Anti-Semitism in Labour: How Serious a Problem?

March 29, 2018, 1:58 PM UTC

For the last week or so Jeremy Corbyn has been struggling with the accusation that the Labour Party harbours a strong element of anti-Semitism; that he has done too little to quell it; and that he may actually be anti-Semitic himself.

He adamantly denies this and insists that as leader of the party he is determined to stamp it out. But Britain’s Jewish leaders are far from being persuaded and some of his own MPs have their doubts. Many of his supporters believe that the accusation is a smear born of his backing for the Palestinian cause and is being used by those in the party who have never accepted his leadership in order to undermine it. So how seriously should we take the charge that the Labour Party and its leader are anti-Semitic?

To many people it will seem almost beyond comprehension that the Labour Party could be charged with anti-Semitism. That’s because for decades the party has been the natural home for British Jews. Their adherence to Labour goes back to the party’s long-held support for refugees and the down-trodden, the very groups from which the 260,000 British Jewish population mostly originates. It was also under a Labour government, administering the British mandate in Palestine, that the state of Israel came into being in 1948.

But the charge of Labour anti-Semitism has been simmering for a long time, focused on the far left of the party of which Mr Corbyn was a prominent member during his thirty years as a rebellious back-bencher. It first came to the fore shortly after he became leader when a left-wing MP, Naz Shah, shared a Facebook post that called for the ‘transportation’ of all Israelis to America, and warned that ‘the Jews are rallying’. Ms Shah was suspended and she apologised, but she was defended by the much more prominent figure of Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and an old ally of Mr Corbyn. He claimed that Hitler had been a Zionist ‘before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews’. This led to uproar and he, too, was suspended from the party. That suspension is still in effect.

Mr Corbyn responded to the furore by setting up an inquiry into anti-Semitism in the party under Shami Chakrabarti, the former director of the human rights group, Liberty. Her report concluded that Labour was ‘not overrun by anti-Semitism’, leaving the impression in many people’s eyes that the report was a whitewash. This impression was strengthened when, soon afterwards, Mr Corbyn made her a peer and appointed her to the shadow cabinet.

As a result of the report, seventy-five party members are being investigated but, critics complain, at a very slow pace.

Now, however, the charge of anti-Semitism is being made against Mr Corbyn himself. Last weekend the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council published a joint open letter in which they said that ‘again and again, he has sided with anti-Semites rather than Jews’. This followed the revelation that in 2012 Mr Corbyn (then a backbencher of course) had opposed the removal of a mural that had appeared in the east end of London. It showed a group of bankers, several evidently Jewish, playing Monopoly on the backs of the world’s oppressed workers – an image strikingly reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. It also emerged that for seven years he belonged to three Facebook groups that traded in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (although he did not directly contribute).

Mr Corbyn has apologised about his response to the mural controversy on several occasions in the last week, but he claimed that at the time he hadn’t actually looked properly at it. This has cut little ice. His critics have pointed out that even the briefest glances at the image would have made the anti-Semitic message clear, and that if he didn’t look at it at all, he should have done since the whole controversy about whether or not the mural should be destroyed was solely because it was seen to be anti-Semitic.

On Monday night an unprecedented protest by Jewish groups, including Labour supporters and MPs, was held outside Parliament. The charge of anti-Semitism in the party was stoked by a counter-demonstration of Mr Corbyn’s supporters. Subsequently, some of the MPs who had attended the main protest were targeted on social media by his supporters, in some case with threats of deselection. Mr Corbyn was also criticised for failing to attend a meeting of the Parliamentary party on Monday at which a Jewish Labour MP, Luciana Berger, was given a standing ovation for her stand; nor did he put the issue on the agenda of the shadow cabinet.

Mr Corbyn’s critics argue that whether or not Mr Corbyn is himself anti-Semitic (one said he simply didn’t know), what is indisputable is that he has spent most of his political life among groups which are, or are very close to it. These groups, they argue, see the world in terms of a capitalist conspiracy, with Zionism at its heart. As one member, Gerry Downing, a former member of the general committee of Brent Central Labour Party, put it: ‘Zionism is in the vanguard role in the capitalist offensive against the workers’.

Mr Downing has been expelled from the party but Mr Corbyn’s critics say such action is all too infrequent and that his inner group is dominated by people who ascribe to some version of this conspiracy theory and who encourage him to take a soft line. The charge of soft-pedalling was further fuelled on Wednesday. The chair of the party’s disputes panel, Christine Shawcroft, had to resign when it emerged that she had opposed the deselection of a pro-Corbyn local election candidate in Peterborough, Alan Bull, who had posted an article calling the Holocaust a hoax and allegedly shared another post suggesting that Israel and Isis worked together and that President Kennedy had been murdered by Mossad, Israel’s secret service. Mr Bull claims the evidence for these charges against him were ‘doctored screen shots. Under pressure, Ms Shawcroft then resigned from the panel and announced she would not seek re-election to Labour’s National Executive, but her critics say she should herself be brought in front of the disputes panel.

Mr Corbyn’s supporters suspect that the campaign against him is due to his long-standing and outspoken opposition to the policies of successive Israeli governments and his support for Palestinian causes: he has called Hamas his ‘friends’. Some argue too that the issue is being ‘weaponised’ by those in the party who have never accepted Mr Corbyn as its leader, despite his having resoundingly won two leadership elections, and are using the smear of anti-Semitism to destroy his chances of becoming prime minister.

Whatever the truth of this, Mr Corbyn’s allies have started to recognise that the problem cannot be brushed away simply with words of denial and even apology. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, admitted on Thursday morning that measures against anti-Semitism in the party had ‘not been implemented effectively’ and that action against members accused of it had to be speeded up.

His critics want expulsions, with Ken Livingstone at the top of the list. But if Mr Corbyn were to act as forcefully as his critics want, he could alienate many of his strongest supporters. They might see such action as a weakening of his commitment to fighting the conspiracy that many of them genuinely believe to be at the centre of the problems of the world.

What should we make of all this? Do you believe that Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic or not? Do you think the Labour Party is? What’s your attitude to the belief that Zionism is at the heart of a capitalist conspiracy and do you think it plays a role in Labour’s thinking?  What do you make of the idea that the charge of anti-Semitism is simply a smear by those who don’t share Mr Corbyn’s support for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israeli policy, or who want to undermine his leadership? And what, if anything, do you think the Labour leader now needs to do to stop the issue from damaging Labour still further?

Let us know your views.   

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