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I DON’T watch much television. It’s bad for my blood pressure. Especially since events last Thursday when my local MP, Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour Party member for 55 years, MP for 37 of them, was summarily suspended after he issued a careful, measured and honest response to the EHRC Report. Corbyn reiterated his abhorrence of anti-Semitism, urged the party swiftly to implement the EHRC’s recommendations, but questioned some of its findings.
Since then, every time I turn on the television, I hear a different non-Jewish commentator telling me — a Jewish Labour Party member — how I feel, and how much hurt the Jewish community has felt, and how unsafe the Labour Party has been for Jews during the period when Corbyn led the party. One of those commentators was Starmer, who apologised to the Jewish community on behalf of the party.
But here’s a novel idea: don’t tell me how I feel, ask me instead. Or indeed, ask us — Jewish members in Islington North CLP. We are the Jews with whom Corbyn has had the most frequent contact over the last five years, who discuss, canvass and campaign with him week in, week out.
We have several Jewish members in elected positions at ward and CLP level (I am one). Islington Council’s deputy leader is a woman of black and Jewish heritage whose grandfather was incarcerated by the Nazis in Dachau. The “Migrants’ Champion” leader in the local authority is the daughter of a Czech Jewish kindertransport refugee. Both represent wards in Islington North.
It is inconceivable that that they would wish to continue in these positions if they believed Corbyn was an “existential threat” to Jews, as the former Daily Express leader-writer-turned-Jewish-Chronicle-editor claimed.
Or if Corbyn-led Labour really threatened “dire consequences for Jews and Judaism,” as Chief Rabbi Mirvis warned in The Times last November, the evening before Corbyn, Lord Dubs and Dawn Butler launched Labour’s visionary Race and Faith manifesto. The (unelected) Chief Rabbi, treated by the media as a neutral commentator, has consistently supported Israeli settlers in the West Bank and the Tories.
Many Jewish members of Islington North CLP have had informal discussions since last Thursday. Whatever our differences on individual matters we have a shared sense of feeling completely safe, comfortable and welcome at all Labour meetings and activities in the constituency (at odds with the picture conveyed by the EHRC Report), and we feel pride that our MP stands unequivocally on the side of the exploited, impoverished, marginalised and oppressed, locally and globally.
In September Keir Starmer recorded a warm Rosh Hashona (New Year) greeting to the Jewish community which stated: “I have been proud to strengthen existing friendships whilst also establishing new ties right across the Jewish community and its organisations.”
It might have been even better if it had been true. But he has limited his Jewish contacts mainly to Establishment organisations, especially the Board of Deputies (BoD), who made crystal clear their preference for a Tory government at the last election, despite the Tories’ hostile-environment policies which have undoubtedly harmed migrants and refugees, the Windrush Scandal which devastated Britain’s Caribbean community, and a leader who has engaged in crude Islamophobia and authored a novel deploying crude anti-Semitic stereotypes.
During the summer, the BoD surprised Jewish leftists by making strong and positive statements supporting Black Lives Matter, but it recently reverted to type, providing a guest platform for the extreme right-wing Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Patel used that platform to mount a racist attack on Travellers.
On the day that Britain’s self-defined Jewish community “leaders” applauded Starmer for suspending Corbyn, the BoD president, Marie Van der Zyl, told BBC Question Time that Donald Trump “has increased peace in the Middle East.” She tried to “balance” this praise with a mealy-mouthed statement that he was “divisive” at home because “he has not sufficiently disavowed white supremacists!”
A breathtaking understatement. Jews here, and in the US, know that Trump has emboldened white supremacists. He called them “fine people” after hundreds marched through Charlottesville chanting: “Jews will not replace us.”
He has echoed their conspiracy theories about the “great replacement” of White America, frequently attacked the Hungarian Jew George Soros, labelled refugees, Muslims, Mexicans and LGBT communities a threat to America, and called Black Lives Matter supporters “looters,” “low-lives” and “scum.”
Did Van der Zyl not hear Trump’s Pennsylvania speech shortly after he came out of hospital? Deploying classic far-right conspiracy themes, Trump accused Biden of handing control to “Marxist and left-wing extremists.”
Then he said “Biden is also owned by the radical globalists, the wealthy donors, the big money, special interest, who shipped away your jobs, shut down your factories, threw open your borders and ravaged our cities, while sacrificing American blood and treasure in ridiculous endless wars.”
Who does the BoD President imagine he is fingering here? Trump’s supporters got the message even if she didn’t. This week, a line of gravestones in Michigan’s Jewish cemetery were daubed with large red letters spelling Trump’s name, and the acronym “MAGA” (Make America Great Again).
