Injured parties: Labour's anti-semitism row reaches Israel

Posted On: 
5th April 2017

Anger in Israel over Ken Livingstone's comments linking Nazism and Zionism, and Jeremy Corbyn’s response, could put the relationship between the British and Israeli Labour parties at risk. Mark Leftly reports

Jeremy Corbyn with Shami Chakrabarti at the publication of her inquiry's findings, June 2016

A young PhD student is showing a small group of British journalists around the history museum at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s memorial to victims of the Holocaust.

The central promenade is a narrow prism that is slightly underground. Grey, desolate walls stretch 16.5 metres high to a glass panel. Confined, buried, the shard of light out of reach.

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The surroundings and subject matter make for a tense tour, but the guide suddenly goes off-message. “If you don’t mind me getting political for a moment,” he says, slightly nervously.  “Ken Livingstone said Adolf Hitler supported Zionism in the 1930s. No, he wanted all Jews out of Germany.”

Livingstone had argued it was “a historical fact” that Hitler backed Zionism to get rid of thousands of Jews, but the student points out the dictator was opposed to the creation of a Jewish state. 

That Livingstone’s arguments have reached Jews more than 2,000 miles away, and still upset them 12 months on, is reflective of the fears felt by the Israeli left at what it sees as growing antisemitism in Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s watch.

Prominent Israeli Labor politicians have told The House that Corbyn has shown no leadership on the issue and must resign, while long-held ties between the two parties are at serious risk of being dissolved. Even political neutrals are concerned: Dr Robert Rozett, director of libraries at Yad Vashem, says his staff are “monitoring” a rise in antisemitism in both mainland Europe and the UK.

Livingstone’s comments came after the discovery of anti-Israeli Facebook comments made by Naz Shah in 2014, before she became MP for Bradford West. These two incidents prompted an inquiry into antisemitism in Labour, led by Shami Chakrabarti, who has subsequently been made a peer and shadow attorney general for England and Wales.

Corbyn caused offence at a press conference for the inquiry’s publication by inadvertently comparing Israel to Daesh: “Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.”

Worse still, a Corbyn supporter, Marc Wadsworth, subjected a Jewish MP, Ruth Smeeth, to verbal abuse at the event, from which she walked out in tears. Smeeth then received 25,000 abusive messages – 80% of them in a 12-hour period – and received special protection from police after a 1,000-word death threat.

Separately, veteran activist Jackie Walker was sacked as vice-chair of Momentum and is under threat of expulsion from the party after footage emerged of comments she made about Holocaust Memorial Day. Walker, who is Jewish, said “I still haven’t heard a definition of antisemitism I can work with”, but has argued she is arguing against Zionism as a political ideology.

This month, Corbyn told an event marking the UN’s international day for the elimination of racial discrimination he was “implacably opposed” to antisemitism and would be “taking forward the recommendations of the Chakrabarti inquiry”.

These include resisting the use of references to Hitler, Nazi and the Holocaust when debating the Israel-Palestine situation and the appointment of a general counsel for disciplinary matters.

However, many MPs felt these did not go far enough and Smeeth was angered that Corbyn had “stood by” and done “absolutely nothing” when attacked by Wadsworth. She argued Labour “under his stewardship cannot be a safe space for British Jews”.

Sitting in the Jerusalem Press Club on a hill overlooking the Valley of Death, Uri Dromi, the spokesman for the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments in the 1990s, echoes Smeeth’s point. He compares Corbyn to Donald Trump, arguing neither stamp down on the worst behaviour of their supporters.

Dromi seethes: “It’s like with Trump: what kind of underlying messages are you giving? I’m sure people are driven by acts of leadership. I don’t see Corbyn doing it [stamping down on antisemitism] and he should go if Labour is to be safe.

“Corbyn needs to stand up in no uncertain terms to anyone who is antisemitic and say ‘you are not part of my circle, of my party, I will chase you out of my sphere’. It’s always explaining, always making excuses [rather than taking action].”

Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin is a member of the Knesset parliament for the Zionist Union – an alliance of Labor and the liberal Hatnuah. She is close with Corbyn ally Emily Thornberry, having visited the shadow foreign secretary in Portcullis House earlier this month to discuss Brexit and women’s rights.

But that friendship has not assuaged her anger over Corbyn’s comments at the inquiry press conference and she also questions his laissez-faire leadership style.

“We’re very concerned with the Corbyn phenomenon,” she says. “It amazes me that the Labour party members have chosen someone who’s an antisemite himself and who was heard saying terrible things about Israel and about Jews.

“I understand that he’s trying to put up a ladder and he’s trying to get off a tree, but it doesn’t seem that he does it in a very successful way.”

Nahmias-Verbin considers herself a bit of an anglophile – her uncle was born on the Isle of Sheppey. She was concerned when her leader, Isaac Herzog, warned he could cut ties with the British Labour party over Livingstone’s and Shah’s comments last year. He remains under pressure to carry through on this threat. 

Asked if this is inevitable, Nahmias Verbin sighs: “I hope not. It’s a big question. I know that the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) are working very hard to keep the relationship with Israel and with Labor. We’re obviously very grateful for everything that they’re doing.”

Louise Ellman, the Liverpool Riverside MP and LFI officer, says it is “essential that Labour re-establishes its credentials with the Israeli Labor party”. A second officer adds it is “pretty depressing” that Labour should have to be clear it is “pro-Jewish, pro-Israel, supportive of a two-state solution”.

Former LFI vice-chair Ivan Lewis has warned Corbyn that perceptions of antisemitism saw the party lose council seats to the Conservatives in Bury and Salford over the past year. He says: “No community is homogenous but these concerns are widespread and partially relate to Jeremy Corbyn’s long-term antipathy to Israel under both Likud and Labor governments.

“A serious breakdown in trust has also been fuelled by widespread dissatisfaction with the Chakrabarti report and anger that the party does not always act decisively against a small minority of party members who cross the line from an indisputable right to criticise Israel and engage in antisemitic rhetoric.

“Isaac Hertzog has always had a close relationship with the UK Labour party and is right to resist calls from some in his own party to break links. This would do nothing to help the resurgent Jewish Labour movement or the growing number of Labour MPs who are making strenuous efforts to demonstrate their revulsion at any suggestion antisemitism should be tolerated or excused within Labour or the trade union movement.”

In November, Labour deputy leader Tom Watson led a delegation of MPs to Israel in what Lewis describes as “a powerful message” of support. At a speech to the LFI’s annual lunch later that month, Watson, an Anglican, sang in Yiddish and added: “Let’s have no more parallels drawn between today’s tragic conflict in Israel-Palestine and the bloodlands of central and Eastern Europe.”

Mike Katz, national vice-chair of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), says the “strong rhetoric” from Watson and Corbyn is “welcome”. But he wants practical changes implemented quickly.

“This means changing party rules to make it easier to discipline and expel members who engage in any hate speech, as JLM and others have proposed,” he says. “It means making sure that there are proper resources in the party to deal with compliance and provide proper care to those complaining, which hasn’t always been the case. And it means bringing closure to some of the long-standing cases which have been in limbo for too long.”

This last point appears to at least partly reference Livingstone, who has finally faced a disciplinary hearing into his remarks this week.

As long as this has taken, a spokesperson for Corbyn insists the leader is successfully tackling the broader issue: “Jeremy has consistently spoken out against and condemns all forms of antisemitism, which is why he set up the Chakrabarti inquiry into antisemitism and the Labour party is now implementing its recommendations.”

That, though, is unlikely to placate anger in Israel over his leadership and its supporters. The ties between the British and Israeli Labour parties might be strong, but they can be quickly cut.