Britain's Labour Party, out of power since 2010, more or less cut its own throat when its members (plus fresh recruits who, instead of taking out membership, paid £3 to vote in the leadership election in 2015) chose Jeremy Corbyn, a formerly marginalized far left socialist, as the new head of the party. Ordinary Labour voters were horrified, knowing from day one that Corbyn could never lead the party to government and was not either remotely Prime Ministerial material. But vast numbers of young extreme left-wingers, flushed with victory and dedicated to an idealistic coming revolution and led by a new Corbyn-worshipping movement called Momentum, were determined to take traditional working- and middle-class voters in a direction that had little or no appeal to them at all.
From the outset, Labour was split almost down the centre. That divide proved dangerous for the political system in Britain, where government has been unevenly but broadly shared between the Tory and Labour parties in what was effectively a two-party arrangement. With the almost total collapse of the centrist Liberal Democrats, who had just been in an ill-judged coalition with the Tories in government from 2010 to 2014, Britain faced the possibility that the two-party system would founder after many decades, should Labour split and leave the country with three unbalanced parties and the real threat of a one-party state emerging, so long as neither Labour group remained unelectable.
That something has gone wrong within the Labour party is clear. After the referendum vote to leave the European Union, Corbyn came under severe pressure to resign as leader, and a battle ensued with loyal Corbynites both in and outside Momentum backing him to the hilt, but with the parliamentary Labour Party, made up of members of parliament, urging him to bow to the inevitable and go.
So great was the despair of the radicals that in the seven days up to July 1, another 60,000 people joined the party, apparently a large number of whom did so to back Corbyn's refusal to stand down. If he does not go, pundits predict, the party will split between hardline socialists (backed by most trades unions) and moderates. This split will create two parties out of one, with unguessable results for future elections and British governance in a period of political and economic insecurity following Brexit. A second leadership contest has opened, with Welsh candidate Owen Smith challenging Corbyn and supported by a majority of Labour MPs, but the polls predict another win for Corbyn and greater likelihood of a split.
With the reputation of a sincere and well-liked man, Corbyn seemed to many a decent bloke who could take Labour's helm and steer it back to government in a future election. Corbyn, however, was a man with a radical political agenda and some extremely unsavoury connections.
Corbyn had called terrorist organizations Hamas and Hizbullah his "friends"; associated with and fundedHolocaust deniers such as Paul Eisen; donated to Deir Yassin Remembered, an openly anti-Semitic group, and regularly appeared at their annual conference; chaired the Stop the War coalition, a leading sponsor of the annual al-Quds Day rallies that bear anti-Semitic posters and banners alongside Hizbullah flags in abundance, and expressed a very dim view of the state of Israel, preferring instead to lend his support to the Palestinian cause.
In one radio interview, given after he acquired the leadership, Corbyn was asked five times to condemn the violence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA); each time he refused to do so. Leo McKinstry wrote in The Telegraph:
"This is the man who sympathised with violent Irish Republicanism in the 1980s, invited IRA representatives to the Commons a fortnight after the Brighton bombing in 1984 and, at a Troops Out meeting in 1987, stood for a minute's silence to 'honour' eight IRA terrorists killed in an SAS ambush."
It was not, therefore, much of a surprise to anyone when a major scandal wracked the Labour Party in April this year. Almost daily, party members, including some MPs, were suspended from their membership because of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel comments made on social media. Corbyn himself, rather weakly, denied that he was an anti-Semite. Given his credentials as an "anti-racist" activist, he may well have thought this true in anti-racist terms, by defining Jews as a race (which is what the Nazis did). However, it could not be doubted that his rise from obscurity to the leadership had allowed something unsavoury to surface.
It could scarcely be denied that anti-Zionist anti-Semitism has always been around, and that Corbyn shared such views. In a scathing piece written before Corbyn became leader, Leo McKinstry identified his politics thus:
"Corbyn is not a serious politician. On the contrary, he is an unreconstructed Trotskyite whose views have remain frozen ever since he attended his first demonstration in the late 1960s. If Ed Miliband was the eternal student union activist, Corbyn is the permanent rebellious adolescent."
