Simon Johnson: Using anti-Semitism As A Political Football Is Damaging For Both Labour And The Jewish Community

This article by JLC Chief Executive Simon Johnson originally appeared on the New Statesman website. 

I watched the Labour party leadership hustings on Thursday night and was depressed to hear loud booing of Owen Smith when he told Jeremy Corbyn that anti-Semitism has been worse in the Labour Party in the last nine months than at any time he can remember.

I asked myself, how have the last six months, in which Labour was supposed to be getting a grip on anti-Semitism, brought us to this point?

Six months, in which two inquiries have been published – one official, one leaked – and one still to come, and we are no closer to ridding political discourse on the left of anti-Semitism. In fact, all that has happened over the last six months is that anti-Semitism has become a political football, used to divide people as being loyal to the Leader or disloyal.

What has happened to the cross-party consensus against racism? Why has a political party founded on equality and tolerance become the focus for division and bullying?

On Wednesday morning, the full version of the Royall Report into allegations of anti-Semitism among Labour-supporting students at Oxford University was leaked to Jewish press. Having read the full report, there are no huge revelations or scandals. So the Jewish community is left to scratch its head and wonder, why did the Labour NEC try for so long to conceal the full version from the Jewish community or the students who were the alleged victims of the abuse?

It was a bizarre move that left the Jewish student movement, especially at Oxford, feeling isolated. Any real gain from the report – and there would have been some – has been overshadowed by the pantomime of whether it would be released.

Then on Thursday came the confirmation that Shami Chakrabarti was to be the only Labour peer in the new list. After Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to never make a peer, the fact he recommended the supposedly politically independent leader of an inquiry into anti-Semitism has undermined much of the process in the eyes of the community. Social media is frothing with anger.

Chakrabarti is a public servant who possibly would have deserved an honour for her work at Liberty. However, the timing and circumstance of her elevation have undermined the integrity of the investigation and report in the eyes of the Jewish community.

Organisations such as my own engaged in good faith with the inquiry on the basis of assurances that it would be fearless, robust and independent. It has turned out to be none of those things. It now confirms our fears that, from the outset, the inquiry was a device to push damaging allegations off the frontpage.

Chakrabarti and Seamus Milne now have questions to answer on when the peerage was offered and whether there was any link to the commissioning or content of the report, or its aftermath.

The booing of Smith tells us that one’s view on anti-Semitism now determines where you stand on the leadership of the Labour party. If you raise the issue of anti-Semitism in the party, you risk being shouted down as disloyal or part of a witch-hunt. If you are loyal to the Leader, you condemn the raising of any such concerns as an act of disloyalty or part of a plot by embittered Blairites.

I still don’t understand why anti-Semitism is not clamped down on in the same way that has been effective for other forms of racism?  As Corbyn said, just a few weeks ago, Jews and Poale Zion (a Jewish Labour Movement) helped found the Labour party alongside the trade unions over 100 years ago. There are many within our community who not only associate themselves with Labour; they are actively part of the movement and embrace all sides of it.

The Labour party has always taken the lead on equality, tolerance and discrimination. But for some reason, ancient stereotypes such as the conspiratorial power of the minority continue and this becomes more intense when the discourse moves on to the subject of Israel.

The left cannot see that its constant and disproportionate criticism of Israeli government policies could ever stray across into anti-Semitism. At least the Chakrabarti report gave some clear examples of where it does. It’s a good thing it did, because it is beginning to look as though the Labour party’s problem is less with anti-Semitism than with the denial of anti-Semitism.

It is also regrettable that neither report came to grips with the vexed issue of anti-Zionism and how the denial of the right of Jewish people to self-determination in a Jewish State could well be anti-Semitic as well.

Many within the Jewish community would agree that nothing has been achieved in the last six months. If anything, anti-Semitism has become more embedded in the left of British politics than it was before.

The Jewish community does not want to become a football in party politics. We would all be happy if there was a zero-tolerance, strict liability approach to anti-Semitism in society, politics and in all political parties.

We did not need three inquiries to tell us that!