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Labour MP urges party to take 'stronger and speedier' action against antisemitism

Claims of a witch-hunt or smear campaign are a 'new threat' to combating Jew-hate in the party

    Labour veteran Louise Ellman
    Labour veteran Louise Ellman

    A series of Jewish MPs have outlined their concerns about antisemitism in British politics during a House of Commons debate to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

    They called on all parties to do more to combat Jew-hatred and to take faster action to deal with those making racist comments.

    Louise Ellman, the veteran Labour MP, said antisemitism “stains the Labour Party” and was among those attacking groups which have claimed allegations of Jew-hate in the party are “slurs” against leader Jeremy Corbyn.

    Mrs Ellman said: “Antisemitism is not confined to ​one strand of politics - it is on the right and on the left. It is shocking that antisemitism stains the Labour Party, too.

    “Much speedier and stronger action must be taken by the party itself to challenge this unacceptable phenomenon.

    “The claims of some members that allegations of antisemitism within the Labour party should be dismissed as ‘slurs against the leadership’ are appalling and should be met with the contempt that they deserve.”

    Andrew Percy, MP for Brigg and Goole, led the memorial day debate on Thursday and told the Commons: “We have to be honest that we have a new threat: the new smear that antisemitism is being used as a cover for other things or as part of a witch-hunt.

    “I do not wish to step into party politics too much, but it is important that in debates like this we call out campaigns such as Labour Against the Witchhunt, which has called for ‘the immediate lifting of all suspensions and expulsions from Labour Party membership which were…connected to the antisemitism smear campaign’.

    “We have to guard against those who seek to spread this new smear against antisemitism, in the strongest way we can.”

    Mr Percy, a former history teacher, was subjected to abuse by Labour activists who called him “Zionist scum” during the general election campaign. He said the same people had verbally attacked him again.

    “Those same individuals found me again in a shopping centre in Doncaster on the Thursday before Christmas and again subjected me to a torrent of abuse.

    “They ended up questioning why a Jew would want to be ordering food in KFC, and followed me to the exit asking me why I do not tell people that I am Jewish before elections.

    “It started with anti-Israeli sentiment and descended very quickly into some significant antisemitic incidents.”

    He added: “The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the power of words, and words really do matter, which is why, regardless of which side of politics we are on, we must all ensure that we and our leaders call out this sort of hatred whenever and wherever it exists.”

    Alex Sobel, who won the Leeds North West seat for Labour in last year’s general election, told colleagues of his own family’s experience of the Shoah.

    “The Holocaust has deeply affected my family. My parents were born in 1946, and I remember sitting in my great-aunt’s kitchen in Tel Aviv as a young child, seeing the numbers tattooed on her arm and asking my father, ‘why?’

    “She was in the camps. She did not have her own children or grandchildren. I had no aunts or uncles or cousins to play with, because the Nazis experimented on her and she could not have children. This hollow shell cast a dark spectre over my family - all the relatives I never met or who never survived, and the children they never had.

    “That is my living memory of what happened, and it is seared into me when I make my own political judgments or when I make decisions about the genocide happening now to the Rohingya or the Yazidis, or elsewhere around the world.

    “We should be grateful for our democracy and for how this place operates. We need that same political culture everywhere: in our parties, on the streets, in our schools, and in our workplaces.

    “Every day, I try to work with that memory of my family and the dark spectre of the Holocaust. I try to take that into all my experiences and all my dealings with people. I try to be tolerant towards them, but when intolerance comes and they have a message of hate, I try ​to face it down and stand up to it by saying, ‘I do not accept what you have to say. You are wrong.’”

    Daniel Kawczynski, Conservative MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, said the role of Christians who gave their lives to save Jewish families during the Shoah should be remembered.

    His great-uncle, Jan Kawczynski, had hid Jewish families on his estate, he said.

    “When the Germans found out, they shot his daughter and his wife, and then him. I think that this is a very important time to remember those Christians who sacrificed their lives to protect Jewish neighbours.”

    Joan Ryan, Labour Friends of Israel chair and MP for Enfield North, praised the government for adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

    “It gives us clarity in this fight, and it is unequivocal in stating that Holocaust denial, comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany and allegations of Jewish conspiracies are modern forms of this ancient hatred,” she said. “I would also like to voice my support for the proscription of far-right fascist groups.

    “Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, antisemitism has not disappeared. We have even seen its rise in British society recently, including, I am ashamed to say, in my own party.

    “We must condemn unequivocally and combat relentlessly this despicable trend.”

    Stephen Twigg, Labour MP, said people should “not stand by” when “awful persecution” takes place, such as against the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

    “We should not stand by when we see the appalling humanitarian crisis in Yemen. And we should not stand by when we see rape used as a weapon of war, as it is in so many places, including against the Rohingya and in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere.

    “We will listen to the voices of the survivors — be they from the Holocaust, be they from Syria, be they Yazidi women, or be they from the situations in Myanmar or Yemen - and that we will work together as colleagues to stop all forms of oppression and challenge all forms of racism and persecution wherever they rear their ugly head.”

    Concluding the debate, Rishi Sunak, Communities Minister, said: “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers; it began in the minds of ordinary people - people who, spurred on by Nazi propaganda, allowed spoken words slowly to erode the value of Jewish lives.

    “The story is always the same. From so-called ‘class enemies’ in Cambodia, to the so-called ‘cockroaches’ in Rwanda, the terrible power of words is all too clear.”

    He praised the efforts of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and its chief executive, Olivia Marks-Woldman, and MPs also commended the Holocaust Educational Trust and its chief executive Karen Pollock, who is reportedly in line for a peerage.

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