Britain’s Labour Party Tries to Whitewash Its Anti-Semitism

Jamie Palmer

Jamie Palmer

Freelance writer and independent filmmaker

click for full bio >>

~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Jamie Palmer ~

From the Blog

The Labour Party has struggled with accusations of entrenched anti-Semitism ever since Jeremy Corbyn took over as party leader last year. Its internal report on the issue has only made things worse.

Attentive commentators on both the Left and Right were warning of the dangers posed by Jeremy Corbyn’s ferocious anti-Zionism long before he was elected leader of the British Labour Party in September 2015. Over a lifetime of radical activism, Corbyn had shared platforms with a variety of anti-Semites and openly declared his solidarity with genocidal Islamists such as Hamas and Hezbollah. And he did so with a consistency that belied mere carelessness.

When criticized for this behavior, Corbyn’s response has always been the same: He is opposed to “all forms of racism” and any contact he may have had with unsavory actors was an unfortunate consequence of his earnest support for the Palestinian cause. In the interests of peace, he routinely mumbles, we must be prepared to talk to those with whom we disagree.

Such platitudes are hardly satisfactory. While Corbyn was comfortable describing the notorious Israeli-Arab blood libeler Raed Salah as “an honored citizen” and invited him to take tea on the terrace of the Parliament building, he was also agitating for the arrest and prosecution of Israeli MK Tzipi Livni from a platform provided by the Khomeinist Islamic Human Rights Commission. “No tea for her,” one blogger drily observed.

But the Labour Party membership, dazzled by hatred of Conservative austerity and intoxicated by fantasies of unreconstructed socialism, waved all concerns away and handed Corbyn a landslide victory in the race for party leadership. The anti-Zionist fringe of the Labour Party was emboldened, and activists from various far-Left groups flocked to the shade of the new leadership’s radical umbrella. And they wasted no time in injecting their vitriolic hatred of Israel and “Zionists” into mainstream Left-wing discourse.

Jeremy Corbyn at a rally to protest against Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapons program. Photo: Steve Eason / flickr. Used under Creative Commons 2.0 License

Jeremy Corbyn at a rally to protest against Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapons program. Photo: Steve Eason / flickr. Used under Creative Commons 2.0 License

Left-wing and liberal Jews, many of whom were already disenchanted by (Jewish) former leader Ed Miliband’s unsympathetic attitude towards Israel, suddenly awoke to discover they were no longer wanted in their own party. “We are of the Left, but are no longer welcome, unless we become ‘good Jews’ who are not ‘bad, Zionist Jews,’” wrote one. “I hate that my Jewishness and my progressive politics are currently incompatible,” said another. Shortly after his election, Corbyn addressed Labour Friends of Israel and pointedly refused to even speak the name of the Jewish state. The co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club resigned, describing the atmosphere and attitudes there as “anti-Semitic” and “poisonous.” An investigation by Labour’s official student organization into his claims uncovered widespread anti-Semitism, but the report was promptly buried. A further inquiry chaired by Baroness Royall was announced but its full report was also suppressed. [Ed. note: The Royall report was leaked shortly after this article was published. The report noted that “there have been some incidents of antisemitic behaviour and that it is appropriate for the disciplinary procedures of our Party to be invoked.”]

Former London mayor Ken Livingstone’s declaration on live radio that Adolf Hitler had briefly supported Zionism—itself an obscure defense of Labour MP Naz Shah’s circulation of a meme recommending the relocation of Israeli Jews to the United States—was only the latest and most high-profile symptom of a far more serious malady. It was also the last straw. Recognizing that the problem was getting out of hand, the Labour leadership announced yet another inquiry. It was to be led by Shami Chakrabarti, the former chair of the advocacy group Liberty UK, and would begin without delay and report two months hence.

Corbyn’s supporters were keen to argue that this was a demonstration of the seriousness with which the Labour leadership regarded the problem. Skeptics, however, noted that the inquiry had been commissioned under duress and that it looked more like an attempt to simply make the controversy disappear. The inquiry’s terms of reference, which Chakrabarti went out of her way to defend vigorously in the report itself, did little to inspire confidence.

After months of anti-Semitic scandals, the Labour Party commissioned an investigative report. It turned into a whitewash.

They stated: “The Inquiry, which will report in two months (of its launch), will consult widely with Labour Party Members, the Jewish community, and other minority representatives about a statement of principles and guidance about anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, including Islamophobia.” The proceedings were intended “to ensure Labour is a welcoming environment for members of all communities.”

