The Labour Leadership Contest and the Board of Deputies

On Saturday, January 18, Labour Party members were afforded the unedifying spectacle of all five Labour Party candidates still in the race at that time, at their first hustings, falling over themselves to submit to the diktat of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) (see my Biblical parody: “The Board of Deputies’ Ten Commandments to the Labour Party”)[1] and squabbling over who had promoted the most the myth of an “antisemitism crisis” in the Labour Party.

The BoD’s ten commandments are headed: “Ten Pledges to End the Antisemitism Crisis in the Labour Party”. This immediately begs the question: is there an antisemitism crisis in the Labour Party?  The official figures of 0.1 percent accused of antisemitism and 0.01 per cent found guilty make it clear that there is a small problem – definitely not a crisis.[2]  But, having concocted a wholly imaginary “crisis” of antisemitism in the Labour Party, the BoD now claims this “crisis” can be ended by complete submission to the BoD, which seeks to remake the Labour Party in its own Zionist image.

In answer to a question from the audience asking why they had all signed up to the BoD’s “Ten Pledges”, even the “Corbyn continuity” candidate, the left-winger Rebecca Long-Bailey, said she had accepted the commandments “because I don’t have a problem with any of them”.  Jess Phillips (who has since pulled out of the race), the most right-wing and “Blairite” of the candidates, lashed out at her rivals by claiming that when she “was in the room struggling for an independent system [for Labour’s disciplinary process]… I have to say I don’t remember some of the people here being in that particular room and being in those particular fights”.   Emily Thornberry and Sir Keir Starmer (both architects of Labour’s defeat; they had pushed for Labour’s shift to Remain and a second referendum) seemed more intent on rebutting Phillips’s accusations than on answering the question.   Thornberry did not refer to the pledges or explain why she had signed up to them, but appeared to be saying that many Labour Party members had been sliding from legitimate criticism of Netanyahu’s far-right regime into blaming “the Jews” for it;  she insisted she had  “always been clear” on the antisemitism issue.   Keir Starmer (who is the front-runner in the race) also did not answer the question; but in reply to Phillips, stressed that he had “spoken out” on antisemitism. And in fact they were both correct; they had indeed both made strong contributions to the antisemitism “crisis” hysteria.  Starmer – who has been widely viewed as a “centrist” Remainer, but is now reinventing himself as a radical left-winger who accepts Brexit, in order to win over the left — tried to go one better on the others by asserting he would only be satisfied when all the people who had left the Labour Party giving antisemitism as a reason felt comfortable in coming back. The fifth candidate, Lisa Nandy, a “soft left” MP, said she

“never wanted to see again….a group of Jewish MPs begging the Party to adopt an internationally-accepted definition of antisemitism; and the response came from the top table:  we know better than you what constitutes antisemitism.”[3]

As Greg Philo and Mike Berry point out in their book Bad News For Labour, the IHRA definition, though widely touted as such, is not “internationally-accepted”.  In September 2018, after stating in the Today programme that the definition had “been accepted by almost every country in the world”, the BBC was forced to issue a  correction (buried in its “corrections and clarifications” web page)  pointing out that only eight states had signed up to it.[4] 

Two candidates for the deputy leadership have had the courage to refuse to sign up to the pledges. At the deputy leadership hustings on Sunday, January 19, Dawn Butler said she wanted to wait till the report on antisemitism in the Labour Party by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was published, because the issue was too important to rush.  And, to loud applause from the audience, Richard Burgon said “I have not signed and won’t be signing the ten pledges”, giving as his reasons a) his concern about “outsourcing the complaints procedure and how that would work in practice” and b) that “I would like to work with all Jewish groups….we need to listen to and work with the whole Jewish community.”[5]

The two commandments to which Burgon was referring are number 2: “An independent provider should be used to process all complaints, to eradicate any risk of partisanship and factionalism” and number 8: “Labour must engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups and not through fringe organisations and individuals.”

In July 2019, Corbyn came under great pressure to deal with the mythical antisemitism “crisis”, after the Panorama programme on the non-existent “crisis” and after 60 Labour peers had taken out a full-page advertisement in the Guardian on the same subject.  Corbyn came up with various plans for expediting Labour’s disciplinary process – in particular setting up a small dedicated panel to which only the most serious cases would be referred and which would have the power to expel.  But, in separate letters to the Shadow Cabinet, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council made it clear that they would only be satisfied with the establishment of an “independent” body to deal with Labour’s disciplinary process.  A senior Labour source was quoted as saying:

“No other political party or trade union has outsourced its complaints process. It is unclear how it could logistically work and comply with our responsibilities under data protection legislation.  It could threaten the jobs of hardworking staff who have taken swift and robust action on cases.”

Commandment 2 raises many questions: who would serve on the “independent provider”?  Presumably they would be people approved by and answering to the Board of Deputies.  This is made even more likely by Commandment 3, which insists that the details of all cases must be made known to the BoD.  So how will the “provider” be “independent” and avoid “the risk of partisanship and factionalism”?   And, as the senior Labour source pointed out in July, Commandment 2 – to which Keir Starmer, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, has signed up – is probably illegal under data protection legislation (as probably is Commandment 3 as well).

