LONDON — In a bustling cafe at the House of Commons, I ask the Labour MP Joan Ryan whether she would be happy to see Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of her party, win the next general election and become the prime minister of Great Britain. Ordinarily, the question would be absurd. But these are not ordinary times. She does not say yes. “I’ve got concerns,” she answers.
I also ask Ryan, a no-nonsense northerner and a lifelong Labour Party activist, who heads the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) parliamentary group and who is not Jewish, whether she thinks Jeremy Corbyn is, as the former chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has charged, a dangerous anti-Semite. She says she doesn’t know. She is sure he is “very, very upset that anybody thinks he’s an anti-Semite,” but “if he doesn’t want people to believe he’s anti-Israel, and that that is related to this anti-Semitism, then the solution lies entirely within his hands.”
These are toxic times in British politics, and Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis is among the more ignominious and surreal aspects. Theresa May’s governing Conservative Party was about five points ahead of Labour in opinion polls a few weeks ago but last week the two were neck and neck, with the government’s handling of the central political crisis of the hour, Britain’s imminent Brexit departure from the European Community, overwhelmingly unpopular. Two senior ministers resigned on Thursday, May faces an overt leadership challenge from within her party, her government is tottering, and her power, as one newspaper headline put it, is draining away.
Were May and her colleagues regarded as doing a competent job, Corbyn’s Labour would have little chance of taking power. Were Labour led by a more widely trusted leader — May scored 38% to Corbyn’s 24% in a recent poll on who would make the best PM — Labour would be a shoo-in. Instead, all bets are off, but Labour’s reputation and credibility are clearly overshadowed by its anti-Semitism problem; 46% of respondents to a poll in September said that anti-Semitism was the most common subject people associate with Corbyn’s party.
The Labour leader himself purports to recognize it. In March, he issued an apology for the anti-Semitism that had occurred “in pockets within the Labour Party, causing pain and hurt to our Jewish community.” In an article in the Guardian in August, he pledged to “root anti-Semites out of Labour,” and acknowledged: “Labour staff have seen examples of Holocaust denial, crude stereotypes of Jewish bankers, conspiracy theories blaming 9/11 on Israel, and even one individual who appeared to believe that Hitler had been misunderstood.”
But a month later, when Labour belatedly adopted the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) working definition of anti-Semitism, Corbyn tried in vain to get his party to attach a caveat, in order to declare that it should not be considered anti-Semitic to describe Israel and/or the circumstances of Israel’s establishment as racist. (This writer has argued that Corbyn has himself contravened the IHRA standards — by breaching the clauses that outlaw “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” and “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” — and that for Labour to rid itself of anti-Semitism requires it to rid itself of Corbyn.)
Earlier this month, in the dismal saga’s latest twist, police in London opened a criminal investigation into alleged anti-Semitic hate crimes in Labour. The crisis is emphatically not going away.
Joan Ryan’s critique of Corbyn in this noxious maelstrom focuses on the damage she feels he is causing to the party, and his undermining of the principles it should stand for.
Labour, she argues, for example, must always be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a Labour prime minister could have a central part to play. But while Corbyn “has sat down and talked with terrorists,” she notes bitterly, he has rarely if ever met with elected Israeli Zionist politicians. “How can he say he’s about peace?” she asks despairingly. He refused to so much as utter the word “Israel” when he spoke at an LFI reception in 2015, she sighs. “It just seems so inexplicable.”
She says that while Corbyn claims to stand for traditional Labour values, including “human rights, social justice, democracy, equality, fairness,” that just isn’t the case when it comes to his words and deeds on Israel-Palestine.
She warns he’s causing “hurt and anguish and anger” in the UK Jewish community and beyond.
And she’s outraged that she and so many other Labour MPs have to devote so much time to the issue, when there are so many other constituents’ needs to focus on. Ryan is having to battle efforts by hard left activists to oust her as an MP because of her LFI role; in September, she narrowly lost a non-binding but symbolic no-confidence motion. This, when violent crime is soaring in her Enfield constituency, she says, with young people “dying on the streets.” The radicals, she fumes, are driving “good and decent members” of Labour away.
