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Angry scenes at Labour conference leave Jewish delegates feeling unsafe

Jewish Labour Movement's proposed antisemitism rule change was reportedly passed by delegates in Brighton

    Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell delivers his keynote speech in the main hall during day two of the Labour Party Conference
    Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell delivers his keynote speech in the main hall during day two of the Labour Party Conference (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

    Labour delegates have agreed to take a tougher approach to tackling antisemitism in a vote at the party's annual conference in Brighton today.

    The vote took place this morning, and although no result had been announced by the time the conference adjourned for the night at 6.30pm, the BBC and Jeremy Corbyn both suggested the rule changes had been passed by delegates.

    Mr Corbyn told Channel Four that Labour was not a "nasty" party and said members making antisemitic remarks were at odds with Labbour's party rules.

    After 7pm the Jewish Labour Movement tweeted that the motion had been passed with more than 90 per cent of delegates backing it. 

    "This is a decisive political victory. Thanks to those across the Labour movement who supported us, from leadership to grassroots," the group said in a statement.

    The changes mean Labour members could face expulsion and other punishments for Jew-hate.

    But the discussion was marred by angry scenes as activists clashed over antisemitism, Israel and the role played by Jewish activists in working for the rule change.

    One delegate warned those supporting tougher action on antisemitism to "be careful".

    The atmosphere prompted a number of Jewish Labour delegates to say they did not feel safe, or would stay away from the main conference centre.

    During the bad-natured debate on the conference floor, delegates repeatedly attacked the party's national executive committee for working with the Jewish Labour Movement to implement the changes.

    A number of pro-Palestinian activists were loudly cheered as they outlined their opposition to Israel and said they would continue to criticise the country.

    Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, of the Jewish Voices for Labour group, said those seeking changes should "be careful".

    The activist also claimed Jews who were promoting the rule change had been "running" to brief right-wing newspapers including the Mail and the Telegraph.

    Leah Lavane, a delegate from Hastings, was given a standing ovation as she took to the conference podium to outline concerns about the changes.

    She said it was not antisemitic to criticise Israel's "despicable behaviour" and attacked the NEC for working with Jewish activists on the issue.

    Philip Cohen, from the party's Finchley branch, said he was pleased Mr Corbyn had backed the rule change and suggested Jews in the constituency had refused to vote for the party in June because of antisemitism concerns.

    Mike Katz, JLM's vice-chair, said the party should ensure any members engaging in antisemitism, bigotry, racism, misogyny or other forms of hate should be "kicked out on their ear".

    He said there was nothing wrong with legitimate criticism of Israel or settlements, and responded to claims from critics that antisemitism had been "weaponised".

    Mr Katz said it was not necessary to resort to using antisemitic stereotypes when criticising Israel.

    Following the debate, Izzy Lenga, a vice-chair of the National Union of Students, tweeted that she felt more unsafe and uncomfortable on the conference floor.

    Another leading young Jewish Labour activist was understood to have stayed away from the conference centre today following a series of antisemitic comments made in sessions yesterday.

    Warren Morgan, the Labour leader of Brighton Council, wrote to the party's general secretary warning that the authority might ban the party from holding future conferences in the city if it did not clean up its act on Jew-hate.

    Mr Morgan wrote: "I am very concerned at the antisemitism being aired publicly in fringe meetings and on the floor of conference.

    "We have a significant Jewish community in Brighton and Hove, and I met with them only last week to discuss the antisemitism already on our streets, causing them fear and alarm.

    "We have the prominent activist and suspended Labour Party member Tony Greenstein here, who indeed was present at the fringe meeting where it was suggested that Holocaust denial should be allowed. His expulsion, in my view, is long overdue.

    "As the Labour leader of Brighton and Hove City Council I will undoubtedly face questions as to why we allow any event where antisemitic views are freely expressed to happen in the city, particularly on council premises.

    "I will need reassurances that there will be no repeat of the behaviour and actions we have seen this week before any further bookings from the party are taken."

    Len McCluskey, the Unite union chief, told the BBC's Newsnight programme that the antisemitism row of the past two years was "mood music that was created by people who were trying to undermine Corbyn".

    Earlier, Jon Ashworth, the Shadow Health Minister, said he backed the change, telling broadcasters that members who made antisemitic remarks "shouldn't be in the party - they should be expelled".

    Meanwhile the Equality and Human Rights Commission said Labour "must do more to establish that it is not a racist party".

    Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC chief executive, said: "A zero tolerance approach to antisemitism should mean just that. When senior party figures are saying there is a problem then the leadership should take swift action. It is not acceptable to simply say they oppose these views."

    Referring to antisemitic remarks made at fringe sessions yesterday, she added: “These comments by party members show more needs to be done to root out antisemitic views that clearly exist in the party. Any suggestion of kicking people out of any political party on the grounds of race or religion should be condemned.”

    The planned constitutional amendment was unanimously supported by Labour's national executive committee last week ahead of today's vote by delegates.

    A spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn said last week that the party leader was "delighted" with the plan to tackle discrimination.

    On Monday evening, at a joint event held by the Holocaust Educational Trust and Antisemitism Policy Trust, Labour MP West Streeting said that there were “a rump of antisemites in the Labour party”, with party leaders adopting an “ostrich-like attitude” to the problem.

    “We need to boot these Labour Party members out the door,” he said.

    At the same event, John Cryer MP, chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, said that some of the social media posts by party members which have come before Labour’s disciplinary panel were “redolent of the 1930s".

    Mr Cryer said: “I have seen some of the tweets from paid-up Labour Party members and I am not kidding you, it makes your hair stand up."

    Ken Livingstone, the former Labour MP and Mayor of London, who was suspended from the Labour party last year after saying that “Hitler was supporting Zionism before he went mad”, responded to the comments from Mr Cryer and Mr Streeting during an appearance on Talk Radio on Tuesday.

    He said that “people like Wes Streeting” were “completely distorting the scale of it [antisemitism within Labour].

    “Some people have made offensive comments”, he said.

    “It doesn’t mean to say they are inherently antisemitic and hate Jews, they just go over the top when they criticise the fact that when Israel invaded the Lebanon, for example, the bombing campaigns, and we need to resolve the issue of the Palestinians”, he told Julia Hartley-Brewer, the radio show’s presenter.

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