With so much media attention devoted to the Conservative Party leadership contest, it has been easy to pay less attention to other major political issues, not least antisemitism and the Labour Party. In recent months, there has been greater and greater talk, or more precisely uproar, surrounding how the Labour Party have tackled the issue of antisemitism. So in this article, we’re going to talk about what antisemitism is, what Labour is being accused of and what it means for them going forward.
So, let’s start from the basics…what is antisemitism? Well, that’s where this story hits its first hurdle. One of the first points of issue arose from the definition of antisemitism. There is no internationally agreed definition of antisemitism; in the UK, the notion of antisemitism is derived from that of a hate crime, which there is a domestically accepted definition: “Hate crimes and incidents are taken to mean any crime or incident where the perpetrator’s hostility or prejudice against an identifiable group of people is a factor in determining who is victimised.”
With antisemitism, in particular, is taken to mean: “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.”
The IHRA also puts forward 11 contemporary examples to be viewed alongside the working definition, ranging from: “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” to “accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.”
This working definition was developed by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, advocated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, accepted by several public bodies, the U.S Department of State, the UK’s College of Policing and several other governments including Austria, Germany, Slovakia, France and the Czech Republic. It’s this widely accepted working definition is that the original issue ballooned from.
In 2016, Jeremy Corbyn commissioned an investigation into allegations of racism, or more specifically allegations of antisemitism, in the Labour Party chaired by Shami Chakrabarti in the aftermath of comments made by high standing members of the party. Whilst the Report did highlight certain instances of dubious behaviour, she affirms that the party is “not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but does note an “occasionally toxic atmosphere…in danger of shutting down free speech”.
In terms of substance, Chakrabarti’s final poignant observation that “the test of a modern progressive political party should surely not be whether it has problems, but how it chooses to address them” highlights the main issue. The controversy itself does not arise from the fact that there have been instances of antisemitism – there will always be rogue members in all parties, be they in the Labour Party, the Tories, or the SNP – but in the failure to respond, and ultimately the failure to stamp it out.
Subsequently, many called on the Labour Party to adopt the IHRA working definition in full to set clear lines upon which to deal with disputes. After significant pressure, in September 2018, the Labour Party begrudgingly did with the additional caveat that adoption will “not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians”. Some believed, at the time, this was a highly unnecessary qualification and on the extremes, a cop-out giving racists a ‘get out of jail free’ card.
Although, a report by the House of Lords did themselves recommend that the IHRA definition be extended to include the fact that: “It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent” and that “It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.”
In a recent, yet controversial, BBC episode of Panorama exploring ‘antisemitism’ in the Labour Party, blame was heavily placed, again, on Jeremy Corbyn – advancing the view that Jeremy’s association with the Palestine cause may have ‘blurred’ the line between being critical of the Israeli Government and being critical of the Jewish faith, itself, and the view that high-ranking officials of the Labour Party deliberately undermined, obstructed and obfuscated proceedings. At one point, the programme cited an email from Seumas Miles claiming that the party is “muddling up political disputes with racism”. Although that quote is argued to have been taken out of context with the full quote supposedly reading: “But if we’re more than very occasionally using disciplinary action against Jewish members for antisemitism, something’s going wrong, and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism”. However, we have not been able to see the original email and so cannot confirm this.
It must also be made clear that the Labour Party also immediately refuted the allegations more generally stating: “We completely reject any claim that Labour is antisemitic. We stand in solidarity with Jewish people, and we’re taking decisive action to root out antisemitism from our movement and society”. The programme was a “seriously inaccurate, politically one-sided polemic” that “distorted and manipulated the truth and misrepresented evidence to present a biased and selective account.”
Going onto further clarify that the claims in the documentary were made by: “disaffected former officials including those who have always opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, worked to actively undermine it, and have both personal and political axes to grind.”
But, the accusations in the documentary are in no way new ones. Whilst there have been accusations throughout the leaderships of many other Labour leaders, not least Tony Blair, they often didn’t directly implicate the leadership and were often resolved with some speed. This time around, Corbyn’s actions themselves have come under question.
In 2011, Corbyn and John McDonell, Shadow Chancellor, supported an Early Day Motion for the changing of ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’ to a far more generic ‘Genocide Memorial Day – Never Again For Anyone’ citing that “every life is of value”. Whilst the extent of whether such an action is inherently anti-semitic or a genuine act, the tone of such an action is far from ideal with the head of the Holocaust Educational Trust stating: “the Holocaust was a specific crime, with anti-Semitism at its core. Any attempt to remove that specificity is a form of denial and distortion.”
Similarly, that same year, Corbyn himself wrote the foreword to ‘Imperialism: A Study’ by John Atkinson Hobson’ in which he described the book as ‘brilliant’ and ‘very controversial’; a book with strong anti-semitic tropes, at one point claiming that the entire financial system was controlled by people “united by the strongest bonds of organisation…by men of a single and peculiar race, who have behind them many centuries of financial experience, they are in a unique position to control the policy of nations”. When questioned, Corbyn did affirm that the language used was ‘absolutely deplorable’ and that when writing the foreword he was looking at the wider picture and the process that led to the first World War, not the language.
More recently, however, the allegations themselves have focused on the handling of allegations, and the notion of interference. Claims by former Labour Party officials, who were under non-disclosure agreements, cite that Seumas Milne, communications chief and one of Corbyn’s closest allies, and Jennie Formby, General Secretary, interfered with or otherwise obstructed the disciplinary process, with specific claims ranging from the leader’s office being “angry and obstructive”, to the downgrading of punishments, to the direct intervention of the Leader’s Office in the disciplinary process. All of these accusations are strenuously denied by the Labour Party, who insist there was no interference, claiming that the officials are again “disaffected former officials.. who have always opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, worked to actively undermine it, and have both personal and political axes to grind.” with the accusations more generally being “deliberate and malicious misrepresentations designed to mislead the public”.
Labour Members Kick Back
It’s because of these numerous controversies that for many, the Leadership – or more precisely Jeremy Corbyn has failed to act. The leadership was even mentioned directly in the resignation of Luciana Berger, a Jewish Labour MP, who called the party ‘sickeningly institutionally racist’. Whilst it can be argued that his approach was not to give airtime to the issue, in ‘ignoring it’ the situation is ten times worse. In a full-page advert taken out in the Guardian, signed by about a third of Labour’s representation in the House of Lords, Labour peers take direct aim at Corbyn and his ‘legacy’ stating that:
“Under your leadership, Labour is no longer a safe place for all members and supporters”
“You still haven’t opened your eyes…you still haven’t told the whole truth…we are not asking if you are an anti-Semite. We are saying you are accountable as Leader for allowing antisemitism to grow and presiding over the most shaming period in Labour’s history…you still haven’t accepted your responsibility…you have failed to defend our party’s anti-racist values…you have therefore failed the test of leadership.”
Many in the party see the issue of antisemitism as a do or die moment with Clive Soley, former chair of the parliamentary party – the group of Labour MPs in the House – saying that “the situation is that we either do something now or just watch the Labour party die. It is that tragic…If you look at it historically, the Liberal party took two general elections to die as an electoral force. This could happen to us. The party is haemorrhaging support dramatically and it’s very hard to see how we stop that with Jeremy and his group leading the party.”