Antisemitism crisis in British Labour reaches new crescendo

Attendees at the Say No to Antisemitism rally in Manchester (Photo: Twitter/@BoardofDeputies)

Antisemitism has been a major concern in the UK Labour Party since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the party in September 2015.  Many have been critical of Corbyn’s alleged insufficient action in the face of claims of antisemitic abuse and bullying of members and MPs – leading up to a demonstration in Westminster last March in which an estimated 1,500 people protested Corbyn’s “systematic failure” to deal with antisemitism. The demonstration, called by the Jewish Leadership Council and the Jewish Board of Deputies, included not only a broad cross-section of the Jewish community but a large number of Labour MPs.

In the last two weeks, the issue of antisemitism in the party has reached another crescendo, thanks to the actions of Labour party MPs themselves.

First MPs Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Mike Gapes, Ann Coffey, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker, and Joan Ryan resigned from the Labour Party, citing antisemitism problems as a key reason, along with Labour’s approach to Brexit.  

Then Tom Watson, the deputy Labour Party leader, went on the offensive to speak out against antisemitism and call out Corbyn’s alleged lack of action regarding the matter.

The formation of ‘The Independent Group’   

MP Luciana Berger, who is Jewish, was particularly scathing when she announced her resignation from Labour and the formation of a breakaway faction called “The Independent Group” (TIG). She stated, “I cannot remain in a party which I have come to the sickening conclusion is institutionally antisemitic… The leadership has wilfully and repeatedly failed to address hatred against Jewish people within its ranks. I am leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation. I look forward to a future serving with colleagues who respect each other and who are committed to working together for our great country.”

Berger said she was “embarrassed and ashamed” to be part of a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.  “I have not changed but the core values of equality for all, opportunity for all, anti-racism against all, social justice remain who I am and yet these values have been consistently and constantly violated, undermined and attacked as the Labour Party today refuses to put my constituents and the country before party interests.”

Berger had previously been the subject of a violent antisemitic threat, which the Labour Party concealed both from her and from the police for at least six months, and faced severe antisemitic abuse and a de-selection attempt for her criticism of Labour’s antisemitism problem and of party leader Jeremy Corbyn for his failure to address it. At last year’s Labour conference, she had to have a police guard for her safety due to the escalation of antisemitic threats.

Other Labour MPs leaving to form the TIG also had very strong words on the subject. Chris Leslie said that, “On anti-Semitism, national security, attitudes to business large and small, impossible promises that couldn’t be kept, the Labour leadership’s obsession with a narrow, outdated ideology has created a divisive, intolerant culture”.

Mike Gapes said that Corbyn poses a threat to the UK national security and “I’m sickened that Labour is now a racist, anti-semitic party”.

Gavin Shuker said, “Today, the Labour party is riddled with anti-Semitism”.

The group as a whole wrote in their “Declaration of Independence” upon resigning that “visceral hatreds of other people, views and opinions are common-place in and around the Labour party”.

Meanwhile, even some of those remaining behind in the Labour party have admitted that the resigning MPs have a point on the subject of antisemitism. For instance, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he was “deeply distressed” by the  resignations, but added,

“The Labour Party has been shockingly poor at addressing the issue of antisemitism over the last few years.

“We know that there are members of the Labour Party who have joined who have clearly anti-Semitic views, or have been in our party for some time and have clearly anti-Semitic views, the Labour Party hasn’t acted swiftly enough to kick them out.”

Deputy Leader Watson steps up

Meanwhile, deputy Labour party leader Tom Watson used an interview on BBC-TV’s “The Andrew Marr Show” last Sunday (Feb 24) to demand the party leadership address “a crisis for the soul of the Labour party” or risk many more defections. He said he had received 50 complaints about antisemitism from colleagues since Feb.18, and he had forwarded them to Corbyn.  He said, “Jeremy needs to understand that if we are going to be in No. 10, he needs to change the Labour party. He needs to take a personal lead in reviewing those cases and recommending to the national executive committee what needs to be done”.

Some of the tweets from Labour party members about which complaints were made included:

  • “Wonder why Jewish people are hated wherever they’ve settled over last 2000 years. Their double dealing, back stabbing, cheating chilling coldness has always only one outcome. I wonder what the average period of time is before people fed up with the anti-social Jews kick em out”; and “Jews murder people and children”.
  • Another complaint involved twitter comments about Jewish MPs and councillors that said: “Don’t know what runs through their veins, not human blood” and “their hearts and brains totally devoid of humanity”.
  • A fourth complaint related to a social media post that said: “Hitler is an illegitimate Rothschild, so any offspring of him who would have a good chance of being propelled into a position of power”.

Watson also said that Luciana Berger, who was present in the studio during the interview, had been “bullied out of the Labour party by a small number of racist thugs”.

Watson went on to say of Corbyn, “The test for him as leader is to eradicate anti-Semitism. It is not Labour Party members who will be the judge of that, it is the British Jewish community. I think he understands now that if he is ever to be prime minister he needs to rebuild that trust”.

Subsequent to the BBC interview, Watson wrote to all Labour MPs and peers asking to see copies of all complaints about antisemitism and other forms of abuse and said his own team would be “logging and monitoring all complaints”. His intervention follows claims that the party’s General Secretary Jennie Formby has not been doing enough about alleged incidents of racism in the party sent to her for investigation.

Corbyn, for his part, responded that while there is “no place for harshness, bullying or anything else in the party… to tell you the truth, I don’t believe it exists on a wide scale”.

Yet for all the apparent attempts of Mr. Corbyn and his keenest supporters to wish the problem away, the events of the past two weeks make it clear that the antisemitism crisis is likely to continue to tear the British Labour party apart until it is adequately addressed.