LONDON — For Britain’s Labour party, parliament’s long summer recess has resembled the movie “Groundhog Day.”
Barely a morning has passed without new revelations about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations with a motley crew of anti-Semites, terrorists and Israel-haters.
Last week’s disclosure of a video showing the Labour leader suggesting in 2013 that British Zionists “don’t understand English irony,” despite “having lived in this country for a very long time,” brought the whole ghastly show to an abysmal nadir.
It is therefore grimly appropriate that, as parliament returns September 4 and the new political season commences, the battle begins where it ended in July: with another row over whether the Labour party will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.
This summer’s crisis — the latest episode in the row over Jew-hate within the party’s ranks, which has regularly rocked the party throughout Corbyn’s three-year leadership — was triggered by Labour’s decision in July to write its own definition of anti-Semitism. Quite deliberately, the party’s governing body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), adopted a code of conduct which omitted key illustrative examples of anti-Semitism — all of them relating to criticism of Israel.
These guidelines matter: they will be used by Labour to decide the huge backlog of up to 300 complaints against members who have been accused of anti-Semitism and whose chances of escaping disciplinary action were immeasurably aided by the NEC’s stance.
The ensuing outcry, which was exacerbated by Labour’s cack-handed decision to threaten disciplinary action against two MPs who vigorously protested against the decision, means that the NEC will discuss IHRA again when it meets September 4. The following day, the parliamentary party will convene and is likely to vote to adopt the full IHRA code in its own rulebook.
Labour has been busy spinning that the NEC plans to perform a handbrake turn and will accede to the demands of the Jewish community and its moderate allies in the party and adopt IHRA in full.
In reality, Corbyn appears to be engaged in a game of smoke and mirrors. As the Jewish Chronicle noted, the closely fought battle over the rewrite being proposed by the Labour leadership is a “sham.”
The four previously excluded IHRA illustrative examples — accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel than their own nations; holding Israel to standards not expected of other democratic countries; claiming the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor and comparing Israeli actions to the Nazis — may well all feature in Labour’s new code.
However, Corbyn’s supporters seem determined to find a way to water down or caveat — possibly with some form of “free speech” amendment — the IHRA example which prohibits claims that “the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
This example is a particular bug bear of the hard left. As Jon Lansman, the Jewish leader of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group and a member of the NEC, argued in July: “It cannot possibly be anti-Semitic to point out that some of the key policies of the Israeli state, observed since its founding days, have an effect that discriminates on the basis of race and ethnicity.”
Similarly, in his attack on the Jewish community’s leadership earlier this month, Len McCluskey, another key Corbyn ally and the head of the vehemently anti-Israel Unite union, suggested that “we should not deceive ourselves that there are no free-speech problems with the 11th example, concerning ‘Israel as a racist endeavor.’”
But the examples McCluskey cites of criticisms which might be “branded” anti-Semitic — “the Israeli government’s continued policy of expansionism and its denial of equal rights to Israeli Arabs and other minorities” and the new nation state law — illustrates the manner in which Corbyn’s supporters have attempted to falsely paint IHRA as simply a means to shut down all criticism of Israel.
This effort has been complemented by suggestions, propagated by the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, that those moderate MPs who are most vociferous in their criticism of Corbyn’s handling of the issue of anti-Semitism have ulterior, political motives.
While the UK delegation to IHRA has warned Labour that it cannot “amend the wording to suit its own needs,” the NEC is finely balanced. Labour sources indicate that 17 of its members — including Corbyn and Unite’s representatives — will back the hard left’s plans; 16, including deputy leader Tom Watson, are likely to support a full, unaltered IHRA definition. Three members of the NEC — Lansman, another Jewish member, Rhea Wolfson, and the party’s leader in Scotland, Richard Leonard — may thus constitute the swing votes.
A further complication is that, backed by a vociferous hard left lobbying campaign, some Corbynites are resisting any softening of the position adopted by the NEC in July.
Moreover, whatever the NEC eventually decides at the September 4 vote, moderates believe that Corbyn’s allies are plotting further changes to Labour’s disciplinary procedures to increase the power of the hard left and hamper efforts to take tough action against party members accused of anti-Semitism.
The party also plans to ensure that no disciplinary action could be taken against those accused of breaching IHRA examples in the past.
“They’re declaring Year Zero,” said one insider who, like others interviewed for this piece, commented on condition of anonymity in order to speak more freely.
This is crucial, as both Corbyn himself and his director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, are alleged to have made statements in the past which would fall foul of some of the IHRA examples.
The leadership’s effort to sell a plan which continues to tinker with IHRA has already come under heavy criticism from Jewish, moderate and pro-Israel groups within the party.
“Anything less than the IHRA definition of antisemitism and its examples at next week’s NEC will not do,” Tweeted the Jewish Labour Movement this week. “No dilution. No redefinitions. No ‘clarifications.’”
Anything less than the IHRA definition of antisemitism and its examples at next week's NEC will not do. No dilution. No redefinitions. No 'clarifications'. https://t.co/nqD3yyF0hX
— Jewish Labour Movement (@JewishLabour) August 28, 2018
Its stance was echoed by Richard Angell of the centrist Progress pressure group, who accused the Labour leadership of “sickening” behavior.
