Antisemitism: A Stain We Must Erase

Antisemitism in the party will only be tackled when Labour members left and right accept the problems and come together in a spirit of tolerance and respect, says MARY STRATFORD. ‘We must begin to repair the damage.’

Like many Labour members, I watched with bemusement and growing anxiety as the antisemitism row within the party spiralled out of control until it found itself under investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). This was despite an internal report into the issue by Shami Chakrabati in 2016 that produced, in my view, a very welcome blueprint for the way forward, one which was hardly implemented.

There is no doubt the failure of the party, including Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, to act on that report and confront the issue head-on led to increasing concern among the Jewish community and party members, and ultimately to Labour finding itself in such a shameful position.

I am sure accusations of antisemitism were sometimes ‘weaponised’ to attack Corbyn and his leadership, but the reality is that there is a problem in the party and no amount of denial changes that.

It is particularly evident on social media. As a regular Facebook user, I have seen antisemitic language and tropes circulated on a frequent basis, including by party members, and found myself challenging them.

The difficulty is, despite a clear recommendation in the Chakrabarti report, there are no party guidelines on unacceptable online language. These are urgently needed as the culture of intolerance and abuse on social media continues to grow, particularly when contentious issues are being discussed.

That’s not to say, for example, that the actions of the Israeli government and their impact on the Palestinian people should not be criticised and challenged. Indeed, it is perfectly valid to do so. But it is not valid to use antisemitic language and tropes when doing so, and some on the left seem unable to distinguish between the two.

It is all too easy on social media to find yourself liking or circulating a post which on the surface appears to reflect your own views, but on closer examination contains language that could be regarded as discriminatory – something Rebecca Long Bailey discovered to her cost.

Indeed, the difficulty of negotiating such tricky terrain means some comrades feel terrified about discussing issues for fear of being labelled antisemitic – hardly the basis for an open and honest discussion.

Considered and balanced

On reading the EHRC report I was struck by the considered and balanced nature of its findings which, while making for depressing reading, seemed to recognise the key failings of the party and offer a way forward.

It focussed not just on the poor treatment of complainants, and a lack of transparency and fairness in the party’s disciplinary process, but also on the unacceptable treatment of respondents. This is something I became aware of when a good comrade was suspended, someone whose actions I did not feel to be antisemitic.

However, the EHRC did not flinch from emphasising that the complaints they investigated only touched the tip of an iceberg and the report concluded that the whole affair has caused considerable distress to the Jewish community. In particular, it said, there had been a drastic failure of leadership.

Like many, I hoped the report’s launch would allow us to focus on finding a way forward, that there would be no repeat of the disastrous headlines that followed the Chakrabarti report when the outrageous behaviour of one party member toward a Jewish female MP completely overshadowed its findings and the party’s response.

I also hoped the EHRC report would open a period of reflection for all within the party, whether left or right, and finally force us to work together to confront the problem. For too long the issue has been used as a political football, resulting in polarised opinions that range from accusing the Corbyn leadership of being inherently antisemitic, on the one hand, to a complete denial of the problem, on the other.

So it was with horror and despair that I watched events unravel on the 29 October, triggered by Corbyn’s initial statement and followed by the leadership’s rapid response.

It’s worth saying that Corbyn was entitled to express an opinion. Indeed, the report specifically alludes to that right when it says:

  • “Speech does not lose the protection of Article 10 [of the European Convention of Human Rights] just because it is offensive, provocative or would be regarded by some as insulting.
  • “Statements made by elected politicians have enhanced protection under Article 10.
  • “Relevant factors will include whether speech is intended to inform rather than offend, whether it forms part of an ongoing debate of public interest and whether it consists of alleged statements of fact, or of value judgment.”

However, while he had a right to speak, Corbyn did not properly consider his duty as the former party leader to exercise good judgment and restraint. Indeed, the Chakrabati report referred to that need to “consider your duty” when exercising the right to free speech.

In particular, my heart sank when Corbyn said: “One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.”

It was, in my view, entirely unnecessary for him to use such inflammatory words (especially while we are still waiting for the Forde inquiry into the party’s own report). Not surprisingly, the focus of the story immediately became Corbyn’s statement, not the EHRC findings nor the party’s response.

Voices of reason

However, I think the decision to suspend Corbyn, taken less than two hours later, was equally misjudged and disproportionate, as was the following shutdown of any debate or discussion within the party. Those actions could only inflame and further antagonise an already fractious situation.

Predictably, some on the left, already feeling under attack, responded by defending the former leader. (Indeed, I signed a petition myself to reinstate him even though I think he placed the current leadership in a very difficult position). More worryingly, some used the row to again deny the reality of the problem even though it has now been acknowledged in two comprehensive investigations.

