Dave Rich is deputy director of communications at the Community Security Trust (CST), associate research fellow at the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, and author of The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Antisemitism, which was reviewed in Fathom 14. Rich spoke to Fathom on 20 October about antisemitism and Labour: where has this crisis come from, how has it impacted the UK Jewish community, what must the party do now to put things right? Below is an edited transcript.
Thank you for inviting me to talk about this. This is a difficult subject to discuss, not least because the subject keeps changing, pretty much every week. Also because the people here today know an awful lot about the subject. What I’ll do is throw out a few thoughts, ideas and observations about what has happened so far and about what could be done to improve the relationship between the Jewish community and the Labour Party.
The book grew out of my PhD. When I was writing my PhD, and people talked about antisemitism in the Labour Party, they were basically talking about whether the Daily Mail was publishing antisemitic articles about Ed Miliband, which I think it probably did, once or twice. So this whole subject has kind of come out of nowhere, but in another way it has been bubbling away for years. Antisemitism for one reason or another has now become a national political story and it has stayed a headline national political story for much longer than any of us would have expected.
The most recent development is the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) report which came out this week. This report moved the terms of debate dramatically and profoundly. Until now there had been a couple of ideas that had been generally accepted. One was that Jeremy Corbyn is not personally antisemitic. The other was that the Labour Party is not institutionally antisemitic. The HASC report basically shattered the consensus on both these points. On the institutional point it gave credence to the idea that elements of the Labour Party movement are institutionally antisemitic. It is the first report to have done so. The Royall Report didn’t and neither did the Chakrabarti Inquiry.
On Corbyn himself, the HASC put together an interesting combination of ideas that don’t reflect well at all on the Labour leader. They acknowledge that he has a ‘proud record campaigning against many types of racism’. But they then said that it is perfectly possible for an anti-racist campaigner to express antisemitic views. Corbyn, in their view, does not fully appreciate the distinct nature of post-Second World War antisemitism. That is, he is stuck in a paradigm that sees antisemitism coming exclusively from the far-right, whereas modern antisemitism, and the kind of antisemitism that really effects and concerns Jewish communities in Europe nowadays, comes from other places. The Committee then said ‘an individual’s demonstrated opposition against other forms of racism does not negate the possibility they hold antisemitic beliefs,’ and they implied very strongly that Corbyn’s lack of consistent leadership on the issue (their words), and his reluctance to separate antisemitism from other forms of racism (their words), have actually enabled the growth of antisemitism in the Party. Now, you put all these ideas together, and they’re putting him very much on the spot, in a personal way, as Labour leader.
Debates about this issue quite often become these dead-end debates about whether this person or that person is antisemitic, and nobody ever agrees, because the person being accused of antisemitism vigorously and genuinely denies it. People don’t even agree on how they define antisemitism, and it gets us nowhere. What the report says, quite correctly, is that a person’s innermost feelings don’t actually matter in this; it is more about their words, their actions, sometimes their inactions, and the impact all that has. In that respect, the Committee portray Corbyn, as a person, as very much part of the problem.
Now, this is very much what the Chakrabarti inquiry didn’t do. It didn’t go anywhere near the current labour leadership and their politics. It didn’t address the question of whether the particular brand of anti-Zionist politics and particular understanding of racism that tends to exclude modern antisemitism, which is strong in the part of the Left that Corbyn comes from, not only creates a space where antisemitism can grow, but actually helps it to grow. By contrast, the HASC went straight for it.
Now, this is a classic example of how, if you don’t deal with a problem when it first comes up, it grows and becomes worse, and comes right onto your doorstep. This has been growing within the Labour Party for a while. There were initial concerns even during the leadership campaign last year, about Corbyn’s past associations and past statements. There was the whole story of antisemitism in Oxford University Labour Club in February, which still hasn’t been resolved by the Party. Then you had Labour MP Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone in April, and then the Chakrabarti Inquiry. None of these things were dealt with properly. And with the HASC getting involved and passing these judgements on Labour and on its leader, they have made this no longer just a problem between the Labour Party and the Jewish community, they are getting right to the heart of what the problem is.
But it leads me to ask – and this is a question that is not an easy one to answer – why is it that what is happening to the Labour Party has caused such concern in the Jewish community? Why is it that a relatively small (compared to the size of the Party) number of cases of members and activists, most of them people nobody had even heard of, saying or writing antisemitic things on social media, has caused such upset across the Jewish community, and has been so damaging? Why, to use a relatively recent example, didn’t a Conservative MP wearing a Nazi uniform on a stag do inflict the same damage to the relationship between the Jewish community and the Conservative Party? I think if we can answer that question, then we can understand what needs to be done from this point.
I think one reason is that the things that have come out from the Labour Party this year are seen by a lot of people, certainly within the Jewish community, as not being anomalies. And the reason they aren’t seeing these as anomalies is because really for the last 15 years or more, in some cases for the last 30 years, we have seen the growth of problematic, and at times downright hostile ideas of Jews, Zionism, Israel; all growing on the Left, going way beyond what might be counted as normal political criticisms and normal political language. And without really any strong opposition within the Left.