Ryan does not intend to be one of those who are driven out. “You don’t go into politics to put a tin hat on and get under the table when the going gets tough,” she says with blunt determination. “I’ve been in the Labour Party a very long time. I joined precisely because of [the need to battle] racism, inequality, anti-Semitism.”
Hence this interview, conducted on a busy Westminster Wednesday last month, minutes after May and Corbyn had jousted at the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session in Parliament. A former teacher who entered politics as a local councillor, and is back in Parliament having tasted defeat as an MP in 2010, Ryan is a compelling interviewee, precise and well-informed, passionate, outraged. And as those Labour extremists who seek to oust her as Enfield North’s MP for the crime of chairing LFI, she’s no pushover.
“It isn’t difficult for me, being chair of Labour Friends of Israel, because it’s in line with the reasons why I’m a Labour MP,” she says at one point. “It’s not me who has abandoned the policies we’ve always had.”
The Times of Israel: How many of the 257 Labour MPs are in the Labour Friends of Israel?
Joan Ryan: We have about 100 who are identifiable LFI supporters.
When you look from a distance, that’s surprising, because the sense is that, since the Labour leader is hostile to Israel, the party is. That’s not true as regards the parliamentary party? How would you generalize their stance on Israel?
There are some, a minority, in the Parliamentary Labour Party who could be described as hostile to Israel. Some would describe their leadership as that. But the leadership say they are still committed to a two-state solution, and that they’re not hostile to Israel but to the government of Israel and Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.
The question mark you’d have to place over that is why, in the final debate about [belatedly adopting] the IHRA definition at the NEC [Labour’s National Executive Committee], did Jeremy Corbyn turn up with a proposed amendment defending the rights of people to describe Israel as a racist endeavor, saying that to do so was not anti-Semitic?
Which to you says what about his position on Israel?
I would describe that as hostile. If you accept the right of the state of Israel to exist, why would you want to say that people can describe its very existence, how it came into being, as a racist endeavor? I don’t think that’s an appropriate amendment to put to the Labour NEC, to Labour Party MPs, to Labour Party members. I find it very worrying. It seems to me completely contrary to saying you do believe in Israel’s right to exist and that you are committed to a two-state solution.
What does it mean for Israel if your party leader becomes prime minister?
Jeremy has put himself in a position where it will be very hard for him to be an honest broker. And that needs to be our role. Labour Friends of Israel always works to be an honest broker. We don’t take groups to Israel and the Palestinian territories to hide things from them. We want them to see how complex the politics are. The relationships, the geography, everything. And when [critics] say things like “Israel should just make peace,” we do believe the current government needs to do more to get peace negotiations happening, but you have to have someone to make peace with as well. So we want members of parliament from here to see how difficult this is.
Jeremy says he will sit and talk with anybody about peace. He’s sat down and talked with terrorists. But [how often has he] sat down and talked to elected Israeli politicians, democratically elected? How can he say he’s about peace?
At the moment, yes, Israel is not doing anywhere near enough, but there is no one really to do that with at the moment, either.
The role of the British prime minister can be very important, given our history, our relationship, with the region. Given our influence in the world, given the size of our economy. Everything you can say about us… if we don’t manage to destroy it all with Brexit. We’re a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Jeremy says he will sit and talk with anybody about peace. He’s sat down and talked with terrorists. But [how often has he] sat down and talked to elected Israeli politicians, democratically elected? How can he say he’s about peace?
[Former Labour leader] Isaac [Herzog] invited him to Yad Vashem. We’ve invited him on a number of occasions and asked him to come.
And what happened? No response?
[Ryan shakes her head.]
You’ve been how many times to Israel?
About a dozen.
You’ve seen that it’s complicated. You’ve taken a position where, knowing as much as you do, you’re evidently comfortable heading the party Friends of Israel organization. Do you try to interact with your leader? Is there no capacity to communicate [with him on Israel]? Is it a lost cause trying to bring nuance to his view?
I don’t think you can approach any conflict resolution issues as a lost cause. That doesn’t mean I’m a crazed optimist.
He’s come to LFI events. What has his interaction been?
He came to two LFI receptions. He came to one, and people in the room got upset because he never mentioned the word Israel. I don’t know what’s in his heart, David, and I don’t want to speculate. But actions speak louder than words.
