For four years the British Labour Party has denied it is a haven for anti-Semites. Last year, Labour Member of Parliament Luciana Berger, the object of appalling anti-Semitic abuse—“A Judas . . . a Zio-Nazi . . . a parasite”—left the party, along with seven parliamentary colleagues. This month the BBC’s flagship investigative news show Panorama finally asked Is Labour Anti-Semitic? The answer was yes.
It has been obvious that anti-Semitism has been slowly overwhelming Labour, the longtime political home of most of British Jewry, ever since the pro-Palestinian socialist Jeremy Corbyn became its leader in 2015. The anti-Zionism embraced by far-left activists who flocked to Labour after Corbyn’s election merged with ancient European Jew-hatred to create a new and virulent strain of Jew-hatred. Cynics say that the postwar absence of overt anti-Semitism in Great Britain, and to a large extent Europe, was the anomaly and that we have merely returned to the status quo.
At first, incidents were isolated, but they soon multiplied. In 2016, Ken Livingstone, Corbyn’s ally and a former mayor of London, called Adolf Hitler a Zionist, emboldening activists who get a special thrill in calling Zionists Nazis. Labour MP Naz Shah shared a call for Jews to get out of Palestine. Jackie Walker, another ally of Corbyn, said Jews had controlled the slave trade and said it would be “wonderful” if “Holocaust Day”—she meant Holocaust Memorial Day—commemorated the victims of other genocides. It does, but her insinuation (and this a common accusation) was that Jews exploit their mass murder for political profit. Soon, Labour Jews were being accused of dual loyalty to Israel and Britain. There was a huge row over whether Labour should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, principally because the leadership wanted activists to have the freedom to call Israel “a racist state.”
A few days after a 2019 rally protesting against anti-Semitism in Labour, Corbyn visited a Passover Seder, which is not particularly surprising for a politician with Jewish problems, except that it was a “Jewdas Seder.” Jewdas are left-wing Jewish diasporists (the bad pun is self-consciously deliberate), and, among other things, the Jewdas Haggada turns the four sons into the four comrades, and includes this variation on the second question of the Mah Nishtana “At other times, you put out awfully wishy-washy statements on the State of Israel, When will you condemn Israel’s actions without talking of ‘violence on both sides’?” They have previously prayed for God “to smash the State of Israel, [to] smash it in the abundance of your love.”
As these stories circulated, Corbyn’s enemies—internal and external—tried to capitalize on them. His supporters used this inevitable political opportunism as leverage to call the crisis a hoax initiated by political enemies and Israel—even as Jewish Labour MPs were being called “Zionist child-killer scum” by activists within the party.
All of this is well known, but the Panorama investigators had new material: testimony from non-Jewish Labour staffers who worked in the Labour’s complaints department, which is supposedly entirely independent of the leadership. Eight former members of staff were interviewed, four of whom broke nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) to do so. Although Labour, which is, after all, supposed to be the party of laborers, generally supports whistle-blowers, it is currently threatening its former employees with legal action.
Even before it aired, the party leadership mounted a preemptive strike through surrogates on social media and in the press to frame the show as a politically motivated “hatchet job.” The show’s reporter John Ware was called a “notorious pro-Israeli Islamophobe” and “an agenda-driven pro-Israel polemicist” with “strong opposition” to Corbyn’s policies. A memo of talking points for party surrogates was leaked which advised to “amplify, amplify, amplify” Islamophobia in Britain and to deny that Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby, the head of Labour’s governing body, are anti-Semites. Labour, the party line goes, is only anti-Semitic at the very fringes, and that is of course appalling. The fish does not, heaven forbid, rot from the head. Those who exaggerate anti-Semitism (presumably Jews) are more dangerous to Jews than anyone. This last is a particularly cynical and insulting, if ancient, charge.
Panorama’s interviewees did not toe the line. In case after case, they described Labour leaders trying to sabotage their investigations of anti-Semitism within the ranks. Sam Matthews, the former head of disputes, said Seumas Milne, the party’s head of communications, wrote an email claiming: “Something’s going wrong and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism . . . we need to review where and how we’re drawing the line.” As Matthews explained to Panorama: “That is not a helpful suggestion, that is an instruction.” (The Labour Party complained that the beginning of Milne’s sentence—“If we’re more than very occasionally using disciplinary action against Jewish members for anti-Semitism” was omitted.)
