Yesterday, the House of Commons witnessed an extraordinary debate on antisemitism. It was extraordinary because it had to happen at all; for its emotion, but most of all for the testimony given by MPs, especially Labour MPs, and the blame they laid at the door of the Labour Party’s Leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Three of Labour’s female Jewish MPs, Luciana Berger, Ruth Smeeth and Louise Ellman, each told a story of antisemitic persecution as well as of their own courage: of how they had variously received death and rape threats, as well as allegations of treasonous disloyalty and demands that they leave the country. Ms Berger stated that antisemitism in the Labour Party is “commonplace, conspicuous and corrosive”.
That Jews might experience genuine persecution in the UK in 2018 is now a familiar reality, and yet for Jews and non-Jews alike, to hear their collective testimony was shocking. Unusually, for the House of Commons, where applause is forbidden by convention, Ms Berger and Ms Smeeth received standing ovations.
John Mann, a non-Jewish MP, also revealed that aside from the threats against him as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, his wife had been sent a dead bird and received rape threats from activists on the political left. This is the price to be paid by those who stand in solidarity with Jews in the Labour Party.
These were not the only stories: one by one, Jewish MPs spoke out. Margaret Hodge said: “It feels like my Party has given permission for antisemitism to go unchallenged”. Ivan Lewis described how Mr Corbyn had failed to call out ideological allies of his who are also antisemitic. Another MP spoke of a young woman whom he knew who had left the UK for Israel out of fear. A Jewish Conservative MP, Robert Halfon, referred to “the air tightening”. Mr Mann summed up that change by telling the House that when he first took up his role in the fight against antisemitism thirteen years ago, Jews expressed disquiet to him. Now, he said, they express fear.
One particularly powerful contribution was by Lisa Nandy, the Vice-Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine. She praised Israeli women she had met who had reached out to advocate for Palestinian women in the spirit of peace, and rounded on members of her own Party who mistakenly prevented such possibilities of rapprochement by seeking to “divide and sow hatred when they have managed to reach across the divide and do the opposite”. She referred to “a particular sort of antisemitism that has found its home in the far left throughout history”; the “horrific mural” that Jeremy Corbyn had defended; demanded that Ken Livingstone be expelled and that the “thousands” of outstanding cases of antisemitism be dealt with immediately; and she referred to the “acres” of antisemitism she had witnessed. In two short minutes, she more accurately analysed the realities of Labour antisemitism than the newly enobled Baroness Chakrabarti had managed in producing her entire report.
There were calls from some MPs, among them Ian Austen, for Mr Livingstone to be expelled immediately, and exasperation that the Labour Party persisted in talking about due process two full years after Mr Livingstone notoriously spoke to the BBC of his belief that Hitler “was supporting Zionism”. There were some who poured scorn on those in Labour who had called out Jewish complaints of antisemitism as smears, such as Diane Abbott. But there was more: more and more MPs referred to Mr Corbyn’s behaviour in relation to the Brick Lane mural: either for not being able to see the antisemitism in it, of for seeing but defending it, and his associations with genocidal antisemites. His behaviour was specifically blamed for enabling antisemitism. Finally, Andrew Percy MP echoed Campaign Against Antisemitism”s call for Mr Corbyn to be held to account for his behaviour.
Mr Corbyn walked out early on, although he returned some time later. He sat as if apart, mostly as though sucking a lemon. From time to time he would, as Mr Percy described it “chunter”, as if mocking the proceedings, or else shook his head. Sometimes he was heard to say “Disgraceful” at the criticism levelled at him. Despite Sajid Javid calling early on for him to use the opportunity of the debate to “clarify his position on antisemitism”, Mr Corbyn sat in aloof, in apparent disdain.
Finally, Ms Abbott joined the debate at its close. At first she refused to give way to interruptions, insisting on talking about topics unrelated to the debate, at one point seemingly implying that as she had received even more abuse than Jewish women, as though racism against them was somehow invalidated. As disquiet at the deflections these statements constituted grew in the chamber, she finally moved to admit that antisemitism was a problem within the Labour Party, and made promises of the vaguest and most ineffectual sort: of an extra lawyer to be hired, and of education for Party members, before darkly accusing those on the Conservative benches of making political capital and of alleging Mr Corbyn is an antisemite. Wes Streeting immediately rose to say his own front bench’s response would leave Jews “horrified”.
Campaign Against Antisemitism applauds the courage of those who spoke out, but the responses of Mr Corbyn and Ms Abbott were chilling. We already know by Labour’s backing and promotion of the decoy fringe group, the so-called Jewish Voice for Labour, that he is not minded to do what is sought by the Jewish community, but instead to fight against it. Mr Corbyn has much to lose, as the evidence suggests that his power base in the Party, from his leadership office, through Labour’s National Executive Committee and to his ‘Corbynista’ following, shares his worldview and is riddled with antisemitism. To take action against them, would be to take action against his own power. It seems that he cannot or will not do that.
Mr Corbyn cannot afford to lose the antisemites amongst his supporters, and Jews cannot and will not give up in the fight against antisemitism. The fight ahead is no nearer a conclusion than it was before the debate. Though the Home Secretary Amber Rudd called on him to act, we do not believe he will.
Meanwhile, Campaign Against Antisemitism echoes the mood of many in the House today: Mr Corbyn’s leadership is to blame, and he must be held to account.
Following our demonstration outside Labour Party Head Office on 8th April, we said that we would return on 13th May if there had been no improvement. We regret that it is looking likely that we will need to return. Please sign up for updates at antisemitism.org/demonstration.