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THIS summer’s relentless attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, using allegations of anti-semitism as a blunt weapon, have left a legacy of fear, paralysis and anger among the Labour left.
But as the conference season approached and it became clear that the leadership had not collapsed under the assault, many members, driven by anger at the cynicism of the attacks, have emerged with new energy and determination to protect and nurture the unique opportunity we have to create a more just and egalitarian society.
The fear was cynically provoked by a series of ferocious and increasingly irrational attacks on the Labour leadership.
These culminated in Margaret Hodge’s vulgar, defamatory tirade, accusing Corbyn of being “a fucking anti-semite and racist,” followed by the frankly unhinged joint statement by three Jewish newspapers, spearheaded by the hard-right editor of the Jewish Chronicle, which asserted that an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country … would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government.”
These are shocking claims and, as a Jewish activist in the Labour Party, I have repeatedly had to reassure non-Jewish members that they are entitled — and indeed have a duty — to question them along with the single, flawed International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “definition” of anti-semitism that supposedly underpinned them.
What is more, the self-proclaimed representatives of the Jewish community do not have the sole right to define, record and challenge anti-Jewish racism.
Now people are realising that rabbis, even those called “Lord,” are not gods and that official Jewish spokespersons may have Tory or even further-right agendas.
Like society in general, Jews range across the spectrum of politics, including having a strong presence on the Labour left, as individuals and organised in Jewish Voice for Labour.
Although this was a damaging diversion at a time when the Labour Party urgently needed to focus on austerity and the destruction of our public services, we are now in a good position to regroup and look clearly at the challenge posed by the rising confidence of the far right in Britain, Europe and across the world.
At its conference last week, Ukip leader Gerrard Batten gave his party an explicitly fascistic focus by proposing Muslim-only prisons and special security screening for migrants “from Islamic countries.”
In several European countries, including Hungary and Austria, far-right parties are in government.
In Italy, refugees are abandoned to drown in the Mediterranean. In India, lynch mobs are attacking Muslims. In Myanmar, violent persecution of the Rohingya continues as the world looks on. And in Israel, the government has enacted an explicitly racist constitutional law, downgrading all non-Jews, including the Palestinians, to second-class citizens.
Despite the best efforts of the promoters of the IHRA document, Israel and Palestine are, and must be, still on the agenda.
We can only surmise why key NEC members forced through acceptance of the IHRA document on anti-semitism, which was concocted in bad faith, forced through for cynical reasons and acknowledged even by its author to be dangerously flawed, but there will be ways in which we can challenge it.
Now, the Labour Party urgently needs to stand above and get beyond this cynical campaign against the leadership, and fight racism in the only way it can be fought — collaboratively, collectively and with understanding of the underlying causes.
There are countless initiatives that support individuals, defend communities and campaign politically against racism. From Care 4 Calais, which gives concrete support to refugees trapped in France, to Glasgow’s Unity Centre, which defends and advises people in danger of deportation or detention, volunteers and activists from all backgrounds are doing life-saving anti-racist work.
Not one of those projects believes that only people who are the direct targets of a particular form of racism are qualified to define or pronounce on it — that anti-Muslim racism should be fenced off from anti-black or anti-Roma racism or, indeed, anti-semitism.
Each has its particular features and history but must be analysed and challenged in the context of racism in general.
The Labour Party is committed to tackling the inequality and hopelessness that fuels racism and fascism and, if this summer’s antics temporarily derailed its ability to campaign effectively on these issues, they have also created a new sense that we can find common ground across the left on which to renew our anti-racist and anti-fascist work.
There are many trade unionists, including Unison assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie, and MPs such as Diane Abbott and David Lammy who have worked for years to make the struggle against racism and fascism, including anti-semitism, part of the warp and weft of their unions and the Labour Party. This is not always easy.
McKenzie says: “It’s dead easy to talk with people who agree with you, but proper organising means shifting people who don’t agree with you. We’ve got to see that as an organising principle. We need to foreground equality, challenge discrimination and welcome people who have changed their minds. We need to mobilise the trade union membership and particularly the black members and not just say what we are against but be clear about what we are for.
“You can mobilise people against something in the short term, but that’s not sustainable.”
He argues that through the trade unions and the Labour Party we can mobilise positively for progressive politics in order to build a broad outward-looking anti-racist movement.
The attacks on the leadership have produced such a fog of irrational nonsense that many people, including some members of the NEC, are scared to speak out.
At the same time, people who are confident about understanding or discussing anti-semitism can’t make themselves heard against the noise coming from the anti-left brigade.
The result has been negotiating without understanding — give a bit on IHRA, take a bit on free speech — when what we need is to unravel, discuss and explore it so we can create a firm foundation for our anti-racist activism across the board.
This requires initiatives in which the Labour Party’s support will be crucial and that includes facilitating and encouraging wide-ranging, sophisticated discussion.
Despite having made a compromise on the IHRA document that many Labour Party members find hard to stomach, the experiences of the summer have highlighted the ways that the party can move forward.
We have learnt that we must confidently resist pressure from bodies hostile to the Labour project to compromise on the party’s principles of equality and justice, that we need to work with a broad range of Jewish and other minority opinion to develop robust, common responses to the rise of the racist far right and, above all, we need a broad, strong movement that can protect and promote our vision of a just, diverse, egalitarian society.
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