Labour leadership, Antisemitism and Islamophobia

Lisa Nandy

This past Monday the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a body elected by parts of the Jewish community (not all of it), launched their “ten pledges” campaign, a set of demands for candidates for the Labour leadership to “end the Antisemitism crisis”. A PDF of the full list can be found here although images of it have been circulated on social media (a straight HTML version would not go amiss; images are inaccessible and PDF files take a long time to load and often a separate application to display). They include bringing current and future ‘cases’ of antisemitism to “a swift conclusion under a fixed timescale”, access for Jewish community groups to “regular, detailed case updates”, suspension for anyone in the party who provides a platform for anyone suspended or expelled “in the wake of antisemitic incidents”, the IHRA definition of antisemitism to be accepted without qualification, education on the subject to be delivered with the involvement of the Jewish Labour Movement and, perhaps most controversially, that “Labour must engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups, and not through fringe organisations and individuals”.

On Tuesday, in response to a thread from Shaista Aziz, a Labour activist in Nottingham, in which she reported that she had been invited to be interviewed on the subject of racism in the coverage of the Prince Harry and Meghan story (see last entry) and the interview request was withdrawn when she asked for clarification, I tweeted this:

Funny how a certain predominantly white minority is trusted to dictate what is and isn’t racism against them but POC [people of colour] aren’t, when it’s often very obvious to any sincere person.

I had a series of tweets from Eve Leigh, a London-based playwright, demanding to know exactly which minority I was referring to (as if it weren’t obvious), starting with this:

In a related story, why are you taking this moment to talk about Jews? Why are Jews…occupying your mind like this? Also, I have news for you, Jews are told that what we perceive as anti-semitism is just being whiny and oversensitive every damn day.

The first point I made will be obvious to anyone from any less-advantaged community who has tried to raise the issue of prejudice or privilege. To take the Harry and Meghan story, both the TV and newspapers were full of people claiming that the hostility to Meghan has nothing to do with her being Black, despite huge evidence of more hostile coverage of anything she does compared to anything Princess Kate, who is middle-class, white and British, does. I hear complaints to this effect from people in these communities all the time and anyone who follows enough Black or Asian women on Twitter or wherever will see the same; the denials and defensiveness does not come (only) from ordinary people but from people in the media: journalists and TV presenters. Shaista Aziz clarified this in her response to the interview request which she quoted in her Twitter thread: “I’m not interested in being part of YET another media discussion where a woman of colour is gaslighted and told that racism isn’t racism”.

Twice in the last couple of months a Jewish community institution has got substantial and sympathetic media coverage for opinions it puts forward about the situation in the Labour party. The first was the Chief Rabbi’s ‘intervention’, widely reported as if of great authority when he in fact heads one group of Orthodox synagogues, and actually not an ‘intervention’ but just an opinion. The second was this week’s ten demands. These statements have been reported uncritically and with enormous sympathy while people questioning them have faced accusations of anti-Semitism. Could anyone imagine the same response to a political statement by a Muslim organisation? Muslim (and other Asian) community leaders are generally portrayed as reactionary, sectarian dinosaurs; the Muslim Council of Britain has been dismissed as an ‘Islamist’ group and criticised, by both government and its sympathetic media, for being uncommitted to “British values” and equivocal on “extremism”. Any time a mainstream Muslim organisation fails to tell the media or politicians what they want to hear, they find a nobody on the fringe to speak for us, to pretend to be an imam (e.g. Taj Hargey) or ‘expert’ in whatever they think wrong with the Muslim community (Hargey, Amina Lone, Nimco Ali and the rest of the FGM industry) and confirm their prejudices. So, the effrontery of the BOD in demanding that Labour take their word on what is or is not anti-Semitism will be obvious to any Muslim reading it: we do not get the same privilege.

The bar for what constitutes anti-Semitism seems to be getting lower and lower. It’s now ‘established’ in the media that the belief that Jews have no right to a state in what they call Israel is anti-Semitic in itself, but claims are now being made on the basis of much less than that. Consider the outrage when Rachel Cousins (AKA Rachel Swindon) shared a video purporting to be of Israeli soldiers abusing Palestinian children, which turned out to have been shot in Guatemala; there were demands for apologies that would be unthinkable if it was any other country (and there are many true stories from Palestine like the one depicted). In a widely-shared TV interview, Andrew Neil asked the Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy if she thought it anti-Semitic for Rachael Cousins to call the BOD “Conservative backers” and asking them to disassociate themselves from the Tories and condemn “Israeli military atrocities in the West Bank”, Nandy replied “yes” without hesitation. If the BOD were purely a Jewish community representative body, that is something we could all agree on — it’s racist to expect every member of a community to answer for what any other does anywhere in the world — but the BOD acts partly as a lobby group for Israel. On its website you can find statements blaming Hamas for deaths inflicted by the Israeli army or police, opposing BDS and issuing statements condemning councils and other bodies that condemn Israeli military actions (most recently in Gwynedd: [1], [2]). It’s not racist to call them an Israeli lobbying effort: it is there in black and white.

Labour really must show some backbone and not give in to threats or blackmail. Labour have a strong minority ethnic vote which they cannot take for granted as they took the provincial working-class vote for generations. If Muslims see one candidate after another summarily expelled from the party for expressing anger about Israeli military or settler abuses in the West Bank or Gaza, they will not vote Labour; they might just not vote, rather than vote for anyone else, but it will still be a loss for Labour. If the Black community sees its long-standing activists expelled on the basis of spurious claims of anti-Semitism (e.g. Mark Wadsworth), they will know the party does not care for them either. Labour’s vote declined when it was in power because Blair, despite all the hope that accompanied his 1997 election victory and the progressive policies of his first term, drifted ever rightwards, disregarding civil liberties, launching wars that were not in the national interest to please George W Bush, locking people up who had long served their time because the press staged a campaign against “foreign criminals”, making a show of detaining asylum seekers and so much else. They have a record of cowardice in the face of power and of viciousness to those without. This craven refusal to stand up to bullies shows that this cowardly streak is alive and well in the Labour party.

Finally, as for the particular claim that “Jews are told that what we perceive as anti-semitism is just being whiny and oversensitive every damn day”, in all honesty it is difficult to tell what is oversensitivity and what is a matter of offence being feigned to score a political point. Claims of “anti-Semitic tropes” against Labour MPs and activists, including ones of Jewish origin who are “not quite Jewish enough”, are issued on a regular basis which are obviously baseless: to take an example from this week, a motion by two Jewish (though not “BOD type Jewish”) activists at an Ilford South area party meeting was condemned as denying that there was any problem with anti-Semitism in the party (it does not) and using “multiple antisemitic tropes” which is so far-fetched as to be ludicrous (if the motion referred to Jews generally as it does the BOD, it would be, but it refers to one specific organisation). If any other minority made claims of racism, Islamophobia, or anything similar with such regularity and with so little factual basis, they would be accused, quite rightly, of being at best snowflakes and at worst vexatious, manipulative and dishonest. Regardless of a few harsh words on Twitter and in Labour party meetings, the Jewish community gets a much easier ride in the media than Muslims or any other minority and the reason is obvious: because they are white, and because an easy way of slapping down uppity minorities is to make them the racists rather than address the problem in society generally.

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