We may be witnessing a #MeToo moment in Labour anti-Semitism. Britain’s Jews, so damn accommodating and willing to extend the benefit of the doubt, have finally snapped and said ‘enough is enough’. At 5.30pm tonight they will gather in Westminster to protest in the most British way imaginable by handing the Labour Party a strongly-worded letter. The letter calls Jeremy Corbyn a ‘figurehead for an anti-Semitic political culture’ and says he has repeatedly ‘sided with anti-Semites rather than Jews’. If anything, it goes a little easy on him.
The spark was Corbyn’s defence of, and dissembling over, an anti-Semitic mural in east London but the frustrations have been building up over time. Since he became Labour leader, Jews have tried dialogue, outreach, and cooperation but they have been ignored or accused of smears and Zionist plots. They have recited like charms the names Raed Salah and Paul Eisen, Hamas and Hezbollah in the hope of finally pricking someone’s conscience. Corbyn has been deaf to them and the wider party apathetic, with some honourable exceptions. Labour has become institutionally hostile to Jews and collective Jewish identity and, what’s worse, it doesn’t appear to care.
Corbyn has sought to pre-empt tonight’s protest with a disingenuous statement about ‘pockets within the Labour Party’ where anti-Semitism occurs. His words are hollow, issued under duress, and oozing insincerity. They will have little impact beyond prompting some hastily reversed ferrets among his apologists in the soft-left commentariat whose hot takes on anti-Semitism have been of the ‘LOL, no one cares, look at the polls’ variety. His comments are also untrue. Labour has been exposed to ever-increasing doses of anti-Semitism and the virus now courses through the party’s bloodstream. It would be more accurate to say that there are still pockets within the Labour Party where anti-Semitism does not occur.
If Corbyn had had a sincere change of heart, he would give a speech apologising for three decades of making common cause with anti-Semites. He would renounce his ugly beliefs and sinister associations and acknowledge the profound pain he has caused British Jews. He would visit Jerusalem and give an address unequivocally recognising Israel’s right to exist and the Jewish connection to the land. A truly independent review into Labour anti-Semitism would be launched and the party would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition and expel Jew-haters on a one-strike, no readmission basis.
This would go some way to making personal recompense and cutting the cancer of anti-Semitism out of Labour’s body. It would still have come far later than it ought to and come because of political pressure rather than true conscience but it would be a start.
We should not be optimistic. Why, after three decades in politics, would Corbyn finally see the light? To do so would involve renouncing much of what he has believed and advocated most of his adult life. Corbyn has been happy to ditch principles left and right since becoming leader but this would be something different. It would be asking him to stop being the man he is, the man who so dismally appealed to Labour members, and become a wholly different person. In effect, Corbyn is being expected to deCorbynise the Labour Party.
Corbyn is a creature of Labour anti-Semitism, not the cause of it, though undoubtedly his election to the top job has attracted Jew-haters to Labour and emboldened those already present. Labour flatters itself with prating about Manny Shinwell and Harold Wilson’s Zionism and its ‘sister party’ in Israel but the truth is that Labour has been a safe haven for prejudice for years now.
During the 2005 election, the late Kevin McNamara taunted Michael Howard that there was a ‘whiff of the gas chambers’ to his Travellers policy. Howard’s grandmother was murdered at Auschwitz. Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter uses the term ‘nakba’ (catastrophe) to characterise Israel’s founding and gushes over Hamas as more reasonable than the Israelis. In 2010, he remarked insidiously that ‘since the appointment of Ivan Lewis’ as Middle East minister ‘the line on Hamas appears to have stiffened and the willingness to condemn Israeli policy has become noticeably more muted’. In 2011, Newport West MP Paul Flynn objected to the appointment of Matthew Gould as Britain’s ambassador to Israel, saying: ‘In the past there hasn’t been a Jewish ambassador to Israel and I think that is a good decision – to avoid the accusation that they have gone native.’ The post should be given instead to ‘someone with roots in the UK [who] can’t be accused of having Jewish loyalty’, Flynn said. Gould is from Wembley.
Instead of recognising this sickness and fighting it, the Labour Party accommodated it and, in 2015, made clear that it had no interest in driving ignorance, suspicion, and hatred of Jews from its ranks. Labour has been soiled by anti-Semitism and, however vigorously they scrub, the stain will never fully fade. When Jeremy Corbyn stood for the leadership, 67 per cent of Jews expressed ‘concern’ at the possibility he could win. They advised, warned – begged – the party to look at his record, to listen to them. The Labour Party ignored them and not once but twice chose as their standard bearer a man who made Britain’s Jews afraid.
Britain’s Jews are no longer afraid. They are angry and are finally saying #TimesUp. That, however, is a decision for the Labour Party to make. Only Labour can rid itself of anti-Semitism and, if it won’t, time will finally be up for Labour.