It was a most unfortunate thing. When you’re trying to convince people that you are going to be open-minded and even-handed and fair, to come to an LFI reception — with nearly 500 delegates in the room, the biggest reception at [the Labour party] conference, people agog to hear what he’s going to say, having been the leader for five minutes, a very surprised and surprising leader — and to not mention Israel. It just seems so inexplicable. I don’t know what’s in his heart, but I don’t know how he could not mention it.
If you’ve got the right motivations, and you’ve got the values and principles about things like human rights, social justice, democracy, equality, fairness, then I think that will come through in what you say and in your politics. The problem for Jeremy is that he avows all these things — he says he believes all these things, and that’s who he is — but we don’t see that in terms of Israel-Palestine.
Lord Sacks [the former chief rabbi] has called Corbyn a dangerous anti-Semite and talks about concern in the Jewish community being such that some people are thinking of leaving. Is his definition of Corbyn wrong? Is Corbyn not a dangerous anti-Semite?
I would believe Jeremy is very, very upset that anybody thinks he’s an anti-Semite. In his own head, in his own mind, he can’t countenance that anyone would think that. I don’t think he realizes, I don’t know. What can I say?
All his objections to the IHRA definition seem to revolve around the examples in relation to the state of Israel. So I think he does not see that this anti-Zionism is today’s anti-Semitism. It’s anti-Zionist, anti-Israel, anti-Semitism. If he doesn’t want people to believe he’s anti-Israel and that that is related to this anti-Semitism, then the solution lies entirely within his hands.
I do have Jewish people saying to me they’re worried, they feel insecure, are thinking of leaving. And I think there are people who have left
He could apologize for the hurt and anguish and anger that he’s caused to the Jewish community here and in Israel, and to many of us with principles and values and beliefs who feel deeply offended by this behavior.
They have now increased the size of the disciplinary [body at the] NEC. He could make sure that they deal quickly and properly with all these huge number of disciplinary cases that are all about anti-Semitism. If he really believes in zero tolerance of anti-Semitism, then he needs to gain an understanding of why so many in his party and beyond feel so strongly that this anti-Zionism, this anti-Israel stuff, is anti-Semitic.
I understand why Lord Sacks said that. I do have Jewish people saying to me they’re worried, they feel insecure, are thinking of leaving. And I think there are people who have left.
I also have people say to me, Moms, saying, “It’s not like I think we’re going to be rounded up next week, next year. Or maybe not ever. But I don’t want my kids to be bullied on social media because they’re Jewish, to have everything they say to eventually come back to, ‘Yeah, but that’s because you’re Jewish.’ Or, ‘Well you won’t have to worry about your tuition fees, will you.'” These tropes that get trotted out.
Israel is in the hearts of the Jewish community. Ultimately it’s a safe haven. [Corbyn] needs to understand why Israel matters to the Jewish community. And I think he needs to stop telling the Jewish community what anti-Semitism is. That would be a good place to start.
How problematic is it for you as an MP to be prominent on the other side of that argument with your party leader. You had a no-confidence vote that you narrowly lost which some people misunderstand as meaning deselection but which nonetheless has some kind of symbolic relevance. You had won a constituency, you hugely increased Labour’s majority. You’re a respected MP who nobody thinks will do anything other than bolster the chances of the party holding onto that seat. Are you nonetheless in some kind of trouble because of your LFI role and other criticisms that you have made?
Certainly it’s galvanized momentum and the hard left in my constituency to try and move against me. There’s no question that that’s what they were doing, obviously, [with the no confidence vote]. But they had to cheat to do it by giving four days notice of a motion. It was then ruled out of order and ruled back in after everyone had been stood down. We had less than 48 hours and we matched their vote — because 187 voting cards were given out, which should have meant there were 187 ballot papers in the ballot box, and [yet] there were 191. So I suspect they were always going to win by three, because they had three or however many were needed.
Excuse me? There were 187 eligible voters. And yet there were 191 votes counted? That’s not ok.
It was not ok for Iranian state TV to be filming it, but they did.
There was less than a quarter of my party membership there. [The hard left had] been organized for weeks. We had less than 48 hours.
