Britain’s three most prominent Jewish weekly newspapers – Jewish News, the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish Telegraph – published a joint front page describing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as an “existential threat” to British Jews on 25 July. Stephen Oryszczuk is foreign editor of Jewish News. Here, he speaks exclusively to The Canary in a personal capacity about why he feels the attack was wrong. But beyond that, he suggests how we can come together to fight the scourge of antisemitism, and how to do so without hindering free speech and justified criticism of Israel.
PART I – Who is Stephen Oryszczuk?
Q: Could you introduce yourself?
A: I’m foreign editor at Jewish News (JN), the UK’s largest Jewish newspaper, one of the three papers that just published a shared front page attacking the Labour Party over antisemitism. That random assortment of consonants after my first name is Ukrainian origin. I’ve been in this role for six years, and speak here in a personal capacity. Before the JN I was an editor at a Jewish news TV channel based abroad.
Q: But you’re not Jewish, I understand?
A: Nope, although there may be some J-genes back there on my dad’s side, probably the ones that manifest as love of food.
Q: How did you come to work for a Jewish newspaper?
A: By complete accident! I’ve been covering the Jewish world for a long time now, particularly Israel. The boss of the TV channel actually preferred his journalists to be non-Jews. He said we could be more objective. I’m not sure that’s true, but that was his take on it. I’ve always been taught to look at things objectively, to keep my head when all about are losing theirs. It’s so important given the passions on the subjects I cover. Unfortunately, last week passion became apoplexy.
Q: Do you report on antisemitism too?
A: Yes, it seems to be taking over my life at the moment. I’ve reported on every kind of antisemitism – far-right, far-left, Islamist ideology, Christian theology, or just plain old tweeted ignorance. In the current media climate you can lose touch with the fact that it comes from everywhere. If you speak to the Jewish community’s most prominent anti-racism campaigners, they say there’s a resurgence in far-right / white supremacist antisemitism that’s being missed in all this.
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PART II – The issues with that front page
Q: I understand you have issues around the shared front page?
A: Some of the phraseology I take a giant step back from, vicious personal phrases like “Corbynite contempt for Jews,” which is one step away from calling him a Jew hater. It’s repulsive. This is a dedicated anti-racist we’re trashing. I just don’t buy into it at all. Who knows, I may change my mind, something may yet out, but for now it seems completely unfounded. The rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. But – and it’s a big but – I’m not Jewish. The papers are for the Jewish community. I’m speaking for me but they speak for the Jewish community, and many Jews have echoed Dame Margaret Hodge in calling Jeremy Corbyn an ‘antisemite’, so if the community is beginning to feel that way, I respect my paper’s right to reflect that, just as my editor and news editor respect my right to dissent. Fair play to them.
Q: So you don’t share your paper’s views?
A: Some bits I do, but I don’t share this frothy-mouthed obsession with adopting the IHRA definition and its examples word-for-word if you think you can do better at contextualising it. I do agree that this must be a shared exercise with the Jewish community, not just lip-service. If the full definition is then accepted with accompanying notes, fine. And if the parties can’t agree, that’s fine too, but at least try! I also don’t share the papers’ vitriol. In fact I think it’s counter-productive. I do understand the rage, but I vehemently oppose the personal nature of the attack, just as I opposed Hodge’s attack, although it’s her choice to do so. For me, it was a profoundly unjust accusation, to say the least, and more than proves the point that when applying the label of ‘racist’ it should first be warranted.
PART III – Issues with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism
Q: Talk us through this new antisemitism definition and your take on it.
A: Your readers may already know this. The IHRA is a relatively new multi-state body. The UK’s delegate is former Tory minister Sir Eric Pickles, who also chaired Conservative Friends of Israel. Their definition includes 11 working examples, seven of which relate to Israel. As a journalist covering Israel, what can and can’t be said in this regard is of direct relevance to me – it affects my day-to-day work. More broadly, the question of what is or isn’t antisemitic is highly relevant to our reporting. So I take a professional interest, but as with most journalists, I’m a big believer in free speech, so there’s a personal interest too.
