Melanie Goldberg

Both Labour and Diane Abbott have wronged people and now they must make amends

Labour Leader Keir Starmer. Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images.
Labour Leader Keir Starmer. Credit: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images.

Upon hearing Labour MP Diane Abbott had lost the whip following a controversial letter she sent to the Observer, I can’t say my desensitization to antisemitism was much impacted by the news. The letter was crafted in response to a comment piece from New Statesman regular Tomiwa Owolade which addressed perceptions of racism in the wake of a damning report that revealed the scale of prejudice faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) and Jewish communities. Then followed a media furore.

Abbott’s letter, quite shockingly, labelled discrimination against “Irish, Jewish and Traveller people” as solely “prejudice”. Referring to the US and South Africa as historical examples, she claimed that “It is true that many types of white people with points of difference, such as redheads, can experience this prejudice. But they are not all their lives subject to racism.”

She conveniently forgot to mention a certain ‘event’ from 80 years ago…

Abbott has now apologized, stating that “I wish to wholly and unreservedly withdraw my remarks and disassociate myself from them.

“The errors arose in an initial draft being sent. But there is no excuse, and I wish to apologize for any anguish caused.

“Racism takes many forms, and it is completely undeniable that Jewish people have suffered its monstrous effects, as have Irish people, Travellers and many others.”

Her remarks are ignorant at best, and her apology half-cooked. Clearly in haste to mitigate the damage, her lacklustre statement was deficient of any meaningful retrospection. Her excuse that her comments belonged to an “initial draft” alleviate responsibility of her intentions. If her later edits were somehow remiss, what was the original purpose of her letter?

Owolade has already penned a scathing rebuke, claiming that “Abbott has a very narrow conception of what constitutes racism…In any case, she is plainly wrong even on her own terms.”

One of the most concerning aspects of her letter are the stereotypes she has reinforced, suggesting that the millions who belong to these ethnic groups are homogenous, effectively erasing the beautifully diverse sub-ethnic groups within these cultures. Countless languages and dialects, nationalities, religions, and denominations; all reduced to nothingness in the name of political fodder.

Her letter has been condemned by Labour leader Keir Starmer, politicians, and public figures alike. A seemingly never-ending tirade of comment pieces and long-winded social media posts from both experts on the matter and those with no experience or expertise of anti-Jewish and anti-GRT racism have popped up across the internet with their ‘hot takes’.

Antisemitism Tsar John Mann has already called for her to be expelled from the party, conveniently forgetting his own sordid foray into anti-Roma and Traveller racism. A booklet penned by Mann in 2007 regarding ‘anti-social behavior’ in his constituency dedicated an entire section on how to ‘deal’ with “gypsies or travelers”. When questioned in 2016 by Traveller’s Times regarding his authorship, Mann doubled down and refused any show of remorse. The booklet, which is still available online, claims that “The police have powers to remove any gypsies or travelers, and have powers to direct people to leave the land and remove any vehicles or property” under certain conditions, under the Anti-Social Behavior Act 2003. This law was widely condemned by GRT groups at the time for the potential weaponization against their communities. However, Traveller’s Times reported that, following legal advice from an expert in Traveller law, Mann’s advice was described as “wrong”.

Activist and journalist Marcus Ryder’s take that antisemitism is not a form of racism does him a disservice. He cites content from the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish charity, to support this argument but conveniently misrepresents the 2013 document that directly refers to eugenical theories of Jews as a ‘sub-human race’.

If Ryder had bothered to Google ‘is antisemitism racism?’, he would have found a veritable trove of resources subverting his dispute, with seasoned antisemitism experts such as David Feldman and Mark Gardner providing plenty of evidence that British Jewry near overwhelmingly regard antisemitism as a form of racism.

He was certainly correct that race and racism are social constructs, but it is history and lived experiences which altar these constructs. The concept of a ‘Jewish race’ has been forced upon us for hundreds of years, even millennia, but when Jews try to challenge these beliefs, we’re again excluded from the conversation.

This ‘debate’ over whether Jews experience racism is not new, and one that I have myself extensively experienced. The size of my nose has been commented on too many a time for me to recall, but how am I supposed to challenge these remarks when this is to be equated to “prejudice” against “redheads”.

