitic and anti-Zionist propaganda, personal attack in speeches, social media and private interviews and correspondence, resulting in discrimination and victimisation that has led several to leave the party which was once the natural political home of many of the UK Jewish community.
The most recent example of Labour’s failure to handle the problem hit the national newspapers in June 2019. Chris Williamson, member of Parliament for Derby North and a long term close friend and ally of Jeremy Corbyn was re-instated following a hearing of the National Executive Committee (NEC) antisemitism panel, after previously being suspended by the National Executive committee in February after saying that Labour had been “too apologetic” over the antisemitism crisis.
Dozens of MPs, including the deputy leader Tom Watson, issued a statement asking Jeremy Corbyn to overturn the decision. (Statement on Chris Williamson)
MPs accused the leadership of letting their “pals back in and turning a blind eye to Jew-hate.” (“Leader’s close ally is suspended again”, Times, 29th June, 2019).
Jess Philips, the Labour MP, said that Mr Williamson had been guilty of "a litany of offensive behaviour towards the Jewish community and those fighting antisemitism", warning that the party's anti-racist reputation was "slipping away from us every day."
External agencies with the power to enforce anti-discrimination law have now been called in to investigate Labour's delays, prevarications and mishandling of the issue. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced it would be conducting its own wide-ranging investigation into whether Labour "unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish". Labour has said that it would co-operate fully with the watch-dog but this is only the second time the EHRC has investigated a political party. In 2010, it ordered the British National Party (BNP) to re-write its constitution to comply with race relation laws. If found guilty, the party could face fines, expulsions from membership and criminal prosecutions.
Labour has never confirmed the number of anti-Semitism cases it is investigating and the scale of the issue among its supporters has become a source of political dispute itself.
Whilst it is not clear how many complaints are being investigated, a number of high-profile suspensions over alleged anti-Semitic comments include MP Naz Shah, the ex-London Mayor Ken Livingstone and MP Chris Williamson, an ally and friend of Mr Corbyn.
Ms Shah apologised for a string of comments on Twitter, including one suggesting Israel should be moved to the United States, although she was subsequently re-instated.
Mr Livingstone quit the party after a long-running row over inflammatory claims that Adolf Hitler had once supported Zionism.
In April 2019, the Sunday Times reported that Labour had received 863 complaints against party members, including councillors. The newspaper claimed leaked e-mails it had seen showed more than half of the cases remained unresolved while there had been no investigation in 28% of them. It said fewer than 30 people had been expelled while members investigated for posting online comments such as "Heil Hitler!" and "Jews are the problem" had not been suspended.
Jeremy Corbyn's failure to handle the problem within his party has been linked to his own well-known positions on opposing Zionism and his support for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. In much publicised photos he was seen laying a wreath and offering his condolences at the graves of terrorists in a remembrance ceremony in Tunisia.
Prior to becoming Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn had been present at a 2014 wreath-laying at a cemetery which contained the graves of many Palestinian activists including Salah Khalaf and Atef Bseiso, both of whom were members of the Black September Organisation and were behind the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics. The wreath-laying took place during a commemorative ceremony for victims of the 1985 Israeli air strikes on the PLO headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, which had been widely condemned at the time, including by the U.S. Government. Corbyn and the Conservative peer Baron Sheikh had been in Tunisia to attend the “International Conference on Monitoring the Palestinian Political and Legal Situation in the Light of Israeli Aggression”.
Whilst conflicting accounts of the incident continue to be discussed in the British media, it is clear that Labour’s position on opposing antisemitism has been hesitant, to say the least.
It has not drawn a distinction between being pro-Palestine and being anti-Israel, and has with reluctance and only belatedly accepted the working definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
The IHRA defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” (holocaustremembrance.com)
Whilst the Labour Party has now adopted the definition and its illustrative examples, Corbyn attempted to offer a clarification which diminished its meaning and limited its application. Members of the National National Executive refused to agree to his proposed amended statement which included his controversial proposal that:
“It cannot be considered racist to treat Israel like any other state or assess its conduct against the standards of international law. Nor should it be regarded as antisemitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict.” (The Guardian)
Jewish disciples of Yeshua are only too familiar the ebbs and flows of such discussions. Anti-semitism and anti-Jewish discourse have been part of British society and political life for as long as we have lived here. Our community was expelled from the UK in 1290 under threats to our lives and because of a string of accusations against us of well-poisoning, coin-clipping, plague-causing and the kidnapping of Christian children to use their blood in our Passover Seders. Today it is about anti-Zionism, Jewish global conspiracies of world domination and continuing prejudice against Jewish people.
The differences between 1290 and 2019 are not just the reversal of digits but the reversal of scales. The internal politics of the official opposition party to the Government are effectively preventing it from having a credible voice on the other issues of the day -- Brexit, the economy, education, the health service, etc. They also send a message that if elected to government, a party with such unresolved issues is not worthy of the confidence of the electorate, or of the Jewish community in the UK. For our community the alarm bells are ringing loudly and many are seriously considering leaving the country for Israel or elsewhere.
Jewish disciples of Jesus are called to live lives that speak of the concerns of our people, and speak within our nation of the rights of freedom of speech, freedom from discrimination on grounds of race or creed, colour or gender, and freedom to pursue our lives as citizens in a democracy that should be a model for a multi-cultural society that is a 'commonwealth of nations'. Yeshua (Jesus) steered a path between the partisanship of the zealots of his day and the Sadducees who were willing to make alliances with Rome. His politics, like his kingdom, went beyond the messy business of prejudice and discrimination, as he looked into the hearts of his accusers and called them to respond with honesty, authenticity and integrity to his call to discipleship and acceptance of his authority.
Only a wholehearted and thorough investigation of the accusations of antisemitism will enable the Labour party cleanse itself of the stains and smears which have tarnished it. But an even deeper question, that affects not only Labour but those of us who might self-righteously point the figure on this particular question, is the deceptiveness of our own human hearts. Those who would look at Labour's normalisation of antisemitism would do well to check their own attitudes to the others, whoever they may be. As Jewish disciples of Jesus we are not immune to such prejudices and discrimination ourselves, however much we may feel victims of them ourselves.
Jews for Jesus advocates for the Jewish community and for Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah.