Over the last week several people have written to me about antisemitism.
Mostly these emails are strongly supportive of the stance I have taken in challenging antisemitism wherever I have found it, including in the Labour Party. Some others have raised some important questions, so I thought I would clear them up here.
I expect the forthcoming report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will also address these points in some detail. The EHRC has worked over the last eighteen months on an investigation into allegations of antisemitism in the Labour party and how fit for purpose the party is in handling such allegations and acts. This came about as a result of a referral of the Labour Party to the EHRC by the Jewish Labour Movement, one of the longest-standing Labour affiliated organisations and one which I am a member of.
The EHRC is an independent body, with statutory duties and powers to investigate possible breaches of equality and human rights law. This is a move I supported as it had become clear that for whatever reasons, the Labour Party was not managing to respond effectively to allegations or evidence of antisemitism amongst members.
When that EHRC report is published I will read it closely but I can say right now, whatever it contains I will back the findings and call for the Labour party to take up all the recommendations. I will also be playing my own part in this of course. This will include promoting the report to my local members and asking the constituency Labour Party executive committee to reflect on the findings and recommendations and work with them to come up with an action plan for local change.
In 2018, I was criticised by some Labour Party members for attending a rally in Parliament Square to support my Jewish colleagues and friends who had been deeply hurt and often harassed and abused by antisemitism In the Labour party.
Most people understood that standing up to racism in the Labour party is as important as standing up to it anywhere else. More so, especially as I am an elected representative of a party which exists to challenge inequality of all forms, no matter how hard that is and no matter where we find it.
Some common arguments
I have often heard the argument that “it should be possible to criticise Israel without being accused of being antisemitic”. Yes, of course it is possible. The way to do it is to criticise the state of Israel, without being antisemitic.
Labour as a party is perfectly capable of distinguishing between legitimate criticism of the actions of the Israeli government and antisemitism. In fact the Labour party’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy spoke out against the decisions of the Israeli government on Saturday 27th June 2020 because of the planned annexation of the West Bank. She did so without being antisemitic.
This means holding Israel to the same standard as other countries. For a political party to criticise the actions of another government there has to be even-handedness and consistency, otherwise our principles of human rights and internationalism are undermined by subjectivity.
Antisemitism comes in many forms and one of them is the blaming of Jews for anything bad which happens. Over the years, this has sometimes been done by blaming ‘Israel’ or ‘Israeli forces’ without being specific or clear – and this has the same effect and impact as simply blaming Jews.
This has been demonstrated – perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not – by too many people who make assumptions that ‘Israel is behind’ something bad happening somewhere else in the world. But it’s also when people focus solely and only on the actions of Israel while ignoring, minimising or justifying egregious breaches of human rights and oppression by hundreds of other leaders and governments across the world.
The report on Human Rights and Democracy from the FCO documents stomach churning abuses of human rights, slavery, sexual slavery, rape, torture, civilian repression and more in countries across the world. Yet some well-meaning people demand that I take a stand on Israel alone. I have to ask myself, what’s underneath this singling out? Why only Israel?
I will continue to hold the Foreign Secretary and subsequent Foreign Secretaries responsible for taking action on all forms of oppression and abuses of human rights.
However, I will also challenge anyone who asks me to focus solely on Israel and insist on ignoring, minimising or denying the human rights and internal repression in many other countries in the world.
If you want to read more about what antisemitism is, a good place to start is the page on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) website about their definition, with examples. This IHRA definition was finally adopted by the Labour party and with my strong support, after very disappointing resistance to it by some members of the party. This resistance only increased the concerns of Jews and others that the Labour party was not able to assess and respond to anti-Semitism.
Someone recently emailed me to tell me ‘Israelis are powerful and behave like Nazis.’ Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve heard this from someone who claims to support the Labour party.
This statement is laden with antisemitic concepts. The person who sent it did not even mention the Israeli government, only ‘Israelis’. I am sure that person would not want to be blamed or held responsible for the actions of the UK government or security forces, nor defined by them.
The notion of Jews as powerful in their statement is part of the insidious antisemitism that fuelled Nazi ideology. There are many other examples of similar statements reflecting views which are built on antisemitic views of the place of Jews in the world.
In the lead-up to the Second World War, the Nazis demonised Jews as responsible for all the harms of the world, of having all the power and money and being untrustworthy. Since the creation of Israel, antisemites have been able to use the word Israel as a substitute for Jew. But this does not disguise the hate behind it. It just makes it more cowardly.
How can we challenge anti-Semitism?
In short, to avoid being antisemitic, don’t propagate conspiracy theories about Israeli people being responsible for the bad things which happen in the world. Don’t use tired racist tropes about powerful lobbies controlling the world or the money or the power. Don’t say “but other forms of racism are worse” – racism is racism, it all needs challenging and changing.
Challenge all racism. Examine your own views. Consider that you may be mistaken. Or that you have a good understanding of antisemitism but perhaps have not spoken out about it.
For my part, I am not able to stand by and say or do nothing. I’ve challenged antisemitism and reported it when I’ve seen it in the Labour party. I’ve reported it to the police when I’ve come across it in the form of murals during the General Election in 2017 in Bristol and got those murals removed. I’ve built up strong relationships with the two synagogues in my constituency, including playing the cello for Kol Nidrei hymn at the service on the eve of Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, at the progressive synagogue and meeting with representatives of the congregations to discuss their concerns about the Labour party and air different views. I’ve spoken individually with many Jewish people in Bristol West, including some Labour members and former members, all with ideas about what needs doing and I’ve tried to respect, represent and follow these all up. I’ve participated in public meetings and community events and supported the work of Jewish Labour Movement.
In his acceptance speech on becoming Leader of the Labour Party, Keir stated that restoring the Jewish community’s trust in the Labour Party is his number one priority. He has rightly promised zero tolerance of anti-Semitism.
If you are a member of the Labour Party, one thing you could do right now to support this aim is to join the Jewish Labour Movement, the Labour affiliated organisation with over a century of activism within the Labour Party.
We must all speak out. Enough is enough.