The British Labour Party’s Anti-Semitism Problem

The British Labour Party’s Anti-Semitism Problem

The British Labour Party’s Anti-Semitism Problem

For their opponents, the Labour Party’s self-inflicted wound over anti-Semitism is the gift that keeps on giving.


EDITOR’S NOTE: A slightly shorter version of this article appeared in The Nation print issue of December 28-January 4.

London—Earlier this fall, the British Labour party announced it had suspended its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, over his response to a finding by the United Kingdom’s equality watchdog that the party’s handling of complaints of anti-Semitism had broken the law. Corbyn, a veteran left-wing member of Parliament, was elected as the Labour head in 2015—a surprise victory that spurred a record surge in party membership. He successfully defended his premiership when his own MPs challenged him a year later, took the party to a historic vote increase in the election of 2017, and then led it to a catastrophic defeat in December 2019, giving Boris Johnson’s Conservatives five more years in power.

Corbyn’s shock suspension was eventually rescinded. But party leader Keir Starmer refused to fully undo his predecessor’s banishment: Corbyn was back in the party but could not sit as a Labour MP. This ridiculous halfway house prompted motions by local Labour groups, resignations by local councilors, and a joint call from major UK trade unions, all demanding Corbyn’s full reinstatement. Quite an achievement, given that Starmer had won the leadership contest on a unity ticket. But like gunslingers at a Western shootout, Labour’s current and former leader had both dug in on positions leading to this showdown. And, as had been the case so many times before, the whole furor revolved around the party’s handling of anti-Semitism.

How did we get here? Rewind to late October, when the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its inquiry on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. This investigation had begun in May 2019, after accusations of Labour anti-Semitism had— entirely avoidably—spiraled out of control. Under Corbyn, Labour was seen as dismissive or slow to investigate complaints. Foot-dragging responses to instances when Corbyn had gotten it wrong, such as his support for an anti-Semitic mural in 2012, unearthed six years later, effectively licensed more abuse, as some supporters refused to acknowledge the mural’s anti-Semitism in their attempts to defend Corbyn.

October’s EHRC report was a sobering verdict for a party that not only established the commission but also introduced the very law it was now deemed to have broken. While noting there had been improvements to processing complaints, the report concluded that anti-Semitism in the party “could have been tackled more effectively if the leadership had chosen to do so.” It described a culture in Labour that “at best did not do enough to prevent anti-Semitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.”

At a press conference by Starmer responding to the report, the media kept returning to his predecessor. This might have happened anyway—but it was made inevitable by a statement Corbyn had just released. He said that anyone claiming there was no anti-Semitism in Labour was wrong. But, he added, “the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.” Since Starmer said those claiming that anti-Semitism in the party was exaggerated were part of the problem, journalists wondered what he was going to do about Corbyn. “You need to throw him out of the party, don’t you?” one demanded. Starmer stressed that he hadn’t seen Corbyn’s statement and, in any case, it wasn’t about the former head: The EHRC report described a collective, not an individual, failure of leadership. Yet within a few hours, Corbyn had been suspended—and stunned left-wing Labour MPs and party members rallied to his defense.

Corbyn’s suspension was a divisive overreaction, which his supporters are reasonably contesting. And the Labour leadership’s response, including barring local party meetings from discussing the issue, is both disturbing and counterproductive. The muzzling of meetings and suspensions of party members looks suspiciously like an attempt to banish the left—and has only sown more confusion about anti-Semitism itself. But there’s a depressing familiarity to this whole scenario. It isn’t just the interminable factionalism of it all, which has paralyzed the party for years and poisoned its handling of the anti-Semitism crisis in the first place. Some in the left camp are not just protesting Corbyn’s suspension but also deflecting criticism of the way he responded to the EHRC and the issue itself.

This dynamic of denying or downplaying anti-Semitism in the service of defending Corbyn has characterized the whole sorry story. That the issue turned into an unedifying war of competing narratives ensured its place in the headlines of a conflict-obsessed and Corbyn-hostile media, while the drama has obscured a wider picture of hurt and prejudice—and silenced the actual victims of anti-Semitism. The dispute continues to exert a crippling effect on the party and on a wider fight against racism, not just inside Labour but in Britain.

