LONDON — In the summer of 2014, at the height of the Gaza war, Gideon Falter saw an image of an anti-Israel protester in central London which both startled and appalled him. The picture showed a man marching along the British capital’s main shopping street carrying a sign above his head which read: “Save Gaza. Hitler you were right.”
“I studied law originally and I knew that that was a crime, and yet he was there in broad daylight in front of police officers who were doing nothing to stop him,” recalls Falter. “I felt someone needed to do something about that.”
Falter joined the nascent Campaign Against Antisemitism and was one of the principal organizers of the huge demonstration it held several weeks later outside the Royal Courts of Justice. Its demand was a simple one: zero-tolerance law enforcement against anti-Semitism.
Five years on, it isn’t anti-Semitic marchers which the CAA is targeting, but Jew-hate in Britain’s main opposition party. This week, the country’s anti-racism watchdog announced it was launching a full-scale investigation into the Labour Party, following a formal complaint from the CAA.
The probe by the Equality and Human Rights Commission will examine whether Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour discriminated against, harassed or victimized Jews in violation of the UK’s 2006 Equality Act.
The establishment of the EHRC was one of Labour’s proudest achievements when it was last in government, and the party vested it with sweeping powers. Those powers will now be used to investigate Labour’s handling of the anti-Semitism crisis which has roiled it since Corbyn’s election as leader in September 2015.
The EHRC has only ever launched such an investigation into one other UK political party: the far-right British National party. Labour’s Jewish affiliate, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), labeled the commission’s decision “an unprecedented day of shame for a party founded to fight prejudice.”
Falter, who now chairs the CAA, admits that he had barely heard of the hitherto obscure backbencher when volunteers from the organization’s politics and governance investigation team approached him during the 2015 Labour leadership campaign saying: “We need to talk about somebody called Jeremy Corbyn.”
“As soon as we started looking into him, we discovered he had this extremely disturbing backstory,” says Falter. “We quickly got a picture of somebody who, throughout his life, had been on the wrong side of history when it comes to anti-Semitism and anti-Semites.”
Nonetheless, the CAA was initially cautious in its approach towards the newly elected Labour leader.
“At first we thought that this was perhaps just the political milieu in which he had mixed and that he could be persuaded to clamp down on anti-Semitism in the party,” Falter says. “But we very quickly understood that actually Jeremy Corbyn appears himself to be anti-Semitic and to have a problem with Jews and that the Labour party under his leadership was becoming so institutionally anti-Semitic that it was beginning to pose a serious threat to the continuation of the Jewish community in this country.”
Attempts by the CAA to engage with Labour’s own disciplinary procedures — the group filed a series of complaints with the party about Corbyn — were rebuffed on every occasion. Last July, the organization referred Labour to the EHRC, providing a dossier with a slew of evidence about the party’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism in its ranks. Its effort was subsequently backed by the JLM. Labour’s failure to convince the EHRC that it could be trusted to address the issue itself led to the opening of a formal investigation.
“We felt as a last resort we needed to ensure that the Labour Party faced the uncompromising light of British justice. We took this action with the EHRC to ensure that the Labour Party is held to account for everything that it is and everything that it has done,” says Falter.
Over the course of a probe which may take up to a year, the EHRC is expected to compel Labour to turn over internal documents — potentially including emails, text and WhatsApp messages — and force senior figures in the party to testify before it. After it’s finished gathering evidence, the commission is likely to draw up an action plan for Labour to follow. If the party fails to comply, the EHRC has the power to enforce its plan through the courts.
“The whole purpose of the commission’s investigation is to find anti-Semitism in the party and to compel the party to act to stop it,” says Falter. “That’s what we expect to happen.”
The party’s reaction to the news of the investigation, he argues, underlines the need for it. Its official statement showed little in the way of contrition, flatly rejecting “any suggestion that the party does not handle anti-Semitism complaints fairly and robustly, or that the party has acted unlawfully.” Corbyn-supporting members of the party’s National Executive Committee also charged that the EHRC was waging a political campaign against Labour.
“The Labour party response so far merely demonstrates how urgently this investigation is needed,” says Falter. “One of the most frightening things is to see the number of supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party who have taken to social media to propose all sort of theories that the EHRC is actually run by Jews or Zionists or even the Israeli government.”
“Members of our team and the commission have actually received threats already and this is within one day of the investigation being announced,” he adds.
Falter believes that Corbyn is unfit for public office and suggests that “though few have acted, most Labour MPs seem to agree with us.”
“The fact that the Labour Party finds itself in the company of the British National party being investigated by this commission is an indelible stain both on the party and those who continue to defend it,” Falter says. “We’ve seen very honorable members of parliament like Ian Austin who have made enormous personal sacrifices to stand firmly with the Jewish community at this time and it’s at times like this when people of principle stand out from the crowd.”
Austin, a patron on the CAA, quit the Labour Party in February, alongside eight other parliamentarians. A number of them cited anti-Semitism as a reason for their decision.
While Falter believes that Labour represents an “existential” threat to British Jewry — “it’s not just me saying it, the whole of our community is united in saying it” — the party is by no means the CAA’s sole focus. Britain, he suggests, has a problem with “Islamist extremism” and a “resurgent far right.”
Earlier this year, the CAA secured an important change in the law when Alison Chabloz was convicted of criminal offenses in relation to songs mocking Holocaust survivors and claiming that the Holocaust was a fraud. It was the first conviction in the UK over Holocaust denial on social media. Although the Crown Prosecution Service eventually took over the case, it was initiated by the CAA in a private prosecution. The failure of Chabloz’s appeal in the crown court against her conviction set a new precedent in British law to which other courts will now adhere.
That case exemplifies the CAA’s guiding purpose, suggests Falter. “There is no organization in the UK that does what we do, and our specialty is deterrent. We believe that anti-Semitic acts must bear ruinous criminal, regulatory, financial, professional and reputational consequences.”
“We work with the authorities to do that,” he adds. “But where the authorities fail to do their job and defend British Jews, we hold the authorities to account as well.”
Certainly, the CAA plans no let up in its efforts. By the end of the year, its staff will have quadrupled in size as it seeks to support the organization’s 1,100 volunteers. It also plans “many more” lawsuits and is urgently fundraising to cover the cost.
“The fight for British Jewry is not a fight that we can afford to lose,” Falter says. “I feel that I have grown up in a golden age for British Jews. Britain is one of the best countries in the world outside of Israel in which to live as a Jew.”
“We will fight to keep it that way,” he says, warning that “we have a very limited time in which to do so.”