Judith Ornstein
Judith Ornstein
Passionately moderate

Labour’s struggling to own and tackle antisemitism

On 1st April Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy spoke to Lee Harpin in the Jewish News, offering herself and Labour as  ‘honest broker’ on Israel/Palestine.  She talked of ‘the efforts taken by Labour under Sir Keir to “get our house in order in terms of antisemitism.”‘

Nandy added that Labourites who propagate antisemitism are ‘a small group’. 

It’s tempting to look at that date and wonder if it’s a joke. It is but one that’s both unintentional and serious because it feels like Jews who are being taken for fools.

Embed from Getty Images

Here’s why.

In the same week as Nandy’s interview, marking Keir Starmer’s first year as Labour leader, the results of two polls were released as well as a new version of ‘ The Labour Party Complaint Handling Handbook’.

The first poll was summarised by Kieran Pedley, again on 1st April, but in the Times and shows the results of Ipsos Mori’s March survey about current public perception of both Labour and Starmer.  Whilst not referring to antisemitism the results have relevance to both the bona fides and the optic of Nandy offering herself as an honest broker on Israel/Palestine.

Pedley: ‘57 per cent (of Britons surveyed) think he (Keir Starmer) is making no difference or say they don’t know. Only 26 per cent of Britons tell us they are favourable towards the party, the same number we recorded just before Starmer took over as leader’.

That 57 per cent is an indication that the damage inflicted on the electorate by Corbyn hasn’t been repaired.  Note that this is even before we start talking about antisemitism and Jews.

Turning to the Labour voters surveyed, it’s murky because one in five of them don’t like Starmer, calling him for instance ‘a watered down Tory.’  Whilst this is a minority it’s indicative of  hard left numbers and significant in terms of Labour’s already decimated voter base. Even though not covered in the Ipsos Mori survey you could take an educated guess that many of those unhappy with Starmer are Corbynists. In fact it’s more than a guess because I see them demonising Starmer on social media; they spew antisemitism as antizionism and are still in denial about Corbyn’s defeat.

I had hoped that the social media squad was a minority but then came a second poll, this time conducted for the Jewish Chronicle by YouGov and published on 2nd April.  It reveals that 70 per cent of Labour supporters surveyed think that Labour has no problem with Jew hate and don’t want Corbyn expelled. 70 per cent!

In its recent investigation of Labour, the EHRC found that under the Equality Act 2010, denial of antisemitism in the Labour Party was in itself an act of unlawful harassment towards Jewish members:

What the EHRC has now made clear is that the refusal to acknowledge antisemitism is, in itself, a form of harassment under the Equality Act 2010.  Indeed, the EHRC has issued an Unlawful Act Notice which stipulates that the Party has unlawfully harassed its members, through the acts of its agents’ – see Mishcon de Reya, antisemitism denial as harassment

Remember the Ipsos Mori poll showed the volume of anti-Starmer sentiment within the party. Now put it together with that 70 per cent of Labour antisemitism deniers revealed by YouGov and you’ll see that Nandy’s dismissal of Labour antisemitism as ‘a small group’ is not only plain wrong but suggests she may be part of the 70 per cent. 

What’s not covered in the terms of either poll are the views of that 95 per cent of UK Jews who hold Israel in our hearts, together with those non-Jews who stood not only shoulder to shoulder in the fight against Corbyn but were in the vanguard. A growing number now thinks Starmer’s not doing enough about antisemitism because, despite his pledge of zero tolerance, the task is either completely hopeless or, more cynically, because he simply doesn’t intend to. I need to add that I’m not yet one of the cynical but this last week has been bad.

I think Starmer is a good man; under normal circumstances, he would be just the person Labour needs to organise them and offer the country a necessary alternative to the Tories. He is also wonderful when you compare him to his predecessor!

But we’re living in abnormal circumstances.  Apart from the crises of Brexit and Covid, Starmer has been tasked with clearing up after Corbyn and even before the results of the two polls it was evident that this is a monstrous job.  Starmer needs to make Labour electable yet the party remains riddled with unattractive Corbynists who see him as a usurper. How can he appease that 70 per cent of the membership which, according to the YouGov poll, implicitly rejects the findings of the EHRC, whilst simultaneously appealing to an electorate that rejects the hard left and sees Labour’s ills more clearly than its own members?
This is where the new disciplinary book reinforces my doubts because despite fine words neither the EHRC report nor the post EHRC pledge of zero tolerance for Labour antisemitism are to be found in action.

