Amid some of the most emotionally charged scenes Parliament has witnessed in recent years, Jewish MPs were at the centre of a fight-back over the Labour Party’s failure to tackle the antisemitism crisis that has escalated under Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour MPs including Dame Margaret Hodge, Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth received standing ovations from colleagues across the party divide as they detailed the threats and abuse they had received.
During a three-hour debate, a series of powerful speeches provided a snap-shot of manifestations of contemporary antisemitism from the far-left and far-right.
Sajid Javid, Communities Secretary, opened Tuesday’s session by addressing Mr Corbyn directly across the Commons despatch box. He said one aim of the debate was to show the Jewish community in Britain and abroad that MPs understood “the pernicious prejudice of antisemitism”.
Mr Javid, a long-standing ally of the community, said the Labour Party under Mr Corbyn had witnessed “a deeply worrying lack of leadership and moral clarity on this issue from him”.
Andrew Gwynne, responding as Labour’s Shadow Communities Minister, accepted his party had a problem. He said: “As politicians, we all — and I mean all — have a duty to root out antisemitism but recent events have shown that we in the Labour Party need to be better at policing our own borders.”
In an angry intervention, Ian Austin highlighted his party’s failure to expel Ken Livingstone, the former London Mayor, over his comments regarding Adolf Hitler and Zionism.
“Let me be clear about this, Ken Livingstone claimed that Hitler was a Zionist,” said the Dudley North MP. “That is antisemitism, pure and simple.
“It happened more than two years ago and there has been ample time to deal with it, so it is a disgrace that it has not been dealt with. Kick him out immediately.”
Describing Mr Livingstone’s views as “abhorrent”, Mr Gwynne said Labour needed to deal “far more quickly” with antisemitism cases.
Joan Ryan, chair of Labour Friends of Israel, said Holocaust denial was used to try to undermine “the moral foundations upon which the state of Israel was established 70 years ago”.
She added: “Jewish people tell us that the scenes they witness at some Labour party meetings, the bile they view on social media, or the words they hear in defence of an antisemitic mural, cause them great offence, we should not question, ridicule or reject such an assertion, but accept it and tackle it — full stop.”
Stewart McDonald, the Scottish National Party’s Glasgow South MP, also noted how when any conflict involving Israel arose it was “unacceptable to expect Jewish people in this country to shoulder any responsibility for that escalation”.
Detailing his own Jewish background, Conservative MP Robert Halfon recalled “being at a synagogue where the rabbi said to the Jewish people inside, ‘please do not congregate outside when we finish the service because you might get abuse or something even worse.’
“I thought, how can it be, in the 21st century, when we thought we had escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany, that Jews are told that by a rabbi in a synagogue?”
Expressing his admiration and friendship with many Labour MPs, Mr Halfon added: “I genuinely believe that the current Labour leadership is, at best, turning a blind eye to the problem and, at worst, condoning antisemitism.”
In a moving and emotional speech, Luciana Berger delivered a brutally honest account of the antisemitic abuse she has faced over an 18-year period, since the age of 19, when she was first called “a dirty Zionist pig”.
Ms Berger said: “I make no apology for holding my own party to a higher standard. Anti-racism is one of our central values, and there was a time not long ago when the left actively confronted antisemitism.
“The work done by the previous Labour government to move the equality goalposts in this country was one of the reasons why I joined the Labour Party in the first place. One antisemitic member of the Labour Party is one member too many.”
Reliving the aftermath of her decision to speak at the ‘Enough is Enough’ protest against the rise of anti-Jewish hatred in Parliament Square last month, Ms Berger said: “It pains me to say this as the proud parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement — in 2018, antisemitism is now more commonplace, more conspicuous and more corrosive within the Labour Party.”
Ms Berger also told of facing repeated allegations that her loyalties rest not with her constituents in Liverpool, but with the State of Israel.
She said: “They have said that I am Tel Aviv’s servant, and called me a paid-up Israeli operative. Essentially, this is antisemitism of the worst kind, suggesting that I am a traitor to our country.
“We have a duty to the next generation. Denial is not an option. Prevarication is not an option. Being a bystander who turns the other way is not an option. The time for action is now. Enough really is enough.”
In rare scenes, MPs from across the political divide rose to applaud her speech. Mr Corbyn used the moment to walk out of the Commons chamber.
Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, chose to sit beside Ms Berger and her colleague Ms Smeeth during the debate, rather than in his usual place alongside Mr Corbyn on the front bench.
Andrew Percy, Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole, who converted to Judaism last year, delivered a hard-hitting speech. He said: “Some of us on this side who try to address this and raise this are sadly accused of trying to smear the Labour Party. I have no interest in smearing the Labour Party on anything.
“But nor do I have any interest in allowing what is happening in British politics… to continue to happen.”
John Mann, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, delivered a speech that outlined his long-time commitment to campaigning against antisemitism — and the horrendous abuse he has faced as a result.
