Jeremy Corbyn called the Labour Party the new ‘political mainstream’ and the party of the ‘centre ground’ at the Party conference in Brighton this week. However, how can a party claim to be the centre ground yet foster explicitly anti-Semitic views?
Whilst Corbyn stated that such prejudice is ‘completely at odds’ with Labour’s beliefs, and the party passed a motion on racism and anti-Semitism (first proposed by the Jewish Labour Movement), the conference still provided a forum for bigotry to be spread.
Miko Peled was given a platform to claim that ‘free speech, the freedom to criticise and to discuss every issue, whether it’s the Holocaust: yes or no, Palestine, the liberation, the whole spectrum. There should be no limits on the discussion.’
Tom Watson, the deputy leader, pledged an investigation into how Peled was allowed to speak at an event, yet little was done to tackle Holocaust denial within the party and other anti-Semitic myths. For example, there has been little comment on leaflets handed out by Labour Party Marxists, who wrote that there was a ‘Zionist-Nazi connection’, which reprinted Moshé Machover’s speech from the May 15 London Communist Form, entitled ‘Don’t apologise - attack.’
Shami Chakrabarti’s 2016 report, as problematic as it was, conceded the party experienced ‘an occasionally toxic atmosphere’. In the same year a select committee into anti-Semitism in the UK found that ‘[t]he failure of the Labour Party to deal consistently and effectively with anti-Semitic incidents in recent years risks lending force to allegations that elements of the Labour movement are institutionally anti-Semitic’. However, little has been done to decompress the building tensions within the party, as John Cryer MP stated this year that he had seen ‘1930s’ anti-Semitism from Labour Party members on social media.
Such claims were disregarded by Len McCluskey, who claimed that complaints of anti-Semitism (as well as misogyny) were ‘mood music’ to undermine Corbyn. McCluskey was joined by two other non-Jewish men, Ken Loach and Ken Livingstone, to claim they had never heard anti-Semitism at Labour Party meetings, and therefore claiming it is not a widespread issue.
Of course, Livingstone’s accusation of Labour MPs ‘distorting’ the scale of anti-Semitism within the party is somewhat undermined by his suspension in April 2016 for describing a ‘real collaboration’ between Nazis and Zionists, the anti-Semitic myth the Marxists reprinted. The lack of Jewish identity between the three men also somewhat undermines any authority they might claim to identify potential prejudices Jewish party members may suffer.
This month’s conference saw a clause submitted by the Hastings and Rye constituency of the Labour Party for an amendment of its constitution suggesting that ‘Hatred of Jews shall not be evidenced by non-abusive words or actions regarding Israel or Zionism that are part of legitimate political discourse.’
Whilst anti-Zionism and antisemitism are not synonymous, often the language used to discuss Israel-Palestine and Israeli policy adopts anti-Semitic language and stereotypes. Wes Streeting MP told the Brighton conference, ‘too many people’ use ‘anti-Semitic language’ to criticise the Israeli government. The imprecise wording of the suggested amendment may legitimise anti-Semitic discourse as part of anti-Zionist or anti-Israel beliefs, legitimising and facilitating more anti-Jewish abuse.
Ignoring and erasing the damaging usage of anti-Semitic language and attitudes is not only miring the Labour party in murky prejudicial backwaters, but is contributing to the increasing levels of anti-Semitism in the UK (and around the world). The combination of record levels of anti-immigrant feeling, racism, and anti-Semitism is bringing the UK to a level of prejudice akin to that of the 1930s.
A centre ground party cannot allow such extremes of prejudice to fester - it should be fighting against historic levels of bigotry. Whilst the rule passed this conference to protect against racism is a start, Labour has a long way to go until it can authentically claim to be a party that recognises, appreciates and protects its Jewish members.