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'The wrong sort of Jew': How Labour pursued complaints against elderly Jewish opponents of Israel

Labour's investigations into antisemitism raise questions about the nature and definition of what the party is attempting to root out

In July 2019, the BBC broadcast the Panorama programme Is Labour Anti-Semitic?, about the allegations made against the party.

It included reporting about the Labour Party's own inquiry into the Liverpool Riverside constituency during the autumn of 2016.

Panorama spoke to party member Ben Westerman, the only Jewish official on the complaints team, who it reported "was confronted with the very antisemitism he'd been sent to investigate".

Westerman told Panorama that, after one interview had finished, he was asked by one of those present: "Where are you from... Are you from Israel?"

BBC
BBC headquarters in central London: the broadcaster has defended the Panorama report Is Labour Anti-Semitic? (Reuters)

Westerman is clearly upset as he recalls what happened. "What can you say to that?" he tells Panorama. "You're assumed to be in cahoots with the Israeli government."

But is his story accurate?

The interviewee Westerman spoke to that day appears to have been a woman called Helen Marks. As part of Labour Party procedure, she was allowed a "silent witness" who could observe, but not participate in, the interview, for which she chose her friend Rica Bird. With Westerman's permission, they recorded the conversation. The programme omitted to mention that Marks and Bird, both 74, are Jewish. Neither, they said, knew that Westerman was Jewish. 

At the end there is an exchange that closely matches the one described in Panorama – except that there is no mention of Israel. Bird, conversationally, asks Westerman which Labour Party branch he belongs to. "I was just making chit-chat really," she told MEE.

In response to a complaint from Marks, the BBC suggested in November 2019 that the "she" Westerman referred to may have been a different interviewee. But transcripts and recordings from the interviews involving the other four women Westerman spoke to contain no such conversation. All four women are adamant that it did not take place after the recorder had been switched off.

Marks and Bird are upset and angry. "My father lost family in the Holocaust," says Marks. "It was like my own Jewishness simply didn't count – I was the wrong sort of Jew."

The BBC told MEE: "We stand by our journalism." Neither Ben Westerman nor his lawyers responded to a request for comment at time of publication.

No mainstream media have reported this version of events. Westerman was among the contributors to the Panorama programme who in July received an apology and a payoff from the Labour Party, which had initially described them as being "disaffected former employees" with "political axes to grind".  The party says it now accepts this description was "defamatory and false".

Labour, complaints and investigations

The incident involving Marks and Bird is an example of one little-reported aspect of the Labour antisemitism story – the frequency with which Jewish party members find themselves the centre of investigations, often on what they regard as the flimsiest and most tendentious of grounds.

It is a trend that appears to have gathered pace since Keir Starmer took over as Labour Party leader in April 2020. It raises profound questions about the nature and definition of the "antisemitism" that the party is attempting to root out. 

Corbyn Starmer
Then Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his successor Keir Starmer attend a general election campaign meeting in November 2019 (Reuters)

Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) is an organisation established in 2017 "to protect the right of Labour Party members, mainly supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, to speak freely about Israel and Palestine," as described by Jenny Manson, its co-chair. Manson, like all other officers and committee members in JVL, is Jewish.

Manson says that, besides Marks, at least 24 other Jewish members of the party have come under formal investigation at one time or another, many of them more than once. JVL committee member Mike Cushman, who has himself been investigated in the past, says: "For a Jewish person, to be accused of antisemitism is as devastating as to be confronted with antisemitism. It's even worse when the accusation comes from someone who isn't Jewish themselves."

MEE understands that one Jewish Labour Party member has taken an overdose following expulsion from the party. "Notices of Investigation" sent to party members include a telephone number for the Samaritans. 

Reporting on this issue is complicated by the fact that the Labour Party demands members under investigation do not discuss details of their case. But a number of Jewish party members have received Notices of Investigation during the last few months while under lockdown. A feature of the radical Jewish left in the Labour Party is that many are elderly, often living alone.

Contacted about the concerns raised in this article, the Labour Party responded: "The Labour Party takes all complaints of antisemitism extremely seriously and they are fully investigated in line with our rules and procedures, and any appropriate disciplinary action is taken."