Mr Mann singled out the far-left Momentum group which he said was “targeting Jewish members of the parliamentary Labour Party because they are Jewish”.
He revealed: “When I took on this voluntary cross-party role, I did not expect my wife to be sent, by a Labour Marxist antisemite, a dead bird through the post.
“I did not expect my son, after an Islamist death threat, to open the door, when he was in the house on his own as a schoolboy, to the bomb squad. I did not expect my wife, in the last few weeks, from a leftist antisemite in response to the demonstration, to be threatened with rape.
“I did not expect my daughter similarly to have to be rung up in the last few weeks by special branch to check out her movements in this country. No, I did not expect any of that.”
Lisa Nandy, Labour’s Wigan MP, spoke of how a “particular sort of antisemitism has found its home on the far left throughout history”.
Ms Nandy, vice-chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, added: “I have been a member of this party for 20 years, and what angers me most is the assertion that a person cannot be left wing and stand up to antisemitism — standing up to antisemitism is a core part of my values.”
Paul Masterton, Conservative MP for East Renfrewshire, spoke of the telling contribution his own Jewish community had made in Scotland but said he feared a rising tide of antisemitism was hurting Jews across the country who he said were “good people, their contributions to our country are immeasurably positive, and we are letting them down”.
In her own powerful comments, Ruth Smeeth told of her devastating experiences of anti-Jewish hate.
She said: “I feel I must inform you that I am not a CIA spy. I am not a Mossad agent, nor am I an MI5 operative. I work not for the people of Tel Aviv, but for the people of Tunstall.”
Ms Smeeth said the past two years had seen her fall victim to attacks “from within the Labour family”.
Again there was applause across the chamber as she completed her speech, after stating: “I am speaking not just for me, but for the young Jewish people I meet across the country who are beginning to fear they do not have a place.
“These are young people who are braver, tougher and better than I could ever be — the kind of young people who make us feel that our future is in safe hands, but right now they do not feel safe.”
Ivan Lewis, MP for Bury South, said his own dealings with Mr Corbyn had left him convinced he was not an antisemite — but warned “his leadership has attracted new members whose antisemitism is pernicious and exposed long-standing members whose use of antisemitic language and imagery is shocking”.
Louise Ellman, the Jewish Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, said it was a “fallacy to believe that people who profess to be anti-racist cannot be antisemitic, and that antisemitism is confined to the right wing of politics”.
She added: “The notion of conspiratorial, powerful Jews — or Zionists — controlling international capital and manipulating the media for their own ends is to be found on the left as well. It is all too evident in the Labour Party’s current problem with antisemitism.”
Dame Margaret Hodge, the veteran MP for Barking and the daughter of Jewish refugees, spoke movingly of the “chilling moment” when on a visit to Auschwitz she was “confronted by a battered brown suitcase with my uncle’s initials on it.
“That moment was utterly chilling for me. All of that is my heritage. It is what I am today. I cannot forget. It is one reason why I joined the Labour Party in the 1960s.”
Dame Margaret said she felt like an “outsider” in Labour. She added: “I have never felt as nervous and frightened as I feel today at being a Jew.
“It feels as if my party has given permission for antisemitism to go unchallenged.” She also received a standing ovation for her remarks.
Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem MP for Orkney and Shetland, said he was no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to what he described as “the clichés, the stereotypes and the references” of “casual antisemitism”.
Mike Kane, Labour MP for Wythenshawe and director of Catholics for Labour, revealed his efforts to bring together his faith’s leaders and their Jewish counterparts in order to “fight antisemitism wherever it rears its ugly head”.
Diane Abbott, Shadow Home Secretary, closed the debate for Labour and said the session had been “emotional”.
But tensions rose after she initially refused to give way to Alex Sobel, the Jewish Leeds North West MP, saying: “I need to make some progress.”
She then proceeded to attempt to “frame the debate” around a quote from Rabbi Herschel Gluck and issues she said the local Charedi community in her Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency wished to raise.
That decision was questioned by Mr Percy and Ms Abbott eventually agreed to allow Mr Sobel to intervene.
He said: “Perhaps she was not aware I was the only Jewish parliamentarian not called to speak in the debate.”
Mr Sobel added: “After the Holocaust memorial debate, I was subjected to quite horrific abuse. I shall give one example. Mr Leonard said on Channel 4’s Facebook page, ‘why is this Jewish Zio-Nazi speaking in the English Parliament?’.
“Does she agree we need to tackle this not just on social media... but right across the political spectrum in our own party?”
In response Ms Abbott said only: “I am grateful that Members have allowed me to speak on behalf of the Charedi community.” That comment drew further jibes from MPs.
Closing an “extraordinary and harrowing debate”, Amber Rudd, Home Secretary, said Labour was “a noble and honourable party” but said Mr Corbyn “an obligation to take action. We expect nothing less”.