Analysis: After the EHRC: Labour must tackle anti-Zionist antisemitism

Sir Keir Starmer. Photo: Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Keir Starmer’s response to last week’s report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission represents an important and major step forward in the challenge of rooting out the scourge of antisemitism from the Labour party.

The findings of the EHRC’s investigation were both clear and conclusive. “Our investigation has identified serious failings in leadership and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints across the Labour party, and we have identified multiple failures in the systems it uses to resolve them,” it stated. “We have concluded that there were unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination for which the Labour party is responsible.”

As the Jewish Labour Movement correctly suggested in its response: “The blame for this sordid, disgraceful chapter in the Labour party’s history lies firmly with those who held positions of leadership.”

Starmer’s swift acceptance of the report, and his promise to implement its findings in full, is welcome. Most importantly, Labour is to introduce the EHRC’s recommendation of a “transparent and independent antisemitism complaints process, which ensures that all cases of alleged discrimination, harassment or victimisation are investigated promptly, rigorously and without political interference”. Such a process – the principal demand made by Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council and Community Security Trust when they met with Jeremy Corbyn in March 2018 – is vital if the confidence of the Jewish community in Labour’s ability to identify and expel racists from its ranks is to be restored.

But, as the EHRC’s interim chair, Caroline Waters, argued in her foreword to the report, rooting out antisemitism is about much more than the party’s complaints and disciplinary procedures: “It is also about making sure that the Labour party has a culture that clearly reflects its zero tolerance of antisemitism and indeed of all forms of discrimination.”

Labour Friends of Israel has argued consistently and repeatedly over the past five years that Labour’s antisemitism crisis is rooted in a virulent form of anti-Zionism which seeks to delegitimise and demonise the world’s only Jewish state and deny the Jewish people their legitimate right to self-determination. As we suggested in our submission to the Chakrabarti Inquiry in the summer of 2016: “Over the past six months, a number of instances of alleged antisemitism by members of the Labour party have come to light. In almost every instance, their remarks have been focused on, or related to, Israel. Labour’s antisemitism problem is one of what has been termed ‘anti-Zionist antisemitism’. While some believe that antisemitism and anti-Zionism (opposition to the movement to create a Jewish state in the Middle East, corresponding to the historic land of Israel) are separable, this is a difficult argument to sustain – not least because the vast majority of British Jews have a strong attachment to Israel and Israel is the world’s only Jewish state.”

Anti-Zionist antisemitism is not a new phenomenon. It has played a key role in the anti-western ideology of the hard left for the past half-century. But prior to 2015, that ideology had rested on the fringes of the Labour party; with Jeremy Corbyn’s election, it moved to centre stage. Professor Alan Johnson captured the intimate relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism as the crisis began to overwhelm Labour: “Antisemitism is the most protean of hatreds and it has shape-shifted again. Labour does not have a neo-Nazi problem. It does, however, have a problem with a modern anti-Zionism of a particularly excessive, obsessive, and demonising kind, which has co-mingled with an older set of classical antisemitic tropes, images and assumptions to create antisemitic anti-Zionism. Antisemitic anti-Zionism bends the meaning of Israel and Zionism out of shape until both become receptacles for those tropes, images and ideas.”

Identifying, recognising and tackling this problem rests at the heart of the cultural change that Labour must now undertake.

Instances and statements

The number of instances, or statements, of an allegedly Anti-Zionist antisemitic in recent years in the party are too numerous to detail individually. However, antisemitism campaigners have identified the following high-profile examples which illustrate the nature of the problem:

