The antisemitism crisis of Labour’s own making

The fact that Labour is tainted by antisemitism during this election is a problem of its own making, writes Nick Lowles.

The release of a summary of the Jewish Labour Movement’s submission to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission investigation into Labour antisemitism is a damning indictment of the crisis that continues to engulf the party.

The 47-page document is just an overview of what has been submitted. The full submission, which runs to 1,400 pages, contained legally-signed statements from over 70 current and former members of the Labour Party and hundreds of pages of evidence of antisemitic posts, messages and incidents.

The JLM submission makes chilling reading.

There are testimonies from party members about how they were called called “subhuman”, “yids”, “cockroaches of the Jew kind” and “child killers” by other party members. The dossier alleges 11 occasions when Mr Corbyn had “associated with, sympathised with and engaged in antisemitism”. It claims the Labour Party leadership directly interfered in the complaints process, complaints disappeared and sanctions against political allies were “watered down”.

While of course this is just a submission from one group, and the claims are being challenged by the Labour Party itself, the fact that over 70 current and former employees – some of them initially supporters of Jeremy Corbyn – were willing to sign legal statements does suggest that the evidence is credible and compelling.

Vetting candidates

At the outset of this election, and in a break from how we have approached General Elections in the past, HOPE not hate decided to vet individual candidates from all parties. With accusations of Labour antisemitism and Tory islamophobia swirling around, we decided we had to widen our net.

In an internal document, which set out our approach to the election, we agreed: “In this election, HOPE not hate Ltd. will take a twin-track approach, seeking to deny Nigel Farage’s dangerous and divisive Brexit Party any seats in Parliament, while also exposing and condemning examples of mainstream party candidates who engage, or who have engaged, in behaviour that we consider crosses the line into hate.”

Agreeing that it was important to tackle political poison in the mainstream, we concluded: “A key difference between previous elections and this year’s election is the extent to which we – alarmingly – will need to focus on candidates for the main parties. It is a sign of how poisonous politics in the UK has become that we can expect numerous candidates, potentially from any of the mainstream parties, to be shown to hold, or have held, hateful positions. In the past 12 months, we have issued statements condemning figures from Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the SNP. We have most often issued statements about Labour figures, while we have also run a specific campaign aimed at highlighting widespread Islamophobic views amongst Tory members.”

We established a working group to create a rigorous process for deciding which candidates to take on during this election. To us, the Brexit Party as a party stepped over the line. But we also researched as many contentious candidates standing for mainstream political parties as well, including almost 20 Labour candidates.

Our process looked at the contentious things they had said and done, the context of those incidents, whether it was a one-off comment or part of a pattern of behaviour and when it had been said or written. We felt it was important to acknowledge how social media meant people often make off-the-cuff comments or ‘like’ posts from others that might not always reflect their own genuine personal positions. We also saw a one-off ‘like’ or a ‘retweet’ as quite different from an organic post and written article. Finally, we also tried to judge the sincerity of any apology made, and whether it was done at the time, said by themselves or issued by a press officer, or only when the issue came up in this election campaign.

In late November, HOPE not hate called on the Labour Party to suspend Jim Malone, the party’s candidate for Dundee West over the involvement of people who have previously been at the heart of claims relating to antisemitism, racism and public corruption.

In a statement issued to the media, we said: “Based on the evidence, it’s clear Jim Malone has serious questions to answer about the disreputable people he has involved in his campaign, and the Labour Party should take swift and decisive action by suspending him pending a full investigation.

“Anyone who tolerates hate in this way has no place in our politics.”

We are also campaigning against former Labour MP Chris Williamson, who is now defending his Derby North seat as an independent. HOPE not hate has produced a hardhitting video calling on the voters of Derby North to reject Williamson.

However, while no other Labour candidates passed our threshold, that does not mean that we do not have serious concerns about some of them.

One of those causing us concern is Ruth George, Labour MP for High Peak Derbyshire, who herself has had to apologise for claiming Labour MPs who left the party may have Israeli backing. She continues to associate with Rachel Abbotts, a Labour activist and now councillor for High Peak Borough Council, even after it emerged that Abbotts had shared a screenshot of an article published on a website called “Wintersonnenwende”, a website which tries to rehabilitate the image of Hitler and the Nazi regime. The article put “The Holocaust” in quote marks and claimed that “Jewish leaders, in combination with powerful international Jewish financial interests” boycotted Germany “for the express purpose” of crippling the economy to bring down the Nazis. It also adds that Jewish people “effectively fired the first shot in the Second World War.” Ruth George received complaints about this and said it was investigated in February 2019 but has continued to appear in public with Abbotts.

George has also been campaigning together with Kasey Carver who has been pictured together with Holocaust denier Alison Chabloz in 2014 at a pro-Palestine event, has posted on Facebook about “zionist influence” over the BBC and alleged that Israel supports ISIS. A picture was posted with Carver and George together out campaigning as recently as 7 November 2019. Worryingly an email was recently sent out by Glossopdale Labour urging people to go out canvassing for George and the email was signed off by Carver as “Campaign Coordinator”.

