The anti-Semitic Clouds Gathering Over U.K.'s Labour Party

A mounting number of recent incidents and accusations of anti-Semitism has party members and Jewish leaders wondering if Labour is still welcoming of Jews.

Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled
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Britain's opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn listens to speakers at the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton, U.K., September 28, 2015.
Britain's opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn listens to speakers at the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton, U.K., September 28, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled

A series of anti-Semitism scandals has hit the U.K.’s Labour movement in what some Jewish activists say may be a turning point for the party.

Recent controversies include the re-election of a Vicki Kirby to vice-chair of her local Labour party branch. Kirby was suspended in 2014 after a series of tweets, including one in which she suggested Hitler might be “the Zionist God.” Another tweet asked: "What do you know about Jews? They've got big noses and support [London soccer team] Tottenham Spurs lol." She has since been suspended again, and an inquiry is pending.

Only the previous week, party activist Gerry Downing, whose Socialist Fight website has published articles on “the Jewish Question” and who himself has been accused of questioning the Holocaust, was thrown out of the Labour party for the second time.

And in mid-February, Alex Chalmers, co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) resigned after the body decided to support Israel Apartheid Week, claiming that many OULC members “have some kind of problem with Jews." The scandal deepened after the Oxford Jewish Society released further allegations of harassment against Jewish students.

These incidents reflect an on-going internal struggle between a more radical left wing of the Labour Party and a more moderate sector of the party, and the conversation has spilled beyond the Jewish community, grabbing national headlines in the country's major papers.

This clash has been encapsulated by differing views on Israel and the Palestinians, not least due to party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s decades-long record as a pro-Palestinian campaigner. He has famously described representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas as his friends.

For Tal Ofer, an Israeli immigrant who ran as a Labour candidate in local elections in 2014, the trend is worrisome. “I feel sickened as a British Jew, as these are not the values of my party, the value of inclusivity and social justice,” he said.

Ofer added that he had raised his concerns with numerous senior party figures, including deputy leader Tom Watson.

“There are elements of the hard left inside the party now whose anti-Semitic views are clear," Ofer said. "As long as the party doesn't act against those anti-Semites, they feel that they have legitimacy to carry on with these views.”

Labour lawmaker John Mann, chair of the all-party group on anti-Semitism, claimed the situation had deteriorated with the influx of hard-left newcomers to the party following Corbyn’s election last year.

Others say that it is simply symptomatic of a trend infecting British politics.

Author and journalist Nick Cohen argued in his 2007 book "What's Left?" that blind anti-imperialism was transforming the left-wing into a profoundly illiberal movement. Nothing about the current anti-Semitism scandal was surprising, he told Haaretz.

“Now it’s mainstream – the far-left have taken over. People like me were screaming about this years ago and were always told that it was just about fringe groups," he said.

“It’s not just Corbyn or a clique in the Labour party,” he continued. “The same attitudes are all across the left, any charity, any university, any vaguely middle-class and left-wing institution.”

The core concepts of this ideology, he said, are: A belief that the West was the main or the sole source of global conflict, that the only reason for trouble in the Middle East was Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, and that radical Islam should be excused rather than confronted. There was also “a rather racist cultural relativism, especially around women’s rights” and a conspiracy of Jewish control of American and European foreign policy.

In this context, Cohen said, anti-Semitism was being excused or dismissed if it appeared in a wider context of outspoken criticism of Israel.

Jeremy Newmark, the national chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, said he saw a distinct trend towards the “denial of anti-Semitism,” particularly among pockets of the grassroots membership.

“The party’s disciplinary system is often not robust enough to deal with this,” he lamented. “At a structural level in the party the rhetoric of zero tolerance has to be followed and matched with processes.”

Even those with strong pro-Palestinian credentials are not immune. “Some among the left have the misguided belief that anyone raising concerns of anti-Semitism are part of a Zionist ploy or pro-Israel conspiracy to discredit and defame,” said Gary Spedding, a veteran pro-Palestinian activist, who said he has been ridiculed and subjected to anti-Semitic abuse when he identified anti-Semitism within the movement.

Others argue that pro-Israel activists willingly blur criticism of Israel or Zionism itself with anti-Semitism for their own political ends.

The Jewish Socialists’ Group told Haaretz in a statement that they were “proud” to count Jeremy Corbyn as a longstanding and reliable ally and had “every confidence” that he would continue to deal effectively with any instances of anti-Semitism.

The group said Corbyn, when running for office, had faced a "vicious smear campaign based on lies, distortions and innuendo, which tried to brand him as an anti-Semite or friend of anti-Semites." The group charged the "right wing media," "cynical opponents" within Labour, and some "right wing Jews, who oppose Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding support for Palestinian rights,” with orchestrating the campaign.

Still, communal leaders agree that Corbyn has done little since his election to squash controversies and try to build bridges with the Jewish community. For example, the party’s initial investigation into the Oxford affair has yet to be published, and Labour MPs have expressed concern that it will be subsumed into a wider enquiry about student affairs.

Corbyn did issue a statement this week after shadow cabinet minister Luciana Berger was inundated with offensive tweets after announcing that she would be attending an anti-Semitism conference in Berlin. Corbyn called the abuse "unacceptable," and said “It has no place in our society.”

Critics, however, complain that the leader won’t touch Israel-related anti-Semitism “with a barge pole,” as one parliamentary aide put it. “He fulfills his obligations by making short condemnations without any attention to nuance.”

As a result, the aide continued, many Jewish Labour activists “are actively cutting up membership cards.”

Newmark disputed this, saying he did not predict a mass exit of Jewish support from Labour. Rather, “people have redoubled their efforts to fight this within the party,” he said.

“If I don't fight for my party's future, who will do it?" said Ofer. "These are really difficult times to be a Jewish member many people ask me to quit the party, but then how can I influence it from outside?"

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