Two of the most spectacular standing ovations at Labour’s Annual Conference at Brighton, only exceeded by those in Jeremy Corbyn’s closing address, were for podium speeches of just 3 and 5 minutes duration. The speakers were two Jewish delegates, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi and Leah Levene, both members of an organisation that only launched itself on the second day of conference.
That organisation was Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), set up for Jewish members of the Labour Party. Several non-members who attended the launch told me that it was, for them, the best fringe meeting of the Conference. I am a member of JVL. So this account (of why it was born, and what it might achieve) is not that of a neutral observer.
What did those heartfelt conference cheers signify? One of JVL’s defining characteristics is that it is not the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM). But more of that later. There is a need for some historical background.
The antisemitism crisis
The backdrop to this psycho-drama is the tragic story of a Labour Party riddled with rampant antisemitism. One can read about it most days in the press and online. But it’s just that: a story. Being Jewish and on and off in the Labour Party since 1962, you might have thought I would have noticed this phenomenon by now – if, as is claimed, it is endemic. But I have not, and in this I am the rule rather than the exception. Those who tell me that the Labour Party has been infected with left antisemitism say they know this because they have read about it in the media.
Last year’s Chakrabarti Report into antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of racism in the Labour Party concluded that the Labour Party was not overrun by any of these pernicious syndromes. There are undoubtedly racists of all varieties in the Labour Party; this is not a country at peace with itself. But antisemitism is historically low in the United Kingdom; also, by comparison with virtually all countries in Europe. In an organisation such as the Labour Party which attracts many with progressive views, it is probably still lower.
Chakrabarti does however describe an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” experienced by some Jewish members when Israel is discussed. This is clearly particularly distressing for those many Jews (though by no means all) who have a strong attachment to the idea of Israel, and who find stringent criticisms of Israel and its behaviour deeply offensive (even if they themselves are privately critical of some of Israel’s policies). But, as Timothy Garton-Ash argues, there should be no ‘I am offended’ veto on free speech.
The Chakrabarti Report was commissioned by Jeremy Corbyn to respond to the orchestrated clangour of antisemitism accusations against Oxford University Labour Club, against local constituency officers and councillors, against MPs, against pro-Palestine activists. Some proved to be fake, others based on aggressive historical trawls through and hacking into social media accounts, followed by partisan interpretations. In the event, it is believed that thousands of Party members were suspended (a retweet which included the adjective ‘Zionist’ was sufficient) and many are still lingering in that limbo.
Suspension prevents members from functioning within the party in any way unless/until the suspension is lifted. They may not be elected to office, or as a delegate to Conference. They may not vote in any selections – of local councillors, of Parliamentary candidates, of the party leader. They may not even attend party meetings. (This happened to the Vice-Chair of my constituency party.) Of course suspension can be a prelude, after investigation, to expulsion. But there have been rather few expulsions. What has been happening in many cases is – no detailed charge, no investigation, no resolution, just continuing suspension. This limbo commonly lasts for months; and there are members who have been left in this shadow world for more than a year. The effect has been, broadly, to exclude large numbers of activists, predominantly leftwingers, from the life of the Party.
There is a useful legal precept when investigating such mysteries: cui bono? – that is: who benefits? In this case there are two interest groups who fit the bill. The first is a certain constituency of Labour Party figures who in general do not welcome the radical shift in Labour politics that has replaced orthodoxies established in 1995. The second consists of committed defenders of Israel, who have welcomed the level of backing, often enthusiastic, that previous leaders of the Party have given to Israel. Corbyn’s rise, given his left politics and decades-long support for Palestinian rights, was bad news for both groups.
There is no reason to think that there was a grand plan; there are plenty of people who were simply members of both groups. But there was a clear emergent strategy, to attempt to brand Corbyn as an antisemite, and on the same grounds to purge and silence enough of his prominent or effective supporters among the membership to quieten the others. This basic approach, adopted within months of Corbyn’s first election as leader in 2015, was not in itself a novel development. For some years it had been a leading strand of the Israeli government’s world-wide strategy for combatting what they called the ‘delegitimation’ of Israel. (The other principal strand was – and remains – to persuade allied governments to make any boycott of Israel illegal.)
This approach got a major boost in May last year when the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an inter-governmental organisation, adopted a ‘definition’ of antisemitism that had been clattering round the world since 2003, trying to find a home. Once attached to the emotive word ‘holocaust’ it became unstoppable. The UK government adopted it in December, and sent it round to all universities and public bodies. The effect on freedom of expression has not been benign.
Within days Corbyn and the Labour Party had adopted it as well. But here we need to look at the slightly smaller print. The actual written ‘definition’ is some 40 words long:
IHRA definition of antisemitism
Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
Crucially, it is vague, leading to the need and opportunity for further interpretation. The definition’s sponsors handily provide this in the form of 11 examples of prima facie antisemitic statements – of which no less than 7 focus on the state of Israel. One might reasonably infer that the reason for the vagueness, indeed the whole rationale for promoting such a definition at all, was to allow the protection of Israel in through a side door: by encouraging the presumption that criticism of Israel is likely to be antisemitic unless shown to be otherwise.