Diana Neslen, 80, is a disabled Jewish widow who lives in Ilford, Essex. A fervent Zionist during her youth, she became disillusioned after witnessing the treatment of Palestinians during a trip to Israel at the end of the 1950s. Born in South Africa, she is a lifelong anti-racist campaigner and a member of the Labour Party.

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'They have no sense that Jewish people have different views'

- Diana Neslen

In September 2018, Neslen received a formal warning about her conduct, accompanied by a list of her social media posts. These included the statement that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was "making shameless political capital out of the Holocaust".

"On Holocaust Memorial Day let us remember that not only a people but their culture was destroyed," she wrote. "In my view Jewish people need to disinter that culture and turn our backs on the nationalism that has superseded it." She was told in the letter from the Labour Party: "These comments have caused offence."

Neslen ran into trouble again in January this year as the proposer of a motion at her local party branch calling on the Labour leadership to reject the "10 pledges" that the Jewish Board of Deputies had demanded the party sign up to following the December 2019 general election.

These include a pledge that any party member supporting a member who has been suspended or expelled should themselves be suspended. Neslen's motion passed but local members said that antisemitic "tropes" had been used at the meeting. She fiercely denies this and says that, besides herself, there were just two Jewish people present, one of whom spoke in support of her motion.  

Neslen is furious. "At the end of the day, it's a bunch of non-Jews piling on to a Jew," she says. "These people know nothing about antisemitism and Jewishness. They have no sense that Jewish people have different views." In 1991, a member of the BNP was jailed for beating up Neslen's son. "I know what real antisemitism looks like," she says.

George Wilmers is a retired academic from Manchester who is Jewish and a Labour Party member. In July 2019 he received a Notice of Investigation following an allegation that he had stated at a meeting that the "JLM [Jewish Labour Movement] were a front for Israel".

Wilmers queries whether he would have used precisely these words. But he defends his criticism of the Jewish Labour Movement, which was anti-Corbyn and generally treated by the media as the principal representative of Jews in the Labour Party. Unlike JVL, it lists a commitment to "Socialist Zionism" as one of its guiding principles.

"They are affiliated to the Israeli Labor Party, which I regard as an openly racist party," says Wilmers. He believes that the JLM's activities seem to indicate that its main purpose is to "demonise supporters of Palestinian rights, and in particular Jewish supporters, by publicly labelling them as antisemitic".  

Like Neslen, Wilmers regards his treatment as antisemitic. He wrote to the Labour Party: "It appears to me that that accusation was made against me because I have been targeted as a Jew by fanatical persons who hold that political support for the ethnocratic nature of the actually existing state of Israel is an essential characteristic of being Jewish."

The party eventually ruled that Wilmers' "behaviour on this occasion did not amount to a breach of the Party’s Rules". But he was sent a "Reminder of Labour's Values" and urged to "read them carefully and bear them in mind" - advice that Wilmers told MEE was an "insulting homily".

Antisemitism: The dividing line

Stephen Solley is a retired QC and former chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee. He is Jewish, a Labour Party member and a critic of Israel. On 28 January he received a campaign email from Miriam Mirwitch, chair of Young Labour, the party's youth section, and a candidate for the London Assembly.

"I know what it's like to face antisemitism every day," Mirwitch wrote, identifying herself as a national committee member of the Jewish Labour Movement.  "I've had to fight antisemitism both inside and outside the Labour Party," she said.

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'If they really want to expel the Jewish former Chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee, so be it'
- Stephen Solley, retired QC

Solley recalls: "I got this just a week after Holocaust Remembrance Day. I thought this was the most offensive thing. She lives in modern north-west London. It's absurd. Of course she doesn't face antisemitism every day. It's just whipping up anxiety. I was really upset by it." He replied to Mirwitch with a short, simple email. "The Jewish Labour Movement is, in my opinion, a force for ill and something of a con in that it is destructive of socialism. It is a pro Israel, anti Palestine group. It becomes imperative to vote against you."

Twenty-three minutes later, Mirwitch wrote to Solley's former chambers, accusing him of antisemitism. She also wrote to the Bar Standards Board. Both rejected her accusations. But three days after sending the email, Solley received notification from the Labour Party that he was under investigation for antisemitism, an investigation that appears to be ongoing.

Solley is aware that by speaking out he may have contravened the party's demand that he "keep all information and correspondence relating to this investigation private." His response? "I don’t give a damn. If they really want to expel the Jewish former chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee, so be it."

