LONDON — On March 26, 2018, British Jews took part in an unprecedented demonstration in Parliament Square against an anti-Semitism crisis which has engulfed the Labour party.
The resort to such action, says Joan Ryan, an MP who last month quit Labour over its handling of the issue, marked “one of the most shameful days in the history of the party.”
The immediate trigger for the protest was the revelation that the party’s hard left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had six years previously defended an anti-Semitic mural in London’s East End.
In reality, though, tension between Corbyn and the community had been building ever since he shocked the political establishment by winning the leadership of Britain’s principal opposition party in September 2015.
The demonstration – held under the rallying cry of “Enough is Enough” – has done little to ease those tensions. Instead, developments over the past year have simply heightened the anger of many Jews, and stoked their fears about what a Corbyn premiership might mean.
Those developments include: a series of further revelations last summer about Corbyn’s alleged links to terrorists, Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites; the party’s initial refusal to adopt in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism; and what critics describe as a “revolving door” disciplinary policy which has seen members accused of Jew-hate suspended from the party and then quietly readmitted.
Anger at the fact that, as Ivor Caplin, the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, puts it, “the leadership… still seem to be dragging their feet on getting the anti-Semites out of the Labour Party,” led to renewed disquiet among parliamentarians in January.
Labour parliamentarians overwhelmingly passed a motion calling on the party to “adequately tackle cases of anti-Semitism” and warned that a “failure to do so seriously risks anti-Semitism in the party appearing normalized and the party seeming to be institutionally anti-Semitic.”
The reported response of the party’s general secretary, Corbyn-ally Jennie Formby was that it was “impossible to eradicate” anti-Semitism and it would be “dishonest to claim to be able to do so.” The response provoked outrage among moderates and appears to have been the final straw for some.
Days later, Luciana Berger, who led the calls for Corbyn to apologize over the mural and was at the forefront of the Parliament Square protest, resigned from Labour. Her resignation statement branded the party “institutionally anti-Semitic.” Berger and Ryan now sit with a number of other former moderate Labour MPs – all of whom have voiced similar concerns about anti-Semitism in the party – as members of The Independent Group.
Grasping, after the last straw
Berger’s treatment by the party in the wake of the demonstration is illustrative of the problems it faces. Her high-profile role at the demonstration, she said in its aftermath, had led to “a torrent of abuse from people purporting to be of the left.”
That abuse continued relentlessly for months: At the party’s annual conference in September she was even forced to accept police protection from her own ostensible supporters. In January, hard-left activists in her constituency attempted to pass a motion of no-confidence in her. Other Jewish Labour MPs and their supporters in the party’s moderate wing have been similarly targeted.
The importance of the demonstration should not, however, be underestimated.
“British Jews have long had a reputation for keeping their heads down and seeking to influence politics through private, high-level consultations rather than confrontational public protests,” says Dave Rich, head of policy at the Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitism and protects Jewish venues and events. “The ‘Enough is Enough’ demonstration changed that and marked a new, assertive mood in the Jewish community.”
Similarly, Jonathan Goldstein, head of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), one of the organizers of the demonstration, believes that the community is “stronger for standing up loudly and proudly and saying ‘enough is enough.’”
Nonetheless, Goldstein accepts that the protest appears to have had little impact on the party’s behavior.
“Labour’s deliberate decision to ignore the bullying of Jews in its midst is clear for all to see. Our call to combat racism has been met with a deafening silence from the leader and a campaign of delegitimization from his supporters,” he says.
“The fact that a brave Jewish MP like Luciana Berger has to resign [from] her party on account of her faith says more than words could ever express. I fear that Labour, in its current state, is irredeemable,” said Goldstein.
Ryan agrees. “The Jewish community protesting against racism in Her Majesty’s Opposition should have acted as a wake-up call to Jeremy Corbyn,” the MP says. “Instead, under his leadership, the situation has worsened to the point where a Jewish MP was driven out of the party by anti-Semites. The responsibility for this failure rests squarely with the leader of the Labour party.”
Who is to blame?
The perception that Corbyn himself is at the heart of Labour’s problems is widespread. Since the demonstration, argues Rich, “the consensus in the Jewish community that Labour has an institutional problem that begins with its leader has remained intact and, if anything, hardened, while Labour’s handling of the problem has only made things worse.”
Such perceptions were borne out by a poll carried out for the JLC released last week. It found that 42 percent of British Jews would “seriously consider” emigrating if Corbyn became prime minister (up from a similar 40% in a poll last year), while 87% believe the Labour leader to be anti-Semitic (slightly up from 86% last year).
In a newly released report, “Institutionally Antisemitic: Contemporary Left Antisemitism and the Crisis in the British Labour Party,” Prof. Alan Johnson details the dynamic between Corbyn’s past and Labour’s current travails.
“The record of the leader and some of his closest aides in support for or practice of anti-Semitic forms of ‘anti-Zionism,’” he writes, is “the elephant in the room.”
“In the absence of a fundamental self-criticism of that record by Jeremy Corbyn, the defense of it by party members will go on, and so will the normalization of anti-Semitism in the party,” warns Johnson.
“And tomorrow, in government, also in the country?” he asks.
For the time being, at least, Corbyn remains firmly entrenched as leader. His hard left supporters now control the party’s main institutions and the powerful trade unions which fund it. They also hold huge sway at the grassroots level. It is likely, therefore, that any future leader will hail from Corbyn’s wing of the party.
