The Intolerant Left? Labour’s Anti-Semitism Problem

On March 26th, hundreds of people, including Labour MPs, protested against anti-semitism within the Labour Party and the handling of anti-semitism by leader Jeremy Corbyn. However, this protest is just the most recent in a history of allegations of anti-semitism and an avoidance of addressing this issue within the Labour Party.

Historically the Labour Party was seen as the political party most supported by British Jews, however in from the 1980s onwards this idea changed as the Labour Party’s views were seen as becoming anti-semitic. Dave Rich, who studies anti-semitism in the Labour Party, suggests that anti-semitic ideas grew from the change in attitude to Israel and Zionism which began in the 1980s. The pro-Palestine cause gained strength and support from the youth members of the party, and was then embraced as a stance of the Labour Party. However, it is not until the past five years that anti-semitic views have been brought to the foreground and publicly challenged by party members.

Jeremy Corbyn at the Labour Party General Election Launch 2017. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Sophie Brown.

In 2016, two prominent Labour party members were suspended over claims of anti-semitism. In April, Naz Shah MP was suspended over Facebook posts from 2014, and the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, was suspended in the same month for a radio interview in which he said Adolf Hitler “was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews”. Whilst Shah was reinstated as an MP later in the year, Livingstone’s suspension is indefinite and it seems unlikely that he will be reinstated. In both instances, anti-semitism was claimed over statements referring to Israel and Zionism, issues which are often brought up in the Labour Party. Naz Shah is not the only member of the Labour Party whose suspension was lifted; at least 10 local councillors or candidates for a local council seat have had their anti-semitism linked suspension lifted. In England, the local government elections will be held on May 3rd, and it is likely that formally suspended members of the Labour Party will be elected for local council seats.

In response to pressure from within the party, Corbyn called for the Chakrabarti Inquiry, which has investigated the allegations of anti-semitism within the Labour Party. The investigation resulted in a number of recommendations for the party and ultimately came to the conclusion that although the party was not “overrun by anti-semitism”, there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” and “clear evidence of ignorant attitudes”. However, there have been doubts about the authenticity of this inquiry as Shami Chakrabarti, the barrister who carried out the inquiry, became a Labour Party member in May 2016, and was the only Labour appointment to the House of Lords in July 2016. Despite the Chakrabarti Inquiry, there has continued to be anti-semitism allegations throughout the party, and the response from Labour is yet to improve. Furthermore, many of the accused members have stated that they believe the accusations of anti-semitism to be an attempt to dissuade or distract from the issues raised by the Labour Party regarding Israel and Palestine. Others have said that they consider the allegations to be an attack on Corbyn and his known socialist beliefs.

One of the most divisive issues with this issue has been the lack of action by Corbyn and the Labour Party. This can be seen in the suspension, and subsequent lifting of suspension, for many of the party members accused of holding anti-semitic beliefs. Despite Corbyn repeated stating that there is no place for anti-semitism or racism within the Labour Party, many Jewish campaigners see this as merely a statement, with no identifiable actions to stop it. Momentum, the grassroots organisation set up in 2015 to support Corbyn, released a statement on social media about their thoughts and solutions to the anti-semitism problem. They state that anti-semitism accusations should not be considered as ‘right-wing smears’, and that these views are part of an ‘unconscious bias which manifests itself in varied, nuanced and subtle ways and is more widespread in the Labour Party’. This statement is the most comprehensive given by an organisation associated with the Labour Party – neither Corbyn nor the party itself have given a statement which contains a clear thought-out solution to the anti-semitic views found within the party.

The anti-semitism allegations are frequently linked to views about Israel which brings to attention the issues between being anti-Israel or anti-Zionism, and how these beliefs are connected to anti-semitism. However, the line between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism is clearly defined and those in the Labour Party should be especially aware of this. It is becoming increasingly obvious that anti-semitic views are becoming part of political parties across Europe. In the past year, nationalist parties such as National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, and many more have gained further support – increasing the publicity of their far-right beliefs. Anti-semitism should always be challenged, and especially so in politics.

These cases focus on evidence from past Facebook posts and activity – which raises the validity and ethic of using past statements as evidence of present wrongdoing. Many of the accused in the Labour Party have claimed that since the anti-semitic posts were written or shared that their views have changed. However, these statements of changed views can also easily be understood as an easy way to deny allegations of anti-semitism. It is also important to consider the separation between private and public political views, and to what extent private views can be taken as representative of that individual as a representative of a political party.

It is hard to know how recognised the issue of anti-semitic beliefs s within the Labour Party are, but it is clear that there is an issue within the party of how to deal with these allegations and the situation. The Momentum statement has set out foundation guidelines for how the Labour Party must move forward and quash anti-semitism within the party. The most significant being the implication of a programme of political education and awareness training for all members of the party. Undoubtedly, this issue can only be tackled from inside the party, and Corbyn must take a hard line with those found expressing anti-semitic views.

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