It’s trouble in the sense that this is not what we should be about. We’ve got a huge growth in poverty in Enfield. We’ve got 34,000 children in Enfield who officially live below the poverty line. We’ve got a housing crisis.
We’ve got an 85 percent increase in violent crime in the last eight years. We’ve got a huge amount of youth-on-youth violence. Dying on the streets. You know, it’s really, really serious. It couldn’t be more serious. The local A&E and hospital met with me the other week because all the stab victims are coming in there, the gunshots. It is absolutely shocking. Kids are being sent out with every orifice stuffed with Class A drugs. Kids are victims and perpetrators. There’s a huge reduction in public services…
The working poor are being impoverished to the degree that they cannot sustain a household. They’re paying more than 50 percent of their income in rent. They’re on low pay, insecure jobs. And this is affecting the kids as well. We are one of the fastest climbers as a constituency in the poverty stakes. We’re one of the top 20 poorest constituencies in the country. These are the issues.
It’s disgusting that any Labour Party members think that [trying to hurt me over Israel is what] matters. This internecine [warfare should stop]. They are entry-ists. Some of them stood against the Labour Party [in the past].
My first duty is to the people that elected me. [Having to battle the hard left] soaks up time, which is entirely futile. But it’s not a choice that I made.
When I agreed to be chair of Labour Friends of Israel, I didn’t make some great, huge sacrifice. I knew that it was going to be tougher than it used to be in the past. He wasn’t the leader. I said, Yes I’ll take it on.
When did you start?
And is it open-ended?
It’s an appointment. I guess the board — we have a board — will [one day] say, Thank you very much Joan, see you at the lunch. [Laughs.]
The reason I agreed to do it was I’d been to Israel with LFI in 1998. And then again in 2009. I lost [my seat as an MP] in 2010. That’s why some of these things don’t worry me quite as much. I do know there is life outside Parliament. You have a slightly different take on the world when you’ve both won and lost.
I knew it would be tough [to be LFI head]. But if these are your values and your beliefs, it’s an honor to be appointed to such a role. It’s a sign of trust and a recognition of your values.
Some in the LFI would be more hardline [in backing specific Israeli government policies] than me. They would not want to get up and say they didn’t agree with the nation-state law, they don’t agree with settlements, and think there should be a freeze. I do think they [the settlements] are a barrier. I don’t think they are the only barrier. I don’t think they’re an insurmountable barrier. But they should stop. And I’ve said that. I don’t think the Americans should have moved the embassy to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. But how that’s configured [is part] of final status talks. These preemptive unilateral moves cause nothing but trouble when we’re trying to find peace. So there are people who would be more hard-line than me.
I’m not a friend of Israel and enemy of Palestine. That’s not where we are. We’re for two states. Peace.
I’ve always made it really clear: I’m not a friend of Israel and enemy of Palestine. That’s not where we are. We’re for two states. Peace. We want both peoples to be able to live in security and peace.
And then along came the new leader of the party. And then suddenly these incidents kept unfolding. The first one was the Oxford University situation: The question marks that were raised by Jennie Formby [now Labour’s general secretary] about whether Jan Royall, who is incredibly respected, should be allowed to head that investigation [into anti-Semitism at Oxford University’s Labour Club] because she once came on a trip to Israel with Labour Friends of Israel. That was the first clue that we had a bit of a different scenario now here.
[Livingstone] is a disgrace, an anti-Semite. I hope he will never be allowed back into our party. He has Tourette’s. He cannot get through an interview without mentioning Hitler
And then there was Naz Shah. Naz found a way back [– the MP apologized for suggesting Israeli Jews should be moved en masse to America –] and we want people to do that. We welcome that. And then of course we moved into the [Ken] Livingstone scenario [regarding the relentless Israel-bashing former London mayor and staunch Corbyn ally, who finally resigned from the party in May].
[Livingstone] is a disgrace, an anti-Semite. I hope he will never be allowed back into our party. He has Tourette’s. He cannot get through an interview without mentioning Hitler. It’s like something off Fawlty Towers. Except he was mayor of London for eight years, a senior, leading politician. And for him to express those views, influences an audience in an irresponsible and unacceptable way.