Under Corbyn, revelations about anti-Semitism in the party were bound to have emerged sooner or later. Given the flurry of news reports about the suspensions in the Labour Party, it was clearly not enough to argue that those who had offended were just rotten apples in a pure and racially neutral basket. In an attempt to prove Labour's innocence in such matters, on April 29, Corbyn set up an "independent" inquiry to investigate the extent of anti-Semitism in the party. He appointed a well-known figure, Shami Chakrabarti, to head it.
Chakrabarti is a British barrister and public figure renowned as the director of Liberty, Britain's leading human rights campaigning group. After twelve years in office, she had stepped down in February. David Aaronovitch, writing in The Times, has described her as "the most effective public affairs lobbyist of the past 20 years". Her political views are reflected in Liberty's major work to challenge anti-terrorism legislation in the UK.
It was not a good augury for the inquiry when, on April 29, the day of her appointment, Chakrabarti officially joined the Labour Party, of which she had not previously been a member. From that moment, it was clear that this could no longer be regarded as an "independent inquiry". To make things worse, on the day Chakrabarti was announced as chair of the inquiry, it was expanded to include "other forms of racism including islamophobia [sic], within the party". Overnight, anti-Semitism was all but sidelined. A major political inquiry, with a limited period, now covered so many topics that it should, in all justice, have taken years and cost many millions.
In fact, the inquiry did not take long to complete -- a mere nine weeks, from April 29 to June 30, when it was finally presented. During that time, submissions were made from a wide range of people. Some important submissions were made by Jews and Jewish organizations such as the British Board of Deputies, the Community Security Trust (CST) jointly with the Jewish Leadership Council, as well as Israel-linked bodies such as Labour Friends of Israel, the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), and left-orientated Engage.
When the report, entitled The Shami Chakrabarti Inquiry, was published as promised on June 30, it turned out to be what most Jews and pro-Israel activists had suspected it would be from the beginning: a whitewash. It opens with the words: "The Labour Party is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism." But nobody had ever suggested that it was. Further, given the overarching definition of "Islamophobia" on the left, together with long-standing Labour campaigns against the injustices of racism in the broadest sense, it seems pointless to include those topics in the first place.
It is, in fact, a remarkable document. It is vague and waffly, 28 pages saying almost nothing about the subject under question, anti-Semitism, which is throughout subsumed under general issues of racism. Although there is a two-page list of organizations that had sent submissions to the inquiry, none of the specific points made by any of them appears in the document. This is very weird. Had there not been time to consider them all? Or no time at least to study the many submissions from the mainstream and left-sympathizing Jewish and pro-Israel organizations? If not, why was the period for the inquiry not extended?
Here are some of the side-issues Chakrabarti addresses.
- The use of acceptable language.
- Avoidance of stereotyping.
- Careful use of the term Zionist. (As if we never knew.)
- We should not condemn people who share platforms with bigots and others (a clear defence of Corbyn, who has appeared with a string of anti-Semites and terrorist sympathizers).
The text then passes to matters such as "procedural rules", "complaint procedures", "publicity", "the use of suspension", "advice on disciplinary action", "training", and "action to make Labour a welcoming environment for all and sundry".
Chakrabarti is a lawyer and a bureaucrat, and these facets of her experience are made clear in this document. It concentrates as much on Muslims, Afro-Caribbeans and Sikhs as it does on Jews (which is not very much anyway). There is a seven-page Appendix which offers nothing more than suggested changes for the Labour Rule Book (2016). Before that appears the list of organizations who had submitted information and ideas to the inquiry -- a list that includes anti-Israel bodies like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Palestine BDSS National Committee, Jews for Justice in Palestine, and Free Speech on Israel -- all groups whom many consider anti-Semitic.
There are twenty recommendations of little substance, including (No. 20) "The Party should increase the ethnic diversity of its staff". How startling! You mean the Labour Party, the party responsible for all the anti-racist legislation in the UK, had never thought of that before?
