[TW: antisemitism, harassment]
Looking over at Twitter, there seems to be a growing fear on the part of fellow socialists that Keir Starmer will invite back into the Labour Party people who left with Change UK. The name that keeps coming up in this context is that of Luciana Berger.
At a time when people who’ve been active on the Labour left for decades are being suspended for allowing their branch to discuss pro-Corbyn motions, I can understand why people feel that differential standards are at work (i.e. the Labour right is being tolerated even for breach of rules which are of decades long standing, the left driven out in the name of instructions with little basis in the rulebook). I get that.
But before anyone goes too far down that path, I’d encourage them to think about what actually happened to Berger in the Labour Party and whether any of us are really comfortable with it.
A quick recap. In 2014, the Daily Stormer website developed an obsession with Berger, and published about 40 articles about her, attacking her using the most open and blatant antisemitic language. One of the attacks ended “Tell her we do not want her in the UK, we do not want her or any other Jew anywhere in Europe.”
At one point Berger was receiving hate messages at the rate of 800 *a day*. Between 2014 and 2018 three supporters of the far right were jailed for threatening her. (A fourth case began with emails send by a fascist to her, although the sender was convicted and jailed for other, terrorism, offences).
If Diane Abbott is a unique target for sexist and racist use, then Berger has taken on a similar role in the antisemitic imagination. I cannot think of anyone in Britain who has received anti-Jewish hate in a similar volume to her.
Depressingly, an amount of this has come from the left. In 2013 (ie. before the Daily Stormer started stalking her) one socialist and anti-racist activist Philip Hayes the founder of Liverpool music venue The Picket approached Berger when drunk. He talked to her about Gaza and about Israel, and quite quickly about Jews. He said, “All Jewish people have money”. Hayes referred to the prime minister of Israel as “your Prime Minister,” and said, “I fucking hate Jewish people”. Hayes was convicted of a public order offence.
The other instance of criminal harassment of Berger from the left occurred in March 2018. A Labour activist Nick Nelson sent messages to two Jewish women MP, Luciana Berger, and Ruth Smeeth. He told Smeeth she was a “red Tory traitor” and Berger that she was a “vile useless Tory c**t” who was “using Judaism as a weapon”. He pleaded two guilty to two offences of harassment and was given a suspended prison sentence.
One thing worth noting about Nelson is that these tweets seems to have been sent in response to the single act for which people blame Berger the most – i.e. her decision in spring 2018 to share on her twitter feed an old news story about Jeremy Corbyn and an east end mural. This became the Mear One mural / Enough is Enough crisis – and probably did more than anything else to remove the moral sheen of Corbynism.
Analysed in “side” terms (the left v the right), you can understand why people were angry with Berger and blame her for Corbyn’s humiliation and defeat. I think they’re wrong. It seems to me that they are blaming someone visible on the far side of the party for a mistake made by us (i.e. Corbyn’s misreading of the mural, without which none of that would have happened).
But in anti-racist terms, Berger was a member of an ethnic minority complaining about racism at the head of her organisation. Criticising her, and abusing her, is what lawyers mean by “victimisation”, i.e. causing a person a detriment because they have made a complaint.
I could go on and on about the crap that was directed at Berger through 2018: stories that she had imagined a police escort purely to embarrass the leadership. Attempts to get her deselected, etc. Even the antisemitic tarring of the relatively few people on the Labour left who stood up for her, and opposed her deselection…
By autumn and winter 2018, on Corbyn-supporting social media pages there was a level of hate directed at Berger which was unforgiveable. She was called a traitor, an Israeli, a spy, and there was just an enormous amount of abuse directed at her, some sexist, some racist, some both.
The point I’m getting at isn’t about then, so much as now. Friends really, really, *really* need to let go of the idea that if Berger is allowed to rejoin the Labour Party then something terrible has happened. The bad things here are first Berger’s original treatment, and second the spurious exclusion of members for passing anodyne motions in support of Corbyn.
If Berger is allowed back, then it is not a failure on the scale of either of those two mistakes. If she is allowed back, you need to live with it.