Josh Simons

I worked on Jeremy Corbyn’s team. This is how Labour rotted under him

Josh Simons reflects on what his 'brief but unpleasant' stint taught him about where the party goes from here

March 11, 2020 11:34

All three Labour leadership candidates seem determined to root out antisemitism. Each has adopted the Board of Deputies’ “10 pledges” and promised to implement the conclusions of the Equality and Human Right’s Commission’s report.

These are welcome signals of intent, though delivering on them will require real grit and resolve.

What is missing, however, is a clear analysis of what happened under Jeremy Corbyn.

There were failures of speed and process, yes, but there were also more uncomfortable problems with the mindset of Mr Corbyn and his team — and some on the broader left.

As a Jewish Labour member who had a brief but unpleasant stint in Mr Corbyn’s team, I saw this mindset up close. It taught me a lot about how Labour must change to regain the trust of Jews in Britain.

Remember that antisemitic mural that Mr Corbyn appeared to support? The artist who painted it is a good example. Soon after the row erupted, he complained that “some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg etc as the demons they are”.

Set aside the more obvious antisemitic tropes for a minute. By describing the Jewish residents as white, the artist implies they cannot really be the victims of prejudice.

To be a victim, a person has to be powerless, and white people are not powerless. I often encountered this idea. Because Jews in Britain are mostly white and have above-average incomes, they must be a powerful minority, and prejudice is inflicted on powerless minorities, not powerful ones.

Every step in this logic is wrong.

For one, race does not determine power. White people can lack power too.

For another, it misunderstands what prejudice is. Prejudice means literally to prejudge, to form an opinion or have an instinct about someone based on immutable features, rather than what you know about them. Anyone can be prejudged, white as well as black, rich as well as poor.

The first thing Labour must change is to take accusations of prejudice seriously, whether in local party meetings or in party HQ, regardless of the race or class of the alleged victim. This goes for antisemitism too. 
The artist also exhibits a common confusion about the relationship between antiracism and antisemitism. 

I was often surprised at how angry Mr Corbyn became at accusations of antisemitism. He described criticism of his support for the mural as “offensive”, citing his lifelong record of campaigning against racism.

“The mural I celebrate”, Mr Corbyn said, “is the one which commemorates the…anti-fascist demonstrations against Mosley’s blackshirts in Cable Street in 1936”. My mother marched at Cable Street, I was born an anti-racist, so, his logic goes, I cannot be antisemitic.

Anyone who has been subject to irrational, subconscious prejudice will recognise this fallacy. One component of a person’s identity does not determine the entirety of their behaviour. A feminist man can still be sexist. A kind person can still be horrible. A bully can still be polite.

Just as anyone can be a victim of prejudice, anyone can unwittingly inflict it too. A record of anti-racism may be noble but it does not constitute a rebuttal to accusations of antisemitism.

Part of what is valuable about progressive politics is that it respects each person’s capacity to describe their condition for themselves. It encourages people to show humility and empathy in the face of diverse experiences — to listen rather than preach.

This is what Mr Corbyn’s leadership so resolutely failed to do. When Mr Corbyn refused to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, he violated the basic principle that those who experience prejudice are best placed to describe it.

Just as Meghan Markle understands racism better than Piers Morgan, just as my wife understands subtle forms of sexism better than me, so Jews are best placed to explain and describe antisemitic tropes and behaviours.

Changing this mindset is not a task for the Labour leader alone. The Labour movement must separate antisemitism from internal political debates.

After I quit my job with Labour because I had concluded that failure to deal with antisemitism would be Mr Corbyn’s enduring legacy, I was dismissed as “part of the campaign against his leadership” and “a disgruntled former member of staff”.

The usual torrent of Twitter abuse soon followed. But by calling out antisemitism, like others, I was trying to help Labour, not undermine it.

I want Labour to address antisemitism because I care about my country. I want a progressive government in Britain. Mr Corbyn’s derision of “Zionists” for not understanding history or “English irony” hurt because it implied Jews could somehow not be truly English or understand their country’s history and humour. And yet, my family has lived in Britain for a century, I studied history at Harvard, and I relish irony.

A Jew is no less English — or Scottish, Welsh or British — and no less progressive because they believe that Israel has a right to exist.

It will take time for Labour to win back the Jewish community. In an environment where trust is fractured and a sense of common purpose is depleted, there is no substitute for patience and hard work. It will require respect and empathy among people who see antisemitism through different prisms.

And it will require Jews and non-Jews who have left Labour to engage with energy and determination. Only with their active participation can Labour repair the damage that has been done.

So, in the knowledge that the road will be long and often uncomfortable, I urge Jews who want a progressive government in Britain to participate in Labour, to attend meetings, vote, and run. That is what I will be doing. 

Josh Simons is a Harvard-Kennedy Scholar

March 11, 2020 11:34

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