•    Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to host, chair and speak at an event on Holocaust Memorial Day 2010 entitled “Never Again for Anyone–Auschwitz to Gaza” which drew a direct comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany.
•    Jeremy Corbyn’s comments following a 2012 jihadist terror attack in Sinai: “I suspect the hand of Israel in this whole process of destabilisation.”
•    Richard Burgon’s suggestion in 2014 that: “The enemy of the Palestinian people, is not the Jewish people. The enemy of the Palestinian people are Zionists, and Zionism is the enemy of peace, and the enemy of the Palestinian people.”
•    Ken Livingstone’s declaration in 2016 that: “When Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”
•    The Labour party also selected a number of parliamentary candidates in 2019 – some of whom were subsequently elected – who had made, or shared, comments which were of an anti-Zionist antisemitic nature. They included suggestions that “Theresa May had a Zionist Slave Masters agenda” and that Islamic extremism was created “by the CIA and Mosad [sic]”; “Israel has no right to exist”; and “those within the student movement who go to Zionist conferences and trips should be ashamed of themselves. You’re advocating racist ideology”.

Additionally, in 2016 there were reports of activities at the Oxford University Labour Club which included members stating that it was “not antisemitic” to allege the existence of a “New York – Tel Aviv axis” that rigs elections; a committee member suggesting that “all Jews should be expected to publicly denounce Zionism and the state of Israel, and that we should not associate with any Jew who fails to do so”; and that the term “Zios” to refer to Jewish members was repeatedly used, along with “Zionist lobby”.

As LFI argued in 2016, it is important to draw some clear boundaries which make apparent to all where legitimate criticism of Israel ends and antisemitism begins. As we also argued, the examples in the working definition of antisemitism drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – which, despite the opposition of Corbyn and the hard left, were adopted by the Labour party in 2018 – offer an important guide as to where those boundaries should lay. Those relating to Israel include:

•    Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
•    Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
•    Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.
•    Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
•    Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (eg, claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
•    Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
•    Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

As Labour begins the important work set out by the EHRC, it should also heed its advice and tackle those issues in the party’s culture in which antisemitism can fester and grow. There are few greater than anti-Zionist antisemitism.

LFI statements on the EHRC

“Today’s findings from the EHRC shows beyond doubt the extent to which the poison of antisemitism was allowed to enter Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and further confirms the extent of the terrible abuse suffered by Jewish members of the party. We will support Keir Starmer to build on the work he has already begun to root out anti-Jewish racism and ensure that its perpetrators and defenders are removed from Labour’s ranks. Today must mark the moment Labour decisively turns the page on the darkest chapter of our party’s history.”

Steve McCabe MP, Chair, LFI

“The EHRC’s damning report has revealed the extent to which the Labour party – under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – had become infected with the scourge of anti-Jewish racism.

It is disgraceful that a party founded on the principle of equality has become mired in bigotry and prejudice and that so many Jewish members had to suffer such appalling abuse. Never again should anti-Jewish racism be dismissed as a smear.

The toxic culture within the party must be expunged. An independent complaints system is required to investigate and deal swiftly with all outstanding cases of antisemitism and the perpetrators thrown out of the party.

The Labour party’s adoption of the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism should be used as a basis for action and education to address hate and discrimination.

And the demonisation and singling out of Israel must end. The party needs to develop a more balanced policy towards the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By taking these steps, the Labour party can begin the process of restoring its tarnished reputation.”

Rt Hon Joan Ryan, Honorary President, LFI

“The EHRC’s report is devastating, today is a day of shame for the Labour party. This landmark report exposes the shame of the Labour party’s racism against Jewish people. For a supposedly anti-racist party this is truly shocking.

The report documents the ugly truth and shows the shameful depths to which the Labour party sunk.

This seminal report must lead to immediate action.

An independent investigations system must be set up. But that is only the beginning. The Labour party’s toxic culture of the Corbyn years must be addressed. This means swift and firm disciplinary action for those who have engaged in antisemitic activity. For too long culprits have been allowed to act with impunity. But it means more. A comprehensive educational process for all party members must be implemented. Members must no longer be allowed to plead ignorance of the antisemitism they enact. The Labour party’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism provides a tool to address this.

It is only by facing up to the enormity of what has happened and adopting these measures that the Labour party can be a safe place for Jewish people and a truly anti-racist party.”

Dame Louise Ellman, former LFI Chair