Does the UK Labour party have an anti-Semitism problem?

There can be no doubt that Labour is a friend of Palestine. But does this mean that Labour must be an enemy of Israel? Or an enemy of Jews, generally? Absolutely not.
Wednesday 20/02/2019
Labour MP Luciana Berger (C) who has announced her resignation during a press conference at County Hall, on February 18, 2019. (DPA)
Labour MP Luciana Berger (C) who has announced her resignation during a press conference at County Hall, on February 18, 2019. (DPA)

An eighth MP has quit the Labour party to join a new independent parliamentary group, citing their former party’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism as a leading cause for the split.

MP Joan Ryan for Enfield North said she was “horrified, appalled and angered” by Labour’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism, a long-standing accusation that the party has faced under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

MP Luciana Berger, one of the most high-profile members of the Jewish community in British political life, was a leading figures in the earlier split, and said that the party had become “institutionally anti-Semitic” under Corbyn.

But is the Labour party really “institutionally anti-Semitic” or are there other reasons behind the latest row?

As a lifelong Labour voter, I have to acknowledge how complicated the situation is and that the Labour leadership has completely failed to deal with accusations of anti-Semitism.

The fact that such accusations are still so pervasive almost two years after Labour launched an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism in the party clearly demonstrates the failure of that inquiry and a broader failure to deal with this ongoing issue.

The 2016 Chakrabarti Inquiry was launched after MP Naz Shah was accused of anti-Semitism for some media posts. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone of Labour subsequently stoked the fire in his attempted defence of Shah, which included linking Hitler with Zionism. The inquiry ultimately concluded that anti-Semitism and other types of racism were not endemic within Labour, but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere.”

But it seems that little has been done to address this occasionally toxic atmosphere, and, in fact, things might even have gotten worse in the interim.

Berger famously attended Labour’s 2018 party conference flanked by police protection after receiving online abuse and death threats. “There are Jews in this country who do not feel safe… We expect attacks that come from the far right, we know them. But this year more than ever we have experienced attacks from the left from people who claim to share our party values,” she told the Jewish Labour Movement’s fringe event at the Liverpool conference.

Following that, Labour became embroiled in an issue over whether to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, taking a criminally long amount of time to decide the issue and fuelling a new wave of negative press and anti-Semitism accusations.

After a protracted debate, Labour took the decision to accept the full definition and its 11 examples but also issued an extra statement saying that this should not undermine free speech on Israel – something that immediately undercut attempts to draw a line under the anti-Semitism accusations. The three most prominent Jewish newspapers in the UK responded by publishing a joint editorial describing a Corbyn government as an “existential threat to Jewish life” in the UK.

The accusations of anti-Semitism coincide with an increase in Labour members from around 200,000 in 2005 under Tony Blair (the last time the Labour party won a general election) to more than 500,000 under Corbyn.

This rise was prompted by a 2014 decision to change how members voted for party leader, introducing a one member one vote system rather than the complex electoral college split between the parliamentary party, the European parliamentary party, general party members and members of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies. The 2014 decision, which was viewed by many as democratising and popularising for the Labour party, also allowed supporters of the party to become members for just £3.

There has always been a slight disconnect between Labour’s members and supporters and the parliamentary party, with grass-root supporters taking a more radical view on a variety of issues, especially foreign policy and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. For example, the parliamentary group affiliated with Labour responsible for campaigning for “peace and justice in the Middle East” is named the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East.

There can be no doubt that Labour is a friend of Palestine – Corbyn has said that a UK government under Labour would “immediately” recognise a Palestinian state. But does this mean that Labour must be an enemy of Israel? Or an enemy of Jews, generally? Absolutely not. And the Labour leadership must be clear about that and make that clear to its members.

Under Corbyn, this disconnect between Labour members and the parliamentary party seems to have lessened and the party has drifted to the left, explaining why some centrists have chosen to jump ship. A similar thing is happening in the Conservatives, with centrist MPs also leaving to join the new parliamentary grouping. However, Labour must be careful that it is not taken hostage by the most radical and intransigent voices – whether on Palestine or Brexit or any other issue.

As an Arab and Muslim, I feel a sense of solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians and am heartened to hear greater debate on some of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. At the same time, we have to be careful to ensure that relevant criticism of Israeli policies does not stray into broader anti-Jewish conspiracies or pointless debates about a state’s “legitimacy.” Any state that is strong enough to exist has the right to exist – arguing otherwise is to enter into impractical and useless debates that don’t actually help the Palestinians.

As for the Labour party, whether there is actual “institutional’ anti-Semitism or whether that is merely the general perception, this is equally damaging to the party’s electoral hopes. It is clear that the leadership has failed, once again, to draw a line under this anti-Semitism debate and stronger action is, once again, needed.