Anti-Semitism in the UK Labour Party: An ideal case study

The forthcoming investigation of Labour by the Equality and Human Rights Commission is likely to provide one of history’s most profound analyses of anti-Semitism within a single organization.

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the #StopTrident rally at Trafalgar Square, on Feb. 27, 2016. Credit: Garry Knight via Wikimedia Commons.
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the #StopTrident rally at Trafalgar Square, on Feb. 27, 2016. Credit: Garry Knight via Wikimedia Commons.
Manfred Gerstenfeld. Credit: BESA Center.
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ is a senior research associate at the BESA Center and a former chairman of the Steering Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He specializes in Israeli-Western European relations, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and is the author of “The War of a Million Cuts.”

Anti-Semitism is rising in much of the Western world. If one wishes to study within a single organization the many facets of contemporary hate promotion and identify ways to fight against it, nothing in Europe can rival the British Labour Party.

The main enabler of anti-Semitism in Labour is Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader since 2015. He has called representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas “brothers” and “friends.” Corbyn made donations to one Holocaust denier and welcomed another. He is a long-time anti-Israel inciter, and he and his close assistants are deliberately hindering the expulsion of anti-Semites from the party. The Sunday Times claimed that Corbyn’s office has been involved in delaying or blocking at least 101 such complaints.

There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of anti-Semitism in Labour. As soon as an apparently complete picture of the problem starts to take shape, massive new stores of data emerge.

In March 2019, British scholar Alan Johnson, a Labour member, published a 135-page report that concluded that the party is institutionally anti-Semitic. Johnson divided anti-Semitism in Labour into three categories: the socialism of fools, classic racial anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism.

In May, Labour Against Antisemitism, an activist campaigns, submitted a file to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a public body established by the Equality Act of 2006. The file contained 15,000 screenshots showing examples of alleged anti-Semitism in Labour.

Later in May, it became known that approximately 100,000 emails and WhatsApp messages from within Labour—collected by former party officials—would be submitted to the EHRC. This body, which has already undertaken the first step of a statutory inquiry into Labour’s handling of anti-Sunited kemitism complaints, has decided to open a full inquiry into Labour. This kind of investigation of a party has only happened once before. In 2010, the small cryptofascist British National party (BNP) was found guilty of racism.

The EHRC report on Labour may take up to two years to complete. It is likely to provide one of the most profound analyses of anti-Semitism within a single organization in history.

The Labour Party is also a good subject for those that wish to study the whitewashing of anti-Semitism. The focus here would be on Labour members who have made anti-Semitic slurs but have not been expelled. There is also the problem of individuals who target those who expose anti-Semitism within the party.

Jews themselves are particularly useful in the whitewashing of anti-Semitism. The Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), for example, is a small organization that supports Corbyn. Its secretary, Glyn Secker, addressed a pro-Palestinian rally in London, where he said the Jewish Labour Movement and Jewish MP Dame Margaret Hodge are a fifth column inside Labour. “Jews are in the gutter with these rats,” he added.

Rhea Wolfson is one of two Jews in Labour’s governing body, the National Executive Committee. She wrote in June 2018: “I’ve had the honor of working closely with Jeremy Corbyn, one of the most principled people in politics. … Anyone who knows, has met, or worked with Jeremy Corbyn, as I have, knows that he does not have a prejudicial bone in his body, and is utterly committed to tackling anti-Semitism, as he is against all forms of discrimination and oppression, which he has fought against all his life. My commitment to Labour is unwavering and I am proud of the work that Jeremy is doing to tackle anti-Semitism in politics and wider society.”

Wolfson’s praises notwithstanding, the general British public does not believe Corbyn will end Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis. Fifty percent of all voters agreed in May 2019 that Labour has a problem with anti-Jewish racism, up from 43 percent in a similar poll in February of this year. The number of people who deny that Labour has such a problem fell from 23 percent in February to 18 percent in May.

Yet another major area worthy of research is the overlap in Labour between anti-Israel inciters and whitewashers of anti-Semitism. One example: former Labour Minister Clare Short wrote on her blog in July 2016, “The charge of antisemitism used against members of the Labour party critical of Israel is a ploy to detract from Israel’s breaches of international law.”

Labour also offers what might be called the “smokescreening” of the anti-Semitism issue, a subject rarely researched.

The party’s leaders do not say, “We protect anti-Semites, whom we consider valuable to the party.” On the contrary: Corbyn has on many occasions said the party will stamp out anti-Semitism. When Jennie Formby became Labour’s general secretary at the beginning of 2018, she promised complaints would be dealt with in a few months. Many cases remain unprocessed, and new ones kept emerging.

In February 2019 she said that anti-Semitism cannot be stamped out totally: “I don’t think anyone can ever say that we can eradicate anti-Semitism completely and stop every single person … every single day someone else could join the party tomorrow and do something.”

Whether this is true or not, it is a marginal issue. The essence of the problem concerns anti-Semitic remarks by current party members, some of whom have belonged to it for years.

It is important to note that there have been significant reactions against anti-Semitism in Labour, and its flawed handling of the problem, from within the party. The strongest internal force fighting anti-Semitism is the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), which has been part of Labour for almost 100 years. However, even the JLM used a smokescreening euphemism about Corbyn. It issued a statement to the effect that it has lost all confidence in Corbyn’s ability to kick racists out of the party. Corbyn is not, however, unable to do so. He in fact prefers to keep certain anti-Semites in the party. The JLM stopped short of making this clear.

Another interesting action against anti-Semitism within Labour was the decision by former prime minister Gordon Brown, who is not Jewish, to join the JLM out of solidarity as an affiliate member. So too did Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. Many senior Labour personalities have come out against anti-Semitism in the party, including former prime minister Tony Blair and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls.

The Labour anti-Semitism scandal has aspects that go beyond the party. Labour is an observer in Socialist International (SI), an organization of social democratic, socialist and Labour parties that brings together 147 political parties and organizations from around the globe. It claims to favor progressive policies in a fairer world.

The SI has a detailed ethical charter that includes a “total commitment to the values of equality and solidarity.” It respects the rights of minorities and individuals. By not acting against Labour, the SI leadership and its members make themselves complicit with that party’s institutional anti-Semitism. They cannot claim ignorance, as SI’s office is in London.

Research into anti-Semitism is very much a work in progress. As the mainstream media continue to take an interest in anti-Semitism developments in the Labour Party, many more insights should come to light.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ is a senior research associate at the BESA Center and a former chairman of the Steering Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He specializes in Israeli-Western European relations, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and is the author of “The War of a Million Cuts.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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