This distinction between the definition and the examples is key to understanding the next wrinkle. While the Government has adopted the whole kit-and-caboodle, the Labour Party has only accepted the 40-word formal wording. It is not therefore committed to the idea that critical speech on Israel is likely to be antisemitic and so needing of investigation. That is the formal position, though it is very unclear whether the Party’s own menacingly named Compliance Unit has yet taken that on board.
The rule change
The Labour Party has had 117 years to build up a byzantine bureaucratic maze of units, conventions and procedures. It has a rule-book, which only the Annual Conference can modify; and before the conference, any Constituency Labour Party (CLP) can propose a rule change. So far so good. But that proposal will not be debated until the following year’s conference. The elected National Executive Committee (NEC), the Party’s supreme body, can also propose rule changes – but without the 1-year wait, and it can do so right up to the eve of Conference.
Back in summer 2016 the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), an affiliated body, actively promoted such a rule change. Its effect if passed would be to make it easier for members to be expelled for allegedly antisemitic or racist behaviour – and to privilege the view of the complainant as to its offensive nature. This proposal was adopted by several CLPs, and so was on the agenda for this year’s conference. One other CLP (Hastings and Rye), getting wind of this proposal, scrambled to submit its own, which specifically excluded legitimate political discourse on Israel from being taken as evidence of antisemitism.
The NEC had a full year to avoid the coming collision at Conference, but only finally got it together in the last week. At its July meeting it had considered but not formally agreed a preferred wording. But on September 19, a revised wording arrived while the NEC was in session, the result of negotiations between Shami Chakrabarti and JLM (note, not Hastings and Rye). This was nodded through without, of course, detailed scrutiny. It was due to come up for discussion on the penultimate day of Conference, with a recommendation that the earlier motions should not be approved.
The conference itself was a celebration of the many advances made by Labour at the election, and also the advances made by the Corbyn leadership’s radical agenda within the party. Voting for various procedural motions and for certain committee posts suggests a 3 to 1 preponderance of the left among constituency delegates. Almost the only, and certainly the main, issue in contention was the proposed rule change on antisemitism.
Now read on
The night before this debate Jewish Voice for Labour, a new organisation for Labour Party Jews who don’t want to buy into the Jewish Labour Movement’s pro-Zionist agenda, launched with something of a flourish in Brighton. JVL admits as full members only Labour Party members who identify as Jewish. (By contrast JLM accepts both non-Jewish and non-Labour Party members.)
JVL had semi-accidentally booked the palatial ballroom at Brighton’s Mercure hotel. But by the time the meeting started all the seats were full, and people were standing packed at the back, bulging out of the rear doors, and sitting in the aisles. No one was checking religious identities at the door but there were Jews and non-Jews, over 300 people.
At first the microphones wouldn’t work. And when they did, the sound system was prone to random deafening crackles that only seemed to add to the palpable buzz, as if badly-behaved electricity was escaping and charging up the whole room. JVL had been formed at a meeting of members in London in July. But the meeting at the Mercure was its public launch. The panel for the meeting, on Jewish Socialism Past and Present: Antisemitism, Israel, and the Labour Party, was all Jewish. Its subtitle might have been “how to understand the manufactured moral panic about antisemitism in the Labour Party, and what we can do about it”.
David Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialists Group sketched in the politico-cultural milieu of turn of the century European Jewish communities. Zionism was then just one fragment, dwarfed by the much larger Bund movement which espoused a socialism with no nationalist agenda. Zionism, he was explaining, is not an intrinsic part of Jewish identity, but arose at a moment when some support-system was required to fill the vacuum left by the hollowing out of religious belief.
Antisemitism dominated Jewish lives then in a way which makes the current alarm about supposed ‘left antisemitism’ look positively histrionic. Oxford Professor Avi Shlaim’s title, ‘The Myth of Antisemitism in the Labour Party’, speaks for itself. No, he wasn’t saying that there is no antisemitism in the British Labour Party: unfortunately, it can still be found anywhere and everywhere – but in the UK thank goodness only in small doses, and almost certainly still less in the Labour Party.
The recent inflation of antisemitism, especially on the Left, into an alleged social crisis coincides, he said, exactly with the period since, much to the dismay of right wing Labour and friends of Israel everywhere, Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party. The allegations of antisemitism against Corbyn supporters predominantly focused not on expressed hatred of Jews but on expressed criticisms of Israel.
Sir Stephen Sedley, a former Lord Justice of Appeal, talked about this attempted conflation of antisemitism (always bad) and criticism of Israel (currently required), and its potential effect on free speech. Free expression has entrenched legal protections in Britain, which need to be respected by all public bodies and which are relevant also to private associations such as the Labour Party. Antisemitism, understood as it always has been (until the recent campaign described by Avi Shlaim) is hatred of Jews as Jews. When manifesting as itself in discriminatory acts or inflammatory speech it is generally illegal, lying beyond the legal limits of free speech or action. By contrast, criticism (and equally defence) of Israel is not only generally lawful – it is affirmatively protected by law.
