U.K. Labour Party’s anti-Semitism Problem Just Got a Lot Worse

With its rising star Naz Shah in hot water over hateful social media comments, Labour can no longer claim that their party's anti-Semites are a handful of misfits.

Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn gives a speech on Britain's membership of the European Union in London, Britain April 14, 2016.
Stefan Wermuth, Reuters

One of the most eagerly-anticipated results in the British General Election in May 2015 was that for the seat representing the constituency of Bradford West. The victory of the Labour Party candidate, Naseem “Naz” Shah, by a landslide majority of 11,420 votes, was international news due to the notoriety of the losing incumbent. George Galloway, a veteran far-left politician, who had been kicked out of Labour for expressing support for Iraqi Islamists fighting British troops in Iraq, had been elected to the seat in 2012 by-election, during which he had exploited tensions between rival Pakistani clans. Galloway, who had previously won in a London constituency where an anti-Semitic whisper-campaign had been employed against his Labour rival, used the same tactics against Shah. 

Galloway accused his opponent, who had been raised in an abusive environment and was forced to marry at 16 against her will, of “defaming” Islam. On the night of his defeat in Bradford he said "I don’t begrudge the Labour members here their moment of celebration of course but there will be others who are already celebrating: the venal, and the vile, the racists and the Zionists will all be celebrating." He got one thing right – his comeuppance was rejoiced by a wide cross-section of British politics and society, including naturally the Jewish community. Shah was seen as a brave young Muslim woman who had overcome adversity and vicious smears to defeat a race-baiter. 

Ironically, less than a year later, Naz Shah, now a rising Labour star, is at the center of a growing political storm over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. It seems that in the initial enthusiasm over her victory over Galloway, no one was checking her own views. On Tuesday morning, British political blogger Guido Fawkes (pseudonym of libertarian activist and journalist Paul Staines) revealed that during the summer of 2014, during the Gaza conflict, Shah, then still a little known local activist, had posted a series of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic messages and comments on her Facebook page. But what is regretfully not rare on the internet for anonymous posters is a totally different matter for a Labour politician who until Tuesday was considered being on her way to higher office.

Shah is the most prominent scalp claimed by Guido Fawkes and other journalists trawling for Labour Party members have a record of anti-Semitic statements. In recent weeks, every few days another one is revealed to have said on social media and other forums nasty things about Jews, or the cover-all label of “Zionists,” or have drawn comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany. This series has created a narrative of Labour suffering an outbreak of anti-Semitism, which has been linked to allegations of similar judeophobic sentiments prevalent in the party’s elite student society at Oxford University. Matters haven’t been helped by the slowness of the party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to speak out against anti-Semitism or even to recognize its distinctiveness from other forms of racism. Corbyn’s defenders have countered that it is unfair by the media to single out a handful of members, most of whom have been either expelled or suspended from the party, as representative of Labour’s hundreds of thousands of members. But whether or not they are just a few bad apples or the party is suffering from a wider problem, the narrative has taken hold in much of the British media. The latest revelations on Shah have given it a figurehead who cannot be dismissed as a minor figure in the party.

Not only is Shah a fairly prominent new MP, her status as a “high-flyer” was recognized earlier this year with her appointment as a parliamentary private secretary (an MP serving as a parliamentary aide to a senior member of the cabinet, or the opposition’s “shadow” cabinet) to Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally. Shah was quick to apologize on Tuesday for the Facebook posts and ensure that these were no longer her views. Later on in the day she announced her resignation from the PPS position and that she would “be seeking to expand” her “existing engagement and dialogue with Jewish community organizations." But this will not be sufficient for the critics of Labour, who are already saying that if more junior party members were kicked out for similar statements, Shah should be treated in the same fashion. The party has yet to officially respond to these demands and neither is it clear whether Shah intends to continue as a member of a government committee formed to monitor the rise of anti-Semitism. Whatever he decides to do, it’s bad news for Corbyn.

Labour MP Naz Shah as photographed on her Facebook page.
Facebook

And of course this is great timing for the ruling Conservative Party as the growing storm over anti-Semitic tendencies within Labour is a useful diversion from a wide range of problems facing Prime Minister David Cameron, most significantly the mounting disarray within his party over the referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. It increases Labour’s woes in what will likely be a tough week when it is expected to lose hundreds of seats on councils around the country in local elections. It may even jeopardize, or at least taint Labour’s one point of light in these elections, the likely election of its candidate Sadiq Khan as London’s new mayor. Like Shah, Khan is a prominent Muslim politician, and though he has never made the mistake of posting similar anti-Semitic sentiments, he is being attacked by the Conservatives for having appeared at public events with radical Islamists who have. 

But the actual views and political fortunes of Shah and Khan are not the main issue any longer. It has just gotten that much harder for Labour to continue claiming that their party anti-Semites are just a few misfits who in no way represent Britain’s main opposition and mainstream left-wing party when its young star, who beat George Galloway last year, may not be as different from him as they would like.