LONDON — This was the week in which many Labour MPs expected, hoped and predicted that the party would draw a line under a disastrous summer of stories about anti-Semitism and begin the process of closing the huge, widening gulf which has opened between Labour and Britain’s Jewish community.
But such optimism was a total misreading of the character of the United Kingdom’s main opposition party and the man who now dominates it.
On Tuesday, Labour’s governing body, the National Executive Committee, revisited its July decision not to adopt in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.
After several hours of rancorous debate, it was announced that the NEC had given way and accepted the four IHRA examples — all of which define the point at which legitimate criticism of Israel can dip into anti-Semitism — which it had struck from Labour’s new code of conduct at its previous meeting.
There was, though, a sting in the tail. Alongside the IHRA definition, the NEC adopted a statement saying that its decision would not “in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of the Palestinians.”
As the Jewish Leadership Council declared, this so-called “free speech” caveat “drives a coach and horses through the IHRA definition.”
— The JLC (@JLC_uk) September 4, 2018
“It will do nothing to stop anti-Semitism within the party. It will do nothing to stop the vitriol being poured at those who put their heads above the parapet to condemn the party for anti-Semitism, which the Leader has done nothing to stop,” the JLC angrily added.
Perhaps more shocking, though, was the news that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — whose links to terrorists, Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites have been under relentless media scrutiny for the past seven weeks — had fought at the meeting for the party to adopt an even wider caveat to the IHRA definition.
Corbyn, it was disclosed, also wished the party to include a statement suggesting it should not be “regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict.”
Tuesday’s events may have revealed little that was not already suspected about the Labour leader and his allies, but they threw much into stark relief.
First, it is clear that Corbyn’s loathing of Israel outweighs by far his desire to even appear to be rebuilding bridges with the Jewish community.
As has been pointed out ad nauseam, the IHRA definition does nothing to stifle or suppress legitimate criticism of Israel. Contrary to claims by some on the hard left, it also does not afford Israel with a special protection not afforded other states in the world. IHRA states explicitly that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
For Labour — unlike the UK government, Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly, 130 local authorities, police, prosecutors and judiciary, all of which have accepted IHRA without additions, caveats or omissions — this clause about criticism of the world’s only Jewish state clearly does not go far enough.
As Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, asked rhetorically: “Why is it that the Labour party feel they are different or above anyone else when looking at this issue?”
Perhaps the key difference is that Labour is led by a man whose apparent priority going into Tuesday’s meeting was to enshrine in his party’s rules the right to call Israel and its foundation racist.
The normal rules of politics require a politician embroiled in a damaging row to publicly apologize and pledge to make amends. But Corbyn — who, like Donald Trump, abhors such rules — chose instead simply to double down. Anti-Zionism is at the core of the Labour leader’s anti-Western worldview and has been for the past four decades.
Nothing will shake his belief in his own righteousness and the righteousness of that cause. And nothing, he is determined, should hamper his right and the right of his far left comrades to espouse its key tenet — opposition to the State of Israel.
Second, Corbyn cares not a jot about the opinions of his parliamentary colleagues. Wednesday night, Labour’s MPs voted by a margin of 205 to eight to adopt IHRA in full, without the “free speech” caveat, to their own rule book. The Labour leader has known for weeks that they would do so, and that, therefore, the two wings of his party — the one in parliament and the one in the country — would effectively have two sets of differing rules about anti-Semitism.
For Corbyn and his ideological bedfellows, this farcical situation is of little concern. They have always believed that “the movement” outside of parliament is more important than that in it. The Corbynites’ long-term aim is to make the parliamentary Labourites subject to the movement.
Thus this week the Corbynite Momentum group announced plans to push for what it termed a more “open” and “democratic” process for selecting parliamentary candidates at this month’s Labour party conference.
Such warm-sounding words are, though, simply a guise for an effort to ensure that Corbynite activists in local parties gain the whip hand over Labour MPs. Making it easier to deselect MPs — thus denying them the right to stand as the party’s candidate at the next general election — has been the hard left’s principal goal since the early 1980s.
It wants parliamentarians to be less the representative of the voters who elect them and more akin to delegates sent by local parties to the House of Commons to vote as instructed. Fear of deselection has already made large numbers of Labour MPs who do not instinctively sympathize with Corbyn and his agenda more reticent in voicing opposition.