We believe it is incumbent on Ruth George to disassociate herself from these people, just as I’m sure she would demand of a Tory candidate who surrounded themselves with people who had posted Islamophobic content.

There were several others, who were shortlisted to be candidates, who would definitely have crossed our threshold and led to us campaigning against them had they been selected. These included Colin Monehen, who wanted to be the candidate in Epping Forest, who withdraw after being exposed for posting a picture of the Statue of Liberty being smothered by an alien with the Star of David on its back. His claim that the picture was “about the state of Israel, not the Jewish people” was severely undermined by the same image being regularly shared on far right websites.

Then there was the Evening Standard art critic and BAFTA winner Matthew Collings, who was suspended from the party a day after winning the vote to be the party’s candidate in South West Norfolk after social media posts emerged of him questioning antisemitism in the Labour Party and making comments about Jewish influence in this country and in business.

However, there were many people who did not cross our threshold. Ali Milani, Labour’s candidate against Boris Johnson in Uxbridge & South Ruislip, has been accused of antisemitism by some campaigners but we looked at the evidence and concluded that comments made on twitter nine years ago and the sincerity of his subsequent apology meant there was no evidence to believe he is an antisemite.

Speaking recently to Maajid Nawaz, on LBC, Milani said that he was deeply embarrassed by the tweets he posted as a teenager. “What I have been able to do since then, as well as apologise and reach out, sit down with the Jewish colleagues and friends. I was fortunate enough and really blessed to be taken to Auschwitz and Birkenau to try and gain a broader understanding of what impacts antisemitism has.”

There will be some, perhaps many, who will disagree with the process we have created and our threshold for determining whether someone is antisemitic. We have tried to be protective of nuance. The reality is that Labour’s antisemitism problem is less about individual candidates and more about this party’s behaviour as an institution.

It is important to state that the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members are not antisemites and would be truly appalled to be considered such. Likewise, there is no evidence to say that Labour Party voters hold any more antisemitic views than voters of other parties. Indeed, the polling HOPE not hate has undertaken has shown that the more right wing the voter, the more likely they are to believe in antisemitic tropes and conspiracies – largely because they are the types of people who are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories generally.

Earlier this year HOPE not hate produced a report exploring left-wing antisemitism and found the issue more complex than many believed. It was not a simple case of whether people were antisemitic or not. We found a small group of out and out antisemites on the left, in the traditional sense of involvement in Holocaust denial and belief in a range of Jewish conspiracy theories. We found a bigger group of people who saw their support for the Palestinian cause, and so their opposition to the Israeli Government, transcend into antisemitic tropes about world power and influence. A third group, the largest, were not engaged in direct antisemitism but through a tribal loyalty for Jeremy Corbyn they engaged in bullying and trolling of Jewish people and others who highlighted issues of antisemitism. The more their leader was attacked, internally and externally, the more they rallied around him and attacked his accusers. This breakdown is in no way belittling the seriousness of the behaviour of all three groups, but understanding these differences is important.

Central problem

At the heart of Labour’s antisemitism problem is Jeremy Corbyn himself. His total inability to say sorry during the recent Andrew Neil interview displayed a complete lack of understanding of the issue and of empathy with its victims. Worse still, when he finally did apologise, in subsequent media interviews, he merely regretted that the party had not moved swiftly or robustly enough against antisemites in the party. There was no apology for his own behaviour and past comments.

Disciplinary action against Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson, Jacqui Walker and Pete Willsman should have happened far earlier, and would have if Corbyn had been willing to put aside personal and political friendship and dealt with the issues when they presented themselves.

The same goes for many of his inner circle, who appear to have protected or limited the sanctions against some of their own.

In the last few days Corbyn has apologised twice for antisemitism in the party, but as with previous occasions when he has apologised, it is too little too late. Quite simply, we are left with the view that every apology or speech he has made on Labour antisemitism has only been done because he has been forced to politically and not because he necessarily believes it.

Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters will point to a lifetime’s commitment of fighting racism. That is true. Corbyn does indeed have a long and brave history of campaigning against racism, islamophobia and the apartheid regime. But a right does not cancel out a wrong: his record on other issues does not excuse his complete failure to understand or challenge antisemitism – and this comes to the crux of the issue.

Corbyn’s politics are driven by his anti-imperialism, where everything involving the US, the UK and Israel is bad, but liberation struggles – and in particular the Palestinian struggle – and countries that stand opposed to the bad countries are good. This political stance has led to him making friends with antisemites, turning a blind eye to antisemitism when it has emerged and even being completely oblivious to overt antisemitic behaviour and speech taking place around him.

His simplistic anti-imperialist mindset has contributed to him being unable to criticise the murderous Assad regime and even call out Russia for poisoning Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. The craziness of this anti-imperialist position was most shockingly displayed by the decision of one branch of the Communist Party here in the UK defending the Chinese Government over the internment of almost three million Uighurs in Xinjiang province. To these British communists, the media stories of internment, brainwashes and murders are simply Western (and CIA) propaganda.