Q: What’s your take on it?
A: The main definition is vague, the examples lack context and qualification, and those campaigning so hard for its verbatim adoption, with their strident opposition to context, at the very least need to explain why they’re so against giving it depth, given how many leading barristers have raised concerns about it. Many Jews share those worries but their voices are not being heard. Increasingly, if anyone does voice it, they are seen as antisemitic for doing so! I would be truly fearful for our country and the right to free speech if that were the case.
Beyond that, I understand the urge to tighten up and update – antisemitism is an old hatred with new masks, and when people say ‘Israelis’ or ‘Zionists’ they can often mean ‘Jews’. Like most people, I feel I know antisemitism when I see it. You sense it, you smell it. Howard Jacobson described it as “a toxin you taste on your tongue”. That kind of instinctive gut feeling doesn’t sit comfortably with the clamour to define it, but I know that it’s completely subjective if you don’t, and like most people my starting position is to support whatever helps tackle the scourge. That said, this definition is causing so many problems that I sympathise with those who want to rip the whole thing up and introduce a new one with just two words: ‘Jew hatred.’
Q: Are you surprised that it’s come to this situation, that it’s become such an issue in the Labour Party in recent years?
A: Yes and no. Yes because it’s a progressive party with a history of defending minorities. No because the party leadership now hails from the left, rather than the centre-left, and you get a lot of strident criticism of Israel on the left of British politics, which can sometimes cross the line.
PART IV – Reaction in the Jewish community
Q: The papers, yours included, said ‘United We Stand,’ – is that correct?
A: Yes, the big Jewish mainstream organisations back it, as do many councils and public authorities, and Labour should have taken this more to heart, but it’s important to say that some Jews don’t back it. They’re a minority but not an insignificant one. A petition against the papers’ stance had about 700 Jewish signatories in its first 2-3 days. It’s no surprise, clearly not every Jew thinks alike, certainly not on Israel.
Q: Why haven’t we heard from them in the publications making these claims?
A: It’s partly our fault, in the mainstream Jewish media. We could – and arguably should – have done a better job at giving a voice to Jews who think differently, for which I personally feel a little ashamed. I should have done more. We are, after all, called ‘Jewish News.’ I’d like to think we could be braver and risk the wrath of the many to give voice to all, because we’re just an echo chamber otherwise, and that creates its own problems. But ultimately it’s not my call – it’s not my paper, it’s not my community. There are various factors to consider and I respect that, I respect my editor hugely. But it does sadden me. There’s a Jewish saying: ‘two Jews, three opinions’ – possibly a conservative estimate! It expresses the wealth of views held on any given subject, voiced on any given Friday night. It’s a tradition I love from a people I love, and I think they’d say that habit has served them well over many hundreds of years. But on Israel today, what you hear publicly tends to be very uniform.
Q: Why is that?
A: From what I know, it goes back 50 years, to the war Israel fought in 1967. A century ago, it was different. British Jews openly held vastly different visions for the Jewish future, from complete immersion and assimilation, to the full withdrawal from non-Jewish society. Zionism back then was just one competing idea, and not too popular. Even after the war, when support for Zionism was boosted by the horrors of the Holocaust, there was still widespread Jewish resistance to the Zionist project and bitter divisions in the Zionist camp. There’s an excellent recent book on the different opinions of British Jewry by Jewish sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris called Uncivil War, in which he traces the change. From 1967, he says: “Support for, and loyalty to Israel became a taken-for-granted feature of almost all Jewish communal institutions. The argument that Jews should not undermine Israel through public criticism became mainstream. The institutional infrastructure of western Jewish communities was transformed to reflect the centrality of Israel… Support for Israel became a Jewish political priority, with the growing strength and importance of lobbying groups… and the defence of Israel taking a central role in UK umbrella institutions such as the Board of Deputies.” That situation persists today, and I think it is important to understand the Labour-Jewish community stand-off at least partly through that prism i.e. constitutional support for Israel.
