Cleansing the Labour Party of antisemitism, anti-Zionism and Corbyn

Britain repudiates Corbyn  – the Jewish dimension (photo credit: REUTERS)
Britain repudiates Corbyn – the Jewish dimension
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) last week published the results of its long-awaited report into antisemitism in the Labour Party.
The report graphically laid out the degree to which the poison of anti-Jewish racism infected the party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. It totally vindicated all those – from grassroots members to my former colleagues in parliament – who called out antisemitism, and it provides important recommendations, including the introduction of a fully independent complaints process.
I am pleased that Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, has said he accepts the report and will implement its recommendations in full. The party’s decision to suspend Corbyn’s membership after his disgraceful response to the report – in which he appeared to minimize the scale of the problem by suggesting it had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons” – was both right and unavoidable.
The EHRC’s responsibility was to examine whether the party had breached Britain’s equality laws – legislation that the last Labour government, in which I was proud to serve as a minister, was responsible for passing into law – and its focus was thus largely confined to issues of process.
However, as the EHRC’s interim chair suggested in her foreword to the report, rooting out antisemitism involves much more than correctly functioning complaints and disciplinary processes. “It is also,” she wrote, “about making sure that the Labour Party has a culture that clearly reflects its zero tolerance of antisemitism and indeed of all forms of discrimination.”
A vital element of the cultural change that Labour must now embark upon is to tackle the rise of anti-Zionism in the party, which was at the center of both the former leadership’s worldview and of the antisemitism crisis itself.
I became chair of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) in the summer of 2015. I expected my role to be like that of my predecessors: to maintain Labour’s historic commitment to the State of Israel and Zionism; to support a two-state solution and ensure we maintained the balanced approach toward Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians that had been the guiding principle of the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; and to help strengthen links both between Britain and Israel in general and between the British and the Israeli Left in particular.
But less than a month later, Corbyn was elected Labour’s leader. Within weeks, LFI found itself facing a wholly new environment, one in which an obsession with, and hatred of, the world’s only Jewish state began to take root. In early 2016, we began to hear disturbing reports from the Oxford University Labour Club. It was alleged that a committee member had said all Jews should be expected to publicly denounce Zionism and the State of Israel, and any who refused to should not be associated with. Other members repeatedly used the term “Zio,” talked of a “New York-Tel Aviv axis,” and bandied about references to the “Zionist lobby,” and a Jewish student was harassed by a group of people who shouted at her that she was a “filthy Zionist.”
I was both horrified and determined that such behavior would not be tolerated in the Labour Party. 
I CONFRONTED Corbyn as he left a meeting of the parliamentary party and asked him what he was going to do about it. 
He asked me why I was asking him about it. 
“Because you’re the leader of the Labour party,” I replied. In retrospect, that exchange encapsulated his entire approach to dealing with the problem of anti-Zionist antisemitism in the party.
Of course, this was just the beginning of a deluge of despicable incidents. Some, such as the former London mayor’s suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism, hit the headlines. But hundreds of others – warped conspiracy theories that Israel was responsible for Islamic State, repeated comparisons between Israel and the Nazis, and vile suggestions that Israel uses the Holocaust as a “political tool” – swirled around on social media, polluting Labour Party discussion forums, and spreading and embedding hatred of Israel.
At LFI, we frequently called out such incidents and demanded the Labour Party take action. And, crucially, we argued that Labour needed to draw some clear boundaries that make apparent to all where legitimate criticism of Israel ends and antisemitism begins. Throughout the summer of 2018, a battle raged within the party as to where those boundaries should lie. 
We urged that Labour should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition in full. Corbyn and his hard-left supporters resisted, initially striking the four examples relating to Israel from the definition Labour would use and then, when forced to reinstate them, successfully winning the approval of a “free speech” caveat which, as the Jewish Leadership Council rightly noted at the time, “drives a coach and horses through the IHRA definition”.
The reasons for Corbyn’s resistance to IHRA weren’t hard to discern. Before becoming leader, he had, among many other offensive things, advanced conspiracy theories (among them the suggestion that “the hand of Israel” was behind a jihadi attack on Egyptian policemen in the Sinai Peninsula); hosted an event in parliament on Holocaust Memorial Day that likened Israel to Nazi Germany; and suggested that British Zionists do not understand “English irony.”
At the time, I wrote to the general secretary of the Labour Party, saying Corbyn’s behavior had brought the party into disrepute – a disciplinary offense for which members have been expelled – and that an investigation should be opened on that basis. My request was, of course, denied, but like other MPs who had been campaigning against antisemitism, I increasingly found myself under attack from pro-Corbyn sections of my local party. 
Shortly afterward, the hard Left engineered a vote of no confidence against me. Despite rigging the ballot, its motion was carried by only one vote. The fact that Iran’s Press TV – which is banned in the UK – successfully infiltrated and broadcast footage from the meeting showed yet again the character of many of the forces which lined up behind Corbyn.
I left Labour a few months later, unable to remain in a party while Jews were being bullied from its ranks and antisemites were allowed to retain their membership cards. After the publication of last week’s report, however, I feel, for the first time in five years, a sense of optimism that Labour might now be embarking upon a journey that will return it to the values of equality and a hatred of racism and prejudice that first led me to join it four decades ago.
The writer is the honorary president and former chair of Labour Friends of Israel. She was a member of Parliament between 1997-2010 and 2015-2019, and served as a home office minister under Tony Blair.