THERE IS SOMETHING RELENTLESS about the pressure on the Labour Party to be nicer to Israel and more inhospitable to its critics. For two years now, since Jeremy Corbyn entered the 2015 Labour leadership contest, a synthetic moral panic has been whipped up about Jew-hatred on the pro-Palestinian left and specifically within Labour. Despite the fact that party members are among the sections of the British population least likely to harbour racist sentiments against Jews, or any other minority, the campaign has been so all-embracing that many people have come to doubt their own experience.
The push to instil the notion of endemic left wing antisemitism had the support both of those on the right who wanted to unseat Jeremy Corbyn, and of Israel’s UK friends who didn’t want a leader of a major UK party who supports Palestinian rights. Their attacks slackened off during the general election campaign, but resumed with full force immediately afterwards, with Tulip Siddiq MP for Hampstead and Kilburn in the lead. Within three days of the election, at which 1,000 Corbynista volunteers (her numbers) helped to massively increase her majority, she was banging on again about antisemitism still being a “major problem” in the Party.
Other usual suspects soon followed and new victims were singled out for public skewering. A recent target is the Derby North MP Chris Williamson, who noted during an interview in the Guardian that antisemitism smears were being weaponised for political ends by Corbyn’s enemies.
Calls for him to be kicked off the Labour front bench came thick and fast, first from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and then from the doyenne of pro-Israel prima donnas, Ruth Smeeth MP. Progress supporting LabourList published her call, but statements from Jews defending Williamson were ignored – a remarkable oversight given that Williamson had stressed that he had been citing Jewish concerns.
A new organisation, Jewish Voice for Labour, said that Ruth Smeeth's reaction, putting pressure on the leadership to discipline a fellow MP on an opposing wing of the Party, “is an example of exactly the kind of weaponisation Williamson has highlighted.”
Dave Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialists’ Group described Smeeth as “a fantasist and trouble-maker who may have moved jobs since she worked for the pro-Israel lobby organisation BICOM, but she has not shifted her agenda one iota.”
So, what is the new game plan on the pro-Israel right? It seems to be a three-pronged attempt to encircle and undermine the left in the Party, using antisemitism as a trump (sorry) card. These components are: i) Getting local councils and Labour groups to adopt the deeply flawed International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ‘definition’ of antisemitism. This document conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism while pretending to tackle racism against Jews. Former appeal court judge Sir Stephen Sedley (who happens to be Jewish) dissected its many flaws in the London Review Of Books in May. Nevertheless a number of local authorities have succumbed to this dishonest campaign, including the London Assembly, Greater Manchester, Camden and Haringey.
The IHRA document can, and has been, deployed to ban meetings in universities, churches and other public places, and to get Labour Party members suspended.
ii) The second battlefield is the possibility of a disciplinary rule change, proposed last year by the Jewish Labour Movement, being passed at Conference in Brighton.
Currently, party rules state that members may not engage in conduct prejudicial or grossly detrimental to the Party; and that the Party’s disciplinary committee in deciding on such allegations “shall not have regard to the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions”. The JLM rule change would, uncontroversially, specify that antisemitic and other racist statements and actions count in the prejudicial/detrimental category. But it also proposes that the disregard of opinions and beliefs should, uniquely, not apply “in instances involving antisemitism, Islamophobia or racism”. Further, in a gross distortion of the Lawrence Inquiry’s MacPherson Principle, their proposed change arrogates to any complainant the sole right to decide whether or not the behaviour was indeed antisemitic. It needs to be opposed strenuously, and indeed campaigning against it has been underway for some time.
However, there are reports that the NEC is considering tabling its own rule change proposal at Conference. This would base disciplinary procedures on a code of conduct to be drawn up by the NEC. This proposal sounds innocuous and if brought forward would be likely to eliminate both the JLM rule change and an opposing one from a CLP that managed to get its act together on the subject last year, Hastings and Rye. If that happens it is crucial that the resulting code of conduct differentiates between hostility and prejudice towards Jewish people and criticisms of Israel and Zionism. Those pushing for the IHRA definition want to conflate these distinct issues. Vigilance will be essential.
iii) Last but by no means least, we have the covert policy change on Israel/Palestine. As recently as June, Labour’s much praised election manifesto called for an end to Israel’s blockade, illegal occupation and settlements, and pledged that “a Labour government will immediately recognise the state of Palestine”. But in the National Policy Forum (NFP) Report to Conference all that has gone. All it proposes is that “In Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Labour is committed to a comprehensive peace based on a two-state solution: a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine.” What could be fairer - completely even-handed between the oppressed and the oppressor? But here we do have a clear and immediate course of action: conference can vote to send back this particularly unprincipled section of the NPF report, and it should. Jewish Voice for Labour will be leading the fight to do just that.
Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi is chair of the Jewish-led campaign group Free Speech on Israel and vice-chair of Chingford and Woodford Green CLP.
Jonathan Rosenhead is chair of Hoxton West branch, and a Hackney South and Shoreditch CLP delegate to conference.
are Jewish Voice for Labour steering committee members