Q: How does the IHRA definition threaten free speech?
A: If you have a system that automatically labels someone as antisemitic for voicing potentially legitimate thoughts and opinions, that’s a huge threat to free speech, and it’s not weird to think so. It stains people whose arguments would automatically trigger a suspension, an investigation, their naming and shaming in the press, all sorts of trouble, if it’s simply an IHRA box ticked with little consideration around it.
Q: What part of the definition do you think endangers free speech?
A: It’s more of a worry with some of the examples, if they’re applied or interpreted broadly and without context, or if they’re misunderstood. For instance, there’s one sub-example that says it’s antisemitic to claim Israel is a racist endeavour. There’s a subtle but important difference between claiming Israel is racist and Israel is a racist endeavour. The IHRA example refers only to the latter, but they’re not easy to prise apart, especially since some Israeli laws form its constitution, so you can understand how it’s confusing. One is arguing that the policies and practices of the state of Israel are racist; the other is arguing that the very state itself is racist. Most Jews would deem the first fair comment, the second a big no-no, and it’s the second that the IHRA prohibits. Hands up who could easily tell the difference..?
Then there’s the counter-argument: that we’ve long been able to debate and take a view on the basis and foundation of states, so if you feel Israel was set up along racist lines, despite the Declaration of Independence saying what it does, then you should be free to argue that. Jon Lansman addressed this in his Guardian piece, in which he said it raised the most alarm bells on free speech. He said:
It cannot possibly be antisemitic to point out that some of the key policies of the Israeli state, observed since its founding days, have an effect that discriminates on the basis of race and ethnicity.
A day later, Israel passed the ‘Nation State Bill,’ which even Israel’s defenders said risks discriminating against its non-Jewish minority. So it’s a live issue and people must feel able to discuss it without being labelled racist themselves. That’s my main concern: the IHRA definition, in its original form, was intended to defend against antisemitism, and I hope it still does, but in so doing it could prohibit reasoned arguments on Israel that are genuinely made.
Q: Do you think Lansman’s argument is valid?
A: Valid or not, the question is: if I made it, should I be labelled a Jew hater, if I sought to argue it legitimately and reasonably, and applied the same principles to other states? You have to consider context and intent.
Let’s say I made my argument with reference to Jerusalem. You’d ask if I’d held Israel to a higher standard, which is another IHRA example, but Israel is unique in so many ways – where else in the world do you find a situation like Jerusalem?
My point is that this isn’t tick-box stuff, it’s far more complex. I’m not saying all these things aren’t antisemitic. They often are, but only an idiot would argue that this isn’t now becoming an absolute minefield for those who mean well, which by its very nature will scare people away from making legitimate criticism. That’s the negative impact on free speech I’m worried about, that’s my concern. I’m as keen as anyone to get rid of racists, but it should be the racists, the antisemites, not all the rest who get caught up in the dragnet. That’s why I think you need context and explanation, and that’s what the Labour Party sought to add.
PART V – Why free speech matters
Q: Are there any examples of that impact on free speech you mentioned?
A: One example is that a Jewish peer has been writing letters to university vice-chancellors on behalf of a pro-Israel organisation in the UK, advising them to cancel Israel Apartheid Week activities or risk falling foul of the IHRA definition. At least one university did so. It saddens me that the IHRA definition and its examples are already being used to silence potentially legitimate criticisms of Israeli policy that have, for many years, been considered a student’s right to voice. Has the IHRA now silenced that? If so, what will it silence next? That’s my worry. If you push the IHRA [definition] verbatim, it seems that this is what you get. We all need to protect against that.
Q: So in your view, what is ‘legitimate’ criticism of Israel?
A: That’s the million-dollar question! When it comes to that fine line on Israel and some of these examples, one person’s legitimate criticism is another person’s antisemitism. I hope they can agree something most can live with. I think it’s possible. For me, as with so much else when it comes to antisemitism, it boils down to context and intent.
Q: Can you explain what you mean?