Corbyn’s actions over decades have often been completely unacceptable. He has a track record of being linked to antisemites, has called Hamas his “friends”, laid a wreath to honour terrorists who murdered Jews and said that British Zionists lack understanding of “English irony”. He has even appeared on political platforms alongside antisemites and Holocaust deniers and in 2012 he wrote in support of a graffiti artist who painted a grossly and patently antisemitic mural.

If that wasn’t bad enough, he has showed little sympathy or empathy with Labour’s Jewish MPs who have faced the bulk of the abuse and threats. He also has done nothing to intervene and stop the attacks by his supporters on current and former members of staff who have come forward as whistleblowers. As leader he could have, and should have, stamped his authority on the issue – but he hasn’t.

Under his leadership, many people have been attracted to the party who hold antisemitic views. His failure as leader to address antisemitism when it has raised its head has given encouragement to some to continue, and his failure to crack down on the behaviour of those who have bullied and belittled the victims of antisemitic abuse or those who have come to their support has only further given a green light for the bullying to continue.

At every stage Corbyn could have acted decisively to put an end to the problem – but he didn’t. At best he issued a weak call for respect, at worst he said nothing.

One explanation for left-wing antisemitism is that all too often Jews and antisemitism are treated differently to other minority communities and other forms of racism. Some are blinded by their support for the quite legitimate desire of the Palestinian people to have their own State to the point where they ignore the vile antisemitism displayed by some anti-Israel activists.

Influenced by antisemitic tropes about Jewish power and wealth and the ancient notion of Jewish disloyalty to their countries, some homogenise the global Jewish community as an ‘elite’ or an ‘oppressor’ meaning that for some on the left, attacking Jews is seen as ‘punching up’. Jewish people are not considered ‘victims’ of racism and prejudice in the same way that other minority groups are because they argue that the Jewish community is ‘powerful’ enough to look after itself.

At the centre of this problem is the ongoing Israel/Palestine conflict. There is a line between legitimate criticism of the Israeli state, in line with criticism of any other government, and antisemitism. Strong feelings for the plight of Palestinians in some cases take the arguments over that line. In extreme cases, and quite appallingly, it leads to the equation of Zionism with Nazism. More broadly, it leads to Jewish people being portrayed as automatically supportive of any actions against Palestinians by State of Israel, leading to a lack of sympathy for Jews in Britain or even holding them accountable for the actions of a foreign government. Once this has happened then the fight against antisemitism is viewed by some as being in conflict with anti-imperialism and other anti-racist struggles, primarily that of Islamophobia.

It is these lines of thinking that allow some on the left to argue that antisemitism in the Labour Party is just a smear. While most on the left accept that manifestations of other forms of racism can take a range of forms including structural or conspiratorial, for them real antisemitism is confined to explicit Jew hatred and racist epithets like ‘kike’. Any broader (and more accurate) notions of antisemitism that include things such as equating British Jews with Nazis because of the actions of the Israeli government, are not deemed as real antisemitism. In short, some in the Labour Party deny antisemitism is a problem because they don’t really know what antisemitism is.

There will be others who play down antisemitism in the Labour Party by pointing to the Islamophobia within the Conservative Party and the depressingly negative attitudes of its members. Not only do two wrongs do not make a right, but the Labour Party – with its long and proud history of standing up for minorities and against discrimination – sets itself higher standards than the Conservative Party on this issue. Surely the very fact that a minority community is saying it is now unwelcome in today’s Labour Party should be an embarrassment and matter of shame for party members.

A significant number of Labour Party members believe that the antisemitism crisis is a right-wing plot to attack Jeremy Corbyn. While of course, it is only natural for political opponents to exploit weaknesses, to say this issue has been made up is an insult to all those who have been abused, bullied and vilified. One only has to read the 47-page JLM summary to see the true extent of the problem.

Labour’s day of reckoning over antisemitism is approaching fast, with the publication sometime early next year of the EHRC report. We will leave it to them to decide whether the Labour Party is institutionally antisemitic, but the very fact that the party is being investigated, with the only other party ever having been investigated being the BNP, should be shame enough.

In the short-term, Labour is set to pay an electoral price for failing to deal with the issue. HOPE not hate conducted a series of focus groups during the summer as part of our work to understand public opinion on issues we work on. During every group, we turned the conversation to antisemitism, to see if people had heard of the issue, understood it, and how it affected their views. In every group – whether it was Labour voters, Conservatives, switchers, remainers or leavers – we stumbled on a remarkable consensus. While no individual specifically said they thought Jeremy Corbyn is personally an antisemite, across every group people had heard of the scandal and it made them view the Labour party in a worse light. “Why didn’t he just knock it on the head”, asked one participant in Pontefract. Voters couldn’t understand why Labour continued to allow this issue to fester, and they viewed racism against Jewish people just as they would racism against any other group.

There will be some in Labour who decry the timing of the leaking of Jewish Labour Movement submission, coming as it did just a few days before the election. But in truth the party, and in particular Jeremy Corbyn, only has themselves to blame. If they had adequately addressed the issue, protected and defended those who were being targeted and taken action against those who targeted the whistleblowers, then they would not have faced the disgrace and denigration they now do.