During my studies, the BAME Society changed to the Students of Color Network (SoCNet) and subsequently claimed that their previous name had opened “the door for White ethnic minorities who don’t experience racism to benefit from anti-racist initiatives like our own”.

“Oppression” and “form of White supremacy” is all they could muster to describe antisemitism. According to them, and to Dianne Abbott, there is of course no denial that these groups face ‘discrimination’, but they cannot fathom that racism extends beyond their narrow awareness of the concept. Jews, Travellers and other ethnic minority groups who are made up of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, were not included in their ‘anti-racism’.

Her comments, and those of SoCNet, stray somewhat into the dangerous jurisdiction of Holocaust denial. Denying the legitimacy of discrimination faced by these groups is to neglect the very basis of the racial hatred that the Holocaust was founded on.

Echoing this argument, Director of Community Security Trust Dave Rich has now issued a damning statement; “We often think of Holocaust denial as something on the extremes. And I’m not saying that Diane Abbott is a Holocaust denier, but if you forget about the Holocaust when you’re talking about systemic racism through the last century or two, then you’re just kind of minimizing it. You’re erasing it from that consciousness.

“This was a pretty appalling example of a denial of the seriousness of antisemitism. It wasn’t just an academic debate over the meaning of the word racism. The point of her letter, and from what I could tell, the purpose of her letter was to make the argument that discrimination and prejudice and hatred towards Jewish people just isn’t as serious or as meaningful as that experienced by black people.”

With both International Romani Day and Yom HaShoah taking place just last month, there is also an entirely separate level of obliviousness to her comments.

Friends, Families and Travelers, a GRT community organization, issued a statement condemning the comments; “Irish Traveller, Romany Gypsy and Roma people are constantly subjected to hate, cruelty and all kinds of humiliation on a daily basis.

“Diane Abbott’s letter demonstrates just another form of erasure of Irish Traveller, Romany Gypsy and Roma people’s experience of racism.

“Irish Traveller, Romany and Roma people face extreme marginalization and racism, across all levels of society, from cradle to grave. To discount these experiences in an astonishingly ignorant letter, fails to recognize the shocking racism that still permeates our society.

“We extend our relentless solidarity and support to all Jewish, Irish Traveller, Romany and Roma people. We commend the Labour Party for taking swift action.”

All this to say, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Abbott has been the target of an extreme torrent of racist and misogynist abuse since beginning her political career and much of the media focus on her has undoubtedly been spurred by double standards. A 2017 Amnesty International report revealed that Abbott had been the target of almost half of all online abuse in the run up to the elections, totaling 8,121 Tweets. For context, Joanna Cherry was next on the list with 1,025 Tweets.

Even offensive blunders, such as the one in question, do not justify the racist abuse she is now receiving on social media. Many have rightfully called out the difference in treatment of Abbott versus other politicians who have made derogatory remarks. They deserve equitable ire. MPs Barry Sheerman and Steve Reed did not even have the whip removed for their shockingly offensive comments and this was yet another abject failure of Starmer and a reflection on his erratic personal views and party policy. Sheerman had stated there to be “a run on silver shekels” when two Jewish businessmen had failed to obtain peerages and Reed had referred to a Jewish businessman as a “puppet master”. They both should have been suspended pending further investigation. All three of these Labour MPs toyed with various types of antisemitism and should have been subject to a rigid disciplinary process. Starmer cannot afford to cherry pick in his fight against antisemitism.

So, how do we move forward?

I have not always been enamoured with Starmer, but he was correct to suspend Abbott. As a Member of Parliament, and for a constituency with a reasonable Jewish population, she must face consequences. However, long-term solutions must be devised for situations like these where permanent expulsion is not an option. Meaningful education pathways, meeting with members of the communities she has wronged, and demonstrations that she has truly changed her views. Performative outreach is not going to cut it this time. Abbott, Starmer, and Labour must all make amends with the communities they claim to fight for.

About the Author
Melanie Goldberg is a Reform Jew from Glasgow. She recently earned an MA in Politics from the University of Glasgow, where she was a regular contributor for the University paper, The Glasgow Guardian, and has written for other publications such as Heroica, Glasgow University Magazine, and Empoword. She writes regularly about antisemitism, but also other issues such as sexism, racism, ableism, and international human rights issues.
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