This statement of intent was an obvious sign of trouble. The citation of “other forms of racism, including Islamophobia” looked like a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the problem at hand. The issue ought to have been how and why the Labour Party, especially on the radical Corbynite Left, had developed a particular problem with anti-Semitism. This, unfortunately, was not to be.

On June 30, the Inquiry released its findings, which Chakrabarti introduced with the following lines: “The Labour Party is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism. Further, it is the party that initiated every single United Kingdom race equality law.”

It is worth lingering on these sentences, because they help to explain what is wrong with almost everything that follows. First, the elision of “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or other forms of racism” as per her remit all but guarantees a report filled with generalities at the expense of the particular.

The second sentence is intended to substantiate the claim made by the first. It is not simply a statement of fact, but an affirmation of the Labour Party’s presumed moral authority on the subject of racism, when the issue of report was meant to be how the party had abdicated that moral authority on the issue of anti-Semitism.

Taken together, the statement constitutes a kind of circular reasoning known as “question begging.” To wit: The Labour Party does not have a problem with racism (including anti-Semitism) because the Labour Party is anti-racist. This moral complacency percolates through the entire report, and Chakrabarti repeatedly returns to Labour’s history of anti-racism as if it were an unchallengeable alibi.

Chakrabarti, of course, goes on to claim that she is sensitive to Jewish concerns that “anti-Semitism has not been taken seriously enough in the Labour Party and broader Left.” But this encouraging sentiment is not reflected in the report’s remaining 27 pages.

For example, Chakrabarti makes the unnecessary observation that “inquiries are inevitably commissioned at a moment of considerable legitimate concern.” In her concluding remarks, she further acknowledges “a series of unhappy incidents which did no credit to the Labour Party”—an understatement on both counts. What she does not acknowledge is the anti-Semitic nature of those unhappy incidents, nor that they emerged against a backdrop of escalating alarm about the Labour Party’s attitude towards Jews and anti-Jewish racism under Jeremy Corbyn.

Shami Chakrabarti. Photo: Southbank Centre / flickr

Shami Chakrabarti. Photo: Southbank Centre / flickr

Indeed, the very word “anti-Semitism” appears a mere 11 times in the report’s 28 pages, almost always watered down by a reference to “other forms of racism, including Islamophobia.” It does not merit a single mention in the concluding recommendations. Chakrabarti doesn’t even bother to define the term, declaring this “an age-old and ultimately fruitless debate about the parameters of racism” that is beneath the Labour Party. She displays no interest in understanding its peculiar mechanics or why its conspiratorial tropes about Jewish wealth, power, and malevolence have found such fertile soil in the ecosystem of Left-wing ideologies.

She is, on the other hand, keen to point out that “the Labour Government quickly moved to recognize the new state of Israel upon its formation in 1948” and to remind everyone that in 1920 (i.e. nearly a hundred years ago), The Jewish Chronicle remarked that “Jews have no better friends in this country than the Labour Party.” But she declines to explore what has caused the Left to turn so decisively against the Jewish state since, and how this has impacted relations between the Labour Party and British Zionist Jews.

In fact, the terms “anti-Zionism” and “anti-Zionist” do not appear in the report at all. The term “Zionism” appears only five times, and Chakrabarti seems a good deal less concerned about the deliberate stigmatization of the majority of Jews who support Israel than the accidental stigmatization of the minority who do not.

The word “anti-Semitism” appears a mere 11 times in the report’s 28 pages, almost always watered down by a reference to “other forms of racism, including Islamophobia.” “Anti-Zionism” does not appear at all.

Insofar as the particularities of anti-Semitism are addressed, Chakrabarti allows that presuming Jews control the media or finance is “wholly insensitive.” Holocaust denial and the analogizing of Nazism and Israel, however, are in “bad taste” and so best avoided. Lest we mistake the nature of her concern, she adds that such comparisons “are all too capable, not only of bringing the Labour Party into disrepute, but of actively undermining the cause of peace, justice, and statehood for the Palestinian people.” Likewise, the use of abusive epithets such as “Zio” is not conducive to civil discussion; “My advice to critics of the Israeli State and/or Government,” she cautions, “is to use the term ‘Zionism’ advisedly.”

That such banalities even need to be committed to paper says much about the scale of Labour’s problem. Charged with investigating anti-Semitism, Chakrabarti prefers to furrow her brow about more tactful ways to denounce Israel:

Labour members should be free and positively encouraged to criticize injustice and abuse wherever they find it, including in the Middle East. But surely it is better to use the modern universal language of human rights, be it of dispossession, discrimination, segregation, occupation, or persecution, and to leave Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust out of it?

