Ten myths about Jeremy Corbyn and Labour antisemitism deconstructed

JC editor Stephen Pollard takes apart claims by the leader and Labour's General Secretary Jennie Formby

December 05, 2019 14:16

The Labour Party was formed almost 120 years ago to give ordinary people a voice. On December 12, Labour will speak for fewer Jewish voices than at any time in its history.

Throughout the election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn has persisted with his now familiar exhortations to British Jews since Labour’s antisemitism crisis broke: “Antisemitism is not acceptable in any form anywhere in our society…It is poisonous and divisive…I am determined that our society will be safe for people of all faiths….that is what my whole life has been about.”

The JC’s polling by Survation has shown that 86 per cent of Jews are unpersuaded, believing Mr Corbyn himself to be an antisemite —  leading the Chief Rabbi to ask: “What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government?”

Labour’s General Secretary, Jennie Formby, has attempted to provide that answer by setting out in a recent article what she describes as a series of “decisive actions we have taken to tackle antisemitism in the Labour Party.

“We must build a movement in which Jewish people feel not only safe and secure,” writes Ms Formby, “but also celebrated, respected and welcome.”

So what should we make of the Labour leadership’s pleas for Jews to have faith in Labour for the future?

With a week to go before the election, here is a point by point examination of claims made by Mr Corbyn and Ms Formby during the campaign.

Claim: In his interview with Andrew Neil, Mr Corbyn said that antisemitism is “not acceptable in any form in society. When the far right are rising across Europe, using antisemitic tropes in order to intimidate people, then I think we’ve all got to stand up together on this.”

Reality: Mr Corbyn has indeed opposed what one might consider “classic” antisemitism inspired by the far right. Since 1977 he has signed or sponsored 13 Early Day Motions (EDMs), 10 tweets and led (at least) one demo. But it is notable that whe never he condemns and elaborates on antisemitism, he singles out this far-right version and never mentions left-wing antisemitism — precisely the issue with Labour. This left-wing, Labour antisemitism updates all the old tropes of classic antisemitism by, amongst other things, overlaying them onto the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Claim: In her recent article for the Jewish News, Ms Formby wrote that it is “deeply concerning to us” that “British Jews fear a Labour government.”

Reality: That “deep concern” arises principally from Mr Corbyn’s decades-long association with members and supporters of organisations committed to the destruction of Israel, overt antisemites and Holocaust deniers.

To many Jews, his frequent protestations of his lifelong commitment to anti-racism are at best hollow, when set against such references to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” — despite their anti-Jewish rhetoric having often been genocidal; to Hamas operatives as “brothers” — despite their conviction for mass murder; and to a UK-based Khomeinist organisation whose “values” he says he both “likes” and regards as “representing all that’s best in Islam” — despite organising marches through London that every year chant  “from the River to the sea, Palestine will be free”.

These examples are by no means exhaustive. Having signed up as leader to Labour’s policy of a two-state solution, Mr Corbyn has recognised Israel’s right to exist — but his insistence now that he only ever shared platforms with extremists whilst a backbencher in order to help generate a dialogue between both sides is further undermined by the fact that his dialogue was exclusively with one side — the Palestinians, and usually with that side’s most extreme elements.

Whilst Mr Corbyn has consistently condemned physical attacks on Jews and synagogues by far-right elements, under pressure to reconcile his persistent claims as leader to oppose “any form” of anti-Jewish prejudice he has only recently acknowledged the existence of the newer form of antisemitism.

During the conflict in 2018, as Labour resisted adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism, Mr Corbyn published two pieces which accepted that “newer forms of antisemitism” have been “woven into criticism of Israeli governments” and that “individuals on the fringes of the movement of solidarity with the Palestinian people can stray into antisemitic views”.

As the academic David Hirsh has written, when Mr Corbyn disparaged “Zionists” for not understanding  “English irony”, despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives”, his contemporary antisemitism regressed back to its classic version, with the “old, sneery English view of Jews… ‘They live among us but they’re not really one of us’.”

