One year ago, more than 2,000 people gathered outside Parliament for an unprecedented demonstration.
For a minority community to protest the leadership of the official party of opposition against its handling of racism towards them is a shameful indictment on the party’s current leadership.
The Labour Party is meant to be a party imbued with social justice and which prides itself on its anti-racist credentials. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, calls himself “a militant opponent of racism”. Yet this is a party in which anti-Jewish racism has taken such a hold, that the Jewish community took to the streets to demand action.
The initial trigger for the demonstration had been the refusal of Mr Corbyn to oppose a blatantly antisemitic mural which had appeared in East London. However, the anguish of British Jews went much deeper than that. We were horrified that the Labour Leader not only called representatives of the antisemitic terrorist organisation Hizballah his “friends” but also that he refused to rule out meeting them again.
Raed Salah, who propagated the anti-Jewish canard that Jews kill Christian children to drink their blood, was supported by Mr Corbyn when he refused to oppose his extradition. There were countless antisemitic statements made by Labour members which had gone unpunished. We wanted to know why.
When we assembled outside Parliament with megaphones and placards, in the week before Pesach and at only 24 hours’ notice, we hoped it would be sufficient to spur the Labour Party into action. If complacency or ignorance had been at the root of the problem, then surely they would ensure that the correct measures would now be taken.
The Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council wrote to Mr Corbyn with a number of – simple steps that Labour could take to regain the confidence of the Jewish community. We asked Mr Corbyn himself to take leadership and to force through changes; we asked that outstanding and future disciplinary cases be brought to a swift conclusion under a fixed timescale; we asked that MPs, councillors and other party members should not be allowed to share platforms with those suspended or expelled from the party; we asked Labour to work with the mainstream Jewish community to develop and implement education about antisemitism; we asked for engagement with the community via its two main representative groups and for processes to monitor the progress of these actions.
Mr Corbyn met us. He promised to take action.
Yet one year on the crisis of antisemitism in Labour is not only unsolved, it is worse.
Unsolved disciplinary cases continue to stack up, with new instances of antisemitism discovered on a weekly basis. There are members who have been suspended for years with no expulsion on the horizon. Others have escaped censure completely. Indeed, Peter Willsman was elected to Labour’s National Executive Council after an outburst in which he claimed that Jewish “Trump fanatics” had invented antisemitism in Labour. To add insult to injury, we have since discovered that the leader’s office intervened in cases of alleged antisemitism, something we were explicitly told was not the case.
Since last year, those who have stood up bravely to anti-Jewish racism in Labour have been vilified and trolled by people who claim allegiance with Mr Corbyn, while a number of those suspended for antisemitism have been readmitted to the party. Mr Corbyn himself has failed to apologise for his past association with antisemites and Holocaust deniers and has failed to give assurances that such meetings would not happen again in the future. No system of education has been instituted for party members.
Things have reached the stage where Labour’s own MPs have demanded that the leadership account for their action (or more accurately inaction) on antisemitism. A group of MPs, including Luciana Berger, Joan Ryan and Ian Austin, cited the virulent antisemitism they had been subjected to as a reason why they had been forced to leave the party. Things have got so bad that the Equality and Human Rights Commission may formally investigate the party, a measure that it has only previously taken against the British National Party.
Unless we see an unexpected, dramatic and radical shift, Mr Corbyn will go down in history as a leader who allowed the evil of antisemitism to flourish. Labour must search its soul to see whether this is a legacy it wants to carry with it. There are many brave people in the party who have endured intolerable abuse for having the guts to stand up for its traditional, anti-racist values. It is long since time that they are supported and the racists and their enablers expelled.
A year ago we said “Enough is Enough”. We said that we needed to see action rather than words. We are still waiting.
Marie van der Zyl is president of the Board of Deputies
Jonathan Goldstein is chair of the Jewish Leadership Council
This article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle 26/03/19