I didn’t expect nuanced political theatre when I went to see The Lynching, Jackie Walker’s one-woman show about her suspension(s) from the Labour party on charges of anti-Semitism.
That was just as well, because what I got was a clumsy narrative arc with lots of blindingly obvious analogies about lynch mobs and Zionism.
But I also didn’t expect to end up feeling such a disconcerting sense of sympathy with the protagonist, despite the best efforts of Walker herself and a pantomime hard-left audience that did all but boo and hiss at every mention of the party affiliated Jewish Labour Movement.
For those less familiar with her oeuvre, over the last year or so Walker’s contentious comments included asserting that Jews were the chief financiers of the slave trade and decrying Holocaust Memorial Day for being too exclusive. For this, she was also removed from her post as vice-chair of Momentum, the grassroots movement that fuelled the whole Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon.
This touring show is her way of fighting back. (Walker is one of those people who say their right to free speech is being silenced, while managing to do quite a lot of very public speaking about it.)
The stage of the tiny fringe theatre in north London has few props: a ragdoll with a hangman’s noose round its neck, a golliwog, a black and white photo of a lynching.
Walker announces that we are about to hear about "the biggest attempt to smash the most radical political movement in your lifetimes." It’s an ambitious promise, given that most of the 70-strong audience are pensioners.
The first part depicts her parents’ doomed love story amid the American civil rights era. In between singing snatches of Let My People Go, Walker affects different accents to portray her mother, her father and her own younger self. (I felt rather cheated that she read from oversized cue cards throughout.)
There’s not much subtlety. The show’s very title makes it clear that she sees her (Jewish) persecutors as some kind of revamped KKK venting their power against people of color, including Palestinians, and all who dare oppose their supremacist ideology.
When white people got to Jamaica, her mother’s birthplace, they treated it as a ‘land without a people’, ethnically cleansing the indigenous residents to create "the first artificially constructed society in the world," she says. No need for a wink or a nod here.
As for segregation-era America, it was "what I would call ‘an apartheid state,’" she drawls.
But family life was complicated. It turns out that her father, Jack Coleman, a Jewish jeweler, was already married. Her mother ended up back in Jamaica, subsequently moving to a London where landlords displayed signs reading "No Irish, no coloured, no dogs".
Then, one night, when Walker was 11 years old, her mother collapsed and died. The doctors said it was heart failure, but her daughter believes that "she died because she was poor and sick and coloured". Walker and her siblings were abandoned to the mercies of the state care system.
The second part of the play consists of Walker putting a mock case for the prosecution for her expulsion from the party, then reverting to her own dead mother to put the case for the defense.
So the context for Walker’s slave trade comment, that Jews "were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade", was apparently a reference to her mother’s family, descended from Portuguese Jews who came to the West Indies with Christopher Columbus, one of whom married a slave.
An odd and longwinded explanation, but we can gloss over the details. It boils down to Walker falling proxy victim to a witch-hunt against Corbyn, and why? Because of his support for the Palestinians.
It’s an enduring trope. Only last week Len McCluskey, the head of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, insisted that claims of Labour anti-Semitism were "mood music" created by people trying to undermine Corbyn. That was all part of what has become an annual anti-Semitism furore set-piece at Labour party conference.
At one fringe event, a speaker argued that people should be able to question whether the Holocaust happened or not. Filmmaker Ken Loach then felt the need to tell the BBC that yes, the Holocaust was up for debate (later tweeting that only a "malicious fool" could take offense at that).
But the other conference news was that campaigners within the party appeared to be making headway; Momentum itself backed new legislation to make Labour’s position on anti-Semitism much clearer.
This concession was the topic of much angry denunciation during the question-and-answer session that followed Walker’s show. The star guest was the rather odious Baronness Jenny Tonge, who quit the Liberal Democrat part last year following years of accusations of – yes – anti-Semitism; everyone praised Walker’s amazing bravery and bemoaned the perfidy of Jewish representative bodies. And then came the very last question.
"Is there not a disproportionate representation of what could be described as people of Zionist attachment in the media?" asked one gentleman. "I’d really like to hear your opinion."
Oh, me too. But Walker’s response was to hastily announce that they were out of time and she had to hand over to her (Jewish, this was mentioned repeatedly) life partner to have the last word.
The awful thing is, after watching her show I feel very sorry for Walker, and not because I agree (with her) that opposing Zionism is not anti-Semitic by definition. I doubt she wants my pity, but she has clearly had a hard life, defying discrimination and deprivation to go to university and train as a teacher.
It’s clear that when Walker joined the Labour party in 1981 it finally gave her a home, and that campaigning for Corbyn gave her "a sense that we could just do anything," she says, with real passion. It turns out that the Great Leader hasn’t contacted Walker once since all this mess began.
Without all this scrutiny, she would’ve probably stayed a proud and largely irrelevant member of the hard-left party faithful. But she was thrust into a limelight for which she was woefully ill-equipped. As she points out, if people Google her name 100 years from now they will find nothing but accusations of anti-Semitism. That’s an awful legacy, especially for someone who has herself experienced violent racism.
But then, Walker could have at any point during this whole miserable saga accepted that, sometimes, Jewish people say they find things offensive because they are genuinely offended, not because they are part of a conspiracy trying to cover up for Israeli war crimes. Instead, she chose a creepy kind of ideological purity. What a bitter pill to swallow.
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