It’s time for Labour to root out antisemitism

The last few months have been pretty traumatic for anyone who wants Labour to be an open inclusive, compassionate and comradely place where we can challenge each other and come together to campaign to create a different sort of country and a different sort of society.

At a time when we are facing one of the worst governments in my lifetime – more riven than Major’s miserable regime in the nineties and more incompetent even than Heath in the seventies – Labour is focused inwards, unable and seemingly incapable of addressing the huge political challenges facing us. We seem to have spent the whole summer struggling and failing to come to terms with antisemitism.

And let’s be under no illusions. This is awful. We should not be in this place. We should never have been anywhere close to it. And this week it got even worse with the former Chief Rabbi comparing the UK Labour leader with Enoch Powell and comparing Corbyn’s words with Powell’s rivers of blood speech. Some may argue that the comparison is misplaced or inappropriate but no-one can possibly argue that Jonathan Sacks’ words do not powerfully illustrate the complete breakdown in the relationship and trust between the Labour Parry, particularly Jeremy Corbyn, and the Jewish community.

For many of us these months have been depressing and distressing. The bad situation is made worse by the way in which too many Jewish members have been treated both by the party and by some members on social media. The harrowing experiences of Luciana Berger and Margaret Hodge demonstrate the hard and inescapable reality of what happens when we allow the stain and smell of antisemitism to infect our debates and our political discourse.

And let’s also be clear. There is no smear and no orchestrated campaign. No attempted coup and no conspiracy. This pain is self-inflicted.

So let me say this and let me be crystal clear.

Whatever is decided by the party’s NEC next week, if I am elected as leader of Welsh Labour I will ensure the complete IHRA definition, along with all of its examples, is adopted in full by Welsh Labour. I will also ensure that this is enforced in the spirit as well as in the word. Under my leadership I will make Welsh Labour a party that positively welcomes Jewish members and supporters alongside all others as a valued part of our national community. We will also celebrate the Jewish culture and community and celebrate the part it has played and continues to play in Welsh life.

I am completely clear in my mind that it is absolutely possible to debate and discuss the Middle East and to be highly critical of the actions of the Israeli Government or the Israeli Defence Force and do so without suggesting antisemitism or doing so alongside those who are clearly antisemitic or by sharing platforms or speaking on behalf of groups, organisations and individuals who express antisemitism. I know this because I have done so for most of my adult life.

I have worked in Beirut, in Damascus and in Amman. I have worked alongside Palestinian activists and have visited the refugee camps of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. I have spent time talking and listening and witnessing the intense and heartbreaking suffering of the Palestinian people. I was on the West Bank at the beginning of the second Interfada in 2000. But I have also visited Israel and spoken with ordinary Israelis who live in constant fear for their lives and the lives of their families and who sometimes also live in a never-ending terror of the future. And I have stood in the rubble of the gas chambers in Auschwitz.

I disagree with fundamental aspects of the recent nation state legislation passed by the Knesset, I am appalled by the recent violence in Gaza, I disagree with the policy of expanding settlements on the West Bank and I disagree with the building of a wall to separate Israeli and Palestinian communities. But I am also appalled at the indiscriminate killing and violence of Hamas and some other Palestinian organisations.

It is right and proper that we debate and discuss these matters. But we must do so in a spirit of goodwill and comradeship putting our Labour values at the heart of our debate. And our values can never allow us to offer any support to organisations who practice terrorism or antisemitism.

The IHRA is neither a threat to freedom of speech and neither does it prevent open, measured and intelligent discussions of the actions and decisions of the Government of Israel. What it does prevent is the ugly, nasty and discriminatory and chauvinistic abuse of Israel and Israeli citizens – and it prevents this because such rhetoric is always deeply antisemitic. Sustaining and supporting and protecting free speech should never be used as a pretext for allowing or even enabling antisemitic abuse and behaviour to be tolerated in any way. This spurious argument is a chimera and should be exposed as such. 

But why on earth would we as a political party want to encourage, enable or tolerant such behaviour anyway? Why would we want to allow the obviously grossly offensive comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany? Why would we want to hear our members describing Jewish people in terms which we would never tolerant if those same terms were used to describe other peoples? Why on earth would we allow antisemitic tropes of a Jewish conspiracy or of shadowy Jewish control of our institutions reminiscent of the thirties to become a part of our political currency today?

Over the past few months we as a party have demonstrated our failure to understand some of the basics of antisemitism and how images and suggestions of antisemitism have been used to attack Jewish people and the Jewish community. We have also failed to understand the fundamental and intense cultural fears of this Jewish community for whom the holocaust isn’t only a constant part of their history but a part of their present as well. Where persecution, intimidation and discrimination form a part of an identity where such harassment has been a constant over the centuries. And this is neither an academic or abstract issue, something for the history books or for other people in other countries. It matters to us in Wales.

The Jewish community has always played an important part in the life of Wales. And we have our own history to come to terms with. I am from Tredegar and the Jewish Riots in 1911 is a part of our history that we have not fully accepted or recognised.

For a week in August 1911 riots that had began in Tredegar spread across the coalfield. Jewish properties and shops and businesses were attacked, looted and destroyed. A frightening foreshadowing of that which would happen a little over twenty years later. In this way antisemitism isn’t something that happened or happens elsewhere. It is a part of our history in Wales, and a part of my personal history in Tredegar. My own grandparents would have witnessed the impact of that violence and probably knew, or were at least familiar with, some of the rioters. We all have a personal responsibility to act to recognise this and then to apply those lessons to our politics and to our country today.

By our words and actions and our failure to address these matters we have caused deep hurt, pain, anguish and despair throughout the Jewish community. These have been the worst of days for the Labour Party. And anyone who cares for the future of the party needs to recognise the depth and importance of this issue. We need to apologise for this and we need to put it right. 

To me leadership is about doing the right thing. And anyone who aspires to lead needs not only to understand these things but must also be prepared to drive radical change where it is needed. And adopting the full IHRA definition is the only the start. We also need a culture of respect and tolerance in our party. A culture where the language and the tone of our debate needs to change. Where our culture as a party reflects our values and our politics.

 

 

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