Jeremy Corbyn, Labour and Anti-Semitism: What's Going On?

The party is once again mired in scandal - but the problem pre-dates Corbyn.
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

The latest scandal to engulf the Labour party has seen Jewish leaders label Jeremy Corbyn “a figurehead for anti-semitism in the UK”, with a landmark protest against his leadership due to take place in London today.

The scandal follows the revelations that the Labour leader appeared to defend an offensive anti-Jewish mural pictured on Facebook. However the controversy over anti-semitism is not new for the Labour party; in fact it’s a long-running problem that cuts across the entire spectrum of British politics.

On Sunday, a vocal contingent of anti-semitic Labour supporters started posting under the hashtag #PredictTheNextCorbynSmear on Twitter, mocking accusations that the party had a problem with anti-semitism and claiming the complaints were merely an attempt to undermine Corbyn’s leadership.

For the Jewish community, the latest controversy is just another sign that there are no longer any “safe spaces online or in meetings for Jewish people within the Labour Party”, Jonathan Goldstein, the Jewish Leadership Council’s chairman, told the BBC on Monday.

The Jewish Leadership Council have announced that they will march to Parliament today to deliver a letter accusing Corbyn of “again and again, siding with anti-semites” – the first time in a generation the Council has protested a major British political party.

Though Corbyn was forced to apologise, and reiterate that his party does not tolerate any form of anti-semitism, many MPs, Labour party members and political commentators have voiced frustration on the lack of progress on this issue.

The issue of anti-semitism within Labour has been a long-running problem for the party.

In 2016, Corbyn asked the human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti to conduct an inquiry into anti-semitism in Labour. Chakrabarti, who is now Labour’s shadow Attorney General, concluded that the party was “not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism”.

Yet at the launch event for the report itself, Labour MP Ruth Smeeth felt she had to leave the meeting after being subjected to anti-semitic accusations from a Momentum activist in the audience.

A separate report from the Commons Home Affairs Committee the same year issued a stark warning:

“The failure of the Labour Party to deal consistently and effectively with anti-Semitic incidents in recent years risks lending force to allegations that elements of the Labour movement are institutionally anti-Semitic.”

Ken Livingstone, the former London mayor, was suspended from the party in 2016 for repeatedly using TV interviews to say Hitler supported Zionism – a false claim he repeated as recently as last week.

Told by Chuka Umunna he had become a “pin-up” for antisemitism during heated exchanges with MPs, Livingstone claimed it was actually “embittered” Labour parliamentarians who were using the issue to try and damage Corbyn.

Since Corbyn became Labour leader, MPs in his party have voiced concerned over a rise in anti-semitic abuse on social media.

Leeds MP Alex Sobel was told his story about his family’s experience of the Holocaust was “b******s* fake news”.

Smeeth has described how she has received 25,000 pieces of anti-semitic abuse over the course of one summer, and had to seek police protection.

Lucia Berger, MP for Liverpool Wavertree, has published some examples of the abuse she receives.

However, the issue pre-dates Corbyn’s leadership.

Comedy writer Sara Gibbs used a Twitter thread on Sunday to explain her experience of antisemitism when she was a 12-year-old Labour Party activist in 2008.

While not the mainstream of the party, a strain of antisemitism has long been present within Labour, just as in society.

The Labour Herald newspaper, published in the 1980s with Ken Livingstone as editor, was accused of antisemitism. In one issue it featured a cartoon of Menachem Begin, then the Israeli Prime Minister, as a Nazi.

And as Dave Rich noted, as far back as in 1891, the Labour Leader newspaper “a hooked-nosed Rothschild” was at work “wherever there is trouble in Europe”.

And it’s not just a Labour problem...

In 2017, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron banned former Bradford East MP David Ward from standing for re-election to parliament for making “deeply offensive, wrong and anti-semitic” comments.

Jenny Tonge, an ex-Lib Dem peer, quit the party in 2016 after she was suspended over alleged anti-semitic comments. She had a long history of criticising of Israel.

In 2004 she was sacked from the party’s front bench by then leader Charles Kennedy for suggesting she would become a suicide bomber if she was Palestinian.

Ukip’s youth wing were revealed in 2016 to use a closed Facebook group to post Islamophobic, homophobic and anti-semitic comments – and the party’s former leader, Nigel Farage, was sharply criticised recently for claiming “a powerful Jewish lobby” was operating in the United States.

In 2014 Tory MP Aidan Burley was accused of antisemitism for holding a Nazi-themed stag party in France, however an internal party inquiry concluded the incident was “stupid and offensive”, but not racist.


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