This situation poses a dilemma for those Jews who traditionally support Labour. Some, including Jewish MPs such as Ruth Smeeth, are adamant that they will remain in the party and fight for a change of course from within. In Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, they have a champion and ally with strong organizational skills. Watson has now founded a grouping for moderates to begin a pushback against the Corbynites.
Some suspect that Labour deputy leader Tom Watson might eventually lead scores of MPs out of Labour
Some suspect that, if this attempt fails, Watson might eventually lead scores of MPs out of Labour, linking up with those, such as Berger and Ryan, who have already quit the party.
Wither or whither for Jewish Labour Movement
The dilemma is particularly acute for the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), a group affiliated with the party. After Berger, who served as JLM’s parliamentary chair, left Labour, it held an emergency meeting in which it decided not to break its formal link to the party. That decision was, in part, shaped by fears that such a move would strengthen the hand of the controversial pro-Corbyn Jewish Voice for Labour, which critics accuse of denying that the party has a problem with anti-Semitism.
However, just days after the JLM’s meeting, the news broke that Labour plans to end its role in providing anti-Semitism training within the party. At its annual general meeting on April 7, the group will, once again, debate its future strategy.
Some activists want JLM to adopt a much tougher line. There will be an attempt to unseat Caplin as chair and votes on motions which label the party “institutionally racist” and condemn the Labour leader’s “grossly detrimental” behavior. A no-confidence motion in Corbyn, which says he is “unfit to be Prime Minister” and that JLM should not campaign for Labour MPs, councilors or candidates who are “not allies in the fight against anti-Semitism” will also be debated.
Labour also faces a politically hazardous inquiry into anti-Semitism in the party by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a government watchdog. The probe, announced earlier this month, was launched after JLM, along with the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, filed dossiers detailing their complaints to the EHRC.
If its initial inquiry develops into a full-scale investigation, the watchdog’s considerable legal powers will come into play. It will, for instance, be able to force the party to turn over emails and text messages and compel action against anti-Semitism through court orders.
Even without this, the intervention of the EHRC – which was established by the last Labour government – is an “embarrassment to the leadership and should be a wakeup call so maybe we will now see real action rather than warm words,” says Caplin, who served as a minister under former prime minister Tony Blair.
Such an investigation could prove especially awkward for some of the senior figures around Corbyn who, despite the Labour leader’s earlier denials, were alleged this month to have intervened in some disciplinary cases involving members accused of anti-Semitism.
An eye on the future
Other new sources of friction are likely to arise in the coming months.
One flashpoint will be September’s party conference. Last year’s was the scene of a heated debate on Israel. It saw sharp condemnations of the Jewish state, the conference floor awash with Palestinian flags, and the passage of a motion calling for the UK to bar arms sales to Israel and urging an end to the “illegal blockade and closure of Gaza.”
September may well see further agitation against Israel and perhaps the start of efforts to commit the party to support BDS in the form of a boycott of settlement goods.
Labour is also likely later this year to begin the process of selecting its candidates for the next general election, which is to take place in 2022 unless events at Westminster lead to an earlier vote.
Changes to party rules will make it easier for grassroots members to begin the process which denies sitting MPs renomination. Fear of “deselection” by Corbyn supporters has led many MPs to keep their heads down and avoid public criticism of the leadership. That chilling effect will continue if the Corbynites manage to claim some prominent moderate scalps. They are almost certain to try, with some Corbyn opponents fearing that there will be moves against up to 100 sitting Labour MPs, with tens potentially imperiled.
But the leadership will be playing a potentially dangerous game. If activists move against prominent Corbyn critics, such as the veteran Jewish Labour MP Louise Ellman, it may trigger a further wave of defections from the party to The Independent Group and possibly a wider schism.
David Hirsh, author of “Contemporary Left Antisemitism” and senior lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, believes a longer-term perspective is necessary to understand where Labour, once a traditional home to many Jews, now finds itself.
“My feeling over the last 15 years has been that things are going away from us slowly but relentlessly. There is no catastrophe, it is not 1933, but each year things happen which had been unthinkable previously,” he argues.
“The anti-Semitism that was once corralled into arcane spaces on the far left has now moved into the mainstream, first in the unions and then in the Labour Party,” Hirsh suggests. “The way of thinking that positions Israel as a unique evil in the world, and the anti-Semitism which comes with this kind of thinking, have become symbolic markers of left identity and of membership of the community of good people.”
For now, Brexit and the country’s current political and constitutional turmoil, threaten unintended consequences. On the one hand, anger at Corbyn’s half-hearted opposition to Britain leaving the European Union may weaken his position in the party, and lead more MPs to quit.
On the other hand, Theresa May now appears politically mortally wounded. Few expect her to survive in office much beyond the autumn party conference season (if, indeed, she even lasts that long). Her departure may enable a new Conservative leader to unite the fractured party and capitalize on Corbyn’s deep unpopularity in the country. That, in turn, could allow the Tories at the next general election to regain the parliamentary majority which May unexpectedly squandered when she called a general election two years ago.
But that is just one scenario. When May leaves Downing Street it could also signal the start of a full-blown civil war in the Tory party, paving the way for a split and the collapse of the government. Through the weakness of his opponents, rather than his own strengths, Corbyn may then find himself prime minister. Given the events of the past year, many British Jews will find that a deeply disturbing prospect.
Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of ‘Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.’