The claim that “Jeremy did nothing wrong!” in his response to the EHRC report is worth examining. A majority of Labour MPs opposed Corbyn’s leadership from the outset. Do political opponents exploit the weaknesses of their adversaries? Of course. This is how politics works. It is unspeakably grim that anti-Semitism was used in this way, perhaps worst of all by a Conservative government that is eye-wateringly mired in Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, and indeed, anti-Semitism. There is something particularly noxious about a nativist right government denouncing the very idea of structural racism—and then gleefully attacking Labour over anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, it would be better for leftists to deal with this particular weakness by closing the breach instead of reacting with outrage when opponents try to make the hole bigger.

However, when Corbyn pointed out that Labour’s anti-Semitism problem had been overstated, he was telling the truth. Surely anyone can recognize right-wing newspaper columnist Simon Heffer’s claim that Corbyn was “a man who wants to reopen Auschwitz” as a gross exaggeration. When, during last year’s election, the UK’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, said Corbyn was “unfit for high office” and the “poison” of anti- Semitism had been sanctioned from the top, the Jewish Labour peer Alf Dubs said that the rabbi had “gone a bit far.” It should not be controversial to point this out.

But the Jewish Labour members who spoke about the anti-Semitism they experienced were not exaggerating. One woman who tweeted about an anti-Semitism complaint she had filed to the party not being dealt with was called “disgusting” and a “piece of shit,” was told she was being paid to lie, and was sent cartoon depictions of Jews, which, she noted, “my grandparents would readily recognise as Nazi in content.” A young activist with the Jewish Labour Movement—a group whose affiliation with the Labour Party dates back to 1920—was yelled at during the party’s annual conference and accused of being a racist and secretly working for the Israeli government. He wrote that online he was “compared to Goebbels, called a ‘cockroach’ (a theme from Nazi propaganda) and generally accused of being an enemy from within.” Many members faced abuse online and at Labour’s local meetings, only to be gaslit and harassed when they complained. Luciana Berger, who faced hideous abuse, including death threats, is one of two Jewish MPs who, along with three Labour members of the House of Lords, left the party because of it.

So when Corbyn, on the very day of the release of the EHRC report, commented that the issue had been overstated for political reasons, what does that say to the victims of anti- Semitism? And what about those leftists who dismissed the entire problem as a smear campaign? Wouldn’t Corbyn’s statement fuel such denialism and direct abuse yet again to those who dared to mention it? When it comes to racism, language has a toxic agency, regardless of intention, which is something that Corbyn should have considered. But he didn’t. This is why his statement was not just ill-advised or badly timed. It was wrong.

To read the report’s full 130 pages is to comprehend both the scale of the problem and Labour’s culpability. Yet bad-faith interpretations abound, including the claim, circulating widely on some left media outlets, that the EHRC found just two instances of “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination”; the report states that these two cases were “the tip of the iceberg.” Using a sample of 70 complaints, the EHRC could identify only two cases involving individuals acting as agents of the party, making Labour itself legally culpable. But it cites an additional 18 cases as borderline not because of the scale of the harassment but because the EHRC could not categorically define the guilty individuals as Labour representatives. Add to that the “many more files” containing evidence of anti-Semitic conduct by regular party members, and the true scale of the problem emerges.

Still, this numbers game is nothing if not consistent. From the very top to parts of the grass roots, the Corbyn left has protested that the cases of anti-Semitism in Labour’s disciplinary process are minuscule: around 0.3 percent of a 500,000-strong membership. But the leadership set the bar for what was counted, and the party did not do any comprehensive counting before 2018. And as academics from the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London, pointed out in an article titled “Labour Antisemitism: A Crisis Misunderstood,” “The one thing we know about reported hate crime figures in general is that they represent the tip of an iceberg.” It’s also a misunderstanding of anti-Semitism to focus on individual acts of bigotry rather than a permeating culture. Racial prejudice is better understood as an ever-present, easily animated force in society. A zero-tolerance policy enforced via a disciplinary process can itself become hostage to political abuse. But it also does little to tackle a culture in which the circulation of anti-Semitism has spread, even while the number of certifiable anti-Semites is small.

Meanwhile, the coverage of Labour anti-Semitism has focused on Corbyn, with repeated accusations followed by a rush of defenders pointing out his lifelong history of fighting apartheid, Islamophobia, and anti-migrant fearmongering. His track record on such issues is rightly part of Corbyn’s appeal—not least among minority communities at the sharp end of structural racism and everyday discrimination. But in the context of his handling of anti-Semitism, the effect of foregrounding these credentials is surely to cast anti-Semitism as a lesser prejudice—or to locate it outside the category of racism. Corbyn’s accomplishments are real, but as Labour’s leader his faults also mattered. That he is not personally anti-Semitic but still mishandled the issue tells us something about those flaws and potential blind spots within the left more generally. Yet amid the valorizing or demonizing of the former leader, the critical space that would allow such reflection is precisely what is missing.

