I was most surprised to hear on Sunday evening that Diane Abbott had blocked, on Twitter, the National Jewish Assembly (“the NJA”), the organisation which I chair. My first reaction was that this was a massive compliment. Indeed, it has transpired that Ms Abbott’s action of blocking us has been circulated by others, Jews and non-Jews alike, some of them being people with very large Twitter followings.
The consequence has been that our tweet has received over 1,700 likes and our followers now exceed 2,000, which isn’t bad for a new organisation. The NJA is not yet a year old and Ms Abbott’s action shows that we are being taken seriously. Additionally, our comments were not out-of-line with those of other Jewish communal organisations.
On reflection, and after discussing the matter with my colleagues at the NJA, one conclusion to be drawn is that her action helps to prove that her apology cannot be sincere if her reaction is to block an organisation that calls out her disgraceful remarks about Jews not suffering from racism.
Many in our community and beyond have been appalled by Ms Abbott’s patently false statement that Jews do not suffer from racism. During the Holocaust, Jews were earmarked for persecution and extermination according to their race. For example, if you were born a Jew, were not religious and converted to Christianity you would be treated by the Nazis in exactly the same way as a religious Jew.
Jews were not asked to sit at the back of a bus. Instead they were herded into cattle trucks for 500-mile journeys with no food, water or sanitation, and were then murdered on arrival. Furthermore, the religious Jewish communities who live in Ms Abbott’s own constituency have in recent years been regular targets of racist attacks – not “prejudicial” ones.
Yet there is another dimension to Ms Abbott’s disgraceful letter to the Observer. She might be only one individual MP, but to what extent are her views shared – at least to some extent – by many Labour backbenchers? How many of them believe that antisemitism is not really important and is either not racist or only a very secondary form of racism?
Yet that is only a small part of the problem. There are currently only 202 Labour MPs. If opinion polls are to be believed, Labour could end up with between 450 and 500 MPs after the next election. What are the views of the 250 or so Labour prospective Parliamentary candidates who might become MPs?
In the interest of transparency, I must disclose that I am a Conservative and have, for the past 16 years, been a member of the advisory council of Conservative Friends of Israel. However, practically all the Jewish community, irrespective of our political views, will wish those in the Labour Party who are genuinely trying to rid their party of the scourge of Jew hatred well. Yet are they succeeding? Ms Abbott’s comments remind us all that there is much work to be done.
Then there are the tactics. Our community has been pretty well united in the condemnation of Ms Abbott, with the only difference being between those who want to expel her from Labour and those who are satisfied that the whip has been withdrawn. Yet actually there is, buried beneath the surface, a bigger difference in the Jewish community’s views. It is between, on the one hand, those who believe that Labour Party antisemitism needs to be called out and condemned whenever it occurs, and that engagement with Labour should be minimal until it is widely accepted that the party has largely rid itself of antisemitism, and on the other hand those who believe that engagement is key and Jewish groups should assist Labour in solving its problems. Several of our principal community groups – the Board of Deputies, the JLC, the Jewish Labour Movement and the CST, along with Dame Margaret Hodge – are in the latter group. Time will tell if this engagement approach is working – the greater the support among Labour candidates, albeit in private, for Diane Abbott’s views (or even anything similar), the harder it will be to conclude that all is well.
In February this year, Board of Deputies president, Marie van der Zyl, announced from a Labour Party podium that Jewish voters in the UK should be able to vote according to their political persuasion and not because they are frightened of what might happen to them if Labour wins. This is a laudable aim. The question is, how can we know if this can be achieved and is being achieved? Much more information will, I am sure, emerge about the views of those who will decide our community’s future under a potential Labour government between now and the next election. Then the debate as to whether Labour remains antisemitic or not will begin in earnest.
Gary Mond is the chairman of the National Jewish Assembly