Understanding Labour's Antisemitism Scandal

The Labour Party, again, has been accused of hating Jews.
Jewish Protesters in Parliament Square protesting Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party's Anti-Semitism (Alex Cavendish / Alamy Stock Photo)

Since it was revealed that Jeremy Corbyn once defended an antisemitic mural, a number of Jewish groups – including the Jewish Labour Movement – have protested against the Labour leader outside Parliament. A counter-protest was also held, attended by pro-Corbyn Jewish groups confusingly named Jewish Voice, and the far-left Jewish Voice For Labour, some of whom were filmed by a group called "JVL Watch" – which claims it is "Keeping an eye on 'Jewish Voice for Labour' with its unorthodox 'Jewish' membership."


It's fair to say Jews do acronym-based Labour in-fighting with aplomb.

This has been the most damaging week for Labour since the general election of 2017. Not only will many Jewish voters now find the party toxic, many liberal/left-wing voters who voted for Corbyn – excited about a kinder, more inclusive politics – are likely to now feel that this isn’t the party they signed up for.

The whole row started on Sunday, when it emerged that Jeremy Corbyn had, five years ago, left a Facebook comment on a mural by graffiti artist Mear One. The artist was complaining that it was going to be removed, Corbyn said it shouldn’t be.

The mural lazily replayed just about every antisemitic trope going. In a separate post to the one Jez commented on, Mear One made his intention even clearer, writing "some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg etc as the demons they are". By defending him, Corbyn was defending hate speech. (He was also defending street art, a less serious crime but still disappointing).

If this was his only brush with antisemitism, perhaps Corbyn could be forgiven for being an old dad on Facebook who didn’t look closely enough at what he was commenting on. But this revelation – and his ham-fisted initial response – is just the latest in a string of claims that have dogged the party since Corbyn became leader. Ken Livingstone made – and then doubled-down on – claims that Hitler was a Zionist. Naz Shah suggested on her Facebook page that Israel should be relocated to the United States. Corbyn himself has met with, and given support to, a number of people who have elsewhere denied the Holocaust or engaged in other anti-Jewish racism. He was also a member of pro-Palestinian Facebook groups that contained antisemitic posts. There have been a number of other incidents too, and – for many – the issue has been a perceived inability to deal with them effectively.


When any of these stories rear their head, there is debate as to whether they are being used to politically smear Corbyn. Well, of course they are – when a politician or party does something wrong, their adversaries use that against them. When Boris Johnson dusts off one of his trademark 19th century racial slurs, you can be sure that the left will tut at him in response. That does not mean the initial claim is untrue.

So what does this all mean for the Jezza-loving masses? Should they turn their back on his party, or have claims of antisemitism been blown out of proportion? Is Jeremy Corbyn the absolute boy or the absolute goy?

Part of the problem in answering that question is a fundamental lack of understanding about what antisemitism is. In the last few years, there has been a lot of discussion about micro-aggressions and dog whistle politics, and minority voices have been given more space in the media. There's an increasingly widespread understanding that racism is more than the use of certain words or blatant discrimination.

There has not been a similar level of discourse about antisemitism. The last time a public figure was in the news for making an antisemitic remark was just before Christmas, when Reggie Yates said it was good that black artists also had black managers, rather than "some random fat Jewish guy from north-west London". Afterwards, Yates apologised and stood down from hosting the Christmas edition of Top Of The Pops. I followed the reactions on Twitter for days afterwards and was surprised to see that almost no one seemed to think Reggie had done anything wrong. Many even described it as a form of "white privilege" that a black person was being criticised for saying something about Jews, or denied that he was being antisemitic while repeating antisemitic tropes about him being fired by oversensitive Jews working in media.


The incident showed that people are not always great at identifying anti-Jewish sentiment. The far-right have long demonstrated a proud and aggressive antisemitism; from Barking to Charlottesville, it's central to their racialist ideology. Antisemitism on the far-left is often less blatant and demonstrated through a number of codewords – talk of the "global elite", the Rothschild family or myopic, brash anti-Zionism that treats the crimes of the Israeli state as almost unique. There's a lazy strain of left-wing thought – which Corbyn sometimes indulges – that firstly understands capitalism as the nefarious work of a few blood-sucking CEOs and bankers, and secondly somehow ignores that the vast majority of CEOs and bankers are not Jews.

That is how antisemitism differs from other kinds of racism: Jews, supposedly, are not just bastards, but – despite a rich Jewish working-class history – ruling bastards. For leftist antisemites, it can be difficult to understand how Jews are a minority group which was close to being entirely extinguished through genocide.

So does that mean the British left has a unique problem with antisemitism? The Institute for Jewish Policy Research published a far-reaching report on this question. It found that antisemitism was much higher among the far-right than the far-left, but in fact neither group contributed that much to overall antisemitic sentiment, which was dispersed relatively evenly throughout the political spectrum. Indeed, it says, "The political left, captured by voting intention or actual voting for Labour, appears in these surveys as a more Jewish-friendly, or neutral, segment of the population."


In 2016, Labour politician Baroness Shami Chakrabarti published a report into antisemitism in the party, which found that Labour was not overrun with antisemitism, but that there was occasionally a toxic atmosphere. She made recommendations for how the party could improve, most of which have been implemented. However, today, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell blamed the party’s former general secretary for not implementing them fully.

Despite this, the feeling among Jews is that Labour is not their home. The same report finds that while, ten years ago, support for the political parties was evenly split in the Jewish community, support for Labour among Jews is as low as 7 percent, with the Conservatives favoured by over two thirds of Jews.

Then there's how all of this compares to Tory racism. Zac Goldsmith ran a blatantly Islamophobic campaign for the London mayoralty, backed by David Cameron. He was rewarded by Theresa May with an attempt to run again and win his parliamentary seat back. Just this week, Tory campaigners in Romford posted a leaflet claiming that if London Mayor Sadiq Khan has his way, the constituency will "become increasingly like an inner-city area" – an obvious racist dog-whistle – while, yesterday, a Conservative MP shared the headline "Muslim Somali sex gang say raping white British children 'part of their culture'" from a fake-news site in America. In both cases there were quick apologies and acknowledgement of wrongdoing.


Take the issue of Jeremy Corbyn liking pro-Palestine Facebook groups which posted antisemitic content. He should obviously be taking a closer look at what groups he's part of, but so should Tory MPs Ross Thomson and Michelle Donelan who subscribed to a Facebook page which posted racist statuses, as revealed by VICE. Nevertheless, the front pages are not concerned with the Tories' race problem.

Of course, if you are a Labour supporter, you hold the party to a higher standard. You expect a degree of bigotry from the Conservatives; it's kind of their MO.

But when it comes to Labour antisemitism, there have been too many slip-ups, too many concerning opinions and too little widespread education of why this is important. As Jeremy Newmark – the leader of Jewish Movement For Labour – put it in January, "I don't question Corbyn's personal commitment to fighting racism and antisemitism as he understands it, but I question whether he understands it the way we do."

What we need right now is a discussion that starts from the beginning, about what antisemitism is and where it has always led.