A: OK, so imagine if I’d said what Kahn-Harris said – that British Jews’ political “priority” is to support Israel. I’d be reported for antisemitism for suggesting Jews are more loyal to Israel than the UK, one of the IHRA tick-boxes. I’d be antisemitic. Would it make a difference if I was repeating what I’d read in a book? What if I was a PhD student researching identity choices of ethnic minorities and this was my conclusion after two years studying statistics and interviewing hundreds of Jews? Likewise, if I were to talk about Jewish lobbying, as Kahn-Harris does, that too would make me antisemitic, because that too could tick an IHRA box. Yet I think it’s a good thing, it’s legitimate and Israel needs a robust defence in the world of public opinion, so am I still antisemitic? In the context of Kahn-Harris’s book, which explores the way Jews think about Israel, none of this is antisemitic, it’s just factual, his intent is to inform. But taken out of context and placed in the wrong hands it could be nasty if the intent is to hurt – you need only think of those age-old myths and tropes about Jews controlling the world, or being parasites in a host country, to understand why. The point I’m making is that context and intent don’t just matter, they’re crucial. And tick-boxes don’t give you any of that. So screaming that you only want the tick-boxes and nothing else doesn’t crack the nut, it cuts the whole tree down.
Q: Perhaps a more common example these days is Nazi comparison?
A: Sure, and I would hope that most sane people could understand why Jews feel deep pain when someone likens Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews, when there can be no equivalence whatsoever. So like the other examples, it seems on the face of it to be always antisemitic. But on the day we published our joint front page with other Jewish newspapers, a Jewish reader wrote to us explaining how his Jewish father personally believed that Jewish people in Israel had ended up committing similar types of atrocities against Palestinians as Hitler committed against the Jews, how the irony of these parallels was not lost on many people, and how his Jewish father never considered saying so to be antisemitic. If his father thought as he did because he cared about Jewish values, was he an antisemite? Likewise a woman in my village in Devon, in her mid-80s, who wouldn’t harm a fly, spoke to me back in 2014 – when Israel was bombing Gaza – and said something like: “Of everyone, you’d have thought Jews wouldn’t do this to another people, given what they went through with the Nazis. It’s like it’s happening again.” Is she an antisemite? I’m pretty sure the thought of it would make her cry, but the IHRA definition says she’s a racist, pure and simple. It’s about context and intent again. And Labour sought to add that.
Q: How do you determine what is and isn’t antisemitic at the paper?
A: From my perspective I’ve always heeded the advice of the Community Security Trust (CST), which defends the Jewish community and which I admire. They taught me that context is crucial. For example, if a former mayor with a history of baiting Jews using wealth stereotypes mentions Hitler supporting Zionism as an historical aside while defending someone accused of antisemitism, the context suggests it might be not be benign, even if he’s avoided ticking an IHRA box. If the leader of a country vowing to “wipe Israel off the map” asks questions about the Holocaust, it’s unlikely to be scholarly research. And if 327 Holocaust survivors and their descendants invoke the well-known Holocaust phrase ‘never again’ over Israel and Gaza, context tells you that they’re unlikely to be Jew haters, despite them ticking an IHRA box. It’s the same with that Jewish Auschwitz survivor Corbyn hosted in parliament. Plenty would say that if the Nazis had killed his family and almost killed him, he surely has a right to speak. If he draws parallels then who are we to say otherwise? Is he antisemitic? If it’s a tick-box then he is, but it’s not black and white. The CST recognises the action alone may not tell the whole story, so why can’t Labour? The times when you don’t even need to ask second questions are the times when people tell you that you’re writing your editorials for Mossad, a familiar charge at the JN! That’s when you don’t need to dig too much deeper!
Q: So you’re saying that the IHRA definition reduces antisemitism to a tick-box exercise?
