Reactions to anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party

The anti-Semitism problem is not limited to a few individuals. in the Labour Party. Fourth in a series on different aspects of anti-Semitism in the party as an indication of what is rampant in Social Democratic parties.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

OpEds Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

For previous articles in the series, click here.

The numerous anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli slurs by elected representatives of the British Labour party have forced prominent Jews to take a public stand against this hate mongering. Usually Jewish community leaders have preferred to deal with problematic societal issues through direct contacts with politicians, using the 'old boy networks' so prevalent in British tradition. Since there was no Holocaust in the UK, no huge historical “break” occurred there severing Jews from the rest of the populace as in Europe, and networks have remained intact. By contrast, some continental Jewish leaders have learned that whether they like it or not, there are often issues concerning Jews which have to be fought in the public domain.

Many British Jews have reacted to the sometimes extreme anti-Semitic slurs.  Reactions have taken three main forms: changed voting patterns, verbal comments and withheld donations. A Jewish Chronicle poll found that if a general election were to be held now, only 8.5% of Jews would vote for Labour, as against almost 82% for the Conservative Party. Furthermore 38.5 per cent of Jews give Labour the worst possible mark – 5 out of 5 – for anti-Semitism among party members and elected representatives.[1]

In 2015, this “Father of the House,” i.e the Parliament’s oldest MP, accused Israel of fabricating the stabbing attacks by terrorists, and added that the Conservative Party has been influenced by “Jewish money."
Due to the many verbal reactions by Jews, only a few can be mentioned here. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis published an article in The Telegraph titled “Ken Livingstone and the hard Left are spreading the insidious virus of anti-Semitism.” In a clear reference to Livingstone, former mayor of London, who had said that Hitler supported Zionism, Mirvis wrote “to those who so eagerly reach for a vicious Holocaust reference in order to exact the maximum amount of pain and offence upon ‘Zionists’, I say: You are spreading that ancient and insidious virus of anti-Semitism.” [2]

Mirvis’ predecessor Lord Jonathan Sacks later told The Jerusalem Post that “Ken Livingstone should be sacked from the Labour Party.”[3]

The leader of the Board of Deputies, Jonathan Arkush, met with Corbyn in February 2016, a meeting he referred to at the time as "positive" and "constructive." Arkush remarked that during their discussion, Corbyn “gave a very solid commitment to the right of Israel to live within secure and recognized boundaries as part of a two state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.”[4] 

Less than two months later, Arkush wrote an article titled “Labour has a serious anti-Semitism problem – and Jeremy Corbyn is failing to fix it.”[5] A few days after the article was published, he again attacked Corbyn, responding to what he called “a deeply disturbing response to a tweet by Corbyn's brother Piers criticizing a Jewish Labour MP.” This MP, Louise Ellman, had said that more needed to be done on the anti-Semitism issue, and that cracking down on such behavior was “not just about words.” Piers Corbyn tweeted that this was rubbish. Jeremy Corbyn reacted, saying “My brother has his point of view, I have mine and we actually fundamentally agree – we are a family that were brought up fighting racism from the day we were born.”[6]

Louise Ellman, who has been an MP since 1997, has been harassed over the past two months by Labour activists in constituency meetings, where anti-Semitic remarks were also heard.[7] Another Jewish MP Luciana Berger, member of the Labour shadow cabinet, has received thousands of abusive messages. Some called her a pig, or threatened to rape and kill her.[8] [9]

Later she said that “I think it would be absolutely perverse if people like me and my Jewish parliamentary colleagues – [MPs] Louise Ellman, Ivan Lewis, Ruth Smeeth – if we left the Labour party, and it was not the anti-Semites who left the Labour party.”[10] The huge number of hate mails received, which must have included mails sent by Labour supporters, indicate that the anti-Semitism problem is not limited to a few individuals as whitewashers of anti-Semitism in the party like to claim.

Lewis, an MP and former Labour minister, met with Corbyn in May this year and asked that he should demonstrate “total opposition to the views and violence of organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah.”  Lewis also said that two Labour councilors in his constituency of Greater Manchester had lost their seats in recent local elections because Jewish constituents no longer supported them in protest against Ken Livingstone’s remarks about Hitler being a Zionist. 

