The diverse whitewashing of antisemitism in the British Labour party
By Manfred Gerstenfeld and Irene Kuruc
In 2016, the UK was the first country to adopt for domestic use the antisemitism definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). But many actions of the leader of the British Labour party Jeremy Corbyn prove that this definition covers only part of the actions that can be considered antisemitic.
Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party in September 2015. He is not only a long term anti-Israel activist, but has also been involved in many issues just outside the borderlines of antisemitism as defined by the IHRA. In 2009, Corbyn called the terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah his friends and welcomed their representatives to the British parliament. Furthermore, for many years, he has attended meetings of an organization headed by Holocaust denier Paul Eisen. He has also donated money to this group.
Soon after Corbyn was elected to his position, he appointed the former Labour mayor of London Ken Livingstone to a senior position in the party as co-chair of its defense review. Later, Livingstone was suspended for making antisemitic remarks. Corbyn also appointed Guardian journalist Seamus Milne as Executive Director of Strategy and Communications, a synonym for “spin doctor.” In 2007, this Hamas supporter called the creation of Israel a crime.
Corbyn has been a member of three closed Internet groups that have disseminated antisemitic posts. He also supported the creator of an antisemitic mural on Facebook in 2012. For this, he recently apologized.
When Corbyn finally sat with a Jewish group in 2018, it was with the extreme left-wing organization Jewdas, with whom he attended a Passover Seder. The group has called Israel a “steaming pile of sewage which needs to be properly disposed of.”
Corbyn recently said that vile antisemitism must be eradicated. Such vileness, however, characterizes the expressions of a substantial number of people that he associates with.
In the massive number of articles on Labour antisemitism, one important phenomenon has received little or no attention: the diversity of the antisemitism whitewashing in the party. It is debatable whether Labour is riddled with elected antisemitic representatives. There is no doubt, however, that the party is permeated with whitewashers of antisemitism.
A poll of dues-paying Labour members in March 2018 found that 47% said antisemitism was a problem, but claimed the extent of the problem was exaggerated “to damage Labour and Jeremy Corbyn or to stifle criticism of Israel.” A further 30% said that antisemitism was not a serious issue. Furthermore, 61% thought Corbyn was handling the antisemitism accusations well. Only 33% thought he was handling them poorly.
An important act of partial whitewashing of antisemitism by Labour was its investigation of the issue in 2016 ordered by Corbyn. The investigator, Shami Chakrabarti, started her muddled report by writing that the party was not overrun by antisemitism or other forms of racism. This was a dilution tactic. Nobody had charged that there was racism in the party beyond antisemitism. Chakrabarti only acknowledged an “occasionally toxic atmosphere.”
Several prominent Labour personalities have consistently denied or belittled the importance of antisemitism in the party. One is Len McCluskey, the head of the UK’s largest trade union Unite. This organization is also the main financier of the party. Another is long-term Labour MP Diane Abbott. A special place among the whitewashers is set aside for MP Chris Williamson, who took it upon himself to defend the Jewdas “sewage statement” about Israel. Lately, radical filmmaker Ken Loach has suggested that Labour MPs who joined a recent demonstration against antisemitism in the Labour party should be kicked out.
The arguments used to whitewash or deny antisemitism in the Labour Party are of varying nature. If one tactic does not seem to make an impact, the whitewashers shift to another. An ancient nonsensical rehashing of one popular defense can be summarized as “we are antiracists, thus we cannot be antisemites.” In the same category is the claim that the perpetrators of antisemitism are victims of smears by those who expose them. Another common defense is that the antisemitism accusations are a plot by the party’s anti-Corbyn moderates to sully his image. That is irrelevant. Whatever motivates those who expose antisemitism in Labour, it doesn’t change the hateful facts.
Another argument is that Labour’s antisemitism isn’t new. That is true. There were already extreme expressions of antisemitism by elected representatives under Corbyn’s Jewish predecessor Ed Milliband. This only proves that failing to address the problem at the time was a serious mistake. Yet another false argument is that antisemitism in Labour is limited to a few elected members of the party.
Thanks to Corbyn’s close relationship with antisemites and the desire of Labour members to defend both their leader and party, a spectrum has developed on how to whitewash what is pitch black. Exposing these tactics provides additional insights into how problematic the UK Labour Party has become. And this is even more important because Labour may win the next parliamentary elections.
Beyond that, the exposure of the whitewashing techniques helps to understand similar processes in other parts of the Western world where antisemitism flourishes.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is the emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank. The author was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He has published more than 20 books.