Labour party turns to 'freedom fighter'

May 05, 2016 12:26

The woman heading Labour's inquiry into antisemitism has made strong statements against Jew-hatred in the past, saying that it "turns my stomach".

Shami Chakrabarti, the former director of human rights campaign group Liberty, was appointed by Jeremy Corbyn to head the independent investigation after the crisis engulfing the party deepened last week with the suspension of Ken Livingstone for saying Hitler had supported Zionism.

The 46-year-old barrister will review evidence to determine whether Labour has a problem of entrenched antisemitism within its ranks.

Now chancellor of Essex University, Ms Chakrabarti has experience of high-profile inquiries. A friend of Sir Brian Leveson, she was a panel member of his probe into the activities of the press in the UK in 2011.

Assisted by vice-chair Professor David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, she will meet Jewish community representatives as well as other minority groups and report back to the party in two months.

The prevalence of casual antisemitism troubles me

Ms Chakrabarti has previously spoken about the need to fight contemporary antisemitism - and said that in principle, she was opposed to boycotts of Israel.

In an interview with the JC in 2011, during her time as director of human rights campaign group Liberty, she said legislation against racial discrimination in the 1970s had not curbed deep-rooted anti-Jewish prejudice in the UK.

"I have witnessed the prevalence of a casual antisemitism that troubles me and it is probably greater today than it even was at times in my youth," she said.

"I do think that sometimes it is because people are eliding, or think it is acceptable to elide, the criticism of Israeli government policy with peoples' race. And I have heard it done, and it turns my stomach.

"It's when, for example, the word Zionist is used in some parts of political debate, but not used in a political sense.

"It is not used to mean someone who believes in the state of Israel for example, but you feel it's used euphemistically and pejoratively. Or it's when people make assumptions about somebody's politics because they are Jewish.

"Or they make assumptions about how somebody will feel about some of the issues I work on, like anti-terror policy, because of their race.

"I have seen it, I have heard it, I have watched it - and it makes me incredibly uncomfortable."

She added: "It's not my job to comment on what the government of Israel does. But what is definitely wrong is to make an automatic association between what any government does and what a group of people do all over the world."

The daughter of Hindu-Bengali immigrants from Calcutta, Ms Chakrabarti grew up in Kenton, north-west London.

She told the JC that her parents' Jewish friends had been a key influence on her during her youth, adding that she lived in bedsit in Golders Green, in the heart of north London's Jewish community, while a law student at the London School of Economics.

"Some of my strongest influences, including human rights influences, have come from the north-west London Jewish community," she said.

She stepped down as director at Liberty in March having spent 13 years in the job. She joined the organisation as in-house counsel the day before the 9/11 attack in 2001.

Under her leadership, Liberty campaigned against "excessive" anti-terror measures, fought off attempts to impose compulsory ID cards and defended the Human Rights Act against the government's efforts to repeal it.

Her success and prominence in the role earned her a CBE in 2007 for services to human rights and led the Sun newspaper to label her "the most dangerous woman in Britain".

A kinder assessment came from David Davis, the Conservative MP and civil liberties campaigner. Mr Davis paid tribute to her work, calling her"a doughty fighter" in defence of individual freedom.

May 05, 2016 12:26

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