It is hard to describe the high-energy atmosphere in the Mercure ballroom. There was drama at the launch meeting when Len McCluskey made a large personal donation and announced that he would be asking Unite to affiliate to JVL. And then Tosh McDonald of ASLEF made the same promise, and gave an even larger donation! The collection raised over £1400, enabling JVL to cover all its meeting expenses. Then Ken Loach was discovered in the ruck at the back of the hall, and came forward to make a strong speech in support of the new organisation. A buzzing audience had to be prized out of the hall, to make room for Jackie Walker’s stunning one woman show, The Lynching. (Catch it if it comes on near you.)
And how did JVL come to launch in a ballroom? A smaller room with about 120 seats had been booked in a different hotel, and the Committee had debated anxiously about whether this might be too big a venue to fill respectably. That meeting location was printed in the Conference Fringe Programme; and it was shortly after that that the hotel informed JVL that the booking would not be honoured.
It seems allegations had been made that the JVL event was likely to be an antisemitic snake pit. JVL never saw the exact words used – but a twitter exchange was located discussing how to pressure the hotel: threats of appalling Tripadvisor reviews seemed to be favoured. Such down and dirty tactics are increasingly common in many of the ongoing attempts to deny public space to critics of Israel. But thank you, whoever you are. JVL had to move to a much larger room at more than double the price – and without that its launch meeting could not have been the rip-roaring success that it was.
The day after the JVL meeting the Conference was due to debate that controversial rule change proposal. The NEC wording addressed both antisemitism and racism more generally. However since the initiator and tireless campaigner for this change was the Jewish Labour Movement it was widely understood that ‘antisemitism’ was the real target. There was widespread concern in the ballroom that the same pressure groups that had pushed for (and achieved) this rule change would try to attach to it a definition of antisemitism wide enough to catch much criticism of Israel. (These fears about how this rule change could be abused, also expressed in Conference debate the next day, have only one week later been proved justified.)
At the conference debate the following day the JLM agreed that its rule change should be ‘remitted’ (in effect, not voted on). So did Hastings and Rye. They did so under the cosh of an NEC recommendation to conference that both amendments, if not remitted, should be opposed. The calculation for the remitters was that conference was most unlikely to inflict a defeat on the NEC, so it was better to back off gracefully. It was unlikely, because half the votes at Conference are the disciplined vote of trade union delegations; conference tends to respect the authority of the NEC; and because there was no wish to fracture the sense of a united party. The cosh hit harder on Hastings and Rye – unlike JLM, it had been given no opportunity to influence the wording of the NEC’s own resolution.
So the remitters behaved logically in remitting, and conference duly voted for the NEC wording. But conference delegates found another way of showing that this was only part of the story. When Leah Levane, agreeing to remit for Hastings and Rye, described both the preceding abuse of process and the dangers to free speech which the rule change opened up, the conference floor erupted in support. Something very similar had happened the day before when another member of JVL, delegate Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, addressed both the oppression of the Palestinians and the moral panic about antisemitism. So there was a message sent to the leadership, in decibels if not in votes.
It is a message, however, that needs interpretation. What I heard was an expression of vivid disbelief in the peddled narrative of a crisis of Labour Party antisemitism; one of alarm at the potential for this rule change to extend it in time and into new territory; and above all one of relief to hear what they had wanted to say themselves from people who could speak up – because they were Jewish.
There was the same response when in his Leader’s Speech two days after the JVL launch Jeremy Corbyn said “let’s give real support to end the oppression of the Palestinian people, the 50-year occupation and illegal settlement expansion and move to a genuine two-state solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict”. Not everyone who cheered will agree with his solution, but they were all delighted at the end of equivocation about who is the oppressor.
The launch of Jewish Voice for Labour has been greeted with relief by a wide swathe of Labour opinion. In the meeting room it seemed almost as if there was a collective exhalation, a relaxation of tension. A relief that the absurd antisemitism concocted moral panic, which contradicted their lived experience in the Labour Party, was being called by its proper name – and by Jews!
Dirty tricks continue. Conference ended on Wednesday 27 in a glow of fraternal harmony. On Friday 29 a complaint was lodged by persons as yet unknown against Professor Moshe Machover, eminent and erudite Israeli socialist, for an article “Anti-Zionism does not equal anti-Semitism” distributed at Conference. On Tuesday October 3 he received a message from the Labour Party announcing his expulsion; actually the expulsion was not formally for antisemitism (that would have taken longer) but for alleged association with organisations newly deemed undesirable (of which he has never been a member).
We should surely interpret this as a declaration from the organisations driving the campaign to protect Israel and against the left using antisemitism as their weapon of choice, and from their friends inside the bureaucracy, that for them the spirit of internal Party harmony lasts no longer than one conference-week.