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20 November 2019updated 30 Jul 2021 10:06am

Labour MPs must show greater courage in confronting their party’s anti-Semitism

By Dave Rich

One of Jeremy Corbyn’s more popular tweets is a comment from 2017 on Theresa May’s reluctance to condemn President Trump’s policy towards refugees. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice,” Corbyn tweeted, “you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” This message, similar to the much older aphorism that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, certainly seemed to strike a chord with Corbyn’s supporters: over 33,000 of them retweeted it.

Last night saw a procession of former Labour Party staff members, some of whom had joined the party specifically to support Corbyn, uphold this idealistic call by condemning, on BBC1’s Panorama, the record of Corbyn himself and his closest aides. The stories they told of political interference from the leadership in their efforts to expel anti-Semites from the party were shocking to hear first-hand. The impact this had on their mental health, to the point of depression and, for one, the contemplation of suicide, owing to the paralysing pressure they experienced from above, was heartbreaking. But worst of all has been Labour’s official response, which dismissed the witnesses as “disaffected” former staff members and their testimony as “politically motivated”. 

This is not the response of a party that cares about anti-Semitism, or even that cares about the well-being of its own staff. One ex-employee, perhaps, can be dismissed as bearing a grudge: but Panorama spoke to eight different former staffers, from different posts, backgrounds and generations. They revealed a pattern of behaviour that only began under Corbyn’s leadership and was designed to assist his political project. 

Any organisation with a conscience, on hearing such evidence from its own former employees — and from the young Jewish party members talking about the anti-Semitism they had experienced in party meetings — would reach out to offer support and ask for further information. Instead, the party’s official response effectively echoes the reaction of Corbyn-supporting online Twitter trolls: that these brave young whistleblowers are Blairite fakes and liars; that the BBC is part of an establishment plot against Labour’s radical alternative; that anti-Semitism has been weaponised as a smear against their leader; and that Corbyn is a victim of right wingers who hate socialism, or Zionists who hate Palestine.

This mindset has to change before Labour has a hope of ridding itself of the anti-Semitism that has embedded itself all the way from the party’s grassroots to the leader’s office. It has now transcended the countless specific instances of anti-Semitic language and attitudes that have been reported, and forms part of a wider authoritarian culture of bullying and abuse. It is no coincidence that a party that won’t protect its Jewish members from anti-Semitism also fails women who complain of sexual harassment. Labour needs to recognise that anti-Semitism is a political and moral threat to its core values, not a presentational problem for it to manage away.

It is hard to be optimistic that calls for the party to reform itself, or for Corbyn to lead the change required, will be heeded. Only independent investigation and oversight bring any hope, which is why the statutory investigation into Labour by the Equality and Human Rights Commission is so essential. However galling it is for the traditional party of anti-racism to be investigated by the very equalities watchdog it created, this should not be as hard to stomach as the festering problem. An independent disciplinary process for complaints of anti-Semitism would be welcome, but when Jewish community organisations suggested this last year they were flatly rejected. 

This leaves the question of where Labour MPs stand: the party’s response to last night’s revelations was issued in their name just as much as it was in the name of Jeremy Corbyn. Their regular condemnations and apologies have tracked every stage of Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis. These are welcome, of course, but the day has long since passed when they were remotely sufficient. If a bunch of young, junior party staff can heed the call of Labour’s true values, and speak out in the face of injustice, what can its parliamentarians, whose words have so far had such little impact, do to match their courage?

Dr. Dave Rich is author of The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Antisemitism and director of policy at the Community Security Trust​

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