Within the Labour Party, Starmer has prioritised contact with the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) — a body that proudly boycotted the 2019 election, save a handful of constituencies. JLM tried to sabotage Labour’s efforts to keep policies centre-stage in media coverage of the campaign’s final week by deliberately releasing its evidence submitted to the EHRC six days before that election.
JLM requires members to sign an explicitly Zionist constitution, therefore they cannot represent probably the majority of Jewish Labour members, who are non-Zionist or anti-Zionist. They did not even want Starmer as leader: they had plumped for Jess Philips
After six months in post is it not time for Labour’s “new leadership” to hear the voices of those grassroots Jewish members who are very active in anti-racist, anti-fascist and human-rights work locally and globally, do not place the Board of Deputies on a pedestal, advocate real justice and equality for Palestinians, and support Israel’s anti-Occupation activists?
Starmer will find plenty of Jewish members like this in his neighbouring constituency, Islington North. We would provide a safe and welcoming environment for him, and be happy to answer all his questions — as long as he answers ours.
I had personally tried to open that dialogue with Starmer through a detailed letter with specific questions back in April, just after he was elected to office, and a day after he had met with the BoD and other Jewish establishment bodies.
In order to to get a hearing I set out some credentials, explaining my background in education, publishing and campaigning about anti-Semitism and other forms of racism over several decades including work for the Runnymede Trust, helping to lead educational visits for trade unionists and anti-racist activists to Krakow and Auschwitz; adult-education teaching on aspects of London’s Jewish history and on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, and convening the large Cable Street 80 events in 2016
I welcomed Starmer’s desire to speak “with the Jewish community,” but asked him to clarify who he meant by this given the democratic deficit in the bodies he had chosen to meet. The BoD offers scant representation for the estimated 50 per cent of the Jewish community who are secular Jews, while the growing ultra-orthodox Jewish sector don’t recognise the BoD’s authority.
I reminded Starmer of the Tories’ formal alliances and support for central and Eastern Europe regimes where anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-Roma prejudice ride together, and asked whether he was concerned that the BoD, Jewish Leadership Council and Community Security Trust, who claim to challenge anti-Semitism in a non-party-political manner, have been so muted in criticising these regimes and the Tories’ closeness to them.
I asked if he could confirm plans to engage with grassroots Jewish Labour Party members beyond JLM, specifically mentioning Jewish Voice for Labour, which does not stipulate taking a particular position on Zionism as a condition of membership, and includes many non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews among its 1,000-plus members.
I raised queries about the pledges that the leadership candidates had signed up to from an external source (BoD) that many members considered anti-Labour, and what might happen if these pledges conflicted with member-led policy decided at party conference. I asked whether he would honour the Race and Faith manifesto launched in November 2019 that many party members were involved in developing.
Finally, I raised thorny questions about how the leadership intended to carry through its commitment to stamp out anti-Semitism from the party, expressing my view that clear-cut examples must be dealt with firmly, but acknowledging that many allegations of anti-Semitism relate to commentary on the Israel/Palestine question, where those accused may have unconsciously crossed a line from strong but fair comment to bigotry.
I praised Shami Chakrabarti’s view that education should be the first resort, heavy-handed discipline the last, and asked whether Starmer agreed with her.
I received a form reply promising a response. Then nothing. After two-and-a-half months of silence, I wrote to Starmer again, with a summary of my specific questions.
What happened next shocked me. I received a reply from Starmer’s office, that was clearly a standard letter sent to Jews who had written to Starmer since the election, replete with platitudes about “rebuilding trust,” “vital engagement and outreach” etc.
I wrote back that I was “disappointed, angry, insulted and patronised to receive… a very brief, one-size-fits-all, ‘form letter’ that could have been sent to any Jewish person with any kind of inquiry about the Party’s stance on anti-Semitism and the Jewish community.
“It treats me, and other Jewish members as if, by virtue of our ethnicity, we all have exactly the same… views and outlooks. This kind of generalised stereotyping of members of a particular community by the Leader’s Office is, frankly, very worrying.” I added that I had asked several “specific questions, 2.5 Months ago. Your reply does not actually address a single one of them.”
The response from Starmer’s office: “Thanks for your reply and please accept my apologies that you are unhappy with the response. At this time I hope you can appreciate how busy the office is.” End of.
So much for “vital engagement and outreach!” But our offer to Starmer to meet with Jewish Labour members in Islington North remains open.
David Rosenberg is a Labour Party member, historian and activist.
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