“An antiracist party would not find a ‘compromise’ on tackling racism. You either adopt the IHRA in full — introduction and examples — or you do not,” Angell said.
But the argument over IHRA somewhat obscures the fundamental problem which this summer’s disclosures about the Labour leader have highlighted.
As one Jewish community insider suggested: “If Corbyn thinks that by adopting IHRA he solves all the problems, he’s got another think coming. The party needs to root out anti-Semitism. Adopting a definition is only the very, very beginning. There needs to be tough enforcement and steely determination to tackle this. At the moment, that doesn’t exist.”
On Wednesday, the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust released two strongly worded letters which they sent to Labour’s general secretary, Jennie Formby. Neither minced their words.
In her letter to Formby, the Board’s chief executive, Gillian Merron, pointedly addressed Corbyn’s “past comments and affiliations” before moving on to IHRA.
“It is now beyond contention that [Corbyn] has repeatedly shared platforms and joined events with antisemites, terrorist-sympathizers and other extremists, not to challenge them, but to show solidarity,” Merron’s letter began.
“In 2013, Mr. Corbyn also made what appear to be ‘othering’ comments about ‘Zionists,’ claiming that they are somehow ‘un-British.’ This is a classic racist trope.
“To move forward, Mr. Corbyn must acknowledge his own failings and offer a heartfelt apology to British Jews and to the Israeli victims of the terrorists with whom he has shown solidarity,” the letter concluded.
That demand will have been made more in hope than expectation. Labour’s trenchant defense of Corbyn’s alleged attendance at a ceremony honoring the terrorists behind the 1972 Munich massacre, his refusal to apologize for his remarks about Zionists (in a statement which the party, once again, released after the Jewish Sabbath had commenced and observant members would be unable to access it), and the angry and dismissive tone adopted in response to former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s comments branding Corbyn a dangerous anti-Semite on Tuesday, do not suggest an apology is likely to be forthcoming.
On IHRA, Merron was similarly uncompromising: “While Labour could have used the summer to focus on any number of other serious challenges facing this country, the leadership has chosen to make its priority a fight with British Jews about antisemitism. We realise that there are critics of the definition, but looking at their records, many of them are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”
The JLC and CST joint letter reinforced Merron’s call for Corbyn to apologize, linking it to the need for “deep cultural change” in the party.
“We do not believe that any real progress can be made in Labour’s understanding of antisemitism, until those leading the party undertake a deep cultural change in their attitude to the mainstream of the Jewish community, Zionism and Israel,” they argued.
“This includes full appreciation of the fundamental religious and historical linkage between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, the impact of the Holocaust and subsequent antisemitism upon mainstream Jewish support for Zionism and modern-day Israel, and decently hearing the perceptions of the mainstream majority of British Jews (as presumably would be the case with any other minority community,” they wrote.
Some Labour MPs appear close to the breaking point, too. On Thursday, a senior backbench MP, Frank Field, announced he was resigning the party whip in protest of Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism. In a letter to Labour’s chief whip, Field, who chairs Parliament’s work and pensions committee, said that Corbyn’s comments about Zionists were “the latest example of Labour’s leadership becoming a force for antisemitism in British politics.”
“Britain fought the Second World War to banish these views from our politics, but that superhuman effort and success is now under huge and sustained internal attack,” Field wrote. “The leadership is doing nothing substantive to address this erosion of core values. It saddens me to say that we are increasingly seen as a racist party. This issue alone compels me to resign the whip.”
He also called for Labour to “recognise the culture of nastiness, bullying, and intimidation” that had been tolerated within its ranks. Like John Woodcock, a former chair of Labour Friends of Israel who resigned the whip last month, Field will now sit as an independent.
Others may follow. Mike Gapes, a London MP who sits on the influential foreign affairs select committee, said this week he was “agonising every day” over whether to quit the party. His admission followed a report in The Times that he posted a message in a WhatsApp group used by fellow moderate MPs saying: “I am not prepared to support the racist antisemite. Period. It’s over for me.”
Within the party, Corbyn is now subject to an official complaint “for antisemitism and for bringing the party into disrepute,” lodged by the campaign group Labour Against Antisemitism, over his 2013 comments about Zionists.
This approach was endorsed by Dan Hogan, a former staffer at Labour’s governance and legal unit, who suggested on Twitter: “If Corbyn were any other member, he would have been suspended and investigated, and the [National Executive Committee] would nod through the bulging report on his offences. He would join the long queue of other awful people waiting for a disciplinary hearing with the National Constitutional Committee.”
But, of course, Corbyn is not “any other member” of the Labour party. He is the leader of a party whose culture, attitudes and sympathies have been radically reshaped on his watch, and whose membership — roughly 60 percent of whom have joined since his election in 2015 — stand solidly behind him.
It is those cold facts, not simply how Labour chooses to define anti-Semitism on September 4, which Britain’s Jews and its leadership now face.
Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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