A: Absolutely. All definitions listing supplementary examples run this risk. Are you telling me something so complex as antisemitism can be reduced to that? If that’s your argument, the onus is on you to prove it. And if you’re going down that road, you need to make damned sure they stand up, that they’re contextualised, and that they’re not too broad as to capture lots of potentially legitimate criticism, because you’ll tie yourself up in sifting and stain a lot of people in the process. In other words, you need to show, or be convinced of, underlying Jew hatred, or “intent,” before you deem someone a Jew hater, because it can affect people’s jobs, people’s lives. You need to know that what they’re saying or doing is hatred towards Jews, not just hatred towards Israel. Not only do I not apologise for saying so, I can’t say it loudly enough. If I could megaphone it to every Labour MP currently plotting how best to screw Corbyn on this, I would. So, you have to be sure that someone’s an antisemite before the formal process triggers. If that means setting the bar a little higher, as the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended, then so be it. I worry that some people forget what an awful label it is to attach to people, not to be done lightly. The IHRA itself recognises the importance of accompanying suggestions. It explains that antisemitism “employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits”. The CST also recognises this. Just last week it discounted hundreds of incidents as ‘not antisemitic,’ including anti-Israel activity that did not involve “antisemitic language, imagery or targeting”. So the CST – charged with defending the Jewish community against antisemitism – knows you need something else, some “evidence,” as a spokesman said. So I ask: why all the fuss about Labour’s code? It’s rarely difficult to find. Antisemites tend to show their true colours sooner or later, whether it be in “antisemitic language, imagery or targeting,” as per the CST, or elsewhere in the context of what they’ve done or said.
Q: Do you have any other concerns with the IHRA definition?
A: I think the core definition itself is appalling. To call it woolly and vague is an understatement. It defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews” that “may” be expressed as hatred towards Jews. How on earth is that a decent definition? Imagine a police officer pulling you over for having a certain perception of speed that may or may not be expressed as speeding. It’s ridiculous. Then there are the IHRA examples, with no explanatory notes, so widening the scope. The bigger the box, the more ticks it will get, and the more difficult it will be to find those who need ticking off, those who need casting off, and those who were simply piping off legitimately. In the meantime, it stains anyone who falls within its reach.
Q: So you’re in favour of the Labour Party amending it?
A: They didn’t amend the definition. They drew up a code of conduct that took most of the definition as its basis but added bits to make it more useable and explanatory and removed the bits they disagreed with. They’re entitled to do that, but they didn’t really consult. I feel that what Dame Margaret Hodge said about Jeremy Corbyn was awful and wrong, but what she said later – on Woman’s Hour I think – was a fair idea. She said Labour could have said yes to the definition in its full form, then got together with Jewish representatives to pull together guidance that contextualises it, to be read in accompaniment with it, or words to that effect. But they didn’t do that, so Jewish leaders were left furious. They thought Labour had no right to tinker. They also felt the code had loosened the definitions to such an extent as to allow antisemitism. I can see it from both sides. I certainly understand why Labour did it, just as I understand why the Home Affairs Select Committee, in 2016, was concerned enough to recommend that the definition came with qualifiers. The MPs suggested adding to the definition to say that Israel criticism needed antisemitic intent. That’s what Labour did. They also filled in gaps, including derogatory terms for Jews, stereotypical tropes and negative physical depictions, which the IHRA missed.
Q: Were you pleased that they did this?
A: I wasn’t pleased or displeased – I just felt they needed to. I felt they had understood the importance of context and intent. I also appreciate that they built on the definition elsewhere. I felt Labour needed to draw a clear red line for its membership and say ‘don’t overstep this mark or you’re out’, but I also felt that mark needed the qualifiers, as per the MPs’ recommendation. Yet for mainstream Jewish representatives and for Jewish media outlets – my newspaper included – that was tantamount to treason, a grave insult to Jews, an existential threat, and all the other dramatic phrases we heard. I believe Labour tried to do the right thing, but that it did it in absolutely the wrong way in not consulting widely before putting its code out there. Why on earth would you not make sure those most affected by it were OK with it first? I just don’t understand that. Offering to consult now feels like an after-thought. It was a real snub, even though the code itself is on the right lines.
