UK Politics

Is the Labour Party institutionally anti-semitic?

BY James Bickerton   /  30 July 2018

If you want to avoid being surprised by developments in British politics a good rule is to assume there is no bottom to the Labour Party’s moral and intellectual descent. It’s now four months since Corbyn vowed, under pressure following a row over his past defence of a clearly anti-Semitic East London mural, that the Labour Party would have “zero tolerance” for anti-Semites. Only the most blinkered Corbynite would even attempt to claim he’s been true to his word. Relations between Britain’s mainstream Jewish community and the Labour leadership haven’t just deteriorated further, they’ve all but collapsed. Some senior Jewish figures have taken the extraordinary step of labelling the Labour Party, a supposedly anti-racist organisation, as “institutionally anti-Semitic”.

The current flashpoint is over Labour’s decision to adopt an edited version of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. The full IHRA definition, which has near universal support within Britain’s Jewish community, has been adopted by the UK Government, the Crown Prosecution Service and the European Parliament.

Labour’s governing National Executive Committee however has decided that it knows better and adopted a watered-down definition which removes several examples of what the IHRA deems anti-Semitic conduct. According to Labour’s modified definition it is no longer inherently anti-Semitic to suggest that Jews are more loyal to Israel than their own countries, compare Israel to Nazi Germany or claim the existence of Israel is inherently racist.
To say that this has provoked outrage would be an understatement. The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, the main representative bodies for Jews in the UK, issued a joint statement asserting that it is “impossible to understand why Labour refuses to align itself with this universal definition” and that the Party’s actions “only dilute the definition and further erode the existing lack of confidence that British Jews have in their sincerity to tackle antisemitism”. Jonathan Goldstein, Chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, went further during a community meeting in Manchester when he described Labour as “institutionally anti-Semitic” and stated that “Corbyn does not recognise anti-Semitism. Unfortunately he sees us as the oppressors”.

Three Jewish newspapers, The Jewish Chronicle, Jewish Telegraph and Jewish News, published an unprecedented joint front page claiming that a Corbyn government could pose an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country”. A group of 68 rabbis ranging from liberal to orthodox, who agree about little else, wrote an open letter to The Guardian urging Labour to “listen to the Jewish community” and adopt the full IHRA anti-Semitism definition. Margaret Hodge, the Jewish Labour MP who saw off the BNP’s Nick Griffin in 2010, is now being investigated by her own party after calling Corbyn a “racist and anti-Semite” to his face.

On 19 July I covered a rally in Parliament Square, organised by the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), called in response to the dispute. Truthfully it didn’t attract much media coverage. I suppose British Jews protesting against Labour anti-Semitism lacks the novelty value it had just a few months ago. The rhetoric had become angrier, the sense of hurt more pronounced. At the last CAA rally aimed at the Labour Party attendees carried placards reading “Zero tolerance for Antisemitism”. The same slogan was on display again but it had been joined by an even more striking one; “Labour for the many not the Jew”.

What really shocked me about the rally though were the conversations I had. It’s one thing to be aware that the British hard-left has an anti-Semitism problem in the abstract, quite another to meet people who fear for their future as a result. Several of the attendees told me, some on camera, that either they are planning to leave the UK if Corbyn becomes Prime Minister or they know people who are. One, a student preparing to start university, said that her family have “already said if Corbyn comes to power we’re out”. Another told me that “there’s a lot of people that are planning an exit…they’ve at the moment got one foot in the door and one foot out the door”.

An 18-year-old student, who holds Labour Party membership and has interned with a Labour MP, said that whether to leave or remain if Corbyn becomes PM is “a conversation people have around their dinner tables”. Stephen Silverman, the director of investigations and endorsement at the CAA and one of the rally organisers, claimed it is “almost certain” that some Jews will leave adding “I think those that have the means to leave will”.

Talk of Jews leaving the UK should Labour win a General Election isn’t restricted to those attending rallies against anti-Semitism. Several weeks ago, before the current IHRA definition dispute had even started, I discussed the subject with Daniel Sugarman, a respected Jewish Chronicle journalist. “There are currently roughly around 250,000 Jews in the U.K. I estimate that if Corbyn becomes PM, maybe 10% of the community would leave the UK within the next decade” he argued. He added that “I think antisemitic incidents will skyrocket under a Corbyn government, that a whole bunch of antisemites will feel that they have carte blanche to attack Jews here”.

Even many of those who have stayed within Labour to fight anti-Semitism from the inside admit Labour has an institutional problem. Ewan Philips is a spokesperson for Labour Against Antisemitism, a group of mostly Jewish Labour Party supporters which formed in 2016 to fight anti-Semitism within the Party. When the group started “our initial expectation was that we would pick out the 100 or so very prominent problematic figures…get them reported, the compliance unit would do their think and a message would be sent endorsed by the leadership that anti-Semitism wasn’t welcome”. However “we have no idea what has happened” to the majority of reported members and as a result “It’s clear that Labour is institutionally incapable of dealing with this issue”.

The Labour Party has a proud history of fighting racism in the UK. Perhaps at some future date that reputation will be restored. But at present leading figures within a UK minority community deem the party institutionally racist. Some members of that community are openly admitting that they wouldn’t want to remain in the UK should the Labour Party with its present leadership win a General Election. This may not matter to the hardcore Corbynites. Their idol spent years romping in an anti-Semitic sewer, even if he may not be an anti-Semite himself, and now they are angry that people are complaining about the stench. But it must matter to the rest of us. Jeremy Corbyn once said that “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. In this, if little else, he was right. Should members of a minority community conclude that they can no longer live safely and securely in our country we will all, to some extent, bear the stain.


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