Moderate MPs who have been most vocal about the need to tackle anti-Semitism and are most inclined to be supportive of Israel will be the Corbynites’ key targets.
Even without new rules making it easier to drive them out, the hard left’s effort to harass such MPs are underway. On Thursday night, for instance, the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, Joan Ryan, faces a vote of no-confidence at a meeting of her constituency party. Her crime? “Smearing Jeremy Corbyn,” by repeatedly speaking out against anti-Semitism.
Passage of the motion would be merely symbolic, but it would nonetheless have a chilling effect on those of Ryan’s parliamentary colleagues thinking of being as vocal in standing alongside British Jews as the former minister has been.
Finally, Labour’s anti-Semitsm crisis will run and run. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this week does not mark the end, the beginning of the end or even the end of the beginning.
More to come
The “free speech” caveat agreed by the NEC has not sated the appetite of the hard left vanguard which is most committed to Corbyn’s project. Ash Sarkar, senior editor at the pro-Corbyn Novara Media website, labeled the decision “shameful” and “an absolutely terrible abdication of responsibility to take into account how IHRA has actually been implemented elsewhere.”
Corbyn’s supporters are now embarked on a hunt for the traitors who failed to back the Labour leader and allow him to have his way on protecting the right to call Israel racist. A primary target have been two Jewish pro-Corbyn NEC members — Rhea Wolfson and Momentum founder Jon Lansman — who are thought to have joined with two independents, Eddie Izzard and Ann Black, in opposing Corbyn’s statement.
However, it is also clear that the hard left is not willing to let the decision rest. Instead, it is agitating for the NEC to debate and pass “a longer set of freedom of expression protections” later this month. The party appeared to leave the door open to such a debate, making clear in its statement on Tuesday that “consultation” on Labour’s new code of conduct would continue.
Those hoping for the decision to be reopened will be heartened by the words of Corbyn’s chief ally, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who on Thursday backed the Labour leader’s “racist Israel” clause.
Telling the UK’s Jewish News that “I quite like the extra text,” McDonnell recognized that the Jewish community said additions to supposedly protect freedom of speech were unnecessary but added: “There are a number who do think it is, and we’ve got to listen to them and try to build consensus. We might not be able to, but let’s try.”
Indeed, if further discussion takes place, it will not simply be a rerun of Tuesday’s debate. At the party’s Liverpool conference, which commences in two weeks’ time, the NEC’s composition will shift further to the left when those chosen by party members in elections this summer take their seats.
The reelection of Pete Willsman — who was taped at July’s NEC meeting claiming that “Jewish Trump fanatics” were making false claims of anti-Semitism in the party — garnered the most attention and triggered further resignations from the party. But the results also saw Black and Izzard defeated in their bids for reelection (Wolfson did not run for another term).
At least one of the Momentum-backed candidates elected to replace them has already signaled her unhappiness about the NEC’s adoption of IHRA, calling it “incredibly disappointing.”
Some moderates believe that it would be “bonkers” for NEC hardliners to continue refighting the IHRA decision — although they don’t rule out them trying — and instead predict that Corbynites will use the already adopted “free speech” caveat to hamper disciplinary action against members accused of breaching the new code of conduct.
The anti-Semitic poison unleashed into the bloodstream of British politics by the hard left seizing control of the country’s principal opposition party is no longer confined to abuse on social media or the “culture of nastiness, bullying and intimidation” in local parties identified by the senior backbencher, Frank Field, when he resigned the Labour whip last week.
On Wednesday, rogue adverts declaring “Israel is a racist endeavor” began to appear at London bus shelters in an apparent mocking reaction to Labour’s adoption of IHRA. The city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, swiftly branded the posters “offensive,” Calling them an “act of vandalism,” Transport for London pledged they would be removed as quickly as possible. The Labour party, however, dissociated itself from the posters but did condemn them.
Communal leaders have been quick to point a finger of blame in the Labour leader’s direction. Tweeting a picture of a poster which had appeared close to parliament, Jonathan Goldstein, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, wrote: “Beyond words. I hope you’re proud of yourself Mr. Corbyn.”
Also Wednesday, the depth of fear and loathing for Corbyn among British Jews was laid bare, with the Jewish Chronicle publishing a poll revealing that nearly 40 percent would “seriously consider” emigrating if he becomes prime minister.
Nothing the Labour leader or his party have done this week is likely to have assuaged those anxieties. In fact, quite the opposite.
Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”