The fact that he declined Andrew Neil’s four invitations to (in effect) recognise his own contribution to Labour’s antisemitism crisis suggests he does not believe he has anything much to apologise for. Eventually, after five further attempts to ask him to apologise, this time on ITV’s This Morning, he said: “Obviously I’m very sorry for everything that had has happened but I want to make this clear: I am dealing with it, I have dealt with it.”

Without a much greater degree of self-reflection, Mr Corbyn’s protestations that he will “fight” antisemitism “with every breath I possess” are unlikely to alleviate the “anxiety” of what — according to Rabbi Mirvis and many others — the “overwhelming majority” of British Jews believe a Corbyn-led government holds for them.

Claim: Ms Formby also wrote that it was “deeply troubling that a small number of members have perpetuated conspiratorial thinking”.

Reality: Mr Corbyn is himself one of those members. In his interview for the Iranian propaganda channel Press TV in August 2012 following the jihadist slaughter of 16 Egyptian border guards, he said he suspected “the hand of Israel” was behind the attack in an attempt to destabilise Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi.

He posed the question: “In whose interests…other than Israel?” 

Claim: Mr Corbyn told Andrew Neil that antisemitism “didn’t rise after I became leader.” 

Reality: There is no evidence to support this assertion. Quite the opposite. Leaked internal party spreadsheets show no auto-exclusions or suspensions for antisemitism until spring 2016. Even one of Mr Corbyn’s most loyal supporters, Momentum Chair Jon Lansman, is reported to have acknowledged that his leadership “brought in some people with some unacceptable prejudices.” 

Claim: In Labour’s attempt to demonstrate transparency, both Ms Formby and Ms Corbyn have  said the number of antisemitism cases represent only 0.1 per cent of party membership, a claim Ms Formby repeated in the Jewish News, writing that she had “twice published a detailed breakdown of data on antisemitism disciplinary cases and we will be publishing these on a regular basis going forward. As previous publications of our figures have made clear, complaints relate to a small minority of party members, about 0.1%”

Reality: It has never been clear what “relate(s) to” means.  Up to July 22 (the last statistics released by Ms Formby), complaints against (at least) 1427 registered Labour party members had been received.

Average membership in the 46 months that Mr Corbyn had then been leader was 524,500, which equates to 0.272% of the membership.

Labour has also cited a still lower figure, saying that just 0.06% of the “average membership” had been “through the stages of Labour’s disciplinary procedures” while Mr Corbyn had been leader. That would mean only 315 members.

However, statistical precision is impossible because Labour’s published statistics and methodology are opaque. Labour has yet to translate that 0.06% into an actual figure or to give a figure for the average membership or even to define what it means by “through the stages of the disciplinary process.” Presumably the latter is defined as some form of sanction, such as expulsion, suspension with time limit, formal warning, reminder of conduct/values.

All that can be said with certainty is that the “breakdown of data” Formby refers to covers two phases: the 9.5 months spanning April 2018 — mid January 2019 (Phase 1); and the 5.5 months spanning mid-January — June 30 2019 (Phase 2).

By the JC’s calculation, the number of cases from both phases which have resulted in some form of sanction gives a total of 637, which represents 0.12 per cent of an average membership of 524,500. This is twice Labour’s 0.06% statistic — and closer to the more recent 0.1 per cent Ms Formby gave in the Jewish News.

One way for her to alleviate her “deep concern” over scepticism at Labour’s commitment to dealing with antisemitism would be to provide in her next statistical release (phase 3) the total number to date of Labour members who have received some kind of sanction, separated precisely into each category of sanction. 

This is clearly possible, despite Ms Formby having said no “comprehensive or consistent data” was available prior to her arrival in April 2018. John Ware’s Panorama drew on an email dated April 3 compiling data for her attention which does provide a summary for the pre-April 2018 period: “Of the roughly 300 members which the Party has instigated disciplinary action against relating to antisemitism since 2015, just under 20% (i.e. 60) are current active investigations — just over 50 of these complaints have been received in the last 5 months.”

