This weekend the Labour Party’s annual conference in Brighton will see supporters come together to shape the future of the party and the country thereafter. Labour’s core message of social justice should characterise the conference and this must include an open discussion about the antisemitism that has tainted Labour’s reputation for representing minorities.
A new report by The Institute of Jewish Policy Research has found that one in four Brits exhibits antisemitic attitudes. On the surface this seems shocking, disgusting, but on the whole, pretty unbelievable. Do one in four of our friends really show an ignorant disregard, or worse, disgust, for an entire group, race or religion?
Except these statistics are no surprise for British Jews who have been trying to engage with the Labour Party over the last few years. They come as just one more nail in the coffin for left-wing Jews, as we try in vain to convince our friends and neighbours that Labour is still an important force for change for Jews and every other minority.
Last fortnight the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) held their first conference in over one hundred years. During this meeting of 200 like-minded left-wing Jews, it became apparent how pressing the issue of antisemitism is.
Antisemitism is no longer dressed up in a Nazi uniform, but its quiet pervasiveness still slides into our democratic spaces, hissing through the radio and slithering over YouTube. The use of Israel as a reflective device whenever the cry of antisemitism is heard means charges of antisemitism are delegitimised. Academic David Hirsh calls this “presumption of Zionist bad faith” the Livingstone Formulation.
Last summer’s scandal, when Ken Livingstone equated Hitler and Zionism, is still very much playing at people’s fears. Livingstone linked Hitler’s mission to exterminate a race with a fully separate operation that was to save those same Jews. He then failed entirely to see why he had offended Jews. The subsequent enquiry was thin and empty of examples of antisemitism. Fundamentally, Jeremy Corbyn failed to give a speedy and sincere apology, instead deploring “all forms of racism”. This was wrong because Hitler’s Holocaust was clearly one committed against the Jews. Corbyn needed to make this distinction because we all know he is not a racist; but it is specifically antisemitism that has begun to take a back seat. The conference this weekend would be an ideal time for him to clarify this.
Somehow, we as Jews are not allowed the title of minority, and antisemitism, as a crime, is not taken seriously. Why on earth would we need the Labour leader to defend us when people still believe the age-old conspiracy that all Jews are rich, successful and powerful? The answer is simple; the Labour Party should be a home for everyone, particularly those who feel oppressed. They are the party that promotes tolerance and equality and must therefore crush antisemitism. Last year the leader of JLM was heckled at the national conference for voicing these concerns, and yet nothing has changed.
Inevitably the question of antisemitism does involve Israel. Hostility to Israel is, for some, just as important a marker for belonging on the left as deploring racism is. The particular connection between Jews and Israel means an intense Jewish interest in Israel is understandable. It is when this overt concern is adopted by the mainstream, who chose to prioritise Israeli human rights abuses over all other global issues, that their righteous intentions start to look antisemitic.
Crucially, and uniquely to Israel, is a conflation with the Israeli government’s atrocities and Israel as a legitimate state. Where else do you have people questioning a country’s right to exist? The Institute of Jewish Policy found clear evidence in its report that “the higher the level of anti-Israel attitudes measured, the more likely they are to hold antisemitic views as well”. But the report also found that the “very right-wing” were nearly four times more likely to be antisemitic than the rest of the population. Once Corbyn addresses the antisemitism in his own party, then we can tackle the racist right.
Try as we might to ensure antisemitism does not define us, Jews on the left need our party to support us. If Labour continues to present itself as hostile to Jews then antisemitism will ripen. With this will come a violent attitude towards Israel that will damage the peace process. Once Labour has opened its arms to Jews then we can start improving our ties with the progressive Israeli left. Until that point, any British left-wing arguments about Israel will be one-sided and exclusionary. Furthermore, the underlying antisemitism on the right will continue to simmer unnoticed.
This weekend Jeremy Corbyn needs to reiterate his support for the Jewish community. Then he must expel Ken Livingstone for good, and finally, he should visit Israel. Until he is seen to be on our side against the antisemites, British left-wing Jews won’t be able to contribute to the party.
Seventy years ago Israel was established with clear Socialist principles but before that the JLM was a fundamental force in the Labour Party for over a century. Our contribution to the Labour Party is important and we have a lot to give.
Labour will cease to be the party we all know and love if one minority does not feel safe to contribute. Crucially it is also deepening the chasm for antisemitism to grow in the UK generally. If the Labour Party cannot combat its internal issue of antisemitism, then it will eventually fall into irrelevance entirely and the millions of British Jews, who need Labour just as every minority needs the party, will have nowhere to turn.
There does not have to be a wandering Jew among British political parties because the Labour Party is our natural home – we just need to feel welcomed back.