If we turn to Commandment 8: Corbyn always made it clear that he would continue to engage with the whole spectrum of Jewish groups.  In response to the clamour in July 2019, Labour set up a mini-website on antisemitism on the Labour Party website.  I wrote at the time in Brexit Update 39, back in July 2019:

“The website includes the words: ‘Labour is a political home for both Zionists and anti-Zionists.  Neither Zionism nor anti-Zionism is in itself racism.’  But, in a JC article criticising the website, Dave Rich, a leader of the Community Security Trust (CST), insists on equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.  It is likely that any ‘independent’ disciplinary panel approved by the Jewish community leaders would also equate the two and therefore hardly be unbiased and politically neutral.  An unprecedented outsourcing of Labour’s disciplinary process to a panel approved by the Jewish communal leaders would be likely to be seen as an unwarranted exercise of control over the Labour Party by these leaders – a perception that would ironically increase antisemitism.”[6]

Corbyn was far too conciliatory towards the Jewish communal leaders – a policy of appeasement that only strengthened them and made them increase their demands.  But from their point of view, he was much too resistant (just as he appeased Remainers but always resisted “going full Remain”).   The BoD is determined that the Labour Party will never again elect a leader like Corbyn, who put forward a genuinely radical agenda that threatened middle-class interests and Israel’s ability to do what it likes to the Palestinians.  Now, even before a new leader is elected, they are demanding complete submission – and what is more, getting it from all the candidates for leader, even before one of them is elected.   And ironically, as I pointed out in July, this capitulation to the BoD’s diktat is likely to increase antisemitism.  Moreover, as a Labour Party member, I have never encountered antisemitism within the Party until now, when all the candidates for the Labour Party leadership have accepted a rule that discriminates against a Jewish group within the Labour Party – Jewish Voice for Labour (of which I am a member).

Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) is not specifically an anti-Zionist group (though it includes anti-Zionists); it is best described as “non-Zionist”.  It was set up to provide a voice for the many Jewish members of the Labour Party who do not feel represented by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) (which refused to campaign for Labour during the General Election, except in a few select instances[7]).  The JLM is a rebranded form of a group called Poale Zion (PZ), which was set up in 1903, as the UK branch of the worldwide Zionist Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) movement, which later became the basis of the Israeli Labour Party.  In 1920, PZ became affiliated with the British Labour Party.  JLM/PZ remains part of the international PZ movement and retains close links with the Israeli Labour Party.

For decades, PZ was a tiny, “fringe”, moribund group that was mainly known for inflating its membership figures, claiming to have thousands of members whereas in reality it never exceeded a few hundred.  In 2004, it was briefly revived and rebranded as the JLM.  But it soon sank into moribundity again, until – as Jonathan Cook has pointed out — it was again revived in 2015 by the now-discredited Jeremy Newmark, as a vehicle to attack Corbyn within the Labour Party, exploiting the almost-century-long connection between PZ and the Labour Party.[8]

Commandment 7: “The Jewish Labour Movement should be re-engaged by the Party to lead on training about antisemitism” — taken together with Commandment 6, about the complete adoption of the IHRA definition, which will provide a basis for the decisions of the “independent” provider — make it clear that the BoD wishes to impose the Zionist concept of “the new antisemitism” upon the Labour Party – ie the view that Israel is “the Jew among the nations”, inheriting the persecution endured by the Jewish people in Europe in past centuries.   It conveniently distracts from Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians to make out that Israel is under attack from vast numbers of people who seek its destruction.  Under the IHRA, people who advocate a one-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict – a position into which many people have been pushed by Israel’s own expansionist policies that are making a two-state solution impossible – could be found guilty of antisemitism and expelled from the Party for “denying the Jewish people its right to self-determination”.  Those who draw attention to Israel’s massacre of children in Gaza could be accused of feeding into the blood libel.

The antisemitism-mongers claim that there are “thousands” of cases omitted from official Labour Party figures.  Under the BoD’s ten commandments, there probably would indeed be thousands more cases of people accused and found guilty of antisemitism according to the Zionist ideology of “the new antisemitism” that is at the heart of the IHRA definition.

Many of the large number of members who joined the Party because of Corbyn’s message of hope and transformation are now talking about leaving the Labour Party.  But, as the whole aim of these ten commandments seems to be to purge Corbyn supporters, it is surely a better option to stay and oppose – in the name of freedom of speech, of unrestricted criticism of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and of reducing antisemitism —  any attempt by whoever becomes leader to implement these “pledges”.   They will come under question particularly at the Labour Party Conference in September.  The new leader could well find himself or herself facing the anger of both the membership and the Board of Deputies.

For JVL’s official response to the BoD’s “ten pledges” see:

https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/statement/response-to-board-of-deputies-10-pledges-document/

[1] http://normanfinkelstein.com/2020/01/15/the-board-of-deputies-ten-commandments-to-the-labour-party-guest-post-by-deborah-maccoby/

[2] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_Jyo3SrepQ

Approx 6’ in: Barry Gardiner gives the figures.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOs2rb1CsfY

The part about antisemitism is approx. 53’ to 1 hour in.

[4] Greg Philo, Mike Berry, Justin Schlosberg, Antony Lerman and David Miller, Bad News for Labour, Pluto Press, 2019, pp.103-4.

Since September 2018, more states have adopted the definition, but the number is still only 17.

[5] https://skwawkbox.org/2020/01/19/video-butler-burgon-bring-house-down-at-deputy-hustings-by-standing-up-for-members-and-all-jewish-people/

[6] http://normanfinkelstein.com/2019/07/29/brexit-update-39-johnson-versus-corbyn-guest-post-by-deborah-maccoby/

For Corbyn’s support for JVL, see:

https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/corbyn-calls-jewish-voice-for-labour-good-people-1.461650

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/08/jeremy-corbym-jewish-labour-party-antisemitism-general-election

[8] https://truepublica.org.uk/united-kingdom/jonathan-cook-jewish-labour-movement-was-revived-to-deal-with-corbyn/