After meeting Corbyn, he said “I made it clear that while the vast majority of Labour members are not anti-Semitic, there is a serious problem among a minority which has to be tackled decisively.”[11]  Before Corbyn’s election, Lewis had already said that he expresses support and fails to condemn those who have engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric.[12]

One of the Jewish Labour MPs who is conspicuously absent from debate on anti-Semitism in the party is the anti-Israel hate monger, Sir Gerald Kaufman. In 2015, this “Father of the House,” i.e the Parliament’s oldest MP, accused Israel of fabricating the stabbing attacks by terrorists, and added that the Conservative Party has been influenced by “Jewish money.”[13]

In 2009, speaking in parliament, Kaufman accused the Israeli government, saying that it "ruthlessly and cynically exploits the continuing guilt among gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians."  Kaufman also compared the Hamas “militants” to the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. [14]

In an interview by the BBC award-winning novelist Howard Jacobson said that since Corbyn became leader of the Labour party, he had noticed “a new viciousness” in the anti-Semitism of the British Left. Jacobson added “I think with Jeremy Corbyn a voice has been given, a confidence has been given to some people who were a little more wary beforehand. Jeremy Corbyn—it’s a classic case of someone who has been brought up just to assume that case of Israel as an …oppressive imperial power. He was just fed on that, he’ll never change that. It’s like milk.”[15]

One of the first Jewish journalists to raise the issue was columnist Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, where until recently Seamus Milne was among his colleagues. Milne is a Hamas supporter, and has called the foundation of Israel a crime.[16] Freedland wrote that “many Jews worry when they see a part of the left whose hatred of Israel is so intense, unmatched by the animus directed at any other state.”[17] Freedland, himself a left winger, who holds several extreme positions on Israel, wrote that it would be welcome if the left were to extend to Israel “the same courtesy the left admirably extends to other minorities.”[18]

The Jewish community donated significant funds to Labour in the 2015 general election. Michael Foster, a Labour candidate and donor to the party wrote that almost one third of the 9.7 million pounds Labour had received from private donors before the 2015 elections came from Jews. He added that this was despite recoiling from Labour’s parliamentary vote to recognize Palestine.

Foster also wrote that so far, no major Jewish donor has given money to the Central Labour Party this year.[19]

Lord Levy, who was the party’s chief fundraiser under former prime minister Tony Blair, said that the party has to make clear that anti-Semitism has no place in any political party.  With regard to Labour, he said “if they don’t make that clear then I will start to question myself and actually question my being a Labour peer.”[20]

In the margins there have been some Jews who have tried to launder the anti-Semitism in Labour. Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, the emeritus rabbi of Finchley Reform Synagogue in north-west London, was one of 82 people who signed a letter sent to the Guardian. The letter included the following: “We do not accept that antisemitism is ‘rife’ in the Labour party. Of the examples that have been repeated in the media, many have been reported inaccurately, some are trivial, and a very few may be genuine examples of antisemitism.”

Eight of his synagogue’s congregants reacted in a subsequent letter to the Jewish Chronicle stating that “we are writing to express our disgust at the way our synagogue has been portrayed as undermining the fight against antisemitism from wherever it appears.” They added that the rabbi “was not acting in our name.”[21]

Approximately ninety Jews, including die-hard anti-Zionist extremist Moshe Machover and some of those who signed the previous letter, wrote a letter to the Guardian in which they attacked Rabbi Mirvis. It was titled “Anti-Zionism does not equate to antisemitism.” The authors minimized the anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and said that Mirvis ignored “the more serious anti-Muslim racism in electoral politics.”[22]

When one analyzes the Jewish reactions above, one notices that not one of them draws attention to the important role of Muslims in the hate mongering. An interesting side effect of the Labour Party scandal is that anti-Semitism outside the Labour Party is now garnering also more public interest. The Daily Mail published an article about a Jew who had been forced to leave the place where he had lived for 20 years due to harassment. From the article’s text it could be seen that those who harassed him were Muslims.[23]

Due to the ongoing new revelations about anti-Semitism in the Labour party, the Jewish community will have to continue to react.[24] In addition, the whitewashing of Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude toward anti-Semitism in the party will continue to fuel the reactions.[25]

Many British Jews prefer to ignore the anti-Semitism problem in the United Kingdom. It goes far beyond the Labour Party. However, the issue will remain in the limelight as further cases both in the Labour Party and elsewhere come to light.