But why are comparisons between Hitler and Israel so common on the Left in the first place, given that they are not only profoundly insensitive but also demonstrably absurd? And is “the modern universal language of human rights” not just as inflammatory when incorrectly applied? At what point does support for Palestinian nationalism and reasonable criticism of Israel tip into fetishization of the former and spiteful vilification of the latter? And why is the Left so obsessively preoccupied with Palestine anyway, given that there are far bloodier conflicts involving far greater abuses of human rights to be found without even leaving the Levant?

This last question is at least given a cursory glance, only for Chakrabarti to declare that it is not her place to rule on where activists choose to direct their energies. The rest is not only left unanswered, it is left unasked. This is particularly frustrating in view of the fact that a number of eminent academics and writers—all of whom have devoted considerable career time to searching analyses of Left-wing anti-Semitism—made thoughtful submissions to the inquiry that are not even acknowledged, let alone addressed in any detail.

Instead, Chakrabarti bristles with indignation at “rumors” that her terms of reference are “somehow intended to dilute concerns around anti-Semitism.” She offers three reasons why this is not the case, two of which relate to a general commitment to inclusivity and even-handedness and so on. But the first and most detailed reason she gives is more interesting. She suggests that anyone arguing that Left-wing anti-Semitism deserves particular scrutiny is engaged in a reprehensible kind of special pleading—an attempt to privilege one kind of racism over another. “Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and Afriphobia are all equally vile forms of racism,” she instructs sternly. “No competition for victimhood is required or should be encouraged.”

But in this context, who has said it is or that it should? Chakrabarti offers no examples. Nor is it clear why any ethnic favoritism might be implied by asking her to concentrate on anti-Semitism, since there is a perfectly obvious reason for her to do so.

Jeremy Corbyn speaks in the House of Commons as members of the Labour Party look on, March 16, 2016. Photo: UK Parliament / flickr

Jeremy Corbyn speaks in the House of Commons as members of the Labour Party look on, March 16, 2016. Photo: UK Parliament / flickr

Having preemptively concluded that an anti-racist party like Labour cannot—by definition—be afflicted with anti-Semitism, Chakrabarti has to find some other explanation for her inquiry’s existence. She comes up with two: First, any “unhappy incidents” of anti-Semitism are mere outliers—exceptions to a rule proven by Labour’s belabored history of anti-racist legislating and campaigning. Second, these exceptions have been seized upon and amplified by opportunists and “mischief-makers” to the Right of Jeremy Corbyn—including within the Labour Party itself—who have sought to embarrass the Labour leader for political purposes.

This theme turns out to be something of an obsession for Chakrabarti, and she repeatedly implies that such complaints have no merit. “If you feel that antisemitism or other racism is going to be manipulated by a hostile media,” she writes in her introduction, “or by political rivals to silence your legitimate concerns about the world, this Report and our work is for you.”

She further recommends absolute presumption of innocence for those accused of anti-Semitism and an end to permanent expulsions of party members, an obvious reference to the recent suspensions of figures like Ken Livingstone.

Her points about due process and the presumption of innocence are obviously reasonable in and of themselves. But the disproportionate space and weight they are allotted creates an impression that her investigation has been occasioned by an abuse of disciplinary processes. “Going forward,” she writes darkly, “members should feel able to report concerns to an improved Party process rather than to media and political opponents of the Movement’s wider social justice goals.” She seems to consider most of these complaints to be a nebulous conspiracy against the Labour Party and its self-evidently exemplary values.

The idea that the anti-Semitism scandal is a creation of political enemies and the media turns out to be something of an obsession for Chakrabarti, and she repeatedly implies that complaints about Jew-hatred have no merit.

Most telling of all is the unguarded candor with which Chakrabarti recommends a “moratorium on the retrospective trawling of members’ social media accounts and past comments.” This astonishing and irresponsible recommendation illuminates her primary concern, which is not the moral health of the Labour Party or the wellbeing of Jewish victims of racism, but with managing appearances. “Indeed,” she ventures, “if [my recommended] principle of proportionality had been properly applied in recent times, I query whether so many people would ever have been suspended at all.”

This is all, in other words, much ado about very little.

