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  1. Election 2024
27 November 2019

An open letter to Sir Richard Evans: Labour’s anti-Semitism cannot be disregarded

In 1996, Anthony Julius and Richard Evans defended the author Deborah Lipstadt against libel accusations by the Holocaust denier David Irving. Here, Julius responds to Evans’s expression of support for the Labour leadership.

By Anthony Julius

Dear Richard,


I see that you made an intervention yesterday [25 November] in the election. You tweeted your support for Labour. You will vote for the party notwithstanding the “cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected” it. Later in the day, you tweeted that responses have prompted you to ask your Labour candidate “for her views on the controversy about anti-Semitism in the party”. You have not asked me for my views, but in the spirit of the exchanges we had when you were an expert in the Lipstadt case, let me give them to you anyway. Please think again about how you cast your vote.

Let me remind you, on the subject of the Jews, the party has become cruel, malicious, stupid and dishonest. The cruelty has been persistent and extreme – death threats, shouted abuse at branch meetings, online trolling. The malice has been patent, incontinent and pervasive. As with Trump, we are inured to party (and Corbyn) outrages, because they are so frequent. But recall Corbyn’s disparagement of  “Zionists who, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony”. My friend David Hirsh got it right: Corbyn was enjoying the old, sneery English view of Jews, and he was doing it to humiliate the Jews he was talking about. They live among us but they’re not really one of us. This wasn’t Corbyn’s usual political anti-Semitism, it was a spillover into ordinary old-fashioned English anti-Semitism. It was as if the political requirement to humiliate the “Zionists” found its words in the anti-Semitic subconscious of an English middle-class man. This, from the “lifelong campaigner against anti-Semitism”, as a Labour spokesperson described him, following the Chief Rabbi’s recent intervention.

Anti-Semitism is stupid. It makes people stupid. It is not a coincidence that the least accomplished leader of the Labour Party is also its only anti-Semitic one. If you live in a world of conspiracies, if you think the world is divided into the blamelessly good, the victims, and the unqualifiedly evil, the oppressors, then anti-Semitism is for you. It is the commonest outcome of just such conspiratorialist, Manichaean thinking. As for the dishonesty, look at party equivocations on the number of disciplinary cases against members. The unapologetic Corbyn says that there are none left to resolve (“we’ve investigated every single case”); by contrast, a spokesperson is only able to quibble over the precise number outstanding. Corbyn’s ignominious career in relation to Jews has been recast by a party spokesperson as the career of a “lifelong campaign against anti-Semitism”. Is anybody really fooled by this? Is there anything more threadbare – indeed, Trumpian – in the insouciance of the party’s response to its own anti-Semitism? This is not a party that cares about the concerns of the Jewish community, save insofar as those concerns might have a damaging impact on its electoral fortunes.

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In response to your second tweet, about individual candidates: Anti-Semitism, long a fugitive, has acquired institutional authority in today’s Labour Party. Within the party itself, compelling evidence exists of extensive spoken and online abuse of Jewish party members; exclusion of Jewish members from participating in party activity; signalling by the party leader that anti-Semitic views are acceptable; the failure to implement processes to protect Jewish members from anti-Semitism; hostile responses to those calling out anti-Semitism; and appointment of anti-Semites to positions of power (indeed, as the Panorama investigation exposed, interfering in disciplinary processes “to let off their mates”, reported a whistle-blower). This anti-Semitism taints the passive enablers in the party – to start with, the whole front bench. This is how the Corbyn period will be remembered. This is his legacy to the party.

This anti-Semitism concerns us all, Jews and non-Jews. A party that cannot be trusted in relation to Jews cannot be trusted at all. No party of reform and justice can be trusted if it makes exceptions of a minority community. British Jews have heard for some weeks now the argument that the anti-Semitism is all very unfortunate; it is limited (to the leader, to a small fraction in the party enabled by him); there are bigger issues (Brexit, austerity, etc). There is even an implication that it is a little parochial – perhaps even, selfish – of Jews to insist on their own special suffering, their own local fears, in these times of national crisis. So what if the party is contaminated by Jew hatred if it is also the party that will save the country? Of course, formulating the question in this way does more than justice to the capabilities of the Labour Party. But the point goes deeper. Anti-Semites cannot be social reformers. Their anti-Semitism incapacitates them. As a result, anti-Semitism does not just injure Jews. It encourages misconceptions about the causes of social conflicts – of human suffering and social deprivation – and therefore prolongs their existence, to everyone’s loss. By denying Jews the opportunity of making contributions to society, anti-Semites injure all of us. Anti-Semitism corrupts political discourse; it taints political life; its injustices towards Jews are precedent-establishing – people who start with the Jews, do not end with the Jews. Anti-Semitism even injures anti-Semites, because it degrades them.

To purge the party of anti-Semitism will be the work of a generation. The evidence that the political will exists to undertake this task is not compelling: members are not yet ashamed enough of their party’s anti-Semitism. The driving out of leading Jewish (and non-Jewish) politicians from the party, who cited its anti-Semitism, did not have a substantial impact on party morale, still less commit its officials and elected members to decisive action. We cannot leave the work to the party itself. Supporters have to lend a hand. Depriving the party of a vote is a start.



Anthony Julius is the deputy chairman of Mischon de Reya and the chair in law and the arts at University College London.

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