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29 March 2018updated 05 Oct 2023 8:22am

Is the government decision to debate anti-Semitism political opportunism?

The House of Commons will have a general debate about anti-Semitism on 17 April.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The government has announced a general debate on anti-Semitism on 17 April, and is being accused of exploiting the row currently dividing the Labour Party.

When Sam Coates of The Times tweeted the news, he said Theresa May is “seeking to capitalise on Labour woes”. He argued that Tory MPs – who also attended the demo against anti-Semitism earlier this week, which I reported on – think keeping the issue in the news “outweighs dangers of ‘politicising’ accusations”.

“This looks horribly like trying to make political capital rather than being a helpful intervention,” tweeted the Guardian’s Jonathan Haynes in response. The columnist Raf Behr and head of TeachFirst Sam Freedman – who have both been vocal on the subject – called the debate unhelpful.

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None of these commentators are from the fringe left-wing groups who see the accusations of anti-Semitism as a bid to smear Jeremy Corbyn. But the government scheduling such a debate will give ammo to the former.

When I spoke to members of Jewish Voice for Labour, a campaign group that held a counter-protest at the demo on Monday and backs Corbyn – which the Labour leader supported in an interview with Jewish News – they felt the accusations of anti-Semitism were timed to damage Corbyn’s reputation ahead of the local elections.

Falling three weeks before polling day, the government’s debate will only bolster this view (a view that is mistaken, by the way, and you can hear us pick it apart on this week’s New Statesman podcast), and the accompanying idea that people who don’t usually care about anti-Semitism or racism in general are using this as a stick to beat their political opponent with.

Examples of the Conservatives’ own anti-Semitic scandals are now flying around online.

The Tory MP who was sacked as a ministerial aide in 2011 after a Nazi-themed stag do; Conservative student societies singing anti-Semitic songs and making anti-Semitic comments; Brexiteers backing a Telegraph piece in February repeating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros (a report to which May’s former adviser Nick Timothy contributed); disgraced former MP Patrick Mercer saying a soldier looked “like a bloody Jew”, the Tory councillor suspended two years ago over claims of anti-Semitic remarks, and the Tory council candidate suspended for saying she’d never support “Al Yahud” (“the Jew”) Ed Miliband in 2015.

The reason these are doing the rounds? To pick holes in Conservative politicians’ public concerns about anti-Semitism.

Yet it is quite normal for the House of Commons to hold general debates on relevant and topical issues that aren’t necessarily related to legislation, and don’t follow statements or questions. A recent example is the debate on abuse and intimidation of candidates last September.

As with the anti-Semitism debate, these usually come through the Backbench Business Committee, which takes suggestions from backbenchers of subjects to debate. There are sometimes several of these a week, of varying lengths.

The government also often holds emergency debates on urgent subjects that dominate the agenda – a recent example being the emergency debate on the allegations regarding Vote Leave’s spending in the referendum campaign.

So, like other scandals topping the news agenda with implications for the British public and lots of political interest, the anti-Semitism debate does make sense as part of House of Commons’ business.

However, as the Labour MP John Mann pointed out to the chamber after the debate was announced, he’d already asked three times (in 2016, 2017 and 2018) for a debate on anti-Semitism and hadn’t been granted one.

While it’s plausible the government decided now is the perfect time for this debate, it’s odd that when this subject was repeatedly pursued by Mann (with other MPs highlighting it) – or previously made headlines, such as in early February with the news that anti-Semitic attacks in the UK are at an all-time high – the debate didn’t appear on the agenda.

Of course, it can be two things at once: a necessary platform for MPs to speak up for their Jewish constituents, and an attempt to exploit a certain politician’s weakness. Some MPs who choose to speak during the debate will do so with a degree of the latter motive. But if political opportunism is behind calling this debate now, it’s unhelpful for the majority who are driven by the former.

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