And so now the party is engaged in a civil war just when it ought to be formulating a much-needed action plan to implement the report’s findings and eradicate once and for all the stain of antisemitism.

This cannot continue. We can only hope that behind the scenes interventions are taking place to try and resolve the situation and find a way forward. Corbyn’s ‘clarifying statement’ to the party today (Tuesday) is a start. I hope voices of reason will prevail and the party can finally confront an issue it has comprehensively failed to address to date.

We on the left have a responsibility to challenge all forms of racism, including antisemitism. It is time to concentrate on confronting the behaviours that have brought us into disrepute.

As former Momentum chair and ex-Labour NEC member Jon Lansman put it in a recent interview on Labour List:

“I never expected to find antisemitism in the Labour Party and I did find it. I found it in appalling ways in the stuff that I saw in disciplinary cases. I’m frustrated at the level of denial there is in the party… A lot of the people who are in denial, if they saw this material, I think many of them would adjust their position – maybe not sufficiently in some cases, but there is no basis for saying it is lies or a smear.”

The issue of antisemitism must not get lost in all the furore. We must begin to repair the damage.


You can download the EHRC’s investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party here.


  1. Mary Stratford
    23 November 2020

    Ernie, thank you for taking the time to respond to my piece about which I thought long and hard before writing. I chose to do so because I felt I could not stand by and watch a second major report into the issue of antisemitism become a side issue while the Labour Party declares war on itself.

    In many ways it’s quite difficult to respond to your comments as many of them in no way seem to be responding to what I actually wrote. Instead, you seem to infer that I and those who think like me are part of an overall campaign to discredit Jeremy Corbyn. I have to take issue with that.

    Since when has honest criticism become conflated with attempting to destroy someone? I am not part of any campaign to destroy Jeremy’s reputation and at no point described him as antisemitic, but I criticised his actions – something I would do with any Labour leader when it was necessary.

    No leader is infallible and it does concern me that some people seem unable to recognise that when it comes to Corbyn. I can understand people feeling the need to be protective of him given the abuse which has been directed at him from the start of his leadership and would openly acknowledge that I personally could not have withstood such a hostile onslaught, but he also has to be judged on his actions and in this instance, plain and simple, he got it wrong (something even John McDonnell acknowledged in a recent podcast with Owen Jones). Words have power, Ernie, and the context in which they are spoken even more so.

    I am very sad that yet again this issue has become about personalities and factional warring, and even sadder that you cannot bring yourself to acknowledge the problem. You ask if you should be considered ‘blind, sad and a closet racist’. You are none of them, but I would suggested you are blinkered on this issue and perhaps should start to explore the issue by listening to those who have experienced antisemitism in the party before denying its existence.

    Finally, you seem to imply that acknowledging that the party has problems with antisemitism ignores the plight of the Palestinian people. It really doesn’t, Ernie, and it saddens me that you would even suggest that is the case.

  2. Ernest Jacques
    23 November 2020

    Hazel, there is nothing sinister about my reference to big money people and the coalition of forces opposed to Jeremy Corbyn. What I am talking about here is people with vested interests, eg. big business, tax avoiders, the right wing press, Tories and, sadly, more than a few Labour worthies who don’t want social change and the left wing Corbyn agenda.

    What I find objectionable is the suggestion (often explicit and sometime implicit) that those who oppose the character assassination of Corbyn are really closet antisemites without knowing it. It’s a crude way of rubbishing opposition and closing down political debate.

    More importantly, it’s a dangerous attack on free speech, the life blood of a democratic society and political debate. And that includes Keir Starmer whose behaviour since becoming Labour leader has been less than unifying insofar as he has spilt the party and attacked the left in the most divisive way. He’s a lawyer who gives short shrift to opposing views, normal protocols, party rules and natural justice.

    For another Jewish perspective, it’s worth reading this article from the Jewish Voice of Labour who have a different take on the downfall of Corbyn and Labour’s antisemitism row.

  3. Harry Barnes
    21 November 2020

    Hazel Seidel: You refer Ernest Jacques to the latest edition of Dave Rich’s book. Here is a link to my review of the original version of Rich’s book which I placed on my blog. The comment box shows a subsdequent exchange between Jacques and myself. Do you know how I can access Rich’s thesis on the issue?

  4. Hazel Seidel
    20 November 2020

    Ernest Jacques:
    1) You say that ‘conflating social media posts and unspecified comments of other people with Corbyn and the Labour Party membership cannot be right’. Yet most of the complaints to Labour about antisemitism did concern social media, and there were many, even after those found not to be by Labour members were of course excluded. Racism and lies on social media can be dangerous and far-reaching as we have seen during the coronavirus epidemic. They are not a trivial matter.

