Labour’s anti-Semitism row, Put Simply

By Senior Campaign Agent Megan Field

Over 500 people gathered in Parliament Square on Monday evening, brandishing black placards which read #EnoughisEnough. This was a reference to an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn, in which the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council criticised the opposition leader for siding with anti-Semites, to the detriment of the Jewish community. 

Labour’s anti-Semitism row reached new heights on Friday when it emerged that Mr Corbyn had questioned the removal of a mural by street artist Mear One, which depicted wealthy Jews playing Monopoly on the backs of bowed, naked workers. Responding to a Facebook post, he had written: “Why? You are in good company”. Admittedly, these comments were but one in a chain of events which has blighted the Labour Party in recent years. However, as leader, Corbyn arguably bears a certain moral duty - as recognised in the letter, he “did not invent this form of politics, but has a lifetime within it” and crucially, he now has the power to stop it. 

Whilst the letter bears witness to Friday’s revelations, it leaves no doubt as to how deep the roots of this “anti-Semitic political culture” are perceived to run. Particularly striking are the pains the letter goes to in order to distinguish antisemitism from other forms of racism; the dividing line, the letter argues, “is the power that Jews are alleged to hold, and how they are charged with conspiring together against what is good”. The groups are thus critical of Corbyn’s failure to understand the problem. In fact, they believe “he cannot seriously contemplate anti-Semitism, because he is so ideologically fixed within a far left worldview that is instinctively hostile to mainstream Jewish communities”. They cite not only the mural but also his alleged friendship with militant Islamist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, who are notoriously opposed to Israel. 

The main concern of many, both within and outside the Jewish community, is a “repeated institutional failure to properly address Jewish concerns.” Indeed, Mr Corbyn has, thus far, only paid lip service to an issue which should be at the top of his agenda. It surely won’t have helped that it took him not one, not two, but three attempts to offer any semblance of an apology in light of his recent comments. Concerns that he is incapable of recognising anti-Semitism were epitomised in his statement that he sought to defend free speech when questioning the removal of the mural, also stating he “sincerely regretted” not looking more closely at the image. Only once plans for the march had come to light did he address the issue head on, acknowledging that “there needs to be a deeper understanding of what constitutes anti-Semitism in the labour movement.” He highlighted both the overt forms the prejudice could take, exemplified in the mural, and more covert instances which can be woven into criticisms of the Israeli government - such as criticisms of the regime which rely on Jewish characteristics. To this end, he assured the groups that he is “committed to making our Party a welcoming and secure place for Jewish people. Zero tolerance for anti-Semites means what it says, and the Party will proceed in that spirit.” 

Unfortunately, these words will ring hollow for many who have watched the current anti-Semitism saga unfold. The current episode can be traced back to comments made by MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah, in a Facebook post. In April 2016 it emerged that the politician had shared a graphic which showed the outline of Israel super-imposed on to the US, with the caption “problem solved” with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Whilst she apologised and resigned from her post as John McDonell’s parliamentary private secretary, others in the party exacerbated the issue by defending Shah’s comments. Ken Livingstone, for example, stated he had never heard anyone in the Labour party say anything anti-Semitic. He also added that "When Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Zionism refers to the movement to create a Jewish state in the middle East and thus support for the modern state of Israel. His comments were deeply offensive to many given the suggestion that Hitler was a Zionist, hinting at deep rooted prejudice towards the modern state. Mr Livingstone, a long time ally of Corbyn, was suspended by the party for a year but refused to apologise for his comments. In April 2017 he was suspended for a further 12 months pending an internal inquiry. 

It was at this point that Mr Corbyn launched an inquiry into allegations of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the party, but critics derided the outcome as a missed opportunity. The inquiry was led by Shami Chakrabarti, former director of the Human Rights group Liberty, who announced that she joined the Labour Party shortly after being appointed to the role. The conclusion, which suggested there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” in the party, was somewhat lacklustre. Not to mention the fact that the recommendations are yet to be implemented. A number of new allegations have come to light since the report was published, leaving many questioning Corbyn’s commitment to the issue. He is, however, seeking an "urgent meeting" with the leaders of the Jewish community to discuss the issue. He ended his letter with the promise that "In this fight, I am your ally and always will be". In a further letter published on Tuesday, Jonathan Goldstein (Chair of the Jewish Leadership Council) and Jonathan Arkush (President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews) responded, supporting Mr Corbyn's sentiment, but pleading with him to issue a statement which affirms that those present on Monday had every right to protest antisemitism. This, the leaders articulated, should occur before the parties to the dispute meet, as "no one should be vilified for opposing antisemitism". 

Admittedly, some have stood by the leader; deputy leader Tom Watson appeared on the Andrew Marr show to condemn the mural, but defended Corbyn who he believed had expressed deep regret. Similarly, a member of Jewish Voice for Labour, Mica Nava, highlighted the importance of remembering that “there isn’t a single Jewish community and a single Jewish voice”, evidenced by signs which read “Jews for Jez”, “Jeremy is not an anti-Semite”, and “Stop Smearing Labour”. “A lot of people support Jeremy Corbyn” she continued, “and a lot of the accusations of anti-semitism are politically rooted”. Nonetheless, the loudest voices seem to be those opposing Corbyn, with many Labour MP’s present at Monday’s protest. Wes Streeting highlighted the crux of the issue: “We can’t have a situation where one of Britain’s political parties is seen as a no go area for one of Britain’s faith groups. That this event is necessary is a stain on the reputation of the Labour Party”. The MP promised “to drain the cesspit of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party”

Jeremy Corbyn, who otherwise seeks to cultivate an image of inclusivity and equality, must move quickly to retain his moral and political authority. Searching for the right words is no longer enough; action, starting with the implementation of Chakrabarti’s report, is needed if the confidence of the Jewish community, and beyond, is to be restored. 

to Corbyn from Jonathan Goldstein, Chair of the Jewish Leadership Council and Jonathan Arkush, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews

Sources and Further Reading:

Image: Andy Miah @Flickr


TalkPolitics is proud to be supported by Audible. For 50% off your new membership, click here.