Chakrabarti is also minded to cast a skeptical eye over the accusations made against Jeremy Corbyn—discussed under the tendentious heading “Freeing Up Speech.” She does not name him, but she is clearly referring to Corbyn when she writes:

I think it dangerous to argue guilt by association and in so doing to undermine the kind of dialogue and debate that is the basis of peace, progress, and greater understanding in the world. It is especially pernicious, in my view, to blame those who share platforms with people who went on (often some considerable time later) to say and do things with which we profoundly disagree and even abhor.

This is all highly disingenuous. As Chakrabarti surely knows, Corbyn does not share platforms with representatives of Hamas in order to oppose and challenge them. He does so in an explicit display of solidarity and endorsement.

For example, speaking before a hall packed with Stop the War Coalition activists in 2009, Corbyn described Hamas as “an organization that is dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people, and bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region.”

This is an organization whose charter demands a ceaseless jihad for the “obliteration” of Israel, scorns negotiations and summits as “a waste of time and vain endeavors,” accuses world Jewry of being behind the French and Communist revolutions (among others), quotes scripture mandating the indiscriminate murder of Jews, and cites the notorious anti-Semitic fraud The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as firm and reliable evidence of Jewish turpitude.

It was at this same meeting that Corbyn notoriously introduced Hamas and the genocidal Islamists of Lebanese Hezbollah as “our friends.” Apparently, Shami Chakrabarti can see no problem with any of this.

It is perhaps fitting then that the press conference convened to unveil the report proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

In his prepared statement, Corbyn strolled into a propeller with this spectacularly ill-judged comparison:

Nor should anyone indulge in the kind of stereotyping which can cause such hurt and harm. To assume that a Jewish friend is wealthy, part of some kind of financial or media conspiracy, or takes a particular position on politics in general, or on Israel and on Palestine in particular, is just wrong. Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel and the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those various self-styled Islamic states and organizations.

Corbyn’s implication was unmistakable: It is just as defamatory to presume all Jews support the State of Israel as it is to assume all Muslims support genocidal jihadists. The distinction between a liberal parliamentary democracy and totalitarian terrorist organizations was not about to interfere with this revealing bit of moral equivalence.

A protest from the floor duly followed during the Q&A, but Chakrabarti rode to Corbyn’s defense. The comparison, she explained, was a reference to one she herself had made on page 10 of her report and for which she took complete responsibility. The only intended equivalence, she protested, was that it is wrong (in the sense of “incorrect”) to extrapolate assumptions about a person’s politics from their religion or ethnicity. In fact, Corbyn was more obviously claiming that a forgotten minority of Jews shares his hatred of Israel, and that this is no more racist or ignoble than a secular Muslim dissident’s hatred of murderous theocracy.

Someone else invited Corbyn to condemn Ken Livingstone’s remarks about Nazism and Zionism with the same vehemence reserved for the Tory Brexiteers he had denounced in his opening remarks. Chakrabarti sprang to his defense again, saying, “Thank you for that sir, but I will not let the leader respond to your question because there will be due process and it will not be compromised in this party.”

Even Corbyn’s ostensibly forthright objection to Jewish “financial or media conspiracy” stereotypes could not survive the event. When Labour activist Marc Wadsworth rose to register a complaint about the paucity of Asian and Afro-Caribbean people in the room, he took the opportunity to accuse Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth of “working hand-in-hand” with the Right-wing newspaper The Daily Telegraph to undermine Corbyn. Smeeth immediately walked out of the conference visibly angered and distressed. Hannah Weisfeld, the director of the liberal Zionist organization Yachad UK, sank her head into her palm. PoliticsHome editor Kevin Schofield, sitting just behind Smeeth, murmured, “This is anti-Semitism at the launch of an anti-Semitism report.”

Jeremy Corbyn shakes the hand of Labour Party activist Marc Wadsworth, shortly after Wadsworth accused a Jewish member of parliament of being part of a media conspiracy at the unveiling of Labour’s report on anti-Semitism in the party. Photo: Ruptly TV / YouTube

Jeremy Corbyn shakes the hand of Labour Party activist Marc Wadsworth, shortly after Wadsworth accused a Jewish member of parliament of being part of a media conspiracy at the unveiling of Labour’s report on anti-Semitism in the party. Photo: Ruptly TV / YouTube

But Corbyn was totally unfazed. He simply ignored the slur directed at his parliamentary colleague and addressed the question about minority representation with a handful of platitudes about diversity. To add insult to injury, he was later recorded chatting and laughing with Wadsworth, who gloated, “I outed Ruth Smeeth for bloody talking to the Torygraph.” If Corbyn disapproved, he did not say so. Wadsworth subsequently claimed that he had not known Smeeth is Jewish. That may or may not be true, but his remark was nonetheless evidence of the kind of conspiracism in which anti-Semitism thrives, in which the Labour Left is currently awash, and in which Chakrabarti’s report had shown not the slightest interest.

