Only 15 months after Labour’s Chakrabarti inquiry, a response to accusations of institutional apathy to antisemitism, Labour is once again having to deny that it is now the ‘nasty party’ when it comes to Jews.
So what happened? There were anecdotal incidents aplenty. For example, John Mann MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, was accosted by a party member alleging Mann was an agent of MI5 because he had tried to tackle the “antisemitism nonsense”. There were calls to ban the affiliated Jewish Labour Movement and suggestions its officers colluded with right-wing media. On at least two occasions, it was proposed that debate should occur on whether the Holocaust happened. Meanwhile in the conference surroundings, a Marxist newspaper was handed out which quoted Reinhard Heydrich, using the top Nazi official as a supposedly reliable source of information about the Holocaust. To compound all of this, ex-London Mayor Ken Livingstone and current trade union boss Len McCluskey were amongst those suggesting accusations of antisemitism were overstated or weaponised to attack the party leadership. The list does not end there.
The conference passed a motion to strengthen the party rules and enable more effective action against antisemitism and other forms of prejudice. But, in truth, what started as a sore has become a major infection and without clearer, more direct condemnation of this type of language, there is little chance of proper healing.
Understanding the problem requires some context and analysis. Racism tends to treat its victims as primitive, lowly, inhumane or worthless; however, antisemitism portrays Jews as cunning, manipulative, and all-powerful liars. For some on the left, racism is purely structural, built into society through its systems, be it in housing, education or any other sectors “the system” discriminates. When Jews, a well-integrated community, are stereotyped as wealthy, successful and so on, those that think racism is structural believe Jews are not able to be victims of racism. Worse, the Jews are thought by some of these people to be manipulating the various systems to persecute others. Presumably, those people also think the protocols of the elders of zion, the notorious antisemitic forgery about a Jewish conspiracy controlling banks, media and so on, wasn’t antisemitic.
The conspiracy theory discourse has been cross-pollinated from the far-right to elements of the left. It is not uncommon to see talk of Jewish and right-wing media plotting, and suggestions of Jewish and Nazi collaboration during the second world war. Of course, any discussion of the Holocaust should start and end with the fact that six million Jews and others were murdered by the Nazis. For the record, the one document cited by conspiracists online is universally agreed by history experts to have been a specific tool which aided the Nazis and related to currency export matters – but explaining that isn’t quite as catchy as saying Hitler supported Zionism.
Regrettably, and judging by some of the behaviour at Labour’s annual conference, rather than be concerned about antisemitism, some have embraced the issue as a partisan challenge or some kind of game seen through the prism of the different “sides” of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The aim of the game is to get one over your opponent, to prove that antisemitism doesn’t exist, to show that it’s all really about what Israel is doing, and when you “win” you get a rush: it’s emotionally uplifting. What it results in, however, is what one visibly Jewish man at the conference experienced: walking by some people leafletting against the aforementioned rule change, he found they turned their backs on him as he passed. This is clear racial and religious profiling and discrimination.
In such a polarised, angry environment, allegations of antisemitism aren’t given the serious consideration they deserve. Those that perceive themselves as victims are not offered the sensitivity and respect they should have. That is a failure to abide by the terms of the Chakrabarti report and that is a problem for the party. Put simply, it needs to abide by its own Terms of Service.
So where does Labour go from here? The starting point has to be a change to the norms of the discourse in the party. Suggestions that antisemitism has been weaponised or doesn’t exist should be angrily and vocally protested from all quarters in the party, and specifically by the shadow cabinet. Explanations should be offered to the membership about the dangers of Holocaust revisionism and, as above, debate should begin and end with the indisputable fact that it happened and that 6 million Jews and others were murdered. Finally, the terms of Labour’s own Chakrabarti inquiry should be applied for debate of the Middle East conflict. Civil, rational, calm and informed debate is at risk of being eroded; angry, racist discourse will be all that is left. Antisemitism on the left is having an impact on the Jewish community, but failing to change the discourse surrounding it will have an impact on our whole political debate. Taking action against antisemitism will ultimately be for the many, not the few.
Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.