Year in review: Labour began return to health as world got ill

The government was supportive as Covid struck - and Starmer fought Corbyn's poisonous legacy

December 22, 2020 10:03

It was a year dominated by the political response to the coronavirus pandemic by the Conservative government — and the response to the scourge of antisemitism by the Labour Party.

Two thoroughly unpleasant issues that have hit the community hard. And neither have been put to rest.

As the JC reported back in January, after December’s general election, followers of the defeated leader Jeremy Corbyn were looking for someone to blame for the worst poll result since the 1930s.

And there was little doubt who would be seen as public enemy number one.

The Board of Deputies, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and the Jewish Labour Movement all came under sustained attack from the pro-Corbyn wing of the party and hard-left organisations sympathetic to the former leader.

The political demise of Mr Corbyn only seemed to inspire his supporters to up the ante, with increasingly vicious verbal attacks against the community popping up at party meetings and on social media.

In an interview with the JC, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab noted as January came to a close how “old tropes that informed the pogroms of the 19th century that then fuelled Nazism” had found their way into the higher echelons of British society.

Citing senior politicians including Mr Corbyn, Mr Raab said: “I always felt we had turned a page in this country but what upsets me most are the old tropes … you are starting to hear them again with this fresh anti-Zionist anti-Israel veneer of respectability.”

But the following month it was Daniel Kawczynski, a Conservative MP, who received a formal warning for attending a conference in Rome with notorious far-right political figures.

Marie van der Zyl, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said the Tory Party ran the “serious risk of the public assuming that they share his views” unless they disciplined him.

It took a fine speech from Cabinet Minister Michael Gove in March at the Westminster launch of the Mainstream UK group to remind us why the Conservatives had managed to persuade many in the community to vote for the party.

“More recently, antisemitism has taken a new form,” he said.

“That new form is to say that expression of Jewish identity either has to be removed or Israel has to survive on terms set by others.

“‘Zionist’ has come to be used as a term of abuse.

“We can see the way in which anti-Zionism has mutated, so anti-Zionism has become the new antisemitism.”

If there were other positives to be drawn out of a thoroughly wretched year, the contrasting approach to the Jewish community of new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer compared to that of his predecessor was certainly one.

Weeks before he was confirmed leader in April, Sir Keir sat down to talk to the JC in his Westminster office. He vowed to patch up the party’s strained relationship with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, which had come about as a result of his intervention ahead of the general election. Sir Keir also said he would make tackling his party’s antisemitism crisis his main priority.

And in a rare personal insight, Sir Keir also spoke of the Friday night dinners he enjoyed with his wife’s Jewish family — and their wish that their children understand their backgrounds.

But the priorities of all politicians were altered as a result of the devastating impact of Covid-19.

The Jewish community was no exception.

To the credit of Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, he was keen to relay the government’s message to the community ahead of Pesach in April.

Writing for the JC, he said this was a Pesach like “none of us have known before’’ as a result of the need to avoid extended family Seder gatherings. Mr Jenrick said the Jewish people had always “proven itself to be resilient and adaptable”.

The Newark MP also confirmed he would be experimenting with a “Zoom Seder’’ in the company of his Israeli-born wife and their three children.

In a sign of his determination to alter his party’s relationship with the community, Sir Keir would join Mr Jenrick in writing for the JC ahead of what said would be “very difficult” Pesach for some in the community.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak would also issue a reassurance that despite the devastating economic impact of the pandemic, cuts would not be made to spending on security for synagogues, Jewish nurseries and schools.

Mr Sunak said that the government had pledged to increase spending on Jewish security to £14 million for “a very specific reason.

“We remain wholly committed to those funding streams because they provide important security for people.”

But while the attempt to control the pandemic continued and as the backlash against Sir Keir’s attempts to tackle anti-Jewish racism grew, there were other important issues simmering the background.

Proposals for a Holocaust memorial next to the Houses of Parliament had been enthusiastically supported by a succession of political leaders ever since David Cameron backed a national UK memorial in 2015, with former PM Theresa May in favour of the location in Westminster.

But in February, Westminster Council voted down the plan for the memorial.

Communities Secretary Mr Jenrick then faced a judicial review and parliamentary scrutiny over his decision to call in the Holocaust Memorial project for ministerial determination.

The High Court cleared him of any conflict of interest over the affair in October.

But the JC revealed Mr Jenrick had received protection from counter-terrorism police after receiving death threats and antisemitic hate mail over his involvement in the project.

He said: “The behaviour of some of the opponents to the memorial has been shocking and disgraceful.

“The fact that I have been subjected to these smears, and my family to antisemitic abuse and death threats only shows the paramount importance of the memorial”.

The result of a public inquiry into the plan for the memorial is expected next month.

Mr Jenrick also issued a warning in September about elements of the antivaxx movement in the UK and abroad who were using “frankly disgusting tropes spreading conspiracy theories about Covid and vaccinations — linking it to Jews.”

He also issued a warning to those in the Jewish community who had chosen to ignore the government’s measures to tackle the resurgence of the virus.

Asked about concern over the infection rates in areas such as Hertsmere, he said: “The vast majority have been doing their best to obey their rules, but in the Jewish community, as in other communities, a small minority of people have gone too far.”

In July, a 48-hour boycott of Twitter, organised by leading Jewish campaigners against antisemitism, was backed by politicians of all parties in response to the failure of the social media platform to act over the antisemitic rants of the rapper Wiley.

One month later, the Liberal Democrats announced their new leader Sir Ed Davey — who immediately backed the internationally recognised IHRA definition of antisemitism.

The government’s own independent adviser on antisemitism, Lord Mann, took an active role in arguing the case for the adoption of the IHRA definition, and found success when most Premier League clubs announced they would adopt the code. But recognising the resistance to the IHRA definition among some academics, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson wrote to all university heads warning them they faced possible sanctions in the new year if they failed to adopt the definition.

Labour’s antisemitism crisis continued to explode.

The JC broke the news that Sir Keir Starmer had decided to settle the libel claims brought against Labour by the whistleblowers who appeared in the BBC Panorama documentary in July 2019 on Mr Corbyn’s handling of the issue.

In October, the long-awaited Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report into the party’s antisemitism crisis was finally published.

It was a damning document that ruled Labour breached the Equality Act in two cases — relating to the former London mayor Ken Livingstone and a borough councillor, Pam Bromley — “by committing unlawful harassment” against Jewish people.

But just 36 minutes after it was published, Mr Corbyn issued a statement on Facebook in which he said “the scale of the [antisemitism] problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.”

It sparked fury from campaigners and many Labour MPs. Sir Keir acted by suspending Mr Corbyn from the party — only to allow the party’s ruling body to agree his return just 19 days later.

But faced with the threat of the resignation of leading Jewish MP Dame Margaret Hodge from the party, the Labour leader announced that he had removed the party whip from the ex-leader.

Just as at the start of the year, the move sparked fury amongst Mr Corbyn’s supporters, who attempted to force a debate on the issue at local party meetings in defiance of a ruling that discussion of disciplinary matters was not competent business.

And so the Labour antisemitism row continues to rumble on.

Thankfully, and hopefully, the arrival of the Covid-19 vaccines will bring an end to the pandemic.

This provides a ray of hope at the end of an otherwise awful year.


December 22, 2020 10:03

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