Chakrabarti did manage to chastise Wadsworth, telling him he had “abused the privilege of asking a question.” But, once again, she did her best to shield Corbyn from criticism by insisting that it was her press conference, and he was therefore under no obligation to defend his colleague, no matter how callous his indifference may have looked. The following week, when Corbyn appeared before the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee investigating anti-Semitism, Chakrabarti again adopted the role of legal counsel, passing him handwritten notes until the exasperated Committee chair Keith Vaz instructed her to desist.

Evidently smarting from the subsequent derision, Chakrabarti gave a maudlin interview to The Jewish Chronicle in which she insisted that her conversations with witnesses to her inquiry had been “heartbreaking” and the evidence submitted by Jewish students was the “most upsetting.” Wadsworth had spoiled her press conference by inconveniently drawing attention to precisely the problem she had done her best to trivialize. “I could have cried,” she explained. “I was just frustrated. I’d spent two months trying to build trust and move forward and all it takes is one person to ruin it.”

In a tense interview, Shami Chakrabarti refused to deny that the Labour Party had offered her a place in the House of Lords. Photo: J-TV / YouTube

In a tense interview, Shami Chakrabarti refused to deny that the Labour Party had offered her a place in the House of Lords. Photo: J-TV / YouTube

It’s hard to be moved by this attempt to curry sympathy. Had she taken the problem seriously to begin with, she would not have been vulnerable to ambush by reality. Even in the bruising aftermath of the press conference, she continued to insist the problem was really just a misunderstanding produced by a lack of courtesy and political decorum: “It is not good enough to argue you did not mean to be anti-Semitic. Stop being hateful, stop being shouty, and stop being rude.”

This feeble plea exposes the limitations of Chakrabarti’s understanding of this issue and encapsulates the failings of the inane document her inquiry produced. But if the inquiry’s findings brought the Labour Party no closer to self-knowledge, it is because that was never the point in the first place.

Needless to say, the Labour leadership was delighted with Chakrabarti’s job. On July 20, during an extremely uncomfortable interview with J-TV, she refused to deny that she had since been offered a place in the House of Lords. It was the thirteenth strike of the clock, and a depressing if predictable coda to an altogether squalid episode. [Ed. note: After this article was published, Corbyn officially nominated Chakrabarti for a peerage. The Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitism in Britain, called it “a shameless kick in the teeth for all who put hope in her now wholly compromised inquiry into Labour antisemitism.”]

The Chakrabarti Report was a missed opportunity, the importance of which extends far beyond the parlous state of the Labour Party or the wider British Left. Across Europe, Islamist assassins and vandals are targeting Jewish schools, businesses, museums, synagogues, cemeteries, and kosher food establishments. It has become a cliché that a wave of anti-Semitism is washing over Europe.

Some on the Left have taken notice. Four days after the murder of four Jewish hostages during the siege of the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris, France’s Socialist Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, described “the intolerable rise in acts of anti-Semitism in France” as a “symptom of a crisis of democracy [and] the French Republic.” But such urgent and necessary diagnoses from the political Left have been notable for their scarcity.

For the most part, the Left has remained stubbornly indifferent, retreating into denial and moral cowardice or, worse, advancing boldly into outright complicity. In the name of anti-racism, anxieties about Muslim immigration and intolerance are routinely denounced as xenophobic bigotry. In the name of Palestinian solidarity, responsibility for lethal anti-Semitism is routinely laid at the feet of an Israeli government held to be insufficiently dedicated to the pursuit of peace. And in the radical Leftist circles in which Jeremy Corbyn moves, Islamists are routinely embraced by politicians and human rights activists who insist on mistaking a politics of hatred and supremacism for a principled opposition to Western Imperialism and Israeli policy in disputed territory.

The Chakrabarti Report is a paradigmatic example of this political and moral failure. As I have argued in a previous essay for The Tower, hostility to Israel and Zionism has roots in Left-wing ideologies and axioms that stretch back decades, and it is this history that ought to have been the focus of Chakrabarti’s inquiry. But its evasions and obfuscations are a product of those ideologies and axioms, a symptom of the very problem it purports to explore. It was, in short, an inquiry that was always intended to go precisely nowhere.

Banner Photo: Steve Eason / flickr