It is, in this context, telling that examples of leftist politicians dealing effectively with anti-Semitism are not part of this conversation: Both Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar and UK Labour MP Naz Shah have demonstrated that it is possible to drop offensive terminology in criticisms of Israeli aggressions without diluting or altering their principles.

Meanwhile, the toxic effect of Labour factionalism on this miserable affair cannot be ignored. The incompatibility of Labour’s warring camps has been portrayed as the product of a first-past-the-post voting system that forces these groups, electorally, to sit in the same party. This sort of fractious accommodation between progressives and the center-left is one that US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently commented on in relation to the Democratic Party. Corbynites who claim that Labour’s failings on anti-Semitism were caused by factionally driven heel-dragging shouldn’t expect the EHRC to mediate in internal spats; its job was simply to investigate discrimination within the party. Its report does note an improving situation after 2018, at which point Corbyn had control of the previously hostile party machine. But it would be a more than a stretch to pretend that the leadership was rigorously tackling anti-Semitism before that date or that problems disappeared beyond it. Earlier this year a leaked internal document claimed that hostile party officials, mostly Labour right factionalists, were running a secret parallel campaign to undermine the Corbyn leadership and the management of anti-Semitism. A Labour inquiry into all those allegations is underway, but the shocking claims have understandably sparked frustration within the Corbyn left.

Sadly, none of this is new. Jewish leftists active here since the 1980s recall that anti-Semitism was viewed as a distraction from “real” racism. An activist who did not want to be named said, “In the left spaces I was part of, even to mention anti-Jewish racism felt like you were taking up too much space and often led to a direct telling off.” The left sometimes struggles to critique capitalism or Israel without slipping into prejudicial tropes, often around Jewish power. Nor does it help that defenders of an expansionist Israel routinely conflate anti-Semitism with valid criticisms of Israel. Yet even now, elements of the left favor betrayal narratives over doing the work to avoid repeatedly aggravating this persistent wound. “To the barricades!” has become the response, fueled by the sense that whatever Corbyn had done would never have been enough, since his opponents were always out to get him.

But to view Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis purely in terms of a power struggle is to misconceive what the issue means for the left, beyond the moral imperative to deal with racism. The right-wing media’s attempts to derail a genuinely radical Labour leadership were hardly surprising. Corbyn’s popular ideas for economic redistribution, public ownership of utilities and railways, and a green industrial revolution were relentlessly ridiculed, while he faced constant and sometimes surreal personal attacks. This is not a question of stopping attacks against the left, because they will never stop. The real task is to build a strong enough base for the left so that it can win despite such attacks—and to do so with inclusive, progressive left values that can attract stronger, wider support. In downplaying or ignoring anti-Semitism in its ranks, the left compromises its moral authority on other issues, from the devastating consequences of Britain’s Middle East policy to the effects of structural racism and economic austerity. Casting anti-Semitism as a separate or lesser issue renders the left incapable of truly grasping how racism is constructed and deployed as a tool of white supremacy.

Britain’s media and political environment is totally incapable of treating different forms of racism fairly or equally, with bandwidth given to Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis while other prejudices fall off the radar. A recent study showed that over half of Labour’s Muslim members did not trust the party to tackle Islamophobia. This year Labour was also reported to be losing members over anti-Black racism, some of it revealed in those leaked Labour documents that cataloged insults privately made by party officials and directed at its Black MPs. Earlier this year, the EHRC decided not to even investigate widespread Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, and a parliamentary report has criticized the commission for failing to protect Black people. And more evidence accumulates each day of the terrible impact of structural racism and racist government policies on all areas of life—including health, education, and employment—for British people of color.

Jewish people did not ask for prejudice against them to be given precedence or addressed at the expense of others. Pitting minorities against one another is toxic, yet unsurprising behavior in a country that ran its empire on the basis of divide and rule. But the progressive response is surely to leverage the gains of one group to press for progress for others. The EHRC describes its recommendations as “a foundation to assist all politicians and political leaders in adhering to equality law.” Labour is legally bound to implement them, but nothing prevents the party from using similar processes and principles to tackle other forms of racism in its ranks. The EHRC report has shown that anti-Semitism can be addressed in the context of racism and equality law. Rather than get lost in the weeds of betrayal narratives, the left should see this as a positive step and then build on it.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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