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13 February 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:38am

Rebecca Long-Bailey heckled at Jewish Labour hustings

The candidates faced tough questions on rebuilding trust with the Jewish community.

By Ailbhe Rea

“It’s make or break time for Labour and the Jewish community,” Mike Katz, the chair of Jewish Labour movement, told a crowd of roughly 750 this evening, introducing the Labour leadership hustings hosted by the Jewish Labour Movement in partnership with the Jewish News and Labour Friends of Israel.

As expected, rebuilding the trust of the Jewish community was the predominant theme of tonight’s event, which opened with a passionate speech from veteran Jewish Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who repeated some of the worst anti-Semitic abuse she had experienced from Labour members as she again condemned the Labour leadership’s handling of allegations and emphasised the Jewish Labour Movement’s commitment to holding the next Labour leader to account over the issue.

The hustings began with the key question for the candidates: what are you going to do to rebuild the Jewish community’s trust? Rebecca Long-Bailey was selected to answer first. The room fell uncomfortably silent as she said sorry for the party’s handling of the issue. She emphasised that she had backed the “ten pledges” proposed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews to address anti-Semitism in the party and that she accepted the international definition of anti-Semitism. Her answer was met with muted applause.

Later, when pushed by Robert Peston to clarify whether she had ever stood up against anti-Semitism in the party, Long-Bailey insisted “I did”, met with heckles from the crowd, who shouted “when?!” The shadow business secretary appeared flushed as her responses on the subject landed badly in the room.

One response from Long-Bailey elicited laughter, as she said an example put to her was anti-Semitic, only to be informed that under Jeremy Corbyn’s guidelines it was deemed acceptable, to which she replied: “I can’t remember the exact case.”

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Lisa Nandy, meanwhile, was greeted with huge cheers after her own answer, in which she described how hard she had found watching friends and colleagues suffer anti-Semitic abuse. She described anti-Semitism as “a different sort of racism”.

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“It’s the sort of racism that punches up not down,” she said, “that argues that Jewish people are privileged and powerful, and because there are people on the left who feel their job is to challenge power, they disgracefully argue that Jewish people are a legitimate target for racism. That is what has been allowed to enter our party and it is a poison.” Her response received the warmest response of the night.

Keir Starmer was keen to emphasise his and Emily Thornberry’s roles in challenging anti-Semitism while in the shadow cabinet, where rows sometimes lasted the entire length of the meeting, he said. Starmer paid “tribute” to Thornberry for speaking up “loud and clear” on the issue of auto-exclusion and adopting the full definition of anti-Semitism. “I don’t think people should be left with the impression that there weren’t very loud voices in that shadow cabinet, arguing on all of the issues I’ve just gone through.”

The trickiest moment of the night for Starmer, who received the warmest reception after Nandy, came towards the end, as the candidates were asked if they were Zionists. All said yes, apart from Starmer, who said: “I don’t describe myself as a Zionist but I understand, sympathise and support Zionism,” to some displeased “oooh”s from the audience.

Despite some rather platitudinous answers at points, Long-Bailey did offer thoughtful analysis of the roots of anti-Semitism on social media. She spoke of her horror at the use of anti-Semitic tropes in social media videos condemning Israeli foreign policy, and said she would introduce a programme of educating members “to spot the conspiracy theories and tropes emerging on the left”.

The clear winner of the night was undoubtedly Nandy: with the Jewish Labour Movement set to nominate its candidate tomorrow, it seems safe to bet on it being hers.

Meanwhile, the crowd was asked at the end of the event if they were any more likely to return to the Labour Party after what they had heard. Plenty of hands went up, but entire rows remained resolutely down. The work to win back that community has barely begun.