So, in recent years, it has been possible and has actually happened many times, that people can say whatever they want within the Labour Party – supporting Hamas, supporting Hezbollah, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, talking about ‘Zionist tentacles’ and ‘Jewish cabals’ in British politics. Unless you are Gilad Atzmon, as long as you cloak what you say in the thinnest kind of anti-Israel language, you’re okay. And we’ve seen huge demonstrations throughout the streets of London, with lots and lots of people waving their ‘We Are All Hezbollah Now!’ placards, people on the stage giving speeches in support of Hamas, comparing Hamas to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising fighters, and we’ve seen riots in front of the Israeli embassy. When the rioters were smashing up shop fronts on that road and got put in prison, Corbyn defended them and said they shouldn’t have even been prosecuted.
People have missed how much anger and upset all this was causing within the Jewish community over many years. That’s why, when all these cases in the Labour Party came out, a lot of people in the Jewish community said, ‘well, of course they speak like that; that is the Left now’. By contrast, nobody would seriously argue that anyone is politically mobilising for support for Nazism in the Conservative Party. So when one Conservative MP wears a Nazi uniform, it is outrageous and it is offensive, but it doesn’t feel like it has any further political meaning in terms of what the Conservative Party is.
Rightly or wrongly, appearances and perceptions matter. The part of the Left that we’re talking about, not all of the Left, just the hard Left that Corbyn has been personally associated with for so long, doesn’t really talk about, ‘get,’ or oppose modern antisemitism. If a swastika is daubed on a Jewish grave stone, the Jewish community gets all the anti-racist solidarity it wants. But when jihadists murder Jews in Paris, Toulouse and Brussels, a lot of people on the Left find it very hard to even mention antisemitism in their analysis of it. It just isn’t seen in that framework. And yet this type of antisemitism is the reason why there are so many more French Jews in London now than there were a decade ago. It is the reason why there are leaders in Jewish communities in parts of Europe saying there is no future for their communities in their cities.
And yet, to give one example a couple of years ago, the Institute for Race Relations brought out a report on the new antisemitism in which they said any talk of a new antisemitism coming from European Muslims is an Islamophobic campaign and allied to fascists. They even put it in the same bracket as Anders Breivik! In other words, there is a complete disconnect. Often, people think this disconnect is just about Israel. But there’s just as big a disconnect over antisemitism, and in some ways this is more important.
So, that is the problem, and the scale of the problem. And I think that when we look at what’s being done to try and deal with this problem, one reason why it hasn’t worked so far is because all the good things that have been done haven’t faced up to the real problem in a deep way. There just hasn’t been a sign of people on the Left really showing the necessary introspection – doing a Naz Shah basically – and really rethinking this kind of politics.
Having said that, there have been some good things done by the Party. I am not one of those who says the Chakrabarti Inquiry was completely useless. It did have some good things in it; some good things about language. They were a bit limited, but still, they were good. It was the start of a process of beefing up the rules, though some of the changes to the process that she proposed bringing in actually weakened things, I thought. But look, it was the start of a process, and there was acknowledgement that there was a problem. And the language from the Labour leadership on antisemitism has also improved. The section of Corbyn’s conference speech on it was the strongest yet, and I think it was very well-received.
But unless all this is allied to action, and unless it comes with a really detailed and concrete re-evaluation of this kind of politics that I’ve been talking about, and which has been building over many years – the kind of politics I have written about in my book – it is always going to seem a bit superficial and a bit inauthentic. I think a lot more needs to be done to persuade the majority of the Jewish community.
I think the response to the HASC report by the leader of the Labour Party wasn’t helpful. I can understand why Corbyn didn’t like it, but I think he went too far in rejecting it. Anyone who thinks this is all a campaign against Corbyn because suddenly the Labour Party is led by a left-winger, needs to have a look at what happened between the Jewish community and the Liberal Democrats in recent years, because of the actions of Jenny Tonge and David Ward. It didn’t get the same headlines, as the Liberal Democrats are not as important a party as Labour, but it was basically the same process.
I came back from party conference not actually knowing whether it had been good or bad. The proposed Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) rule change would have been a really powerful step forward but it didn’t happen, which is really bad. On the other hand, nothing happened to make things worse. The JLM rally was great, the line-up of people on it was really important and the things they said were significant. But I was also at the Momentum debate on antisemitism that JLM Chair Jeremy Newmark took part in. I thought he spoke very well, but there was a lot about that debate that really worried me actually: the atmosphere in the room; one of the other speeches; and the leaflets being handed out outside, which depicted the JLM being a representative of a foreign power. That’s the kind of language that when I joined CST 20 years ago, I only used to read in fascist magazines. And yet here it was being handed out outside a Momentum fringe meeting at Labour Party conference.
There has always been a divide on the Left about antisemitism and about relations with Jews and Jewish peoplehood and Zionism and so on. At different times the problematic left-wing tradition has been politically operational within the Left. That is, they have actually mattered in terms of internal left-wing politics, and in terms of external relations as well. And this is one of those times and it brings dangers to the Jewish community.
This is my final point. There are people in the Party who don’t want to hear any talk about antisemitism, who see it as a threat to their political project, who argue it is all a ‘fabrication,’ it’s all a fake campaign ‘cooked up’ by a combination of Zionists and Blairites – their words, not mine. Examples of antisemitism need to be explained away, or denied, or dismissed, because they threaten their project. Now this is obviously not a way to rebuild confidence between the Party and the community. I’m not in a position to assess how influential and representative these voices are. But they are certainly loud. I think that one first step would be for very strong statements from the leadership that they don’t share these views. That, basically, these people are maybe a loud fringe, but they are not in any way speaking a language or proposing ideas that are shared in any broad way in the Party. Because if they are shared in any broad way in the Party then we’re really not going to get anywhere.