The new discipline book relies heavily on The Chakrabarti Report whose opening words are:

The Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism.

The report has been widely discredited, as has Chakrabarti herself for accepting a seat in the Lords soon after its publication.  The Whitewashed film and book examine these failures.

Chakrabarti’s opening sentence is contradicted and superseded by the EHRC which proved that Labour under Corbyn was indeed overrun by antisemitism.

In addition the discipline book partially obfuscates the clarity of the IHRA definition of antisemitism particularly over criticism of Israel.

The following examples cited in  The Labour Party Complaint Handling Handbook don’t bode well:

‘Complaint examples

‘A Labour Party member posted several articles on social media promoting conspiracy theories suggesting that Jewish people were responsible for real and imagined wrongdoings. They also posted articles that minimised complaints of antisemitism within the Labour Party.

‘After investigation, it was concluded that no Labour Party rules were specifically breached but a Reminder of Conduct was issued to the member.

‘ A Labour Party member posted online the details of an email they’d sent which presented emotive, personal views including that the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour for Israel groups had no validity and should be disbanded. They refused to retract those views.

‘After investigation, a Formal Warning was issued against the member and they were told it would remain on their record for 18 months. Following this, they resigned their membership.’

‘ A Labour Party member posted and shared several things on social media that were antisemitic; using Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons in debates about Israel-Palestine.

‘After investigation, a Formal Warning was issued to the member and they were told it would remain on their record for 18 months.’

‘A Labour Party member responded to a social media post in a way that served to repeat antisemitic tropes.

‘After investigation, it was concluded that no Labour Party rules had specifically been breached but a Reminder of Values was issued to the member.’

Let’s contrast Labour’s new disciplinary measure against antisemitism with those against other forms of hatred also quoted from the new handbook:

‘ A Labour Party member posted on social media and responded to others’ posts demonstrating views that were xenophobic, anti-Catholic, transphobic and abusive. They also posted insulting and abusive comments about people with disabilities and victims of sexual abusive. (sic)

‘The member was administratively suspended at the outset, and following investigation, was expelled.’

 Without exception these examples implicitly recommend that members guilty of antisemitic acts be allowed to remain in the party whilst those guilty of other hateful acts can be expelled. They are evidence that Labour’s double standards are thriving under Keir Starmer.  It’s discouraging because they are more evidence of Starmer’s failed promise of zero tolerance for antisemitism.

Perhaps we should add a new question to the Haggadah: Why is Jew hate in the Labour Party different from all other hates?

Another problem of the discipline book is the time frame for disciplinary action. New members are given a vetting but if they get through this then no ‘conduct or behaviour of current members from a time previous to when they joined the Labour Party as a member’ can be taken into account.  This clause is apparently the result of legal advice given to Labour but it means that the screening procedures need to be stringent and it’s inevitable that some people who shouldn’t be anywhere near Labour will slip through. The discipline book needs to be amended to account for this possibility, perhaps with new members being asked to sign a document stating they’ve made full disclosure.

The lack of logic in the new discipline book reads as though it were put together by a disputatious committee who failed to reach agreement and as a last resort desperately threw their differences into the air hoping nobody would notice.  It’s a microcosm of the fractures within the Labour Party.

A fair outcome in any arbitration often means that neither side feels happy so I’m hoping that’s the reason for my feelings about Starmer right now. I so want him to succeed.  Perhaps I haven’t yet given him enough time after those horrendous Corbyn years but I’m far from alone.  Starmer himself needs to take responsibility by opening up about the difficulties instead of leaving us guessing.

Whilst Keir Starmer was probably the best choice, can the same be said of Lisa Nandy?

Nandy has decided she and Labour can the honest broker with Israel and Palestine but this isn’t how she’s seen by that mainstream Jewish community of which I am part.

Nandy was chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and objectively this should not undermine her credibility. However in Feb 2020, the day after being given the blessing of the Jewish Labour Movement, Nandy appeared to have played the JLM by backing a series of resolutions from the antizionist Palestine Solidarity Campaign which included a call for a Palestinian right of return, effectively the death blow both to a two state solution and to Israel as the only Jewish state.

