Scottish Labour Students candidate quits hustings amid row over Israel and racism

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A candidate running for chair of Scottish Labour Students is understood to have pulled out of a hustings event after objecting to the wording of a question about Hamas’ attacks on Israel and antisemitism – calling it “racist”, LabourList can reveal.

Lauren Harper, already a youth representative on Scottish Labour’s Scottish Executive Committee, is standing to be chair of SLS as part of the Labour left Socialist Future slate. A debate between Harper and rival Emma Russell, the pair who secured enough nominations to run for the position, was due to take place on March 14, but Harper pulled out on the day and only Russell appeared.

LabourList understands it followed a dispute over the wording of a proposed question.

Call for student clubs to back IHRA definition

The question as initially phrased reportedly read: “Since Hamas’ terror attacks of October 7th, antisemitism on campuses has rocketed. Will you commit to supporting Jewish students by working with Labour clubs to pass the IHRA definition of antisemitism?”

It is believed to have been submitted by a Jewish student, and to have been the only question referencing the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Harper’s objection sparked criticism from the Jewish Labour Movement, with Chair Mike Katz saying the left was in “serious trouble if its young activists cannot differentiate” racism from foreign policy debates.

Under former leader Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s high-profile troubles over antisemitism included a row over Labour’s stance on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition. But the international definition was adopted in full by Labour nationally in 2018.

Harper dubbed question ‘Islamophobic’ and ‘antisemitic’

One source told LabourList Harper described the question as “veiled racism”. She said she could not see how the question did not reference pro-Palestine protests on campuses, and claimed it conflated both Muslims with Hamas and criticism of Israel with Jewish people’s struggles. She reportedly dubbed it “Islamophobic” and “antisemitic”.

In a discussion over potential re-wording, she also reportedly suggested a revised question cutting the reference to Hamas and the IHRA definition, instead highlighting Israel’s “brutal occupation” and rising antisemitism and Islamophobia – then urging candidates to commit to tackling “racism” and to “supporting Jewish and Muslim students”.

A spokesperson for Scottish Labour Students said: “We are disappointed a full hustings did not take place due to a disagreement over a question asked by a member. “There were attempts to re-word the question to address the concerns raised by one of the candidates and so that the event could go ahead as planned, but unfortunately, this was not possible.”

Objections ‘deeply troubling’

Mike Katz, National Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, said it was “morally bankrupt” to object to the question when a huge spike in antisemitism in Britain was a “plain statement of fact”.

“Life for Jewish students on campus is difficult enough right now with a 500% rise in antisemitism. The idea that this person could be a Labour representative for students is laughable were it not so shocking. The left of our movement is in serious trouble if its young activists cannot differentiate between racism in the UK and debates on foreign policy.”

Guy Dabby-Joory, head of campaigns at the Union of Jewish Students, also said Harper’s reported objections was “deeply troubling”.

He said candidates for Labour roles should be “prepared to seriously engage with very real issues of antisemitism and the unprecedented hatred faced by Jewish students”.

‘Not a good framework for Gaza debate’

Hugh Lanning, convenor of the Labour & Palestine group and a former chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said the question appeared “biased”, though he said he would not call it racist.

“If it was the single question about what’s going on in Gaza, it doesn’t provide a good framework for having that debate and discussion. There’s two sides involved. The question seemed to be very single-minded and ignores the plight of the Palestinians and the growth of Islamophobia.”

Harper told LabourList that since Hamas’ “abhorrent” October attack, “horrifying” events had unfolded for ordinary Palestinians and Israelis.

She said: “Hamas’ indiscriminate attacks and what many suspect to amount to genocide undertaken by Israel on Palestinians is beyond reachable understanding for many of us.  

“This follows years of Palestinians living in utterly appalling conditions, under a far-right Israeli government, that has additionally sought to introduce repressive legislation to suppress ordinary Israeli citizens’ basic rights. All of these things can be simultaneously true, and all of them must be addressed in the context of each other.”

Harper: ‘My concerns weren’t taken seriously’ in meeting

She added: “The version of events which has been relayed to LabourList excludes the fact that my final decision not to attend came after being treated to a less than comradely in-person interaction with the chair and other candidate, where my concerns were not taken seriously and sincerely.”

This account of the meeting was strongly disputed by at least one other present, however, but another source said it was accurate.

Harper went on: “To play out these complex discussions via anonymous briefings is precisely the environment that seeks to divide our communities and polarise people – antisemitism is real and Islamophobia is real, not there as a subject of student union debating societies. Nor should they serve to provide cheap potshots during an internal election; this is about the real and felt suffering of millions of people.

“I – nor anyone else seeking election who takes these issues seriously – want absolutely no part of any anonymous briefing war when the issue at hand is the horrifying rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia we’re witnessing every day.”

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