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Naz Shah Has an Opportunity to Make a Real and Much-Needed Contribution to Tackling Anti-Semitism on the Left

28/04/2016 10:44 | Updated 28 April 2016

On the scale of political mea culpas, Naz Shah's can be filed in the category marked 'fulsome'. It may have taken three attempts but her apology to the Jewish community, as revealed by Jewish News, was at least a marked improvement on the first 24 hours earlier. I'm certainly not aware of any such frank words of remorse from other figures suspended in recent weeks.

And it had to be; it's a long way back from revelations that a serving MP in a country which proudly points to its diverse makeup could think it appropriate to endorse the "transportation" of Israelis or even conceive of posting an article likening Zionism to al-Qaeda. And that's before we even start on the wilful blindness of her comments to the 20% of Arab citizens living in Israel. Frankly, it's not particularly relevant that the comments were made two years ago.

However, if she means everything she says - it seems sincere even if some will question if the only thing she is sorry about is being caught - then this could be an opportunity both for her and the fight against anti-Semitism. All the more so if she is willing to publicly acknowledge the particularly problem on the British left, as some reports have suggested.

If she does increase her engagement with Anglo-Jewry. If that leads to an increased understanding of what constitutes anti-Semitism and how all too often those who see themselves as pro-Palestinian activists trample over the line into Jew hate. And, moreover, if she is then willing to be a player in fighting it in areas others can't reach; on the left, in Muslim communities and beyond, this chance must not be wasted.

Even before this episode, she had started to associate more with the Jewish community, including her local synagogue and with Reform senior Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, whose interfaith event marking Passover she attended just last week. Such measured voices - along with those of the likes of the Jewish Labour Movement - could have an impact. It was interesting to note that fellow MP, Tory Andrew Percy, who also attended that seder, was a rare voice on the Tory benches in being prepared to accept the apology.

To remove the whip at this point, as has now happened, could backfire. It could send Shah into the arms of some of those she has clearly associated with before, and worse. It could cause someone who at least is talking a good game to be lost to reason and balance for good. If this was a factor in the hesitancy of some to call for the whip to be removed (even the Board of Deputies, which has hardly been shy on the issue of anti-Semitism in Labour, didn't call for this) it would not be unreasonable. But though a decision on action may not have been as clear cut as some made out, that is not to excuse the lengthy period it took for any word of condemnation from the leader.

BUT - and there's a sizeable but - this danger became secondary to the impact inaction from the party was doing to the already fractious relationship with the Jewish community and to confidence that the leadership's message of zero tolerance will be applied regardless of a perpetrator's position in the party, whether you're a regular member, a councillor or, in this case, an MP. Continued inaction would have ensured that whatever efforts are made by the party to address the scourge, whenever Corbyn and his top team speak out as they have on numerous occasions in recent weeks, was likely to be met with cries of: "What about Naz Shah?".

To put it bluntly, a relationship that is already hanging by a thread simply couldn't afford this. The Jewish community doesn't ask for special treatment. It just asks to be treated the same as any community.

It's not often that the many on the left and right are on the same page. But as this story moved into its second day, leading voices like Owen Jones were united with Tory MPs. The suspension that came on Wednesday evening was necessary for the good of the relationship with Labour and to send out a clear message; it was in the end the only possible course of action.

Bizarrely, as the wider issue of her position in Labour dominated, questions over her status on the home office inquiry into anti-Semitism remain unanswered. In many ways the resolution to that should be more clear cut; her involvement in the short term appears untenable.

Her suspension however need not be permanent; I realise I risk an online lynching for saying this but the door should be left ajar and the opportunity given for the Bradford West MP to prove she is as serious about her journey as those who know her seem to believe. Call me naive, but it's hard to deny that it's not by talking just to those whose views we share that we'll make a significant difference.

But this must be seen as just the start of a process. If she is serious, she will appreciate that retaining the whip and the status quo was not in the interests of herself, her party or its ties with the Jewish community. If, despite the disciplinary process, she acts on her words to enhance her efforts with the community, we should all sit up and take notice.

Going forward, she has an opportunity to make a real and much-needed contribution. Over to you, Naz Shah.

But there is a far bigger issue here about anti-Semitism on the left, and Corbyn couldn't be better placed to play a role in addressing it. Let me be clear: I always strongly counter the occasional suggestion I hear that he himself could be anti-Semitic and he has indeed acted swiftly to suspend several members, some before the media got to the story. But he can do a lot more, including backing proposals for a change in Labour's rules to make it easier to throw out racists. And many might suggest the leader could do worse than follow Shah by acknowledging past mistakes - in his case around the language used about terror groups and extremists who have espoused anti-Semitic views - as well as her reported explicit recognition of the source of the hate laid bare in recent weeks. Now that really could make a dent in the prevailing narrative, start to make a difference to the relationship with Labour and just maybe to the fight against the new anti-Semitism.

There could be few greater prizes for a man who is proud of his and his family's credentials in opposing racism. In his own way, therefore, he too has a golden opportunity.

Justin Cohen is the news editor of Jewish News, and a paper reviewer for BBC News and LBC

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