Labour’s tune is changing, even if some lyrics remain the same

Sir Keir Starmer (left) alongside then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (centre), and Rebecca Long-Bailey (Jewish News)
Sir Keir Starmer (left) alongside then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (centre), and Rebecca Long-Bailey (Jewish News)

It can’t be long now until the widely anticipated Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on antisemitism within the British Labour Party is made public, together with various recommendations for the party to follow in the future.

Since Jeremy Corbyn finally relinquished his death grip on the party after two major electoral defeats, much of what Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey is pleased to call “mood music” has altered in Labour. The tune is definitely changing, even if some of the lyrics remain defiantly the same.

Personnel — numbers of whom were thought to preside over the alleged institutional antisemitism — have been departing at a rate of knots. They include general secretary Jennie Formby; Labour’s director of governance and head of compliance, Thomas Gardiner, said to have presided over, and dismissed, many of the complaints of antisemitism; Seamus Milne, Corbyn’s most senior aide, widely said to have been the man pulling in the strings in the Opposition leader’s office; and that’s besides people like Rebecca Long-Bailey, sacked from the Shadow Cabinet after refusing to delete a social media post which directly linked Israel with racist behaviour taught to American police.

To put it mildly, things are not looking rosy for Corbyn and his circle. And all of this could have been avoided if someone had taken the trouble to explain to party members what conflating criticism of Israel, and casual antisemitic tropes, really meant. Labour, dragged kicking and screaming into adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, was told over and over again that legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies was acceptable; blaming Jewish people outside Israel for such policies was antisemitic. 

So we come to this week’s extraordinary story, for a change not in Britain, but in the sunny uplands of well-behaved Canada. It concerns a Toronto health food restaurant, Foodbenders, whose owner, Kimberly Hawkins, wanted to publicise the fact that her establishment was re-opening after lockdown.

On social media posts, she wrote: “Open now until 8pm for non-racist shoppers” — and used the hashtag “#zionistsnotwelcome”.

 Inevitably there was uproar, but Hawkins dug her heels in. You will be unsurprised to learn that she “loves Jewish people and they are welcome in my store”, but that she does not believe that “criticism of

the Zionist political ideology, Israel or the Greater Israel Project, or pointing out its racist supremacist foundations amounts to criticism of the Jewish people or even Israeli citizens”. 

Tough luck, Hawkins. Because at least three delivery businesses in Toronto — including Canadian Uber — have now refused to deal with Foodbenders and the mayor of Toronto has said unequivocally that he thinks her stance is indeed antisemitic.

Here’s the thing: Zionists are not welcome in Hawkins’ store, but how could she tell? It seems to me to be unlikely in the extreme that any casual shopper or diner in a health food restaurant would be ready to share their political credentials or beliefs. Nobody shopping for muesli drapes themselves in an Israeli flag to do so, at least nobody sane.  

So indeed the policy has the effect of ensuring that Jews did not patronise Hawkins’ store — and I daresay local Toronto Jews were well aware of her ideologies since a “Free Palestine” flag has long decorated her shop window.

 It shouldn’t take a global pandemic or a report into institutionalised antisemitism to bring people to their senses. Just before someone gets ready, yet again, to pillory local Jews for the policies of the current Israeli government, I urge them, please…. is what you have to say really necessary? Or should you just shut up and get back to selling oatmeal and vitamins?

About the Author
Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist.
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