PART VI – The role of the Labour Party
Q: Do you believe Labour and Corbyn are an existential threat to the Jewish community in the UK?
A: Of course not, but it’s not for me to say, I’m not part of the Jewish community in the UK. I speak to many Jews day-to-day and many are genuinely concerned. I do believe that we would see some leave the UK if Corbyn was elected, which for me goes beyond sad. So yes, when Jews say the conversation around the dinner table on a Friday night is one of fear for the future, I believe them. As well as foreign editor, I’m also the newspaper’s leader writer. That’s the weekly editorial section – ours is called ‘Voice of the Jewish News.’ I’ve been doing that for about three years now. It’s an honour, especially for a non-Jew. I don’t believe they’d ask me if I wasn’t tuned in to the thoughts of the community.
Q: So you don’t think Corbyn warranted the abuse?
A: No, because I don’t believe he’s antisemitic, nor do most reasonable people. He’s anti-Israel and that’s not the same. But it says something that I even have to say that in 2018. Yet again, context is crucial, and the context to the accusation is the last three years, the constant examples of antisemitism in the Labour Party, the suspensions not expulsions, the Chakrabarti recommendations not being implemented, the lack of ownership or responsibility from the top… Jews feel Corbyn has failed to properly own up to the problem and assure them he’s going to get on top of it. So I really don’t think he can be surprised by the rage. To say he’s been slow on the uptake is putting it mildly. I have a great deal of sympathy for Britain’s Jewish community, especially left-wing Jews. They’re exasperated, and now, to top it off, they see Labour raising the burden of proof on Jew hatred, introducing this element of ‘intent.’ You can understand the disbelief and upset. They see Labour making it more difficult for Jews to shout ‘racism’ and they’re asking why should it not be less difficult, given the difficulties to-date. They say Jews should be allowed to define their own racism, with the antisemitic label in the hands of the victim.
Q: As a journalist at the centre of this story for three years, what do you say to those who think there has been a smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn?
A: A ‘smear’ is the spreading of falsehoods, of ‘fake news,’ and we’ve (Jewish News) never done that, not intentionally anyway. But I do understand why people would think along those lines, because of the sheer volume of news about it. I too have questioned the timing of some of these ‘findings’ of very old clips, which always seem to be released at crucial moments. Is it by chance that news of him hosting an event linking Nazis to Gaza came out now? Is it by chance that news of him suggesting Holocaust Memorial Day be changed to Genocide Memorial Day came out now? Is it by chance that their support for the anti-Zionist network came out now? ‘Now’ being when he’s under maximum pressure. I’m just saying: ask the question. As journalists we’re taught to be sceptical.
The question is whether there is an intention to taint him. Some are certainly out to get him, but without revealing sources, all I can say is that it’s sometimes questionable where these things come from. At the end of the day, most Jews just want Corbyn to get on top of Jew hatred.
For me, criticism is fine, but this has sometimes felt like character assassination, and I’ve always thought we were better than that. I’d much rather we stuck to our core business of news. That may be cover-to-cover Corbyn and Labour for all I care – if it is newsworthy then it is justified. But to keep doing these front pages attacking him is starting to feel uncomfortable, and not just for me. Several Jews, independently and privately, have told me in recent days that they’re worried all the noise is “turning people against them”, that it is becoming counter-productive. The other concern I’ve heard, particularly in relation to Hodge, is that she risks “crying wolf” at a very sensitive time. So of course all this hysteria worries me. These are a people I love, and a people with fears. I want them to make their point forcefully, and for it to register, but to be mindful that over-making it can blunt it.
PART VII – Steps in the right direction
Q: Is the picture completely bleak or is there hope?