Whilst Nandy has since rowed back on the support for BDS in these resolutions, I have seen no evidence of her revising her support for that right of return.  This is an objective measure by which she fails her self-definition as an ’honest broker’.

But it’s hard to stick to objectivity because feelings matter. What sort of optic is Nandy’s past role for someone who claims to be an honest broker?  Would you expect people who side totally with the Palestinian viewpoint to accept as an honest broker someone like Joan Ryan, who was chair of Labour Friends of Israel?

I confess that I fail the objectivity test with Joan because I like her too much.  I have no doubt of her integrity nor of Nandy’s.  But, unlike Nandy and Israel, Joan is on record as standing up for Palestinian rights and a two state solution, as do so many UK supporters of Israel.  Notwithstanding these objective facts I can understand that more extreme Palestine supporters might not see her as an ‘honest broker.’

What I cannot understand or tolerate is that Joan Ryan was the target of sickening misogynist and antisemitic abuse by some of those too many extreme Palestinian supporters who are also antizionist/antsemitic and who gathered into Corbyn’s Labour Party.  Joan was also one of those demonised in ‘The Lobby’. The Party gave Joan no support and finally she lost faith, not in Labour but in the leadership, and left.

You can hear this marvellous human, as well as other brave people, tell of their disturbing experiences under Corbyn  in the Forced Out film and you can read the Forced Out book – letters from people who left Labour because of antisemitism.

In his first year what  has Keir Starmer’s Labour done to right the injustice inflicted under Corbyn to Joan Ryan, Louise Ellman, Luciana Berger, Ian Austin and many Labour people at all levels who spoke out against antisemitism?  They were bullied and demonised out of the party, and you need to read and hear their courageous testimonies.

Labour has done nothing to make amends to these heroes.

Some have criticised and judged those of us who feel iffy about Lisa Nandy as an ‘honest broker’ but they need to cut us much slack. Compared to the ongoing abuse and threats hurled at Labourites who stood against antisemitism we have shown restraint, and rightly so. Hate fuelled misogyny and antisemitism are not benchmarks by which to measure one’s own moral probity.

We cannot and must not forget wrongs that have not been righted. In so doing we would, en passant, stitch up those who have been true friends. 

Past, recent and as yet unresolved events in Labour affect how we perceive Keir Starmer.  Even in the best circumstances, he faces great difficulty in rehabilitating Labour for the general public and for Jews. Nandy’s clumsy intervention has eroded good will and set back his cause.  We look at each other across a minefield that Labour hasn’t yet cleared and this last far from perfect week has proved once again that it’s still too early for those abused by Corbyn’s Labour to trust its current leadership, however sincere its motives.

I can’t see anybody in the Parliamentary Labour Party right now who could be acceptable to interested parties as an honest broker in Israel and Palestine.

Politicians either stood for Corbyn and thus for antisemitism.

Or they stood against Corbyn and were marginalised or forced out; many of the best Labour people still remain in that limbo.

Or they were bystanders. The causes of this could perhaps be political expediency, uninterest, disinterest or cowardice. Bystanders don’t have the pedigree, strength of character or the commitment to resolve much, least of all the Israel Palestine conflict.

But in truth all the foregoing is irrelevant because Labour is wounded and has no influence in the world or specifically in Israel/Palestine.

In case this sounds biased I have reservations about the Tories as well and not the least of these is that politicians of all hues need to take a lesson in modesty from people like former MPs Joan Ryan and Louise Ellman both of whom should be in the House of Lords alongside other heroes.

Right now Labour needs to get its house in order and stop posturing instead of having the hubris to believe it can broker peace in the Middle East.

About the Author
Judith Ornstein is UK based and a passionate supporter of the arts, who combats the cultural boycott of Israel. Judith is the instigator of the Whitewashed and Forced Out projects, books and films using primary evidence from witnesses to expose Labour's problems with Jews. Whitewashed book and film, and valuable links can be found at www.whitewashed.co.uk Forced Out Links film and book https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B082DJ1LHD/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Forced+Out+Labour+Antisemitism&qid=1575581887&sr=8-1 Companion film here: https://youtu.be/b4f_TexfjbI
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