With the intervention of the Board of Deputies of British Jews into the Labour party’s leadership election, antisemitism has become one of the campaign’s defining issues, as it was in the 2019 general election.
Whilst aspirants for Labour’s top post vie to be seen either as the true torch-bearer of the Corbyn inheritance, or the change-or-die candidate, their pronouncements on the party’s past and future handling of antisemitism is seen by many as a means of sorting the continuity sheep from the change goats.
All candidates must have been acutely aware of how Labour’s problems with antisemitism had impacted so very badly on perceptions of both the party and its leader during the 2019 election campaign. It was all painfully personified by Corbyn’s inadequate response to the issue when it first broke, his continuing failure to properly address it over the past three years and then his extreme reluctance to apologise for it during the election.
For me, the failings of Corbyn’s approach to the issue was crystallised in one moment during his election campaign interview with Andrew Neil on BBC TV when he said: “It is an evil within our society, it is an evil that grew in Europe in the 1920s and onwards and ultimately led to the Holocaust.” The statement revealed just how little the Labour leader knew about, or really understood, antisemitism and why Jews have reacted so strongly against its perceived prevalence within the Labour party.
Antisemitism awareness in the Labour party
Growing up as a Jew in London in the 1950s (with the Second World War only a decade away) I needed nobody to explain to me why all the old prayer books I came across began with the words ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’. Nor did my grandmother’s story of her escape from a murderous Cossack mob overrunning her village in Czarist Russia sound like an out-of-the-ordinary piece of Jewish family history.
Antisemitism did not begin in the 1920s. It dates back to the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine two thousand years ago and has continued ever since: “Jews were expelled from England in 1290”, I wanted to yell at the screen during Corbyn’s interview with Andrew Neil.
Given the scale of the antisemitism backlash against Labour and its leader it was, or should have been, incumbent upon him to better inform himself about the history of antisemitism. Had he done so he might have come to see why attacks on Zionism – as opposed to attacks on the Israeli government – are seen by many Jews as inherently antisemitism.
Why, they ask, should the Jews be denied what almost every other group aspires to – a national home, and a place of safety? After the attempted genocide of the Jewish people it should come as no surprise to anyone that the Holocaust still plays such a dominant role, not just in Israeli politics but in the Jewish psyche almost everywhere. This is characterised by a ‘never again’ mentality which creates a heightened sensitivity to the re-emergence of antisemitism coupled with an unspoken sense of shame by many Jews at what they perceive to be the lack of Jewish physical resistance to the Nazi genocide.
Experiencing antisemitism in the Labour party
Antisemitism doesn’t have to be expressed in particular words to be experienced as such. Indeed, obvious antisemitic utterances are, or should be, easily dealt with. But antisemitism can manifest itself in an anti-Zionism that refutes the right of Jews to their own homeland. That many Labour members are obsessed with the Israel/Palestine issue, almost to the exclusion of any other foreign policy issue, is undeniable. This obsession can lead Jewish members to feel extremely uncomfortable whenever the issue is discussed.
As a journalist who has attended virtually every Labour conference since 1979, I have always been struck, and concerned, by the atmosphere in the hall when the Israel/Palestine issue has been debated. I recall how at the 2017 conference in Brighton Jeremy Corbyn was applauded when he condemned the attempted genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar and got a similar reaction when he spoke against the Saudi atrocities perpetrated against the people of Yemen but when it came to condemnation of Israeli bombing of Gaza, the cheers turned to visceral yelps of approval.
Similar yelps greeted anyone who spoke against Israeli policies, particularly if they declared themselves to be Jewish. Even debates about the evils of apartheid in the 1980s never aroused the same degree of emotion. The atmosphere at Labour conferences during debates about Israel/Palestine have always been, for me, redolent of the Big Brother-induced ‘hate sessions’ described by George Orwell in his novel 1984.
Labour has drifted into becoming, if not an antisemitic party (which I do not believe it to be), but a party that has been prepared to tolerate an unacceptable level of antisemitic behaviour. Meanwhile, the Jewish community in general, and its Jewish members and supporters in particular, have felt initially offended, then confused and finally angry at seeing what it used to regard as its natural political home drifting further and further away.
A way forward?
Labour’s new leader needs to reach out to the Jewish community in a less defensive mode than has been the case in the past, in effect seeking advice as to how it can best grapple with this issue. The Ten Pledges that the Board of Deputies of British Jews have asked leadership candidates to sign up to is a good starting point, indicating a more constructive spirit from the Board than they have sometimes adopted.
Equally, there needs to be a recognition that Labour’s antisemitism problems are not a unique failing. The Conservative’s extreme reluctance to hold a full and independent investigation into Islamophobia in their ranks is a failure of both leadership and morality and leaves them in no position to criticise Labour’s own failings. If these conditions are met then whoever gets to lead the Labour party will have a better claim on the loyalty (and the votes) of Britain’s Jews than has been the case in the recent past; and British politics will be the healthier for it.