On 20 February, over 200 Jewish Labour members and supporters sent a powerful message to the eight MPs who resigned from Labour. Now part of a new centrist faction, Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie and others cited antisemitism as a key reason they quit being Labour MPs.
Another resigned MP, Joan Ryan, said she opted for the new pro-Remain, pro-austerity group mainly because of a “scourge of anti-Jewish racism” that she claims has “infected” Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.
But, in a letter to the Guardian, other Jewish Labour supporters said that, on the contrary:
We believe that the Labour party under the progressive leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is a crucial ally in the fight against bigotry and reaction. His lifetime record of campaigning for equality and human rights, including consistent support for initiatives against antisemitism, is formidable. His involvement strengthens this struggle.
The letter continues:
It is in this context that we welcome the Labour party’s endorsement of freedom of expression on Israel and on the rights of Palestinians. Labour is correct to recognise that while prejudice against Jewish people is deplorable, criticism of Israel’s government and policies can and must be made.
The Jewish Labour supporters noted the rise of xenophobic governments:
We note the worrying growth of populist rightwing parties, encouraging racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism. In Britain the far right is whipping up these prejudices, a threat that requires a resolute and energetic response. But instead we have seen a disproportionate focus on antisemitism on the left, which is abhorrent but relatively rare.
The Labour supporters are right to be concerned. Far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro recently took the presidency in Brazil. Within a day of being in office, Bolsonaro used executive powers to transfer the regulation of all indigenous land to a sector of government the Guardian characterises as “controlled by the powerful agribusiness lobby”. He also lamented that the “Brazilian cavalry wasn’t as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated their Indians”.
Viktor Orban, meanwhile, runs a far-right government in Hungary that has consistently exploited antisemitic tropes to shore up support among xenophobes. This includes painting Jews as “money-grubbers”, seeking to celebrate World War II-era regents who presided over the murder of Jewish people and marginalising Jewish people to promote an exclusive Christian culture. Yet Theresa May’s Conservative Party has no problem sitting in an official EU alliance with far-right regimes that failed to condemn Orban’s government in an EU vote. In fact, David Cameron set up the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe in 2009, which includes Poland’s far-right Law and Justice party.
By contrast, neither the Labour leadership, nor its MPs, have joined such alliances. That said, there are instances of antisemitism from Labour councillors and members. Councillor Damien Enticott, for instance, claims he was hacked, despite social media accounts in his name posting antisemitic posts such as “Hitler would have a solution to the Israel problem” over three years.
But, given the relentless media coverage and attacks from Corbyn’s political opponents, the broader context is important. And the evidence supports the 201 Jewish Labour supporters who say that antisemitism on the left is “abhorrent but relatively rare”:
- Accusations of antisemitism involve around 0.1% of Labour’s 540,000-strong membership.
- An academic report found widespread ‘distorted, inaccurate and misleading’ coverage of Labour and antisemitism across the corporate media.
- A Jewish study into antisemitism in 2017 concluded that, while antisemitism is an issue on the left, “levels of antisemitism are found to be highest among the far-right”.
In September 2018, renowned Jewish intellectual Noam Chomsky went further than the Labour supporters who wrote to the Guardian. The author of over 100 books on issues ranging from linguistics to geopolitics said that the antisemitism allegations were part of a “disgraceful” campaign to dispose of Corbyn:
The charges of anti-Semitism against Corbyn are without merit, an underhanded contribution to the disgraceful efforts to fend off the threat that a political party might emerge that is led by an admirable and decent human being, a party that is actually committed to the interests and just demands of its popular constituency and the great majority of the population generally
The ‘left’ should have higher standards and condemn any antisemitism and racism from its ranks. That said, it’s safe to say that the sheer volume of what academics have called ‘misleading’ coverage of Labour and antisemitism is predominantly a smear campaign. The British establishment cannot win the battle of ideas so they must try and stain the movement in another way.
The 201 Labour supporters argue that the British media and political class has flipped reality. They’ve painted the Corbyn-led movement – not as an ally against all forms of racism – but as a regressive force. We must join these Jewish Labour supporters in unapologetically correcting the record.
The letter was signed by:
Prof Elizabeth Dore
Prof David Epstein
Prof Gene Feder
Prof Mica Nava
Prof Michael Rosen
Prof Donald Sassoon
Prof Avi Shlaim
Prof Annabelle Sreberny
Prof John Yudkin
Dr Shereen Benjamin
Dr Jon Berry
Cllr Jo Bird
Jenny Malca Brown
Prof. David Curtis
Hilary De Santos
Prof Debbie Epstein
Jack George Field
Prof. Jane Ginsborg
Prof Susan Himmelweit
L Sasha Kaplin
Dr Agnes Kory
Prof Frank Land
Dr Sydney Leaman
Cllr Leah Levane
Dr Heather Mendick
Prof David Mond
Prof Marion Roberts
Prof Jonathan Rosenhead
Stephen Solley QC
Dr Alexandra Stein
Tessa van Gelderen
Charlotte Prager Williams
Dr Gillian Yudkin
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