Tuesday afternoon, Jewish communal leaders are to sit down with Jeremy Corbyn to discuss the furor surrounding anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks which has roiled the party for the last four weeks.
It is unlikely to be a meeting of minds.
The Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council, which organized last month’s demonstration in Parliament Square against the Labour leadership’s handling of the issue, have been determined not to allow Corbyn off the hook easily.
They responded to his initial offer of a meeting by clearly laying out the actions they were expecting of him.
Not only did they demand that Corbyn personally lead the drive to tackle the problem of anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks, they also insisted upon faster action on disciplinary cases and a bar on MPs, councilors and other members appearing on platforms with those who have been suspended or expelled from the party.
They also urged that engagement with the Jewish community should be via its “main representative groups, and not through fringe organizations who wish to obstruct the party’s efforts to tackle anti-Semitism.”
While communal leaders believe that Corbyn’s response to their letter gave them enough comfort to organize Tuesday’s meeting, the Labour leadership’s behavior over the past week does not inspire confidence.
As he sat on the opposition frontbench through parts of last week’s parliamentary debate on anti-Semitism, Corbyn appeared stony-faced and emotionless as his party’s record since he took the helm was eviscerated by his own MPs.
When Conservative MPs spoke, he occasionally shook his head and flashes of anger crossed his face. Tellingly, it took the Labour leader until the following morning before he Tweeted words of support to Labour MPs such as Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth, who had recounted harrowing tales of the abuse they have received — some of it from individuals who claim to to be Corbyn’s supporters.
However, it was the performance of Diane Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary and a close ally of the Labour leader, which drew widespread condemnation. Speaking at the close of the debate, Abbott barely touched on the question of anti-Semitism in the Labour party and instead devoted large swathes of her speech to addressing issues affecting the ultra-Orthodox community in her north London Hackney constituency.
The Jewish community, suggested the Labour MP Wes Streeting afterwards, would be “horrified by the response from our frontbenchers to this debate today.” Abbott’s remarks, agreed the Jewish Labour MP Louise Ellman, were a “grave misjudgment.”
The reaction of some other Corbyn supporters to the debate was more troubling still. Chris Williamson, the Labour leader’s loudest backbench cheerleader, took to the airwaves to suggest the issue of anti-Semitism in the party was a right-wing plot aimed at discrediting Corbyn.
The former frontbencher, who has previously argued that such claims were a “dirty lowdown trick” being used for “political ends,” told Sky News: “I have seen evidence of right-wing trolls, who are setting themselves up as pro-Labour, pro-Jeremy Corbyn individuals, on social media, who claim to be Labour supporters, and have then used that platform to make anti-Semitic, horrible and abusive remarks.”
Williamson may be an early test of the Board of Deputies and JLC’s insistence that Labour MPs don’t speak at events alongside those suspended or expelled from the party over anti-Semitism and that any who do should lose the party’s whip. Last month, he appeared at an event organized by Momentum alongside Jackie Walker, a former vice-chair of the hard left organization and one of the highest profile individuals facing expulsion from the party. Williamson is scheduled to do so again early next month when he addresses a Momentum May Day event which Walker is chairing.
A local Labour parliamentary candidate, who has reportedly repeatedly defended the former London mayor Ken Livingstone over his suspension for comments about Hitler supporting Zionism, is also listed as a speaker at the event, the Jewish Chronicle reported.
Labour appears, though, to have already failed another of the communal leadership’s tests: that it cease engaging with fringe groups.
Last week, it emerged that the party has organized a wider roundtable meeting on anti-Semitism Tuesday that will be chaired by Corbyn and to which the controversial Jewish Voice for Labour has been invited.
JVL has long derided the “myth of anti-Semitism in the Labour party” and the “anti-Semitic smear campaign” supposedly waged against the Labour leader and his supporters.
Indeed, at a meeting which took place after last Tuesday’s parliamentary debate, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, a member of JVL’s executive committee, appeared to question the seriousness of the abuse to which some Jewish MPs have been subjected.
“I do not want to see them subjected to thousands of abusive tweets,” she suggested, before continuing, “but those abusive tweets are not proof that anybody in the Labour Party is going to go and punch them in the face or treat them in any way that we wouldn’t expect to be comradely behavior within the party.”
The invitation to JVL provoked anger and dismay. “The roundtable … has no other purpose than to divide the Jewish community, giving spurious comparable legitimacy to Jewish Voice for Labour, a Corbynite front organization, as to the genuinely representative bodies of the Jewish community,” wrote Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle.
The Board of Deputies, JLC, Union of Jewish Students, and Community Security Trust announced that they would not be attending, while Peter Mason, the national secretary of the Jewish Labour Movement, angrily suggested that it had not been “consulted over the date, attendees, agenda or format” of the event.
The roundtable has now been postponed, although Labour sources indicated to the Jewish News that a series of meetings would be held with a wide range of groups and individuals in the coming weeks. JVL, it is understood, will be one of those groups.
All the while, further evidence of the scale of Labour’s problem and Corbyn’s implication in it continues to drip out. Over the weekend, the Sunday Times published the results of an investigation into some of those the Labour leader follows on Twitter.
Given the revelations about the Facebook groups of which he has been a member, the results were not entirely surprising but nonetheless shocking. More than 40 accounts followed by Corbyn “are pro-Palestine and in many cases fiercely anti-Israel. A small number of tweets on those accounts are abusive and some are anti-Semitic,” the paper reported.
Among the Tweets it highlighted were claims that “crafty Israelis” were behind this month’s chemical weapons attack in Douma; accusations that “the Israeli regime” is adopting “Nazi tactics” and that “death camps for non-Jews in Israel are only a matter of time”; and references to the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as an “old Zionist hog slaggy.”
Labour sources told the Sunday Times that, while Corbyn writes many of his own Tweets, he had not seen any of the anti-Semitic Tweets and would now “unfollow” two of the accounts. Most of them, it appears, had been selected before Corbyn became Labour leader in September 2015.
“The accounts that Corbyn has chosen to follow paint a picture of his world view and his interests in politics and beyond,” argued the Sunday Times.
This world view goes to the heart of the crisis of anti-Semitism which has enveloped the Labour party on his watch and his apparent inability to tackle it.
As they probably well know, the Jewish communal leaders meeting the Labour leader Tuesday are unlikely to be able to shift the views of a man who does not appear to have changed his mind about anything in more than three decades in public life.
Journalist and writer Robert Philpot is the former editor of Progress magazine and is now a contributing editor to it. His articles have appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, The Sunday Times, The Guardian and History Today. He previously served as a special adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office.