Whatever the precise total to date, it will indeed be a small percentage of Labour’s total membership. But that misses the point: Labour is by far the largest political party by membership in the UK, so a even a low percentage means to hundreds and quite possibly thousands of individuals. This must be judged against Mr Corbyn’s frequent claims of “zero tolerance” of antisemitism.

Moreover, the number of cases that have received some kind of sanction is not itself a reliable guide to the actual level of antisemitism, any more than reported crime is an accurate reflection of actual crime as reflected in the British Crime Survey.

Such is the lack of faith in the Labour Party’s complaints system that  many (if not most) incidents go unreported. The Jewish Labour Movement, for example, say they have submitted evidence of “over a thousand” unresolved examples of antisemitism to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission as part of its investigation to determine whether the Labour Party has unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish. 

Claim: Ms Formby referred to the “decisive actions we have taken to tackle antisemitism” and that “we have doubled the number of staff working on antisemitism disciplinary cases.”

Reality: Upon taking office, one of Ms Formby’s “decisive actions” was to appoint a London councillor and loyal Corbyn supporter who decided which antisemitism cases should be investigated.  Staff complained that suspensions declined and morale all but collapsed — and several resigned suffering from mental stress.  Panorama showed that by mid-August 2018 (the height of the antisemitism crisis and five months after Ms Formby’s appointment) there was just one investigations officer. Understaffing continued, partly due to high turn-over, contributing to a backlog of hundreds of cases.

Claim: Ms Formby says Labour has doubled the size of its National Constitutional Committee and enabled the NCC to hear antisemitism cases on paper.

Reality: By calculation of the figures supplied by Ms Formby on July 22 it is clear that, compared to Phase 1, the rate at which the NCC resolved cases in Phase 2 has doubled, so it seems reasonable to suppose that this has been due to an increase in NCC panellists and also new guidelines enabling the NCC to hear cases on paper.

A word of caution, however: Labour has provided no  evidence to demonstrate that the higher process rate of cases is not due to any lowering of the evidential threshold by, for example, reducing the proportion of suspensions and expulsions.

Claim: In the ITV Leaders’ debate, Mr Corbyn said: “When anyone has committed any antisemitic acts or made any antisemitic statements they are either suspended or expelled from the party and we have investigated every single case.”

Reality: The Chakrabarti Report recommended that suspensions were unnecessary in many cases. Is Mr Corbyn saying that Chakrabarti was wrong?

The JLM’s Peter Mason, who himself sits on the NCC, says that the NCC has yet to resolve 130 cases. He said of Mr Corbyn’s claim: “This is a lie”.

Indeed it seems highly unlikely — to put it mildly — that “every single case” of antisemitism reported to Labour will by now have been investigated, if only because of the difficulty in keeping up with the number of complaints that were arriving in Phases 1 &2.

And JLM has sent a dossier of thousands of unresolved cases to the EHRC. During Phase 2, complaints were arriving at an average rate of nearly 8 per day (about half of which did not relate to members) — to say nothing of investigators having to also clear the backlog. 

Claim: Labour have said they are “fully co-operating” with the EHRC investigation into its alleged unlawful discrimination against Jewish members and “sharing evidence.”

Reality: As the JC reported last week, the JLM has accused Labour of “not engaging in good faith” with the EHRC’s investigation. We also reported allegations that Labour have been withholding documents from the EHRC, a charge Labour has denied. Some have also suggested that a reference in Labour’s manifesto to making the EHRC “truly independent” is a shot across the EHRC’s bow in anticipation of a damning finding. 

Claim: In her Jewish News article, Jennie Formby wrote: “I agree with the Rabbi Mirvis that this is not just a matter of procedures or discipline, but of culture and education too.” 

Reality: By far the biggest challenge is the change in culture. Many Jews feel they are now barely tolerated by other Labour members. 
Only a leader can change the culture of a party — by leading from the front and by example.

This will require a radical change in the narrative used to argue over the rights and wrongs of the Israel-Palestine conflict, from the left’s morality play about exclusively bad and exclusively good peoples into what the conflict actually is and has been for nearly a century: a tragic, unresolved national question.

It seems inconceivable that this could happen under Mr Corbyn.

December 05, 2019 14:16

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