The summer months have seen a massive escalation in attacks on UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, centring on charges that he and his supporters are hostile to Jews and that a government headed by him would constitute an “existential threat” to the Jewish community in Britain.
As a founding member of Jewish Voice for Labour and vice-chair of Chingford and Woodford Green Labour Party constituency, I believe such attacks are motivated by a determination on the part of the political establishment to undermine Corbyn’s left-wing leadership. His commitment to a solution to the conflict in the Middle East that guarantees justice and self-determination for the people of Palestine makes him a key target of attack by supporters of the Israeli state, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The real struggle against rising racism, including anti-Semitism, in Britain and elsewhere is seriously endangered by Corbyn’s enemies’ determination to define criticism of the Israeli state as motivated by hatred of Jews.
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Fighting anti-Semitism alongside all oppressed people of every race
My family background is 100 percent Jewish. My four grandparents were refugees from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries – from Russia, Ukraine, Poland and eastern Germany.
Growing up in the East End of London and as young adults in the north of the city, my parents experienced the anti-Semitism which was rife at the time. My father and his brother both anglicised their surnames, from Jewish-sounding Weinbaum to oh-so-English Wimborne. My mother told me many stories of being abused as a young schoolgirl by other children shouting “You killed our Christ!” and of being discriminated against when evacuated with her brother during the war. We know only too well what anti-Semitism is.
The Labour Party after the war was, by and large, a haven from any kind of anti-Jewish prejudice. My parents never experienced any form of anti-Semitism bigotry in the party and, as a member myself in the 1970s, nor did I. I worked abroad during the 1980s and did not resume membership upon returning to the UK until Jeremy Corbyn became its leader in 2015. The welcome I received from non-Jewish members – by far the majority in my constituency – showed not a hint of hostility towards me as a Jew.
I have spent decades of my life explaining patiently to people who, on learning that I’m Jewish, presume that I must, therefore, be a Zionist and a supporter of the state of Israel, that the two things are quite distinct. Most of my large family are not Zionists (though a few are). Our identity is not defined by our political beliefs about Israel. Most of us identify with the Jewish Labour Bund tradition adhered to by the majority of radical Jews in the Russian Empire and Poland before the Holocaust.
Bundists had as their watchword “doykayt” or “hereness” – the belief that Jews belong wherever in the world they live, that the fight against anti-Semitism has to be fought alongside all oppressed people of every race or faith. It is shameful that such a position is now condemned by self-declared Jewish community leaders as heretical and treacherous, that “real Jews” are only permitted to hold one view and that questioning Zionism and the Israeli state is treated as a form of anti-Semitism. To me and the many Jews I know who share my view, the suggestion that Jews can be regarded as an undifferentiated mass, as if we were genetically programmed to support a particular nation-state in which Jews dominate over the original non-Jewish population, is itself a racist, anti-Semitic, suggestion.
Baseless accusations of ‘institutional anti-Semitism’
Pro-Israel lobbyists have recently called on the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to brand the Labour Party as “institutionally anti-Semitic”. This charge can only be supported if opposition to Zionism is equivalent to hating Jews, which it clearly is not. For the party to be institutionally racist, there would need to be evidence that Jews are under-represented compared with their 0.5 percent share of the population – as members, as office holders in branches and constituency parties, as councillors, as regional officers, as electoral candidates and as Members of Parliament. There is no such evidence. In fact, Jewish people are generously represented in parliament, with nearly four percent of members.
Amidst the mounting wave of accusations about anti-Semitism being rife in the party, I was puzzled and alarmed and made serious efforts to find members who honestly felt unwelcome simply because they were Jewish, without any reference to arguments about the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. My search was almost entirely fruitless. Almost every story turned out to be related to upset caused by the very vociferous way some people furious about Israel had expressed their anger.
I do acknowledge that some critics of Israel can be insensitive to the feelings of Jewish people who feel an attachment to the state. Some Jews feel offended by strident attacks on what Israel does to Palestinians now and what Zionists have done in the past. It would be better if we could have political debates without offending one another, but there is no such thing as a right not to be offended. We do have a right to express political opinions, even very robustly.
It is no coincidence that the charge of institutional anti-Semitism emanates from an organisation called the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) which was set up in 2014 explicitly to defend Israel against opprobrium for its deadly assault on Gaza that year. It deliberately deploys accusations of anti-Semitism to try and shut down campaigns in support of Palestine. It is, for this reason, the subject of a complaint to the Charities Commission.
Of course, there are some people with anti-Semitic prejudices in the Labour Party. As the Institute for Jewish Policy Research said in its report on a survey of attitudes towards Jews last year, between three and five percent of the British population harbour a range of beliefs about Jews, such as their being greedy, rich, conspiratorial, in control of the media, which would qualify them as being anti-Semitic. About 30 percent hold one or two prejudices, which does not justify labelling them anti-Semitic, but can make Jewish people uncomfortable and create an atmosphere of unease. These proportions are naturally reflected within the Labour Party’s considerable membership.
Social media has unleashed the potential for nasty language to be hurled around unjustifiably, and sometimes people claiming to be supporters of the Left are responsible for this. There are cases of people ignorantly believing Israel’s supporters when they insist that the state represents every Jew, leading to unjustified abuse directed at Jews on the assumption that they support what Israel does. Such people need to be corrected and, if they prove recalcitrant, disciplined or expelled. However, there are too many cases of fake identities and robot accounts being used to discredit pro-Corbyn social media groups for all such allegations to be taken at face value. In two notorious cases, prominent Jewish activists were summarily excluded from the party following baseless allegations. Glyn Secker and Moshe Machover were both hastily reinstated.
It is becoming increasingly clear to most observers of the British political scene that attempts to brand the Labour Party institutionally anti-Semitic form part of an orchestrated campaign targeting a party whose leader is probably the most principled anti-racist to serve in parliament. All British citizens, in particular those from minority ethnic and religious communities, will be the losers if this cynical campaign is allowed to succeed.
This article is based on Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi’s submission to the EHRC about the calls by pro-Israel lobbyists for Britain’s Labour Party to be branded “institutionally anti-Semitic”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.