LONDON — One of the most high-profile new MPs in the Labour Party deplores his own party’s “flat-footed and ineffective” response to the wave of anti-Semitic commentary currently engulfing Labour. But Wes Streeting, who represents the northeast London constituency of Ilford North which has a large Jewish community, insisted this week that the problem predated Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
And interestingly, while Streeting welcomed the resignation of his fellow MP Naz Shah as parliamentary private secretary to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, he did not want the row over her contentious social media posts to cause her to step down from the Home Affairs Select Committee on Anti-Semitism.
Streeting is in a unique position to comment on the two latest instances of Labour and anti-Semitic rhetoric — he is a former president of the National Union of Students, which last week elected the BDS activist Malia Bouattia as its president — and he is vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Semitism. The group intends to hold a parliamentary rally on the issue in June.
Speaking to The Times of Israel in the small and cluttered office he shares with another MP adjacent to the House of Commons, Streeting, 33, declared: “Jeremy Corbyn is a committed lifelong antiracist and I believe he thinks anti-Semitism is abhorrent. But as leader of the Labour Party he has a responsibility to take anti-Semitism seriously — and to stamp on it. Because of his left-wing credentials he can have a powerful role to play, if he chooses, in helping people to distinguish between legitimate criticism of the State of Israel and totally unacceptable racism towards Jewish people.”
He is not, Streeting said, surprised by much of the anti-Semitic commentary from the hard left, having become used to it in student politics.
But, he said, “now there is media scrutiny in light of Jeremy Corbyn’s election. It’s a bit like lifting up a stone and having insects crawl out from under it.
“Many of us have seen this for years and have spent a long time in fighting it. We know that Jeremy is a long-standing critic of the State of Israel. We also know that he is very proud of his anti-racist credentials,” said Streeting.
Streeting said he thought “people wanted reassurance from Jeremy that he takes anti-Semitism as seriously as the Labour Party has done historically. We have a proud record of fighting it.”
The MP, who was first elected in 2015, said there were a number of concrete changes he would like to see within Labour to help tackle anti-Semitism. An “anti-Semitism action plan” has been put forward and Streeting is keen on some of its recommendations, including changes to the party rule book which would mean lifetime bans for those who have peddled Jewish race-hatred.
He also believes that there should be improved training for those within the party officialdom who are responsible for recognizing anti-Semitic comments — “those who might have to adjudicate on complaints.”
‘Something very ugly going on in student politics’
It’s only six or seven years since Streeting was president of the National Union of Students and had a reputation as a close friend of the Union of Jewish Students, but the election of Malia Bouattia as president last week has plainly horrified him.
In the past, Bouattia has referred to Birmingham University as “an outpost of Zionism” and home to “one of the biggest Jewish societies in the country.” She has also spoken out passionately in support of violent Palestinian “resistance,” insisted it should not be considered terrorism and criticized the notion that “Palestine” could be freed by nonviolent action alone.
At the same conference in Brighton in which she made her remarks about Birmingham University, students debated whether or not NUS should mark Holocaust Memorial Day. One student who spoke against the event was applauded by delegates.
Streeting told The Times of Israel that there was “something very ugly going on in student politics, particularly when it comes to anti-Semitism. You don’t have to look very far on the internet to find references to the ‘Holohoax’ and a belief that the Holocaust was a political tool to advance the interests of Israel, rather than an atrocity which is rightly commemorated so that we can draw the right lessons. That’s where the opposition to Holocaust Memorial Day comes at its very worst. I am genuinely shocked that someone spoke against Holocaust Memorial Day and received a round of applause. That sort of thing did not exist when I was involved in NUS.”
The national union, which represents an estimated 7 million British students, has “a problem,” said Streeting.
“It wants to debate semantics about condemning Islamic State on one hand but will have a completely wrong-headed approach to the way it deals with the Jewish state of Israel,” Streeting said. “I think NUS is guilty of appalling double standards and the worst kind of gesture politics. I’m afraid that leads to NUS not being taken seriously on the bread-and-butter issues affecting students.”
Nevertheless, Streeting maintained that “the fight is not over with NUS. Decent-minded students need to reclaim their national union from the kind of hard-left politics that currently dominate NUS executive. The focus has got to be on reclaiming NUS, not destroying it.”
