(May 6, 2016 / JNS) Jewish leaders in the United Kingdom have voiced their displeasure with the Labour Party amid an anti-Semitism scandal within its ranks that continues to engulf the country’s second-largest party. With the reported suspension of at least 50 Labour members for anti-Semitic comments over the past two months, British-Jewish voters are also indicating that the scandal may have damaged their perception of the liberal party.
Although the Labour Party’s candidate for London mayor, Sadiq Khan, defeated Conservative Party candidate Zac Goldsmith in the city’s May 5 election, results from other local and regional elections around the U.K. on the same day showed losses for the Labour Party among Jewish voters, including in Manchester, home to the country’s second-largest Jewish community. Officials in other regions with major Jewish communities—such as Glasgow, Scotland—indicated similar results.
In the aftermath of the anti-Semitism scandal, a poll conducted by Survation and published May 4 in the London Jewish Chronicle showed that 38.5 percent of British-Jewish respondents believe there are high levels of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and only 8.5 percent of Jewish voters polled said they would vote for Labour if there were a general election held at this time. Just 20 percent of respondents said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s effort to address the problem has been “good.”
Some skeptics, however, have described the anti-Semitism accusations as a witch-hunt instigated to damage Khan, who will now become London’s first Muslim mayor.
“There could be a political element linked to the election—on the other hand, it was also an excellent moment to raise the issue to the public’s attention,” Jonathan Walker, president of the U.K.-based Anglo-Jewish Association, told JNS.org. “The underlying exposure of disgraceful behavior has not been manufactured.”
The anti-Semitism scandal first came to light when the Guido Fawkes website reported about a social media post made by Labour MP Naz Shah suggesting that Israel be relocated to the United States as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shah apologized for the remark, but was subsequently suspended by the Labour Party.
In an attempt to defend Shah, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone told BBC Radio that Hitler “was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.” Livingstone later claimed he was simply quoting historical facts, but he was also suspended.
“During the 1930s—before the Holocaust—Hitler’s policy was to put severe economic and social pressure on German Jews to leave the country. The fact that some of those Jews went to British Mandatory Palestine did not mean Hitler was a ‘Zionist,’ and the fact that some of them went to the United States or England did not mean Hitler was pro-American or pro-British,” Dr. Rafael Medoff, founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, told JNS.org.
A YouGov survey conducted in the wake of Livingstone’s initial controversial remark showed that while not all British respondents believe Livingstone is anti-Semitic, 45 percent said the Labour Party made the right move by suspending him. While some defenders of Livingstone have said that he had simply made a clumsily worded point, James Sorene—chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (BICOM), an independent research organization focused on Israel and the Middle East that supports a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—told JNS.org he believes Livingstone ”knew exactly what he was doing.”
Sorene explained that Zionism is the movement for “the national liberation of the Jewish people … from hundreds of years of persecution,” whereas Livingstone’s remark was intended to twist the definition on its head by claiming, “the Zionists were so bad that Hitler even worked with them.”
Livingstone then gave an interview on May 3 to an Arabic language TV station based in London, revealed by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), in which he repeated similar claims and blamed terrorism by the Islamic State on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. In an interview with the BBC TWO on May 6, Livingstone called the controversy over his views “anti-Semitism nonsense.”
Meanwhile, the suspensions of Shah and Livingstone have been followed by additional suspensions of many other Labour MPs and local councillors for similar remarks—with a significant portion of them being Muslims.
“It is a matter of record, which some commentators have said, that there is a problem of anti-Semitism in the [U.K.’s] Muslim community, that it isn’t challenged enough [and is] too freely expressed,” Sorene said. Additionally, there has been “a long process” on the far left in British society that has isolated Israel as “a unique evil in the world” due to a perspective that divides the world between imperialists/colonialists and the oppressed, he explained. Those who espouse this view cannot “believe that Jews could ever have been the victims, either throughout history or in the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he added.
Ever since the 9/11 terror attacks and the West’s subsequent wars on terror in the Middle East, many people on the British political left—who are opposed to those wars and believed in liberal values such as freedom from what they consider to be oppression and racism—have found themselves in the company of Islamic extremists on those issues. This trend has been exacerbated by escalations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the years.
Mike Katz, a Labour candidate for the London Assembly and national vice chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, told JNS.org that the recent discourse over anti-Semitism could be traced to the party’s internal elections in September 2015, which along with the election of Corbyn as party leader brought in many new activists into the party from the far left. As a result, “statistically speaking there are bound to be more obnoxious views,” said Katz. Corbyn has controversially called the Hamas and Hezbollah terror groups “friends,” and has admitted to attending “two or three” events hosted by a Holocaust denier.
On May 4 in the House of Commons, British Prime Minister David Cameron asked Corbyn on three separate occasions to say Hamas and Hezbollah are “not his friends,” but Corbyn refused.
“He just said any racist or anti-Semitic group are not [friends], but couldn’t speak their names in this context,” the Anglo-Jewish Association’s Walker told JNS.org.
While Khan, London’s mayor-elect, has been vocally critical of the anti-Semitism scandal, he was also forced to defend his track record this week as a moderate Muslim candidate due to the surfacing of a remark he made in a video interview calling moderate Muslims “uncle Toms.”
Critics of the outrage over Labour anti-Semitism have said the comments by Labour members were intended as legitimate criticism of Israeli policies, a view that BICOM’s Sorene sees as “the biggest misconception of the entire issue.”
“You can criticize Israel and the Israeli government, you can talk about what the Israeli army might or might not be doing, but from our perspective once you start trying to portray the existence of Israel as a crime, once you start blanket denial of the Jewish people’s right to self determination, and [espouse] dangerous fantasies about Israel no longer existing….then that does become anti-Semitism,” he said.
The same YouGov poll that examined public perception of Livingstone following his comment on Hitler and Zionism also found that 53 percent of British respondents believe that hating Israel and questioning its right to exist is anti-Semitic.
Sorene said that “in refuting the anti-Semitism of some of these [Labour] individuals, [those who dismiss the scandal] then echo the worst kind of Jewish conspiracy theories of historical anti-Semitism” by saying that the controversy was “cooked up behind the scenes by the all-powerful Jewish, Zionist, Israel lobby that controls everything.” Such critics of the outrage have “so little sense of self-criticism or self-awareness” that they “prove the point that the rest of society is trying to make about them,” he added.
Katz agreed, calling the widespread outrage on Livingstone’s comments “heartening” and praising the “clarity” among most of the British public “that he shouldn’t have said what he said and that he had gone too far.” In particular, Katz noted the role of Jon Lansman, a Jewish Labour activist and a close ally of Corbyn, who recently told The Guardian that Livingstone should leave politics “altogether.”
Simon Johnson, leader of the Jewish Leadership Council—a British umbrella group for Jewish organizations, charities, and religious groups—told JNS.org that despite the “unsettling” existence of individuals with anti-Semitic views in the Labour Party, he does not believe the party itself is “institutionally racist or anti-Semitic.”
“It is wrong to assume that these views are only held within one political party. This terrible issue is a poison throughout our wider society and sadly transcends all class, social, and political boundaries,” Johnson said.
“We need to make sure that anti-Semitism is rooted out wherever it is found,” he said, adding that the U.K.’s Jewish community “will be watching very carefully the outcomes” of the various inquiries that have been set up to tackle the issue in the Labour Party.
Despite some disappointing results for the Labour Party among Jewish voters, the Jewish Labour Movement’s Katz dismissed the notion that “you can’t possibly be Jewish and be involved in Labour now.”
“Of course you can,” he said, “because you need to support friends and colleagues within Labour who are supportive of Israel and the Jews.”
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