Why Britain’s Labour Party will struggle to erase its moral stain

October 30, 2020 by Melanie Phillips - JNS.org
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The report of an 18-month inquiry into antisemitism in Britain’s Labour Party has now been published. Almost instantly, it produced a dramatic and unexpected result.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labor Party. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission, which conducted the inquiry, has thrown the book at Labour over its handling of the anti-Jewish bigotry in its ranks under its previous hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

It has found that the party illegally harassed and discriminated against Jews, breaking equality laws.

It identifies a culture within the party “which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.” Despite some recent improvements, it says, Labour must do more if it is going to regain the trust of the Jewish community, the public and many of its members.

Three hours after the report was published, Corbyn was suspended from the party and had the Labour whip removed.

This was all the more remarkable since shortly before that, Labour’s current leader, Sir Keir Starmer, repeatedly ducked the question of whether he would now expel his predecessor from the party. He replied that the report had highlighted a “collective failure of leadership,” rather than identifying Corbyn by name, and that it was “incumbent on all of us to accept the findings … and apologize.”

Soon afterwards, however, Starmer reversed course after Corbyn himself had doubled down, claiming that his team had “acted to speed up, not hinder the process” of investigating antisemitism complaints and that the scale of the problem had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party.”

Since the report had identified as an offence the patently unjustified claim that false complaints of antisemitism were being used to smear the party, Starmer may have realized he had little choice but to suspend his predecessor.

The inquiry examined in-depth 70 complaints of antisemitism made between 2016 and 2019, but many more were submitted. It found antisemitic tropes such as Jewish people being a “fifth column” or controlling or manipulating the political process, likening Israel’s policies to those of Hitler or accusing the “Israel lobby” of a smear campaign to stigmatize critics of Israel as antisemitic. These, says the report, were but the tip of the iceberg.

It thus vindicates all those who fought bitter battles to expose this culture of Jew-hatred in the party and were themselves viciously harassed and victimized for doing so and subjected to further anti-Jewish attacks.

There is no reason to doubt Starmer’s sincerity in saying that Labour had “failed Jewish people” and pledging to eradicate its toxic culture of antisemitism. But anyone who imagines that enacting the report’s procedural recommendations will solve the problem of anti-Jewish prejudice in the Labour Party—let alone on the left in general—is sorely mistaken.

Melanie Phillips

Only this week it was revealed that the party leadership had reprimanded Labour MP Stephen Kinnock for accusing Israel in a House of Commons debate about the situation on the “West Bank” of behaviour “tantamount to profiting from the proceeds of crime” and calling on the United Kingdom to “ban all products that originate from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.”

Kinnock was given a dressing down for language felt to represent a disproportionate fixation with Israel. His words also combined this with a whiff of old-fashioned anti-Jewish prejudice by implying that Israel was financially benefiting from oppression.

This illustrates a problem that even the moderate Starmer may not appreciate. Much of the bigotry against Jews expressed by Labour members is tied up with the demonization and delegitimization of Israel.

However, there is general bafflement in Britain over the association of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment, with a widespread belief going way beyond the Labour Party that the claim of antisemitism is being used to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel.

This in turn is fueled by widespread confusion and ignorance over what antisemitism actually is.

In the United States, a recent poll published by the American Jewish Committee produced the disturbing finding that nearly half of those questioned weren’t sure what antisemitism was and almost a quarter had never even come across the term.

Such findings would almost certainly be replicated in Britain. On both sides of the Atlantic, poor knowledge of the singular history of the Jewish people means zero understanding of the unique properties of antisemitism: its double standards, obsessive nature, disproportionality, systematic lies, imputation of global conspiracy and its belief that the Jews are responsible for all the ills of the world.

And with equally poor knowledge of the reality of life in Israel, Palestinian antisemitism and the history of the Jews in the Holy Land, there’s similarly zero understanding that anti-Israel attitudes exhibit exactly the same characteristics.

It can’t be said too often that many people harbour anti-Israel views that are anti-Jewish even though they may be decent folk. Indeed, it is precisely because they are decent folk, motivated by the desire to oppose injustice and persecution across the world, that they are, tragically and perversely, anti-Israel.

With their heads filled by anti-Israel lies, they think that demonizing Israel is evidence of a moral sense. And so, even more appallingly, they think any protests by Jews that this is a form of antisemitism are just Jews using the claim of antisemitism to sanitize the crimes of Israel.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the major drivers of Israel demonization and delegitimization are the universities. The United States took action to address this last year when President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning antisemitic behaviour and actions at colleges and universities that receive federal funding.

Further key promoters of this infamy are some of the giant international NGOs such as Amnesty International, Oxfam, Human Rights Watch and others. People assume these to be run by people of conscience committed to relieving poverty and oppression.

At a time of unprecedented loss of trust in politicians and other authority figures, NGOs such as these therefore have a massive influence. They have become, in effect, a secular church. In fact, they often peddle pure poison about Israel, singling it out for wildly unfair and twisted condemnation while sanitizing or ignoring the Palestinians’ murderous targeting of Israeli civilians.

Once again, it’s the Trump administration that is leading the world in trying to tackle this, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushing to brand several of them antisemitic and withdraw federal funding from them.

Of course, it’s naive to think that the world’s oldest hatred can ever be eradicated. The best we can hope for is to push it back under its stone. To do that, however, it has to be correctly called out and its proponents treated as social pariahs.

But to do that on the left means progressively minded people must acknowledge that, in this instance, their anti-racism is actually racism, and they are not on the side of the angels at all.

The problem is that the left can never accept that they are not always on the side of virtue. And that’s why the antisemitism within the Labour Party, as more generally in progressive circles, is a moral stain that won’t go away.

Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,” has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, “The Legacy,” in 2018. Go to melaniephillips.substack.com to access her work.

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