Two hours after the interview with Streeting, Cambridge Jewish Society became the first JSoc in Britain to push for its university to disaffiliate from NUS.
‘You don’t have to look very far on the internet to find references to the ‘Holohoax’ and a belief that the Holocaust was a political tool to advance the interests of Israel’
In a statement, Cambridge University Jewish Society said it had passed a motion in favor of disaffiliation — understood to have been by 65 per cent — and said that “In light of the election of Malia Bouattia, whose rhetoric has disturbed many of our members, a referendum will allow Cambridge University students to decide whether they wish to be represented by the NUS.”
A meeting is planned with the university’s student union council on May 2.
Streeting was dismissive of some of the statements made by Bouattia in response to criticism of her remarks about Zionists.
“I don’t think she’s answered why having a large Jewish student society is problematic; I don’t think she’s demonstrated a proper understanding of the difference between legitimate criticism of the State of Israel and anti-Semitic language and imagery; I don’t think she has explained how she considered it acceptable, in a considered speech which she read out, that violent protest [against Israelis] is acceptable; and I don’t, in that context, understand how she can possibly claim to represent all students. She clearly doesn’t have the confidence of Jewish students and I doubt whether she speaks for the majority of students in this country.”
Shock over Shah: ‘a toxic issue for the party’
As far as MP Naz Shah is concerned, Streeting professed himself “shocked. I have got to know her very well and come to really value and appreciate the work she has done in championing diversity and tackling discrimination. I was genuinely shocked by the comments she posted because they seemed to jar completely with the things she has said and done since becoming an MP.”
He said he was “glad” that she had resigned as John McDonnell’s parliamentary private secretary and that “she has actually taken responsibility for her words and shown an understanding why they were unacceptable things to say.
“I think she can play a powerful role in combating anti-Semitism in the future, because there are a lot of people who have used the same language as Naz did in her posts, and who are ignorant, and we have got to tell them why particular forms of imagery are so damaging,” he said.
Shah was “not someone who makes light-hearted apologies,” insisted Streeting, claiming that his fellow MP was aware of the implications of what she had said. But he added that it was important for her to remain on the Select Committee inquiry into anti-Semitism in the hope that she might learn something about Jewish race hate.
“This issue won’t go away [in the Labour Party],” Streeting declared. It was “a toxic issue for the party and its reputation with the Jewish community. I’ve had to work really hard to build bridges with the Jewish community in my constituency: I hope lessons are being learned.”
As we concluded our talk, a group of leading Conservative politicians, pointing to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s pledge that anti-Semites would be kicked out of Labour, called on Jeremy Corbyn to expel Naz Shah.
MP for Hertsmere, Oliver Dowden, asked the Labour leader: “Could you confirm that this zero-tolerance approach will be applied to the Shadow Chancellor’s former parliamentary private secretary? A failure to act would call into question the commitment of the Labour Party to deal with wholly unacceptable behavior and would constitute a betrayal of the values that all those who believe in democracy should uphold.”
The parliamentary chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel, MP and former Communities Minister Sir Eric Pickles, said: “These harmful words echo the acts of hate and intolerance we as a country have always stood against — and for them to come from a member of Parliament about to conduct an inquiry into the rise of anti-Semitism is outrageous. I would urge Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to take immediate action.”
And on April 27, in response to a question from fellow Conservative MP Suella Fernandez about anti-Semitism, Prime Minister David Cameron said, “Anti-Semitism is essentially racism, and it should be stamped out.”
‘The language I used was wrong’
He went on to quote Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s reported comments about Labour’s response to anti-Semitism in the party “Out, out, out…” and then snarled: “It will be too many hours in the day before that happens to the MP in question.”
Nearly simultaneous with Cameron’s comments, London’s Jewish News published an exclusive letter of apology from Shah.
“The language I used was wrong,” Shah wrote. “It is hurtful. What’s important is the impact these posts have had on other people.”
It is extremely rare to initiate proceedings questioning a member’s presence on a Select Committee. A decision on whether Shah remains on the Home Affairs Select Committee on Anti-Semitism will be made on May 2.