The Labour Party’s fall conference began with a pledge of a “final solution” to the Middle East conflict and went downhill from there. The political convention, which took place late September in the English seaside town of Brighton, was a celebratory gathering. Labour’s far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn defied predictions of a wipeout in the general election and even managed to deprive Theresa May’s Conservative government of its overall majority. For Labour’s embattled Jewish members, the event had a more sober purpose as they set out to win a rule change that they hope will make it easier to expel anti-Semites.
Since Corbyn’s improbable elevation from crank backbencher to Labour leader two years ago, anti-Semitism has become a running sore in Labour politics, in part because of Corbyn’s own past statements and associations and in part because his star has attracted the fringe left, banished in the 1980s, back into the party. An internal review into anti-Semitism was widely regarded as a whitewash—the author was given a Labour seat in the House of Lords the following month. The party’s failure to tackle the problem, and the routine dismissal of Jewish members’ testimony as “smears,” has seen support for Labour plummet to 13 percent among British Jews.
Brighton, one of the ugliest conferences in Labour’s history, confirmed the scale of the problem. Labour Friends of Palestine got proceedings underway by tweeting: “Labour Two-State solution will END the #occupation—our solution will be the final solution #FreePalestine #EndTheSiege.” The accompanying image was of Temple Mount behind barbed wire. Far from a fringe operation, roughly half of Labour lawmakers are listed as supporters of LFP. After criticism on social media, the post was removed and the campaign apologized for “an extremely poor choice of words.” The same day, senior MP John Cryer spoke on a panel organized by the Holocaust Educational Trust. Cryer, who sits on Labour’s disciplinary committee, described the anti-Semitism he encounters amongst the party’s membership. Some of it “makes your hair stand up,” he said. “This stuff is redolent of the 1930s.”
The next day, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone did what has become customary for him: He went on a talk-radio program and offended Britain’s Jewish community. Livingstone is under sanction from the Labour Party for a previous radio appearance in which he declared Adolf Hitler to have been a supporter of Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.” This time he attacked fellow Labour politicians for “distorting the scale” of anti-Semitism, explaining: “Some people have made offensive comments, it doesn’t mean they’re inherently anti-Semitic and hate Jews. They just go over the top when they criticize Israel.”
While Livingstone was expounding on non-anti-Semitic anti-Semitism, anti-Zionist Labour members were holding a symposium titled “Free Speech on Israel,” which they apparently thought there hadn’t been enough of. Speakers compared the Jewish state to the Nazis and urged the expulsion of the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel from the party. Another speaker demanded “the freedom to criticize and to discuss every issue, whether it’s the Holocaust: yes or no, Palestine, the liberation, the whole spectrum. There should be no limits on the discussion.”
The apparent call to question the historicity of the Shoah was something new and nightmarish, and yet it elicited a familiar response. Ken Loach, filmmaker and Jeremy Corbyn backer, was asked by the BBC whether it was an acceptable topic for debate. He replied: “I think history is for all of us to discuss, all history is our common heritage to discuss and analyze.” (He later clarified his comments in a letter to The New York Times.)
It was thanks in part to these exhibits for the prosecution that the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) won its desired rule change but it did so over the objections of a new rival group of left-wing Jews. Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) opposed the measure, with chair Jenny Manson calling it an “anti-democratic restriction on political debate” and spokesperson Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi terming it “thought crime.”
Although it failed to halt the new disciplinary regime, JVL’s intervention marks a turning point in Labour’s engagement with Jews and its attitude to anti-Semitism. Jewish groups within the party have hitherto been united in criticism of the leadership and the toleration of prejudice against Jews and conspiracy theories about Zionism. Now another group will purport to speak for Labour Jews, one ideologically wedded to the leader and the radical anti-Israel politics he practices.
JVL describes itself as a campaign for Corbyn-supporting Jews who “do not put Israel at the center of their identity” and says its “main impetus” is to challenge “unjustified allegations of anti-Semitism … used to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.”
When I asked if there was a problem with anti-Semitism within Labour, a JVL spokesperson told me: “No, we don’t accept that. Anti-Semitism exists and must be combated, like all forms of bigotry, wherever they occur. But the idea that there is a special problem with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party depends on widening the definition of anti-Semitism beyond its meaning of hostility to Jews as Jews, adding references to Israel and then asserting that the pro-Palestinian left is motivated by hatred of Jews.
