At a “Times of Israel Presents” event on Wednesday evening, London-based thinker David Hirsh, a Labour activist and author of “Contemporary Left Anti-Semitism,” discussed the untenable situation British Jewish Labour supporters find themselves in: a new era of seemingly sanctioned anti-Semitism.
Ahead of a stimulating interview with Hirsh conducted by veteran journalist Matthew Kalman, Hirsh’s film “Whitewashed” was screened for the mostly British-born audience at Jerusalem’s intimate Beit Avi Chai auditorium. This was the first in a series of events presented by TOI and Beit Avi Chai in partnership.
The film, produced by Britain’s J-TV, opens with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s infamous on-camera statements in which he welcomes his “friends” from Hezbollah and Hamas, who were set to speak at a conference hosted in the House of Commons in 2009.
Corbyn continues, saying, “The idea that an organization that is dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people and bringing about a long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region should be labeled a terrorist organization by the British government is really a big, big historical mistake.”
The 2015 backlash created by the surfacing of this explosive footage was brought to a head in 2016, when two fellow Labour members, MP Naz Shah and former mayor of London Ken Livingstone, made slanderous historical claims regarding Hitler’s Zionism.
To dodge the bullet, by the end of April 2016, Corbyn initiated an Inquiry, headed by Shami Chakrabarti, which was to investigate how Labour as a party can better combat all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism. Corbyn told The Guardian, “Labour is an anti-racist party to its core and has a long and proud history of standing against racism, including antisemitism.”
As part of her purview, barrister Chakrabarti was meant to speak with various minorities and report back in two months. After reading the report, many in the British Jewish community felt their comments had been overlooked and that her results were lacking at best.
The J-TV documentary “Whitewashed,” co-produced by Judith Ornstein, was created to “give a voice to those who felt ignored in Chakrabarti Report on anti-Semitism.” It is based on interviews with Jewish Labour party members — academics, politicians, activists and common Joes — who submitted comments to the inquiry.
Interviewed by presenter Hirsh, a lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, the long-time Labour members agonize over their feelings of betrayal as the party they were raised in and called home has turned to a far-left anti-tolerant agenda. Among those who speak of their complex relationships with Labour in the Corbyn era is Baroness Ruth Deech, a peer in the House of Lords — where Chakrabarti now sits.
Chillingly, the 30-minute film ends by asking, “Why did the inquiry end up as a manifestation of the problem?”
“The film,” jokes Hirsh as the credits roll, “is really an advertisement for the book,” awaiting purchase in the lobby.
Hirsh stressed that the level of anti-Semitism in Britain is still mainly felt in discourse, not physical attacks. Under Corbyn, whom he calls “an accidental hero” and “an anti-signifier,” the tone has shifted and “marginal far-left ideas have moved into the mainstream.”
“Suddenly he’s center stage,” said Hirsh. “There’s new blood in the Labour party,” and it’s mostly far-Left and anti-Zionist, he said.
“The issue I’m really worried about is the level of discourse,” he said. “My really big fear is that we’re sailing into waters that may be troubling.”
The danger, said Hirsh, in this battle of ideas that has been “waning and waxing for 100 years,” is of being pushed out of the party altogether. He said it is so easy to become habituated to statements such as Livingstone’s comparisons of Nazis and Zionists, but it is important to take a step back and say, “how viscerally vile it is to say.”
“It’s astonishing,” he said, “that somebody who does this — who says that Zionists are the same as Nazis — should be let back into the Labor party,” noting that Livingstone was not expelled, but was given a two-year suspension on standing for office.
Throughout the evening, Hirsh joked he is not a prophet even as the scholar delivered pessimistic anecdotes about the present the state of British Jewry in an increasingly internationally polarized political atmosphere. But qualified when asked whether Labour was the still the answer for British voters, telling the audience to “use their own judgment.”
“I’m certainly not giving up on Europe and letting it go to the dogs,” he said.
“I don’t know if my Israeli cousins are more likely to come knocking on my door in Finchley, or we are more likely to come knocking on their door in Israel,” said Hirsh.