Almost all the Jewish Labour Party members who find themselves under investigation have either made comments about Israel or Zionism or have questioned the logic of Labour disciplinary procedures. Many are supporters of Jewish Voice for Labour, which has been described by Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland as representing "a tiny fringe of British Jewish opinion".

JVL says it has well over 1,000 members, around a third of whom are Jewish. The rival Jewish Labour Movement has 3,000 members – Jewish and non-Jewish - but, unlike JVL, allows people to join who are not in the Labour Party.

Both JVL and JLM contain a range of views. But a key dividing line is their attitude to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, adopted by the Labour Party following pressure from JLM and others in September 2018.

The definition is opposed by JVL. "The IHRA definition is hopelessly vague, muddled and open-ended," says Avi Shlaim, an Israeli JVL member and Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford. "It deliberately conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism in order to deter legitimate criticisms of Israel. It has 11 'illustrative examples' of antisemitism. Seven of them relate to Israel. That's the giveaway. Antisemitism is hatred of Jews as Jews. That's all we need."

Criticism of the IHRA definition focuses in particular on example number seven:

 "Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour."

Miriam Margolyes, 79, a Jewish actor and Labour Party member, says that the clause serves to stifle debate about the origins and nature of the Israeli state. "When I was young, we were taught the Arabs ran away," she says. "They didn't. They were driven out." She believes Israel to be a state rooted in the domination of one ethnicity over another. "I don’t want a Jewish state. I want a shared state."

Jewish comedian Alexei Sayle, 68, who is not a Labour Party member but a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, agrees. "This is real through the looking glass stuff," he says. "The people being accused of antisemitism are almost all defenders of the oppressed and lifelong fighters against racism. Many of the people who are accusing them are very much not that. The media's coverage has been breath-taking in its laziness and one-sidedness." 

Not all opponents of the IHRA definition necessarily believe Israel to be an inherently racist state. "Zionism began as a national liberation struggle of the Jewish people - an anti-racist movement in fact," says Shlaim. He believes it became a "colonial enterprise" following the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.

But all are united in the view that example seven represents a fundamental denial of free speech, above all because the vast majority of Palestinians firmly believe Zionism to have been, inevitably and unavoidably, a "racist endeavour".

A Palestinian viewpoint

Ghada Karmi is a London-based Palestinian author whose widely acclaimed memoir, In Search of Fatima, describes her own experience of being driven from West Jerusalem as a child in 1948 at the time of the creation of the state of Israel.

"My family left following the massacre at Deir Yassin, just a few miles away from our home, a massacre carried out by Jewish militias," she says. "We left because we were terrified that we would be next. We thought we'd be away just a few weeks, but we were never allowed to return. This happened to us because we were Palestinian. Am I not allowed to call this ethnic cleansing?

"Zionism – as put in practice – was always a racist, colonial enterprise rooted in dispossession. How could it be anything else in a land full of people of a different ethnicity? If someone wants to disagree with that analysis or understanding – fine. If they want to debate – that's fine. But do they really have the right to outlaw it?" she says.

In August 2018, 24 Palestinian civil society groups published a statement pleading with the Labour Party not to adopt the IHRA definition. The definition "attempts to erase Palestinian history, demonise solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality, suppress freedom of expression, and shield Israel’s far-right regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid," the statement said. It was ignored by the Labour Party and was barely reported.

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Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, says that the IHRA definition and the furore over antisemitism in the Labour Party have had a "chilling effect" on advocacy work for Palestinians.

During 2018, at the height of the row, 290 Palestinians, including 55 minors, were killed by Israeli forces. This number included 190 deaths related to the Great March of Return in Gaza, when Palestinians demanded their right to go back to ancestral homes from which they were driven in 1948. Most of those killed in Gaza were shot by Israeli snipers crouching behind sand berms several hundred metres away, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Jamal says that in the past a significant minority of Labour MPs supported demonstrations in defence of Palestinian human rights – but that year "it became incredibly difficult to get any MPs to come along".

On 14 May 2018, more than 60 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in a single day (some dying later from their injuries). Only then, Jamal says, did more than 20 MPs from various parties attend a rally.

