Labour antisemitism must be confronted – with nuance, clarity and empathy

Nadia Whittome
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

The recent publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation reconfirmed what many of us have been arguing for some time: that antisemitism is a real issue in the Labour Party, that requires serious confrontation.

Antisemitism in left-wing and radical movements is not new, dating back to at least the mid-19th century. One of the oldest themes of antisemitism, the conflation of Jews with money and finance, was incorporated into some early critiques of capitalism. Since the 2008 financial crash, conspiracy-based critiques of capitalism, which often demonise particular Jewish figures, have had a resurgence.

This has happened most prominently on the far right, including via Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s promotion of conspiracy theories about George Soros, and Donald Trump’s campaign ads that overlaid footage of Jewish figures from the financial sector with narration about “global special interest groups” – but also on the left, including in sections of movements such as ‘Occupy’.

Antisemitism on the left has also manifested in certain critiques of Israel and Zionism, which radically overstate Israel’s role and power, and allege a powerful or even controlling “Zionist” influence on world affairs. The late Moishe Postone, a Marxist academic who wrote extensively about antisemitism on the left, called this form of “anti-Zionism” the “anti-imperialism of fools”: a version of anti-imperialism that makes “Zionism” central to, and synonymous with, world imperialism.

The presence of these ideas on the left significantly predates Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and there is not one quick fix to uproot them. The publication of the EHRC report could have been an opportunity to discuss these issues and turn the page on how antisemitism in the Labour Party is dealt with. However, so far this necessary process has been obstructed by vicious infighting.

Jeremy’s statement on the day of the EHRC report was ill-advised. But the decision to suspend him and remove the whip was, I believe, unjust and lacking due process. When we should be coming together to tackle antisemitism and reach out to Jewish communities – who of course are not monolithic, and contain lots of different experiences and opinions – we again end up fighting each other instead.

Party members feel strongly and want to do something about the situation. Many are putting motions to their Constituency Labour Party (CLPs). I support the right of party members to express concerns about due process and natural justice, and to express solidarity with Jeremy – and I believe a blanket ban is wrong for this reason. Neither do I support the threat of suspending CLPs for hearing such motions.

However, it is also the case that officers of the party have legal duties with regard to the EHRC report. It is important that, when we discuss the situation, we separate the issue of fairness for Jeremy from those of the general issues of the EHRC report and wider problem of antisemitism.

When this separation does not take place, I am concerned that many Jewish members feel unwelcome – and, yes, unsafe – as a result of the way that debates relating to antisemitism are often conducted and handled at CLP level. We have a duty to protect the wellbeing of all Jewish members and ensure they feel welcome and included in everything we do in our local parties. After all, how democratic can a debate or discussion be said to be if many Jewish members do not feel able or safe to attend in the first place?

Tackling antisemitism and implementing the EHRC recommendations must be at the forefront of our minds and form a bare minimum in terms of the basis for any further or related discussions. The position of our ‘side’ of the party, or short-term accumulation of political capital, should not come into it.

I appreciate that this balance between democracy, freedom of expression and inclusivity is a difficult one for us all to navigate, and that we might not always get it right. I include myself in this. In any case, contributions that are antisemitic or deny or downplay the existence of antisemitism in the party can never be acceptable and must always be challenged, and we should all take responsibility for this. In particular, it is the responsibility of CLP chairs and other party agents to intervene and to ensure a safe space where all party members feel comfortable and welcome.

A transparent disciplinary and complaints process, that ensures due process for both “complainant” and “accused”, is essential for making the party a hospitable and accessible environment for all its members. However, disciplinary measures are in themselves an insufficient way of tackling antisemitism on the left, given that it often comes not from a place of hatred or conscious hostility towards all Jewish people, but ignorance about common tropes that have been used against Jews, and why they can be discriminatory or hurtful.

Confronting antisemitism in the party means mobilising a large cross-section of the membership in an effort of political education, and convincing members as yet unsure about the issues of a political common sense that rejects these tropes. This requires the ability of members to discuss these issues in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and it is a great shame that the current atmosphere in the party doesn’t enable such conversations. That’s why a timetable of training, education and any changes to disciplinary measures needs to be communicated to CLPs as soon as possible.

Admirably, some local parties have taken it upon themselves, without national resources or support from party officials, to arrange training on antisemitism. As one of the organisers of Sheffield Heeley CLP’s education series wrote on LabourList: “In recent years, the party has waxed lyrical about ‘political education’ but actually done very little… Here, we have tried a more participatory and discursive approach. It has, we believe, allowed us to cut through the often fraught arguments about antisemitism on the left and grapple with the complexities of the issue on their own terms. While we would not claim to have all the answers, we are proud of what we have achieved and urge other comrades to follow suit.”

The national party should support other local parties in rolling out similar programmes. Until the party makes a serious turn to consistent political education (and not only on this issue), we will be unable to establish the robust, critical, rational political culture – one that rejects antisemitism, conspiracy theories, and bigotries of all types – and ensures that we are effective in arguing for the democratic, internationalist, socialist policies our party should advance.

It’s tempting in these emotive debates to pick a side and refuse to listen to one another, when what we need is nuance, clarity and empathy. It’s not a contradiction to fully support the recommendations of the EHRC report, to believe Jeremy’s statement was ill-advised and to oppose the way he has been treated. Communicating the idea that more than one thing can be true at the same time is difficult to navigate – particularly on social media platforms where there is a decided lack, and even deliberate removal of, any nuance.

I know I am not alone in my determination to move on from this period. We have a Tory government mishandling the coronavirus crisis, an economic recession that is about to bite hard and a new round of brutal public spending cuts to fight. I still believe that the left of the party, as well as the party as a whole, can come out of this dark episode stronger and more united, but only if we are willing to be crystal clear on the acceptance and implementation of the EHRC report in full and are determined to do the hard work to contribute to the party being a safe and welcoming place for all members.

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