There was one very major gap in the proceedings - a gap that signals just how far removed the party is from any understanding of modern anti-Semitism - and that was a mere passing reference to Israel. Hatred for Israel is the dominant form of neo-anti-Semitism, as any article or book on the subject will tell you. The original European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) working definition of anti-Semitism, the US State Department definition, and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, along with others, agree that exaggerated, mendacious, or malicious criticism of the Jewish state, or the setting of double standards for Israel that are used for no other nation, is anti-Semitic. Here is part of the definition:
- 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 endeavor.
- Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
- Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., 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.
It is precisely accusations of this kind that make up the bulk of the Labour Party's anti-Semitic comments, including statements still being made by some party members, including Jeremy Corbyn himself. To leave that aspect of anti-Semitism unaddressed while making polite noises about how wonderfully anti-racist Labour is, amounts to nothing more than evasion of the most serious kind.
A few days after the publication of the report, on July 4, Jeremy Corbyn was summoned to appear as a witness to a question and answer session with MPs from the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. This small inquisition went on for well over an hour and was televised on Parliament TV, where readers may watch it in full. It was something of a gruelling session for Corbyn, as marked from the beginning when the chairman of the committee, Keith Vaz (the longest-serving Asian Labour MP) introduced the report as follows:
"Many regard this inquiry as a whitewash because it doesn't contain any facts or figures, it doesn't take evidence from some of the principal people accused of anti-Semitism. Why did you think that this inquiry was relevant when it doesn't reach any conclusions?"
Vaz later stated that "it was hardly an independent report" because Chakrabarti had allied herself to the Labour Party on undertaking the job of inquiry chairperson.
Jeremy Corbyn (center) is questioned by a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee on the Labour party's anti-Semitism inquiry, while the inquiry's author, Shami Chakrabarti (left) scribbles a note to him, July 4, 2016. (Image source: UK Parliament)
A range of questions, some meandering, others (notably those of Chuka Umuna) penetrating, followed. Corbyn proceeded to duck and weave, giving loose answers to well-defined questions, and defending Labour against accusations of racism, relying on his definition of Jewishness as an ethnic matter, slipping past quotations from Labour party anti-Semites by shrugging them aside. His Director of Communications, Seamus Milne, a Trotskyite and former Guardian journalist, was pointedly described by one MP as having openly expressed his admiration for Hamas and its violent struggle against Israel. Corbyn evaded the issue, simply stating that Milne had done sterling work for the party. In a later answer about whether he supported Israel's right to exist, he agreed it had that right but at once started to pronounce a very negative judgement against the country, a judgement that came very close to precisely the sort of anti-Semitism defined above.
Nor was that all. Not long after the report was made public, Jeremy Corbyn nominated Chakrabarti for a peerage, the only one offered by the Labour Party this year. She has refused to answer whether the offer was made before or after she agreed to chair the inquiry, and many on both sides of the Commons, including Tom Watson, Corbyn's own deputy, have expressed outrage about what appears to be a blatant reward for services rendered. Ephraim Mirvis, Britain's Chief Rabbi, said the "credibility of her report lies in tatters" after accepting the peerage.
Neither the inquiry report nor Corbyn's performance before the home affairs committee will have reassured Jews and supporters of Israel in the least. The problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party remains unaddressed and likely to remain a thorn in the party's flesh for a long time to come.
As the battle rages over whether Corbyn should remain leader of Britain's second party, with a large majority of Labour MPs calling for him to resign and vast numbers of party members saying he should do no such thing, it is not at all impossible that the party will split, with a moderate membership dumping the far left activists and reforming a Labour Party more in keeping with the humanitarian and electable institution it once was. We have to hope that the anti-Semitism, mainly in its anti-Israel form, will hang on among the communists and Trotskyites, and vanish among the decent people who have rejected Corbyn as a millstone around their necks.
Dr. Denis MacEoin is Chairman of the UK's North-East Friends of Israel and a Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Gatestone Institute.