Labour’s antisemitism crisis may feel like yesterday’s news, but the issue is about to return. Next month will see the anniversary of Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from Labour membership (later reduced, to removal of the whip, a process intended to make it impossible for him to stand as a Labour candidate in the next general election). In July, the party advertised 50 “case handler” positions to work through its backlog of unresolved membership complaints. These staff members are to be sourced thorough an agency and on temporary contracts and are expected to recommend a large number of expulsions. While, undoubtedly, there will be many Jewish members of the party who welcome this news – there will also be a number who view it with fear, worrying that they will be among those being investigated.
To understand both reactions we need to recall the events which accompanied Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the 2015 leadership elections. After 2015, there was an increase in openly anti-Jewish language used by supporters, especially online. Labour Candidates for Parliament shared posts speaking of “Zionist Masters”, or spoke of Jewish MPs as having “Zionist sympathies”. One candidate for election as a local councillor reposted material on social media which referred to the Holocaust as a “hoax”. Parties need to have disciplinary processes; left-wing parties are entitled to expel members who discredit their own organisations.
However, bound up with this process has been something else – a dynamic in which a mere taking of sides against the party’s present leadership has become grounds for investigation. To say, for example, that several allegations of antisemitism were misplaced or exaggerated became itself a ground for investigation.
By the end of 2019, 220 members of the Labour Party had been investigated for antisemitism. The pro-Corbyn group Jewish Voice for Labour reported that 25 of those investigated by that stage, or just less than one in eight, were Jews. All of this 25, we may assume, were anti-Zionist Jews. But Jews only made up one in every 250 people living in Britain. Assuming that the Jewish proportion of party membership was the same as the Jewish proportion of British society, it would follow that a Jewish member of the party was 30 times more likely to be investigated by Labour than a non-Jew.
This dynamic is one which lawyers term “indirect discrimination”. In an of itself, it does not mean a process unfair or illegal. But the diffeerence of treatment requires justification, with a heavy burden of the discriminator to justify what they are doing.
The party would say that this disparity is not caused by its officers. They do not search out Jewish members; they focus only on complaints. If it is true that Jews are more prone to express themselves in offensive terms about Israeli or Jewish politicians than other members of the party – it is their own fault if they are investigated.
Its critics respond that the fault is with their party. Labour has increasingly seen its role as being to forestall any criticisms of Israeli policy, and to drive out Jewish voices which reject majoritarian Jewish opinions of Labour’s crisis. But Israeli policy towards Palestine is condemned in many places, not least in Israel and by Jews. The point where Israeli left-wing opinions meets British left-wing opinion – among Jewish members of the Labour Party – is where you would expect criticisms of Israel to be made.
The split nature of Jewish opinion under Corbyn was reflected in the existence of two rival groups, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), an organisation of between 1,000 and 2,000 people, many of whom were critical of the Corbyn leadership, and Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), a body founded in 2017 to support Corbyn and which had around 400 Jewish members. Often members of the former organisation will point to status as an approved affiliate of the Labour Party (unlike JVL), their much larger support among Jewish circles, and say that they are the largest body of Jewish opinion within Labour. They are the majority, and they alone can stand as representative of Jewish opinion as a whole.
JVL was widely cited in the media, and treated as the representative body of pro-Corbyn Jewish opinion within the party. The split however went deeper than just JLM against JVL.
There were large numbers of pro-Corbyn Jews who steered clear of Jewish Voice for Labour, and several played prominent roles within the party. Probably the most visible Jewish figure within Labour’s crisis was Jon Lansman, founder of the pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum. Lansman was interviewed in Jewish newspapers, spoke at Jewish cultural events, and supported the exclusion of individuals whose behaviour had crossed the line. As a longstanding Jewish socialist you might have expected Lansman to work with JVL; he did not. Rather, he accused that group of denying Labour’s difficulties and antagonising Jewish members The effect of the crisis in other was not merely to polarise Jewish opinion but also to deepen divisions within and splinter the pro-Corbyn left.
It is often said that all the offensive behaviour came from Labour’s left. But this assumption better reflects press commentary on the crisis than the actual and rancorous debate we have seen in Britain over the past five years. In 2015-9, the children’s author Michael Rosen spoke up often for Jeremy Corbyn. “To say these things has invited Jews and non-Jews on Twitter to call me a ‘kapo’, a ‘used Jew’ … someone who ‘dons the cloak of Jewishness’ … one of the ‘useful Jewish idiots’ [and] ‘a cheerleader for Soros’.” Rosen named the people who had criticised him, who included broadcasters and high-profile print journalists. Seemingly, none of the individuals named by him have ever been investigated by Labour.
Supporters of the leadership might accept that Rosen’s treatment was unjustifiable. They insist however that we need to have a sense of the crisis as a whole, inside which the majority of abusive language has come from Corbyn supporters. In 2016, one Jewish MP Ruth Smeeth was challenged at a press conference launching a Labour report on anti-Semitism. After that incident, Smeeth received 25,000 items of hate mail. And this was just a single instance, early in the crisis. Other Jewish MPs, including Luciana Berger, who was blamed by much of the left for the story’s return to the headlines in 2018, was treated even worse.
For the party’s present leadership, the way to restore Jewish confidence in Labour has been to inform the press that it is carrying out the maximum number of expulsions, in order to prove that the phenomenon of antisemitism has been silenced, and that anti-Jewish racists have been placed outside the Labour Party where they cannot do any harm.
Yet if you read the paperwork generated by Labour Party complaints, a different picture emerges. The people subject to investigation are suspended for months and sometimes years, and are subject to shifting allegations as their social media comments are searched often far into the past. No-one properly explains to the members why their behaviour was offensive.
Investigators decline to give any consideration to change. This is, arguably, the most egregious fault with the process. Those who constructed it have no idea of using investigation as a way of changing how people think. If we compare investigations to the legal processes which are closest to it, in them, judges ask repeatedly is a person accused of wrongdoing apologetic for what they said or did? Do they grasp how their words were offensive? Can they give any sort of undertaking they will not be repeated?
Inside Labour, these questions are never asked. Even to suggest that they should be is seen as a sign of wavering in the face of the more important task of proving to the media Labour’s commitment to dealing with the issue at last.
While the problems within Labour are not reducible to the persistence of prejudice in wider British society, they do to some extent reflect it. According to polls conducted in 2014, one in ten people here would be unhappy if a relative married a Jewish person, and one in six believe that Jews have too much power in the media. Those figures would that tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Labour members held at least some anti-Jewish views.
Everyone agrees that members should be educated; but such education as has been provided has been defensive, seemingly planned and certainly received along existing factional lines with the focus always on providing boundaries rather than explaining them.
Challenging racism on the scale required is going to require a more active process of explaining antisemitism and encouraging people in all parts of the party to speak out against it than the mere recruitment of 50 temporary case handlers. And it isn’t something which the leadership shows any desire or ability to do.
If you enjoyed this piece, it reflects the arguments of my book, Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It, which was published by Routledge in August.