Susan Pollack was born in 1930 in Hungary and was sent to Auschwitz as a teenager. Fortunately, she survived, came to the UK and now – in her late 80s – travels the country teaching young people about racism.
I first met her when she came to speak at an event I organise in Dudley each year. The second time was a few weeks ago at the unprecedented protest organised by the leadership of the Jewish community in Parliament Square. For the first time in her life, she was taking part in a political protest – and it was a protest against us, the Labour Party.
The following week I was in Poland with an amazing project called March of the Living, visiting concentration camps and sites of mass murder with 300 students, members of the Jewish community and Holocaust survivors. I lost count of the number of times people asked me about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. I was introduced to one man – now in his 90s – who’d also been in Auschwitz. The first words he said to me were: “Are you not ashamed to be in the Labour Party with all the anti-Semitism?”
The truth is that I am deeply ashamed our party has been the cause of such distress to Jewish people. Whilst in Poland I drove to the Czech Republic to visit a town called Ostrava. I stood on the spot where a ten year-old Jewish boy had watched German soldiers march into the town when they invaded in March 1939.
A few days later he was put on a train to escape to England where he eventually brought up four children, of whom I’m the second. The rest of his family weren’t so lucky and I found in the town’s Jewish community centre, records showing his mum and sisters had been deported on 30 September 1942, a few days before they were murdered in Treblinka.
As a teenager I joined the Labour Party determined to fight racism. As a student I worked with Searchlight to counter the National Front. Just last week, I organised a Rally Against Racism in the Birmingham hotel room where Enoch Powell made his “Rivers of Blood” speech 50 years before. I’ve stood alongside Muslim constituents targeted by the British National Party or the English Defence League. I’ve campaigned against racism all my life and it is completely unacceptable for Len McCluskey to claim I’m exploiting this issue to undermine Jeremy Corbyn as he did in the New Statesman this week.
He said I and other MPs who have raised this issue must be “held to account” and talked about deselection. Len McCluskey might be one of the most powerful people in the Labour Party, but I want to be clear: no amount of threats, bullying or intimidation is going to stop me fighting racism.
At least he now recognises there is a problem, whIch I suppose is progress considering McCluskey, like so many others, spent the last few years claiming accusations of anti-Semitism were used to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and accused people complaining about it of “playing games”.
The truth is that some Jewish people – like Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger or Louise Ellman – have faced horrendous personal abuse and threats. I’m regularly accused of being a Mossad agent, in the pay of “Rothschild bankers” or part of a “worldwide conspiracy”.
Members of our party have claimed Hitler was a Zionist or legitimised the myth that Jews financed the slave trade. We’ve seen Labour candidates denying or questioning the Holocaust. At last year’s conference, the party gave a platform at a fringe event to a speaker who said “Holocaust: yes or no”. What did he mean – did the Holocaust happen? Was it right?
Others have denied Israel’s right to exist, singled out the world’s only Jewish state for boycott and sanctions; or drawn outrageous comparisons between the actions of Israel and the crimes of the Nazis.
And throughout all of this, so many denied there was any problem at all. Too many on the hard left believe they are so virtuous – they say they have fought racism all their lives – that they can’t be responsible for any form of racism. All this must therefore be whipped up or “weaponised” by people opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Do they not understand how offensive it must be to victims of anti-Semitism – people like the Holocaust survivors I met recently – to be told they are making this up? It is quite literally adding insult to injury. What do they think? That people are so worried by Jeremy’s plans to nationalise the railways that they invent complaints of racism?
Why is it that they are more angry with people like me for campaigning against anti-Semitism, than they are with the people responsible for it? And do they not understand that we have no right to criticise anyone else for racism if we don’t get our own house in order first?
This current crisis was triggered by the shocking discovery that Jeremy Corbyn defended a grotesque racist caricature on a mural in east London. For three days, he issued excuses. Only after the Jewish community organised that unprecedented protest did he actually manage to say sorry.
Labour members need to ask themselves what they’d be saying if a senior Tory defended a racist cartoon about anyone else. But I’m afraid our leader has spent decades defending anti-Semites.
The Hamas charter says: “The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!’” Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said “If [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide”. Despite all this, Jeremy Corbyn invited “friends” from Hamas and Hezbollah to an event in Parliament.
In 2009, Raed Salah was found by a British court judge to have used the anti-Semitic “blood libel”, but Jeremy described him as “a very honoured citizen” and invited him to Parliament. A vicar, Stephen Sizer, was disciplined by the Church of England for spreading ideas which were “clearly anti-Semitic”, and banned him from social media, yet Jeremy defended him too.
All of this could be dismissed as ancient history, but look at the failure to tackle allegations of anti-Semitism swiftly, deal with supporters of Jeremy like Ken Livingstone, or respond properly to the reasonable requests made by the Jewish Leadership Council and Board of Deputies last week.
Len McCluskey is right on one point – everyone knows I didn’t support Jeremy’s leadership campaign and haven’t been persuaded since. But McCluskey is completely wrong to claim this is why I complain about anti-Semitism and extremism. It is in fact, the exact opposite way round. It is because I’m angry about anti-Semitism and worried about extremism that I’ve argued against Jeremy from the outset.
For example, Corbyn was a founder member and chair of the Stop the War Coalition, an article on whose website praised the “internationalism and solidarity” of Isis and compared it to the International Brigades. On other occasions, the group supported what it called the Iraqi “struggle” against British troops “by any means necessary”, said that it stood with Saddam Hussein, and promoted or provided a platform for Assad apologists.
The Labour Party has always fought racism and stood up against extremism, and hose of us who are demanding we tackle these problems are right to speak out.
Ian Austin is the Labour MP for Dudley North