"I remember commenting at the time," Jamal says, "at least now we know how many Palestinians have to be killed before people regain their moral compass."

Both Jamal and Karmi say that anti-Zionism does not mean a desire for the destruction of Israel any more than opposition to apartheid during the 1980s meant a desire for the destruction of South Africa. "I don't want to drive anyone into the sea," Karmi says. "What I believe is that Israel is under an obligation to grant equal rights to everyone it rules, regardless of religion or ethnicity."

'Jews are being told they have to be Zionists'

Palestinian activists and their Jewish supporters regard the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism by the Labour Party as a victory for the concept of "the new antisemitism," the belief, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, that "anti-Zionism is the latest mutation of the world's longest hate".

But Cushman says: "For the first time in history, Jews are being told they have to be Zionists. It's a heresy hunt. The Labour Party has been suborned in a battle between orthodox and heretical Jews. Why does the Labour Party get to decide what Jewish values are?" Cushman says that he and others are part of a long tradition of non- and anti-Zionist Jewish socialism.

Groups such as the JVL believe that the Board of Deputies' 10 Pledges – which Starmer has agreed to adopt – are a further attempt to exclude non-Zionist Jewish groups from any role in Labour Party policy or decision making.

The pledges include the demand that "Labour must engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups, and not through fringe organisations and individuals".

JVL does not dispute antisemitism exists in the Labour Party. "We work hard to challenge and reduce it by education and constructive criticism," says co-chair Jenny Manson. But it advocates forcefully for those it feels have been wrongly accused and often receives vicious abuse as a result. 

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'It's Kafkaesque. You are not told who is accusing you. And you are not allowed to discuss it with anyone'

- Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi

Manson, who is 71, says she has received a number of threats, including one left on her answerphone: "You fucking Nazi bitch," it said.  "You should burn in the gas oven. You dirty fucking bitch….  Stinking, stinking swine… You deserve … to burn in acid." Police were able to track down the caller, a middle-aged Jewish man. He was formally cautioned for the offence of malicious communications in May 2019.

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, 67, one of JVL's founders, is a widow whose late husband was Moroccan. She says she has also received threats by telephone. "'We know where you are, we are outside your door, we are going to put you in a wheelchair' - that sort of thing."

She has also been the subject of criticism by the prominent antisemitism campaigner David Collier. "She can marry whomever she pleases and hold whatever ideological stance she finds attractive," Collier wrote. "Naomi Wimborne was free to marry a Muslim, and become Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi... But, given her life choices, is Naomi really in a position to talk publicly as if she is representative of British Jewish identity?"

Wimborne-Idrissi stresses the psychological impact on those Labour Party members who have received Notices of Investigation. "It's Kafkaesque," she says. "You are not told who is accusing you. And you are not allowed to discuss it with anyone. So you receive this devastating letter – and are immediately isolated."

For legal reasons JVL is reluctant to discuss details but says a significant proportion of its committee is now under investigation by the party.

"The new Labour leadership is desperate to appear tough on antisemitism," says Manson. "But there are really profound, deeply held differences of opinion here – inside the Jewish community as much as anywhere else," she says. "You can't just bludgeon people into silence."

Margolyes agrees and finds the division within the Jewish community deeply distressing. Like many others involved in this debate she describes herself as "firmly, inescapably Jewish. There is never a day goes by I don't think about the Holocaust. I never get in the shower without thinking about the showers in the gas chambers. I never get on a train without thinking about the trains to the camps."

She says that she is only too aware of the traumas that created in many Jewish people a deep, deep desire for their own homeland. "But I can't blind myself to what this meant for the Palestinian people," she says. "I have visited the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I have seen the overcrowding, the filth, heard the nastiness of the Israeli guards. I know that this is wicked, unnecessary and cruel.

"For me, it's not a political choice - it's a moral imperative. I cannot allow things to be done in my name as a Jew which I know to be evil.  And I must be allowed to say so without being branded as a 'self-hating Jew'."

Richard Sanders is an award-winning TV producer specialising in history and news and current affairs. He has made more than 50 films, mostly for Channel 4. He has written for a number of publications including The Daily Telegraph and the Boston Globe and is also the author of two history books.

Photo: Supporters of then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn protest against a rally organised by the British Board of Jewish Deputies in opposition to antisemitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London in March 2018 (Reuters)