I remember when Labour was part of the solution, not the problem, to tackling antisemitism, writes Jennifer Gerber
When I was growing up 20 years ago, antisemitism in Britain was rarely a topic of conversation among my family, friends and school mates.
When we spoke of it, it was about the past; the lingering threat, such as it was, thankfully confined to a marginalised far right fringe. As a member of the Labour party, I was proud of the fact that my party had long been part of the solution, not the problem.
However, my experience is not one shared by Jewish young people today. Stories about antisemitism now frequently make the news, causing deep concern and worry in the Jewish community.
And, sadly, in too many of these stories, the Labour party is part of the problem not the solution.
As John Cryer, the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, suggested at a fringe meeting at conference in September, some of the tweets sent by members which he had viewed when sitting on disciplinary committees ‘makes your hair stand on end’. They were, he suggested, ‘redolent of the 1930s’.
Indeed, at that very conference we witnessed some truly shocking scenes. Leaflets handed out which quoted Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the ‘final solution’, to propagate the noxious lie that the Nazis were somehow supportive of Zionism. Calls for Jewish groups to be thrown out of the Labour party. And even the suggestion that the right to debate whether the Holocaust happened is a matter of free speech.
If these events had occurred at the conference of any other party, we would rightly have been appalled. That they occurred during the conference of the Labour party should be a matter of deep shame.
Much as some would like to dismiss them as such, these are not isolated incidents. Just this month, we have seen revelations about the social media posts of a prospective council candidate who wrote that there were ‘worse people [than Adolf] Hitler in this world’; that ‘Jews have reaped the rewards of playing victims’; and asked: ‘What have the Jews done good in this world’. Then there was another prospective candidate who had written: ‘It’s the super rich families of the Zionist lobby that control the world. Our world leaders sell their souls for greed and do the bidding of Israel.’
Campaign groups have catalogued 39 other recent cases of alleged antisemitism in the Labour party. All of these cases involve people who hold or have held office in the party, including seven MPs, one peer, three parliamentary candidates, 15 councillors, and, of course, one former London mayor.
For some, this is all ‘mood music’ deployed by Jeremy Corbyn’s enemies. These critics, we are told, spread ‘false stories of antisemitism’, ‘completely distorting’ the scale of the problem in order to undermine his leadership.
Nor is this, as others allege, about silencing criticism of the Israeli government. Nobody thinks there is anything antisemitic about opposing Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies; millions of Israelis do so as well. But much of the antisemitism we see in the Labour party involves invoking traditional antisemitic tropes – about Jewish power and conspiracies, blood libels, and dual loyalties – to attack, demonise and delegitimise the state of Israel and its people. And we should not forget that another classic trope is the charge that Jews manufacture and exploit tales of antisemitism to serve their own purposes.
Some accept that we have a problem and believe that we have to address it because it cost us seats in north London’s so-called ‘bagel belt’ at the general election. I am sure it did – but this is a moral problem, not a political one, and we have to address it as such.
Patting ourselves on the back that we have a passed a rule change to clamp down on antisemitism does not even begin to do so. We should be asking ourselves instead why it is that we have needed to toughen our rules to drive out antisemites who now want to make the Labour party their home.
Many Labour members of parliament have taken a stand. Jewish MPs like Louise Ellman and Ruth Smeeth have spoken out bravely about the intimidation they have faced. Friends of the community – like Joan Ryan, Ian Austin, Wes Streeting and John Mann – have been absolutely steadfast in calling out antisemitism wherever they have seen it. And Progress, too, has played its part: showing that antisemitism is not just a problem for Jews, it is a problem for all of us.
Ultimately, however, the culture of any organisation is set by those at the top. It is incumbent upon Jeremy Corbyn to make a big, meaningful and proactive gesture to Britain’s Jews. Acknowledge the problem, admit past mistakes, and ask those who have been hurt and offended for advice and help in tackling it. He may not like much of what he hears in response – it may challenge views that he has had and espoused for much of his adult life – but the ability to act in such a fashion is what true leadership is all about.
Jennifer Gerber is director of Labour Friends of Israel. She writes in a personal capacity. She tweets at @JenGerber79