“JVL says that Jews cannot be assumed to attach their identity to Israel or the ideas of Zionism (though many do). We also say that support for rights for Palestinians, including support for the boycott movement, cannot be assumed to be motivated by hatred of Jews (although in a very few instances, it may be). We say Labour Party members must have the right to discuss all manner of different political philosophies, including Zionism. That doesn’t make them anti-Semitic.”
JVL, its mission statement records, stands “against wrongs and injustice to Palestinians and other oppressed people anywhere” and champions “the right of supporters of justice for Palestinians to engage in solidarity activities, such as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.” When pressed, they told me BDS was “a perfectly legitimate political campaign which is seeking equality and justice for Palestinians and Israelis.” They are especially exercised about calls to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, and offer themselves as “a space to explore and debate the many questions (personal, social, cultural, political) that are important to us as progressive Labour Jews.”
Most Jews will recognize this for what it is. The purpose of JVL is not to explore and debate complex questions or to represent the feelings of most Jews within the party; it is to muddy the waters.
Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian who has documented Labour anti-Semitism, told me: “Until now, the Jewish Labour Movement was the major Jewish group within the Labour Party and they were often criticizing the leadership, criticizing Corbyn and saying there was a problem with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. That meant that whenever there were stories about anti-Semitism, there would be someone from the JLM saying there was a problem and someone from Corbyn’s side saying there wasn’t. It was the left against the Jews. That’s how it could be framed.
“This new group has come along and changed things. Now when the JLM raises concerns about anti-Semitism, there’s a Jewish group who will pop up and say, ‘That’s not anti-Semitic,’ ” Freedland added. “They provide a kosher certification, a hechsher, so that when other Jews point out anti-Semitism, the left can say, ‘Look, we have Jews who say none of this is true, there’s no anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.’ ”
David Hirsh, a London-based academic and author of the new book Contemporary Left Antisemitism, rejects a sympathetic reading of JVL as useful idiots. Instead, they are “the latest branding of a group of anti-Zionist Jews whose key political project is to portray Jewish concern about anti-Semitism as a disgraceful conspiracy to silence criticism of Israel. They don’t say Jews are mistaken when they detect anti-Semitism or even that they are oversensitive: They say that Jews are lying.”
The most noxious aspect of the anti-Zionist redefinition of Jewishness is the eagerness of anti-Zionist Jews to leap to the defense of the most outrageous statements by the most extreme figures in the Labour Party. Time after time, JVL has acted as Freedland describes: providing kosher cover for the nastiest elements on the far left. When Ken Livingstone pronounced Hitler a supporter of Zionism, Jenny Manson, now chair of JVL, issued a statement insisting his comments were “not offensive, nor anti-Semitic in any way.” In doing so, she referred to her Jewish identity and the fact her mother had fled Ukraine to escape pogroms. Defending Ken Loach over his Holocaust remarks, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi said he was simply “pursuing an argument about the importance of free speech when he was called upon to comment upon an ambiguous sentence mentioning the Holocaust.” He had “stuck to his line of argument” and hadn’t agreed that questioning the veracity of the Holocaust was unacceptable because it was “blindingly obvious.”
In August, senior Labour MP and Corbyn ally Chris Williamson claimed anti-Semitism was being “weaponized” in a “proxy war against the leadership” and described complaints about it as “smears and lies and dirty tricks.” After the Board of Deputies of British Jews condemned Williamson’s intemperate outburst, JVL sided with the MP and, in conspiratorial tones, said he had merely “put his finger on the connection between charges of anti-Semitism and the onslaught that he expects Corbyn to face from his opponents before the next election—a connection that [the Board of Deputies] does not wish to be exposed.”
So what do the anti-Zionist activists in groups like JVL get out of being used as a kosher stamp for anti-Semites—aside from proving their loyalty to the Labour Party leadership? Hirsh suggests a deeper motivation: “They would rather live in a world where anti-Semitism was provoked by Jews—and so, therefore, could notionally be stopped by Jews—than in a world where anti-Semitism was irrational. They prefer to imagine that Jews are in control of their own destiny than that they are simply victims of anti-Semitism.”
Meanwhile, Labour, once a proud party with a strong anti-racist tradition, is mired in the filth of anti-Semitism. It will remain there as long as Jewish Voice for Labour is the only Jewish voice the Labour leadership wants to hear.
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Stephen Daisley is a writer and commentator based in the United Kingdom.