So it is trouble sometimes. But you don’t go into politics to put a tin hat on and get under the table when the going gets tough. I’ve been in the Labour Party a very long time. I joined precisely because of [the need to battle] racism, inequality, anti-Semitism. These are the reasons that drive you as a Labour student. The Labour Party is really important to me. It becomes like family. You spend a lot of your working and social life in it. Politics is a bit all-encompassing.
At the end of the day, it’s a vehicle for achieving what you believe is right. The primary reason you chose that party is because it’s closest to what you believe. And if it ceases to be that, you’ve got to speak up.
Is it going to cost you your job, this LFI thing? In terms of the mechanics, is it possible you might be deselected?
On the basis of what happened at that no-confidence meeting, I don’t think it’s straightforward for them.
Members hate this. People don’t join the Labour Party to come out and have a nasty row and hear people reviled and sneered at.
That’s my concern about our party — good and decent members are being driven away by this [hard left] minority. Most [members] are not like that at all. They’re not Momentum. They didn’t join to behave like this. They didn’t join because they’ve been lifelong Communists, and Stalinists, and Trotskyists. They want hope and they want some change. That’s what they search for. And Labour was a symbol of.
Would you be happy to see Corbyn become prime minister? Which is a ridiculous question to ask a Labour MP about their leader.
Well, I’ve got concerns, because of my responsibility as chair of Labour Friends of Israel. I’ve got concerns.
Although I don’t always agree with him on domestic policies, I’ve never tried to undermine him as leader. I’m very conscious of the importance of my role for Labour Friends of Israel. We are the only organization in the Labour Party that is there to defend the right of the state of Israel to exist, to defend the right to a Jewish homeland, to defend their right to defend themselves, and to campaign overtly for a two-state solution.
So I am very careful not to just be critical all the time of our leader on the other issues that I might not agree with him on. I don’t want people to be able to say, “You’re a kind of usual suspect,” or, “She doesn’t like him anyway.”
With my own [constituency] party, those hard left were horrified and angry that afterwards I had a big platform on which to frame the debate on what happened [in the no-confidence motion].
Are Press TV, the official broadcaster of the fascist theocracy of Iran, are they really interested in what happens in Enfield North, then? Am I supposed to believe that?
I don’t think it had occurred to them. They wanted to come out and say [that the effort to bring the no-confidence motion against Ryan] wasn’t because of anti-Semitism, it wasn’t because she’s chair of Labour Friends of Israel. Though it was quite clear from the debate, the discussion, that it was.
But the clincher: Are Press TV, the official broadcaster of the fascist theocracy of Iran [which filmed the event], are they really interested in what happens in Enfield North, then? Am I supposed to believe that? Of course it was about this.
It is part of our fundamental values that we’re anti-racist, and that we stand up and understand that anti-Semitism is racism
It is part of our fundamental values that we’re anti-racist, and that we stand up and understand that anti-Semitism is racism, and we always have to be specific. We are against all forms of racism, but we don’t have a problem with all forms of racism at the moment, though Islamophobia is a growing problem in this country.
But we do have a problem in our party with anti-Semitism. [Standing against anti-Semitism] is part of our fundamental values. I can’t shut up on it. I don’t see how I could say I’m a Labour MP if I did.
And so it isn’t difficult for me, being chair of Labour Friends of Israel, because it’s in line with the reasons why I’m a Labour MP. It’s not me who has abandoned the policies we’ve always had.
We’re not Labour Friends of Netanyahu. We’re Labour Friends. Labour. It does what it says on the tin. We want to see a progressive Labor government in Israel. That’s what we campaign for. But we’re not going to stand by, and not call out anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, anti-Semitism
Traditionally, the Labour Party has always been a good friend to Israel. About three months before the Balfour Declaration, Labour supported a Jewish homeland. Think of people like Howard Wilson, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown.
But we’re not Labour Friends of Netanyahu. We’re Labour Friends. Labour. It does what it says on the tin. We want to see a progressive Labor government in Israel. That’s what we campaign for. But we’re not going to stand by, and not call out anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, anti-Semitism. We can’t. It’s not a choice.
The leadership of the Labour Party need to recognize why we feel so strongly about this: Why it is wrong to question the right of the state of Israel to exist and to say it’s a racist endeavor. It’s just wrong.