As the May 3 local elections in the UK draw near, the Labour Party is struggling to shake off accusations of antisemitism within its ranks.
The pressure on Jeremy Corbyn has increased manifold and the British media has made this into a big story. Jewish organisations after meeting with the Labour leader have expressed their dissatisfaction with his response, which they say does not go far enough. Although Corbyn has repeatedly condemned antisemitism, and said it has no place in the Labour Party, Jewish leaders want him to do more.
After a meeting with Corbyn last Tuesday, heads of Jewish community groups read out a statement saying the meeting was disappointing, and Corbyn was not doing enough to tackle the problem. They said he had not agreed to the requests they had set out in an earlier letter, which included action against Ken Livingstone and other Labour activists accused of antisemitic prejudice, as well as that Labour adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
Ken Livingstone, you may recall, created an uproar two years ago by saying on radio that Hitler was supporting Zionism prior to beginning his mass extermination programme of European Jews. Livingstone was referring to the Transfer Agreement 1933-39 between the Nazis and the Zionists, so he wasn’t entirely wrong in his remarks (which he made when on radio to talk about a controversial Facebook post by Labour MP Naz Shah), but he certainly wasn’t given the chance to elaborate on the historical context.
The media made it a huge story, and portrayed him as a despicable human being who should be ‘expelled’ from the Labour Party. He was suspended and upon review that suspension has remained in place two years later.
Critics of Corbyn have found this unacceptable, and insist the case should be decided and that Livingstone, a former MP who was twice elected London mayor, should be expelled.
Livingstone’s supporters within the party have objected to these demands as ‘being part of a witch-hunt’ and have accused a Jewish MP of manipulating the media coverage of the issue.
Ken Livingstone is a Labour stalwart who has been consistent in his left wing politics, the sort of politician the Blairites would like to label as part of the ‘loony left’. Even though Labour did not select him as their official candidate for the London mayoral election in 2000, he won as an independent and, four years later the party was forced to ask him to be their candidate.
As to the IHRA definition, it is somewhat problematic because of its repeated conflation of antisemitism with criticisms of the State of Israel or its policies, even deeming it an offence to equate the Nazis’ attitude towards the Jews to that of the Israelis’ treatment of the Palestinians. As the current Labour antisemitism row rages on, it is worth noting that the perception by many British Jews is that criticisms of Israel by pro-Palestinian groups are fuelling antisemitism and so must be silenced.
But the unrelenting pressure on the Labour Party in this matter must also be viewed in the light of last year’s Al Jazeera undercover investigation which exposed the Israel Lobby attempting to influence British politics — and which was run from the Israeli Embassy in London. Targets included any MPs or cabinet members not totally supportive of Israel as well as any vaguely pro-Palestinian groups within the opposition Labour Party. Part 3 of this investigative series (The Lobby) is instructive: the targets are Labour MPs and members at the Party Conference are challenged and accused of ‘anti-semitism and racism’.
Corbyn is the first Labour leader to openly (and consistently) support Palestinian civil rights and many of his supporters think that charges of antisemitism are being used to destabilise him as well as to stifle debate.
It is quite interesting to notice that even though the Conservative government was recently embroiled in very embarrassing scandals, it seems to have got less bad press than the Labour Party has on the antisemitism accusations. In a month where it was revealed that two cabinet members were probably aware of the Leave campaign’s violation of electoral rules in the EU referendum and linked to the company at the centre of the Facebook data breach, where it was revealed that the Home Office had destroyed the records of thousands of Caribbean immigrants (the Windrush generation) and had been hounding and threatening them with deportation, the big story remained… Corbyn.
Exactly how badly the antisemitism row has actually damaged Labour at the polls should become clearer later this week.