We must stay and fight inside

May 05, 2016 12:26

Almost a year ago to the day I was on the streets of Finchley with hundreds of volunteers asking people to vote for me and the Labour Party. The General Election was the culmination of two years of community campaigning in the constituency with the largest Jewish population.

We visited Jewish Care, Jewish youth groups, had Friday nights at Charedi homes and led living wage campaigns with Reform rabbis. There were challenging questions on Israel but they were always discussed in a spirit of respectful debate. Among our volunteers were large numbers of younger Jews motivated, as I had been, to join Labour by their progressive politics.

All of this makes the events of the past few weeks so painful. Labour's horror show has been brewing but Naz Shah's antisemitic statements and Ken Livingstone's Holocaust revisionism has been devastating.

The statements coupled with the leadership's response has damaged the Party's already strained relationship with the Jewish community and forced many left-wing Jews into an agonising corner in which they feel bound to choose between their Jewishness and their progressive values.

This is not a choice anyone should have to make. Whilst Judaism doesn't require you to vote Labour, for me it was my Jewish values, my experience of youth movements, my understanding of Jewish history, of tzedakah and tikkun olam which led me to choose a party championing equality and social justice. It was in this spirit that we campaigned in last year's election.

So how should we respond to the antisemitism row - and, as I was repeatedly asked over Passover, how can we vote Labour again?

We can choose to create a vacuum in Labour and leave Jewish progressives without a party that represents their politics. Or we can stay put and confront the problem. I told people that it is for the likes of Ken Livingstone and his fellow travellers, not Jewish members, to leave the Party. Antisemitism on the hard left and the toxicity with which Middle Eastern politics is debated must be tackled head on.

The Jewish Labour Movement, of which I am vice-Chair, is working hard to maintain a space for Jewish voices and fight for reform. We are campaigning for rule changes making it easier to expel antisemites and racists. We will scrutinise the inquiries into antisemitism and ensure they do not paper over the problem. We will argue for a programme of education for party officers and members and support our allies in the Party to re-shape it. The Labour members I know have no truck with antisemitism. Many have expressed their solidarity with Jews and determination to eliminate antisemitism from the Party.

What makes all this particularly dispiriting for Jewish progressives is that the issue has exploded at a time when this country desperately needs an effective opposition. In the same week the Livingstone story dominated the press, the government voted against a motion brought by Labour peer Alf Dubs, who came to Britain on the Kindertransport, to accept 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees.

Meanwhile, the Brexit debate becomes increasingly xenophobic and threatens to unravel the post-war framework of human rights and co-operation which has maintained peace in Europe. Now more than ever we need an opposition capable of holding the government to account, which includes Jewish voices and perspectives.

That is why I have supported Labour's Sadiq Khan in the mayoral elections. Not out of unthinking tribal loyalty but because his candidacy offered the best policies and pointed the way forward.

Whilst Sadiq could have shied away from North London when his core support might be thought to lie elsewhere, he did nothing of the sort. Instead Sadiq made great efforts to reach out to the Jewish community and denounce antisemitism and those using Zionism as a term of abuse.

Addressing UJS, Sadiq spoke of his immigrant background, his Muslim faith and the experience of juggling identities. He empathised with how Jews feel "having families spread across the world. Multiple countries you could call home...and grandparents who keep a suitcase packed under the bed, just in case it's needed." Despite facing racial smears of his own, he has consistently emphasised unity over division. His political journey and willingness to reach across communal divides, motivated by principles of anti-racism and equality, is a model the party leadership should follow and could help chart a way back for Labour in the Jewish community and the country as a whole.

Corbyn's Labour - what you need to know. Don't miss the special issue of the JC, out this week, including comment from Howard Jacobson

May 05, 2016 12:26

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