Panorama shared an email sent by Jennie Formby about the NCC, the elected committee which upholds the party’s rulebook and is responsible for expulsions: “The NCC cannot be allowed to continue in the way that they are at the moment and I will be challenging the panel for the Jackie Walker case.” The NCC has the power to expel members; they had already expelled Corbyn’s ally Marc Wadsworth and the notorious Jewish anti-Semite Tony Greenstein. Labour says Formby merely wanted to speed the case up. Matthews says it was an attempt to keep Walker in the party (Walker was eventually expelled). Formby later sent another email saying she had deleted all trace of the first.
Former NCC investigator Dan Hogan told Panorama:
On a number of the cases the people that she [Formby] brought in when she became general secretary overruled us and downgraded what should have been a suspension to just an investigation, or worse, just a reminder of conduct, which is effectively a slap on the wrist.
In one instance, Thomas Gardiner, a Corbyn ally, blocked the suspension of a member who tweeted a gruesome photoshopped image of the Statue of Liberty being attacked by a tentacled alien “facehugger” with a Star of David stamped on its back. Accusing Jews of being alien saboteurs who smother liberty is apparently not anti-Semitic. The whistle-blowers said there were many such cases. Former head of disputes Sam Matthews says he was so depressed by what he found within the ranks of Labour and the leadership’s repeated coverups that he considered committed suicide by jumping off Jennie Formby’s balcony.
Another staffer, Mike Creighton, said Seamus Milne asked him how to handle the crisis in 2016. He told Milne that Corbyn should publicly reaffirm Israel’s right to exist, which is (amazingly) still Labour Party policy. Milne, says Creighton, “actually laughed at me.” He hadn’t realized that the Milne’s real question was, “How do we deal with the bad publicity we’re getting?”
The response to the testimony given on Panorama was as interesting a lesson in pathological denial as the program itself. Sam Matthews was criticized by a Labour surrogate who calls himself an “anti-racist” but still wants the whistle-blowers to be pursued through the courts for violation of the nondisclosure agreement. The Labour press team tweeted this denial: “These disaffected former officials include those who have always opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, worked to actively to undermine it, and have both personal and political axes to grind. This throws into doubt their credibility as sources.”
Labour is now the subject of an inquiry by the governmental Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which will investigate whether Labour is institutionally anti-Semitic and issue a report with recommendations. Only the explicitly racist British National Party has been the subject of such an inquiry before.
Meanwhile, the civil war within the party continues. Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson and Corbyn rival called himself, “shocked, chilled and appalled” by Panorama. A senior ally of Corbyn called Watson, “a f***ing disgrace.” Two hundred former and current Labour staffers have asked Corbyn to resign if he cannot renew trust in the party to deal with anti-Semitism; more than 60 Labour peers placed an ad in The Guardian claiming Jews are not welcome in Labour: “This is your legacy, Mr Corbyn.” Party workers in the GMB union voted 124–4 to ask the leadership to issue an apology to the whistle-blowers, some of whom are considering suing the Labour Party for defamation.
Jewish intellectuals including the novelist Howard Jacobson and the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote to The Guardian: “The extent of Labour’s antisemitism, the degree to which it has been protected, sanctioned and propagated by the leadership faction, can brook no further denial; the labyrinthine attempts to deflect attention from the problem and discredit officials supposedly charged with identifying and rooting it out, are now laid bare. There is nowhere left for the Labour leadership to hide.”
Still, they hide because Corbyn cannot conceive of himself as a racist. He has no aptitude for self-reflection and, in the impact of his own incompetence, he sees only the sabotage of his enemies. His mantra is: “I oppose anti-Semitism and all forms of racism.” The second part reads like a rebuke to a Jewish minority that supports a “racist state” and will not share the Shoah.
Meanwhile, Corbynites are passing motions at local party meetings censuring Panorama and Jewish allies in Labour, and British Jews are afraid. Reported anti-Semitic attacks have grown in recent years. In 2018, there were 1652, an increase of 16% since 2017. More alarmingly, “Jew” is a loaded word again, and left-wing British social media is aflame with denial and rage for those who have “smeared” them. Labour’s only answer, as of last week, was to put up a hastily assembled website on anti-Semitism. It features a video of Jeremy Corbyn claiming zero tolerance for anti-Semitism in Labour; it was filmed a year ago.
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