A: I still think this code of conduct can be discussed this summer and more agreeable wording thrashed out. Lansman says that of the four IHRA examples Labour didn’t replicate word-for-word, three are covered by its code, including accusations that Jews are more loyal to Israel, holding Israel to higher standards, and making Nazi-Holocaust-Israel links. If that is the case, the gap between the parties should be far smaller than all the screechy rhetoric and endless column inches suggest, so let’s see if Labour can tighten these elements up. Likewise, most Jews value free speech, so I would hope that Jewish representatives could recognise the risk of curtailing legitimate criticism and help Labour find a way of catching genuine antisemitism while leaving politics free. What I’m saying is, there’s wiggle room on both sides. The question is whether they’ll wiggle. With mediation from a conflict resolution specialist, they could find something acceptable to both. But that requires vast amounts of bitter animosity being put to one side.
Q: If you were the mediator, what would you advise both parties?
A: I’d advise Corbyn to start by recognising the failing to-date: the delayed disciplinary processes and their sometimes disastrous outcomes, the lack of transparency, the production of a code of conduct without wider consultation that’s now distrusted by those most affected by it, and so on. But I would also advise the Jewish side to better recognise Labour’s albeit belated progress, including the appointment of a QC, the drafting of a decision-making framework, the new time limits on disciplinary cases, the rollout of training, the continued sole recognition of the Jewish Labour Movement despite its attacks, the increasing public assertions that antisemitism is not welcome in the party, the recent speed with which antisemites are being suspended, even the attempt to clarify what it is the party deems antisemitic while incorporating the advice of the Home Affairs Select Committee – despite doing it all wrong. Both have to see that the other has a valid point. You can’t just keep throwing bricks. I’d recognise that Corbyn probably felt Jewish leaders were bullying him over the IHRA [definition] and that Jewish leaders probably felt Corbyn was deaf to their concerns, so I’d ask both parties to prove those assumptions wrong to the other. I’d then tell them success relies on cool heads, reasonable demands and a common goal – that being the best definition of antisemitism to distribute while still protecting free speech. Then I’d keep all my fingers and toes crossed, and triple check the meeting wasn’t being recorded for someone to leak it later.
Q: What do you think will happen if they don’t reach agreement by 5 September?
A: I think both sides will press the nuclear button. The Jewish community will declare Labour “institutionally racist” and pursue legal action against it however it can. MPs like Luciana Berger, Ruth Smeeth and John Mann will probably walk, maybe others. Likewise, Labour could declare that it now considers the Board, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Jewish Labour Movement to have prioritised their efforts to protect Israel from criticism over their efforts to help Labour define genuine antisemitism in the party, and move to end all relations. It may then institute new relations with groups like Jewish Voice for Labour. I hope it doesn’t come to that. God bless the peacemakers!
Q: Finally, why did you decide to speak out, and to speak out to The Canary?
A: I don’t know that it’s speaking out so much as speaking up. But no, it wasn’t an easy decision for me to do this, because I’ll take a lot of flak for it. Still, if it helps cool even one head in this sorry saga then it’s worth it. There’s a personal reason too, a promise I made to my grandfather – who was almost killed by both the far-left (the Soviets) and the far-right (the Nazis) – to stay out of politics if you’re able, even given the area I cover. So that editorial was a real problem for me and I wanted to say ‘that’s not where I’m coming from.’ This is the first time I’ve ever said anything outside my news outlet, so I don’t make a habit of it. The other reason is to appeal to your readers, those who haven’t made their minds up yet, to say there’s nuance in this debate but also that it’s not just philosophical – it’s having real world consequences. Jews are scared. Antisemitism has gone up precisely because of the debate. There’s a middle ground to be had, and if cool heads prevail, if the Labour MPs itching to stick it to Corbyn hold back and let the right outcome be reached, then that right outcome can be found and Labour can get rid of the right people, protect free speech and win back trust. It takes an effort on both sides, and the first priority is to say ‘hold on’ to those bullying the leadership into accepting the IHRA examples verbatim. I know the left must currently be feeling attacked and that it is likely acting as anyone would in those circumstances. Just remember that Jews are not the enemy. They were there at the very foundation of the Labour movement, playing a part. It’s been their natural home for decades. They’ve fought the battles Labour has fought. Hang on to that great vision of seeing them side-by-side once again to fight the battles of the future.
Featured image via Stephen Oryszczuk / Screenshot
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