First published on ProgressOnline
Tomorrow Shami Chakrabarti’s review into antisemitism and how it should be tackled is to be presented. I am told everyone is seeing the report tomorrow for the first time – obviously we the party members, and the Jewish community, but the leader’s office, the general secretary and the National Executive Committee too. It should be a seminal moment for Labour. The opportunity is welcome to draw a line under Ken Livingstone’s ugly statements and the career that went before that has been littered with offensive remarks to Jews. But it should do much more. It should chart a way for Labour to move from the bottom of the pack on these issues to somewhere in the premier league.
When I am judging the report, and its potential effectiveness, here are my tests:
1. ‘Zio’ and ‘Zionist’ as dirty words should be defined as clearly antisemitic
The rise of ‘Zio’ as a term of abuse is disgusting. How it has seeped into campus and left culture in such a short time is very worrying. It is never used in any other way than to be an insult. And there should be no doubt that it is an antisemitic insult. Not everyone on the receiving end will be Jewish but then again there are camp straight men who receive homophobic abuse all the time. Because they are straight does not make the abuse less homophobic.
‘Zionist’ is more difficult but when the word is hurled as abuse, it is an antisemitic slur and should be called such. Zionism is an ideology that takes many forms. These can and should be explored and debated but those who support it are as diverse as those who follow socialism. It should be treated in a similar way not derided as homogenous or evil.
2. Ken Livingstone engaged in one antisemitic attack too many
‘[Hitler] supported Zionism’ is a repugnant thing to say. It is a lie, and one spurious quote from 1920 is no defence. Hitler was an antisemite to his core. Mein Kampf, which argues a Jewish state would unacceptable because it would become the headquarters of the Jewish conspiracy, was written ‘before he went mad’ (sic) in Livingstone’s opinion. This only proves that the former mayor of London is no historian. When Hitler was ethnically cleansing Europe of Jews he considered the Middle East, Madagascar, but settled on his ‘final solution’ – death by concentration camp. The fact that 60,000 Jews took a brief window to get out of Germany is not proof of anything other than a testament to what scared people will do to protect their friends and family.
Equally, when Livingstone argues that to be antisemitic you have to ‘hate all the Jews including those in Golders Green not just the Jews in Israel’, it is equally as bad. Hating one Jewish person and their faith or race being implicitly part of how you express that is one form of antisemitism too many. These arbitrary quotas of how many Jews you hate is not how we define racism. When Stephen Lawrence was attacked for being black we did not care what his attackers’ views on every other black person were, the fact there was one victim was a disgusting and disgraceful crime.
3. Make clear: Jews did not pay for the slave trade
Even Livingstone thought this was a remark too far. In his ludicrous evidence to the home affairs select committee he was asked if suggestions that Jews paid for the slave trade was antisemitism he said, ‘That is not true. That is clearly antisemitic—it is not true.’
Such spurious comments should meet with serious consequences.
4. The Holocaust is a one-off and beyond comparison
In eastern Europe the form that Holocaust denial takes is talk of a ‘double Holocaust’. That first came the Nazis and then the Soviets. While life in Latvia and Lithuania under the USSR was brutal and oppressive it was not genocidal like under Nazi Germany. Likening the Holocaust to other events is not right and not acceptable.
The Holocaust was not just a genocide, it was the worst conceivable genocide. It was not done in anger or rage but was cold, calculated, documented and minuted. No other crime has a parallel and it should stay that way.
The reason why Holocaust denial and revisionism should be so important not just to all Europeans but those of the political left is because the survivors, within our movement and beyond, are falling away. Time is taking away first-hand witnesses to such crimes. We must be offended on their behalf. Holocaust denial is not illegal per se under British law, although our race hate laws have prosecuted such hatred. But the reason why it is explicitly outlawed in five European Union countries is because to deny that the horrible crimes even happened makes the victims of the Holocaust not only victims again, it denies the millions who would be alive now had the Shoah not taken place. The descendants of the six million Jews that we do not have deserve some recognition too.
5. Labour Jews should be empowered to speak on antisemitism within Labour
In my action plan the collective voice of Jews that are party members was a key linchpin of proposals. That collective voice is the Jewish Labour Movement. It has faults – which organisation does not? It is open, democratic and for Jews. It is the best place to debate what modern antisemitism looks like, how Zionism is approached among Labour Jewry and anything else it deems worth of a conversation. People who do not like its positions can join and try and change it. No one would deny that the Labour Women’s Network are best placed to champion issues around sexism in Labour. JLM should be treated no differently.
I therefore called on JLM to be on the equalities committee, for it to be able to lead or appoint the appropriate people to provide training for Labour’s NEC – as it oversees all disciplinary issues in the party – and the levels below. Equally, youth and student events should have Jewish caucuses so that there is the opportunity for Jews to raise issues they experience not as individuals but as a group. The BAME caucus did this effectively in Scunthorpe. There is no reason why young Jews should not have the same rights.
6. That a new complaints system is mandated
The party’s current complaints system is not fit for purpose. The fact that most antisemitism was being reported via the press is not proof of the ‘mainstream media’ ganging up on Labour but that our reporting processes are weak, unknown and inspire no confidence.
By the time of Labour party conference a rule change – and JLM have proposed one – should be ready making clear that all racism is dealt with equally and that serious sanctions should be in place for those considered to have been part of Jew hate and other forms of hatred.
If it was Labour rather than the Liberal Democrats and Tories that had within its midst the respective Rennard or Tatler Tory scandals, does anyone think we would have handled them any better? It is with regret I say that I would bet a lot of money on the fact that neither the NEC nor the leader’s office have stress-tested our processes in light of those two revelations. Both are on our political doorstep and could so easily have happened to us.
I believe it is time the Labour party commissions a trusted organisation to be a third party reporting mechanism, or go one better and consider an independent ombudsperson – a Queen’s counsel or the like that stands separate from the party – to consider complaints. Chakrabarti’s report must at least highlight a direction of travel.
7. The party must resource its current and any future complaints procedure
Labour party staff do an excellent job. They go above and beyond. Those who have had to deal with complaints are stretched beyond the reasonable limits. It is time the NEC gave them the resources they need and pledge to resource any future structure which, most likely, will be more expensive. Due process is worth every penny.
8. Finally, leadership matters
The way allegations of antisemitism have been dealt with in Labour under Ed Miliband – where it seems Vicki Kirby was allowed to be removed as a candidate, suspended and quietly rejoin – and Jeremy Corbyn – where indecision and inconsistency have too often been the approach – is not acceptable. The leader’s office needs to think through their approach, ensure due process in the party and follow it regardless of standing in the party or factional standing in the membership.
Equally, it must be acknowledged that when someone has called Hamas and Hezbollah – explicitly antisemitic groups – ‘friends’, that will have an impact on how you are received, but also what others, with similar views or feel empowered by another’s mandate, will believe is now acceptable.
‘The standard we walk past is the standard we are prepared to accept’ has never had so much meaning. Stop the War, under Corbyn’s leadership, turned a blind eye to antisemitism on their marches. The same must not be true of Labour, under anyone’s leadership.
Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets @RichardAngell