"I cannot remain in a political party that I have today come to the sickening conclusion is institutionally anti-Semitic…The [Labour] leadership has willfully and repeatedly failed to address hatred against Jewish people within its ranks, and it is for these reasons and many more that I have made this decision today. I am leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation."
On Monday, when seven MP’s quit the UK Labour party and sent earthquake-grade tremors through British politics, Luciana Berger’s comments made clear that, certainly for her, the resignation was not only political and professional, but also personal.
A Jewish woman (and a heavily pregnant one at that), Berger has been on the receiving end of widely-reported anti-Semitic and misogynistic abuse, as well as deselection threats in her Liverpool constituency.
Seeing a Jewish member of a mainstream party resign, at least in part, over anti-Jewish prejudice, was chilling. After years of back-and-forth over anti-Semitism in Labour, of accusations of anti-Jewish intimidation, unprecedented Jewish community protests, and death-spiral bad faith, it should have been a sobering moment.
That didn’t happen. The reaction perfectly exemplified how stuck the discussion is. After a good few rounds of the Labour and anti-Semitism news cycle on rinse and repeat, lines are drawn in the same place in the sand. One side believes the leadership has not done enough about anti-Jewish prejudice, and/or is fully complicit with it; the other that those complaining are making too much of a fuss, giving in to "hysteria."
Some empathetic voices, such as Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson, did speak out. "They say anti-Semitism is a light sleeper...this is certainly a wake-up call for the Labour party," Watson stated, describing the resignations as a "moment of regret and reflection."
The party's leader was less specific when it came to the anti-Semitism issue.
Jeremy Corbyn’s tweets in response to the resignations expressed “disappointment" and talked about, among other things, the Tory bungling of Brexit. Speaking on Tuesday, he said he regretted the MPs' decision to leave and hoped "they recognize they were elected to Parliament on a [Labour] manifesto."
That was more a call, or threat, for a by-election, to remove their public platform and representative status, than any engagement with the issues the rebels had raised. The word "anti-Semitism" was notably absent in any of his responses for two days after the MPs' exit.
On Wednesday, in Parliament, he finally addressed the issue with a pro forma statement: "Antisemitism has no place whatsoever in any of our political parties...[Labour was taking the] strongest action" against anti-Semitism.
The now-eight ex-Labour rebels (Enfield North MP Joan Ryan joined Tuesday), joined Wednesday by three Conservative MPs, who cited the politics of the current Labour leadership, their facilitation of Brexit and anti-Semitism as reasons for leaving, have been roundly branded as traitors or heroes, depending on which side of the vacuum that is the center ground of British politics you sit on.
When it came to the anti-Semitism accusations, plenty of voices reiterated the gaslighting that has become a ubiquitous function of this prejudice.
Secretary General of the UK’s biggest union, Unite, Len McCluskey, a key Corbyn ally, told the BBC on Monday that "the issue around anti-Semitism" is "grossly unfair" and that "the whole thing is contrived." In a Guardian piece that day, he said the reasons the MPs gave for leaving "do not stand up to scrutiny," that the party was challenging anti-Semitism with "new energy," and bleated: "It is not clear what more Labour is expected to do."
At least he’s consistent: in 2017, McCluskey declared the accusations of anti-Semitism in Labour were just "mood music" created by people who were "trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn,” and that "those who wish to hold Corbyn to account can expect to be held to account themselves."
The youth wing of the Labour Party tweeted, "Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here," in response to the rebels’ departure. Usual suspect Ken "Hitler was a Zionist" Livingstone reiterated his belief that he has never (ever) seen any anti-Semitism in the party (ever).
George Galloway, expelled from Labour in 2003 for calling for the Iraqi resistance to kill British soldiers, who infamously commented on losing his seat in parliament in 2015 that those celebrating his loss were "the venal, the vile, the racists and the Zionists," and this week applied to be re-admitted to the party, opined that the criticism against Corbyn was a "Black Op" and, characteristically, went full-Nazi analogy: it was a "Goebellian lie" to suggest the Labour leader was anti-Semitic.
It did not help matters that, only a few hours after the launch of the "Independent Group," MP Angela Smith "misspoke" (as she put it in a video statement), after appearing to say on live TV that black and minority ethnic people have a "funny tinge."
The efforts of the Corbyn faithful to delegitimize the rebels wholesale for that plainly offensive comment cannot detract from the fact that Berger, who went to Labour's party conference with a police escort last year following death threats, reached a point where she felt she had to resign because of prejudice directed at her.
Berger was not the only Jewish member to announce a resignation on Monday. Adam Langleben, a former Labour councillor in London and senior member of the Jewish Labour Movement, also cited the party becoming "institutionally racist" in his resignation letter.
Corbyn's Labour "has been corrupted and indoctrinated by people who are authoritarian in their approach to politics, encourage democratic structures that lead to bullying mob rule, and above all else, are racist towards Jews," he wrote. "All minorities should, and I believe will eventually have significant reason to worry about your (Jeremy Corbyn's) rise to leadership of the Labour party."
This one episode of the whole anti-Semitism saga is another reminder that not enough people take the concerns of Jews seriously, despite the qualitative and quantitative indicators that anti-Semitism is far from being consigned to the history books.
In the UK, the number of anti-Semitic incidents recorded rose to 1,652 in 2018, marking a new high for the third straight year. According to statistics released last week, France saw a 74 per cent increase in the number of offenses against Jews last year and in Germany, violent anti-Semitic attacks have risen by 60 per cent.
That tangible threat level is complemented by a psychological state of siege, particularly for the Jewish community. A 28-nation Eurobarometer poll last month showed 89 per cent of Jews said anti-Semitism had "significantly increased" in the past five years; the same was true only for 36 per cent of the general public.
The issue of anti-Semitism continues to spike in the news headlines. Both in the UK and across the Atlantic, political debates are replete with is-it-or-isn’t-it discussions of anti-Semitism, amid a broader wave of nativist populism and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The resurgence and coverage of anti-Semitism is a red light. It indicates that what’s going on in Britain is far bigger than the Labour story. It is about a tolerance to prejudiced attitudes that has a long and slippery slope. Beyond the Labour Party, Jews together with other minorities have reason to be worried at growing expressions of bigotry against difference.
On the day of the resignations, the anti-racist group Hope not Hate’s annual "State of Hate" report found that 35 percent of respondents in a UK poll thought Islam was generally a threat to the British way of life. In an increasingly divided Brexit Britain, amid a rise in public xenophobia, the report found that "anti-Muslim hatred has become increasingly mainstreamed, with the conflation of cultural incompatibility and global threat...no longer quarantined to the margins."
If even one member of one of the UK's two major parties explicitly cites intimidation and bullying on account of their culture and ethnic origin as the reason they have to quit their political home, we should all take notice. Those continuing to claim Labour doesn’t have a racism problem, when a Jewish Labour MP sees no option but to quit, is clearly in a deep state of denial.
Can those hardcore deniers honestly imagine Labour’s anti-Semitism saga is just political spin? Or that it’s only a problem for Jews? There’s good reason that anti-Semitism is referred to as the "canary in the mine," an indicator and a warning about the overall state of health of a liberal democracy.
As Joan Ryan put it in her resignation letter: "What starts with Jews never ends with Jews…The mindset, ideology and worldview that tolerates anti-Semitism poses a threat to the British public, Jew and non-Jew alike."
Alona Ferber is a writer and editor based in London
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