Two things have now become clear regarding Labour’s anti-Semitism controversy. First, it is being used to provide rocket fuel for a split in the party and, second, it is being prolonged and intensified when it might otherwise be resolved.
Neither of these developments are necessary or desirable. Both risk polluting our politics to the detriment of all those involved and to our wider national life. And both compromise our ability to handle an important issue – eradicating anti-Semitism – by subordinating it to other agendas.
Chuka Umunna’s article this week was an exercise in Blairite triangulation – and cynicism. He equates Tory anti-Muslim racism with alleged “institutional anti-Semitism” in Labour, despite providing no serious evidence that the latter exists.
He alleges that the party is taking no action against members accused of anti-Semitism when he knows that is not the case, and contrasts this with the examples of Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin, asserting that disciplinary proceedings were taken against them because they “complained” about anti-Semitism, when he knows that in fact the issue was the alleged shouting of abuse. He does not mention that the investigation into Ms Hodge has been ended.
Umunna attacks the Shadow Cabinet for not having “got a grip” when he knows perfectly well that these are matters for the National Executive of the party, which has repeatedly addressed them, and without specifying what getting a grip might amount to.
Still more cynically, he then aligns anti-Semitism with opposition to the USA, capitalism and the “so-called business-owning class”, as if the latter was a figment of people’s imagination. To suggest that opposition to Trump‘s America, or to capitalism in the tenth year of a global slump is anti-Semitic is, to coin a phrase, a smear unworthy of any serious politician.
And the point of all this nonsense? People are being “pushed to breaking point”, neither major party has “the authority to lead the country” and “we cannot go on like this”. Instead “we have to build in every community a different kind of politics that can unite the nation.” There is little doubt who Chuka Umunna sees leading this initiative, but he clearly does not see a Labour government as its expression.
Given the paucity of evidence that he actually produces to sustain his charge that he is a member of an “institutionally anti-Semitic” party, it is fair to ask whether Umunna is merely exploiting the latest episode to justify his moves to breakaway from Labour, the plotting for which has been widely reported elsewhere.
If this is his motive for inflating and maintaining this row – which is not manufactured but has certainly been wildly exaggerated by now, I am at a loss to understand the motives of the leadership of the Jewish community – the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Jewish Labour Movement.
They raised entirely proper concerns, but have simply refused to take “yes” for an answer. Let’s look at the record:
- The Jewish community demanded, rightly, that Corbyn apologise for the undeniable fact that some Party members have expressed blatantly anti-Semitic views. He has done.
- It demanded, rightly, that he apologise for those of his own actions, like appearing to endorse an anti-Semitic mural, which has caused inadvertent hurt to the community. He has done.
- It demanded that he commit to the security of the Jewish community and its life in Britain. He has done, in the most emphatic terms.
- It demanded that he acknowledge the roots of contemporary anti-Semitism on the left. He has done, in his Evening Standard article back in April.
- It demanded that Labour’s rules be changed to explicitly outlaw anti-Semitism. This was done, under Corbyn’s leadership, last year.
- It demanded action in a number of high-profile cases allegedly connected to anti-Semitism. Three have been resolved, only one remains outstanding.
- It demanded faster handling of complaints against Party members accused of anti-Semitism. Many more have now been processed, and more staff have been engaged to clear the backlog.
- It demanded that Jeremy Corbyn make it clear in his own voice that any of his supporters engaging in such abuse did not do so in his name. He has done.
- It demanded that he defend those MPs and others raising the issue from the charge that they were engaging in “smears”. He has done.
And he has done more. Corbyn has explicitly recognised the connection most British Jews feel to Israel, and he has urged all Labour supporters to show greater empathy towards a community which has suffered so extraordinarily so relatively recently.
What is the response from the leading Jewish community organisations to this record of reaching out, of understanding, and of action? Intransigent hostility and an utter refusal to engage in dialogue about building on what has been done and resolving outstanding difficulties.
Indeed, the more Labour has addressed legitimate worries, the more Corbyn has personally sought to build bridges, the worse the rhetoric has become. Three Jewish newspapers have accused him of representing “an existential threat to Jewish life” in Britain, a thoroughly irresponsible act of fear-mongering which has provoked dissent from a senior editor at one of the papers concerned. And the president of the Board of Deputies has engaged in petulant trolling of Corbyn, accusing him of going “into hiding” because he took a four-day holiday in Somerset in August!
I am a leader and I answer to those I represent. I also have a responsibility for the standing of my organisation in the wider national community. I know that I don’t always get it right, and also that prolonging a wrong course only deepens the damage.
I therefore appeal to the leadership of the Jewish community to abandon their truculent hostility, engage in dialogue and dial down the rhetoric, before the political estrangement between them and the Labour Party becomes entrenched. Surely a community leadership which had time to publicly challenge the BBC over a news headline critical of the Israeli Defence Forces in Gaza has the time to meet the Leader of the Opposition?
And let’s look at the one genuine question still unresolved - the definition Labour should use of anti-Semitism, a sensitive issue not just for the Jewish community but for all those concerned about Palestinian rights too.
Clearly, it would have been far better for the party to have adopted at least ten of the eleven IHRA examples in their original wording. Not doing so - and particularly without adequate consultation - was insensitive and bound to lead to misunderstanding, and also served to distract attention from the real issues at stake. It would be for the best if all eleven were now agreed, so the party can move on.
However, we should not deceive ourselves that there are no free-speech problems with the eleventh example, concerning “Israel as a racist endeavour”. That very example has been explicitly cited by pro-Israel campaigners, including Labour MPs, in urging the government to ban “Israeli apartheid” events at colleges. The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee expressed free speech concerns about it too.
There are many Jewish people who are deeply hostile to the Israeli government’s continued policy of expansionism and its denial of equal rights to Israeli Arabs and other minorities. The recent nation state law in Israel is an outrage that has gone without comment from so many who engage in criticism of Corbyn. These concerns must be heard without fear of being branded.
It is also a fact that one of the authors of the IHRA examples, Kenneth Stern, gave chapter and verse to the US Congress last year as to how they were being used to intimidate legitimate pro-Palestine campaigners. He also warned that the examples were only ever intended to assist in data-gathering, and were not suitable for the legal or disciplinary purposes for which some now try to use it. In that context, it is notable that there has been silence from the communal leadership over Jeremy Corbyn’s statement that while it is wrong to say “Zionism is racism” - it is also wrong to brand anti-Zionists as racist on that basis alone. Do the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Labour Movement agree? I am none the wiser for reading their responses to Jeremy.
The three Jewish newspapers, in their provocative editorial, warn that full adoption of the IHRA examples would lead to possibly thousands of expulsions from the Labour Party, a prospect they appeared to welcome. Labour needs to take all that into account when it adopts the final version of its Code. While rooting out the anti-Semites, we cannot descend into a vortex of McCarthyism, however much Labour’s opponents might enjoy the spectacle.
Given good will and a willingness to listen, could a way through be found that respects different views on Israel’s foundation and history and allows it to be debated without every expression of opinion leaving people open to disciplinary action? Of course. But it takes two sides for that dialogue to continue.
So let us now move to put this row behind us. Let Labour complete the measures it has pledged to meet the concerns of the Jewish community as rapidly as possible. Let the leadership of the Jewish community grasp the hand stretched out towards them.
And let those few Labour MPs looking to break away from the party do so on an honest basis, embracing capitalism, the free market and the alliance with Trump’s America, and not pretend that Labour is something it is not, an institutionally racist party.
Len McCluskey is the general secretary of Unite