    2) Many claim to have ‘never seen antisemitism in Labour’, but few of us are aware of what goes on much outside our own CLP.

    3) Also, your own last paragraph suggests you may be a little unaware of what constitutes antisemitism. Of course critisism of the actions of the Israeli state and support of the Palestinian cause is not in itself regarded as antisemitic under the IHRA definition and examples – that would be unconscionable – unless it is expressed in antisemitic ways. Many people engage in such criticism and support – and so they should – without being antisemitic.

    4) You imply that opposition to antisemitism in Labour is fomented merely to protect Israel from criticism. You hint rather worryingly at ‘vested interests’. It would be interesting to know what you think those vested interests are. Many left-wing people, Jews and non-Jews, whether Zionist, non-Zionist or sometimes even anti-Zionist, have been shocked at the anti-Jewish racism revealed in Labour in recent years. The concern and hurt are real.

    5) You miss the point about Corbyn’s statement on the day of the launch of the EHRC report. It may well be true that the public have an inflated idea of how many antisemites there are in Labour. But to make this defensive point on the day when Starmer was apologising to Jews for the antisemitism revealed in the report, and undertaking to deal with it, was crassly insensitive, undermined Starmer, offended Jews, and frankly was all of a piece of Corbyn’s attitude over recent years. Whether or not he is personally antisemitic, his slowness to recognise and act on left-wing forms of antisemitism has fuelled the denialism which prevents Labour getting to grips with the problem. That denialism is also often expressed antisemitically, for example in the suggestion that complaints against antisemitism are a conspiracy by Israel, or that Jews are privileged compared with other victims.

    6) There are specific forms of antisemitism on the left, and I recommend Dave Rich’s book on the subject for an explanation of why they gained wider traction in Labour with the people who entered the party when Corbyn became leader.

    7) A minor point, but although the origin of the term ‘antisemitic’ lay with the idea that there were ‘Semitic peoples’ (a now outdated notion), in practice the term has always been applied to Jews. ‘Anti-Jewish racism’ is clearer.

  5. Ernest Jacques
    20 November 2020

    Mary, can I respectfully disagree with your perspective on the Corbyn suspension. His crime was to say: “One anti-Semite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.” 

    Mary considers it to be an inflammatory statement whereas most people take it to be a truism and uncontroversial. I think it wrong also to conflated social media statements and link them to Corbyn and the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn cannot be responsible for the social media utterances of those who use Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

    Criticism of Corbyn is OK, but allegations without facts becomes baseless innuendo against a man of integrity and compassion who has had to withstand a storm of lies, personal abuse and bullying throughout his tenure as Labour leader and beyond. Most, if not all of this, is unwarranted. Conflating social media posts and unspecified comments of other people with Corbyn and the Labour Party membership cannot be right.

    As a senior lawyer, Keir Starmer must know that hearsay and tittle tattle, carries no weight in law. My own experience concurs with Corbyn’s statement when he says where antisemitism does exist in the Labour Party it is infinitesimal.

    In all my 50 or more years in the Labour and trade union movement, I never once witnessed antisemitism, not overtly nor unconsciously. So am I blind, sad and a closet racist too? Those who agree with Mary (and many do) might explain why antisemitism was never a problem under Kinnock, Blair or Brown, but somehow reared is ugly head under Corbyn.

    Those who think like me are appalled at the anti-Corbyn campaign. What has been done to Corbyn is instigated by a plethora of vested interests and those who won’t recognise lies, bullying and justice whatever the facts. In the wake of Corbyn’s suspension being lifted, it’s likely that some inside and outside the Labour Party will be furious at the decision to reinstate him and we can expect more noise, dishonesty and denigration of a good man, whatever one’s views on his capability and his politics.

    Those engaged in the campaign to rubbish Corbyn and all he stands for make a lot of noise about zero tolerance of racism, and who could disagree with that? But tolerance and compassion is not open-ended for some Labour Party worthies, and stops at the Palestinian border where anything goes, with the Israeli state stealing land, bulldozing houses and olive groves, and killing men, women, children, the disabled and journalists. The objections to this from Starmer and the anti-Corbyn critics is deafening.

    It seems some Semites (who happen to be Arab) don’t deserve the most basic of human rights, and deserve discrimination and all they get. It is bizarre and sad that perhaps the least racist Labour Party member, Jeremy Corbyn, is labelled antisemitic simply because of his unequivocal support for the Palestinian people. Criticism of the Israeli state and calling out crimes against humanity is not antisemitism.

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