The Jewish women no longer welcome in the Labour Party
It’s the middle of a grey afternoon and a light rain is falling across the northwest of England. Walking side by side out of Liverpool’s Lime Street station, Helen Marks and Rica Bird put up an umbrella decorated in the colours of the Palestinian flag.
“It’s appropriate, isn’t it,” says Marks, laughing. Emblazoned on different parts of the umbrella are three words: “Will be free.”
It is the Thursday before the Labour Party conference begins in the city.
It is also the Thursday before the armed Palestinian movement Hamas launches its unprecedented assault on Israel, killing hundreds of people, many of them civilians, and igniting a war that continues to rage, with Israeli airstrikes on besieged Gaza killing hundreds more, many in densely populated residential areas.
Marks and Bird, both of whom are Jewish and have family in Israel, will later tell MEE they are shocked, appalled and saddened by what has happened to Israeli and Palestinian citizens, while calling for the end of the siege and occupation of Gaza.
For now, at an Italian restaurant emptied after the lunch hour, the two former Labour members – Bird was expelled for belonging to a banned left-wing group and Marks left of her own accord - talk about the party’s Liverpool conference, about the radical shift in direction that has taken place under leader Keir Starmer and about the hope and energy they felt when fellow socialist Jeremy Corbyn was elected back in 2015.
They talk about how they, two Jewish pensioners from Merseyside who support the Palestinian cause, came to be accused of antisemitism by Labour Party bureaucrats opposed to Corbyn and embroiled in a row with the BBC's Panorama programme.
“This all began in 2016, when I was accused of antisemitism,” Marks tells MEE. “This has been going on for years, but the media never came to us. Was it because we are women? Because we are elderly? I think it’s because we were two Jewish women who were critical of Israel.”
Both now aged 77, the two women joined the Labour Party in the wake of Corbyn’s election. Bird, a retired social services worker, had been a member before, joining in 1999 in the early years of Tony Blair’s government and leaving following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The old friends, who met over 20 years ago after Bird set up a pro-Palestinian group called Merseyside Jews for Peace and Justice, were energised by the unlikely ascent of a left-winger to the role of leader. But the new wave of members disrupted things.
Clashes of culture and ideology took place, as those joining in the wake of Corbyn’s triumph rubbed up against a party bureaucracy that often seemed actively hostile to them.
Marks, a retired family therapist, says that in Liverpool Riverside, the constituency she joined, the new cohort were called “entryists”, “infiltrators” and “Trots” because they were deemed to be invaders from the far left. Liverpool is a generally left-wing city. But Marks describes the battle for control within Labour’s Merseyside constituencies as “vicious”.
“No-one seemed to consider that we were joining because we liked the policies and because we had been waiting for this for years,” she says. “A really wide variety of people got involved. They felt, for the first time, that politics actually spoke to them.”
A clear point of division was Israel-Palestine. Louise Ellman, the local MP, was chair of the Jewish Labour Movement and an “unabashed friend of Israel”, according to the Times of Israel. She regularly visited the country, with the pro-Israel lobby group Labour Friends of Israel – and sometimes the Israeli foreign ministry – usually arranging the trips.
Ellman told the Times of Israel in 2017 that she thought some new members had an “almost obsessive focus” on her support for Israel and that left-wing antisemitism had become “more prominent and often shows in discussions about Israel and the way it is treated in a way no other country is”.
She believed the British media wasn’t always fair to Israel. And she described comments made by Alan Duncan, then a Conservative foreign office minister, in which he suggested in a speech in 2014 that supporters of illegal Israeli settlements were not fit to hold public office, as “pretty strong talk”.
“She was upset because people like me and my partner had come into - or back into - the party,” Marks says of Ellman. “We were very involved with Liverpool Friends of Palestine and we challenged her on her work campaigning for Israel and Zionism. I’m sure she didn’t like it.”
Marks said that Ellman was “very sincere in her beliefs about Israel, but I just don’t agree with her and want the right to speak out about my views”.
After just her second Labour Party constituency meeting, Marks, whose father lost almost all his family in the Holocaust and whose mother grew up in Palestine as part of a family of early Zionists, was accused of antisemitism.
Referencing charity research reported in the Independent in 2014, which found that antisemitic incidents in the UK rose by nearly 500 percent in the wake of that year’s escalation of violence in Gaza, Marks asked Ellman if the rise in antisemitism had anything to do with the actions of the Israeli government.
The suggestion upset some people. Nick Small, a local councillor and Ellman’s election agent, told the Jewish Chronicle that a “tiny but vocal” group were “hell-bent on attacking our MP”. Describing his experience of attending constituency meetings, he later wrote that he had “personally witnessed aggressive, intimidatory antisemitic bullying against Louise”.
'No-one seemed to consider that we were joining because we liked the policies and because we had been waiting for this for years'
- Helen Marks, former Labour Party member
As the atmosphere in Liverpool Riverside grew ever more combative, the constituency was put under investigation.
Labour Party official Ben Westerman was despatched to interview Marks as part of what he called an “informal fact-finding exercise”.
Bird sat in on the interview as a witness for her friend. “It was polite,” she says of the conversation, which took place in November 2016. “It wasn’t friendly, but it wasn’t a bright light shining in your face interrogation.” The two women made a recording of the discussion.
Marks told Westerman that she was “extremely offended” by the idea that she was antisemitic. “I come from a Jewish family, and I can tell you that I wouldn’t be waging a personal campaign against my MP for the fact that she is Jewish,” Marks told Westerman. “The reason I might be wanting to engage in a conversation with my MP is because we disagree over the issue of Israel and Palestine.”
She wanted to know how she was going to be able to talk about Israel without being accused of antisemitism. She said that it felt as if she were “the wrong sort of Jew”. At the end of the interview, according to the recording and its transcript, Bird asked Westerman what branch of the Labour Party he was from. He told her he didn’t think that was relevant.
Westerman did not respond to MEEs requests for comment.
'What branch are you in?'
In July 2019, almost three years on from the interview with Westerman, the BBC broadcast a Panorama programme called Is Labour antisemitic?
By this point, antisemitism in the Labour Party had become a major story. A search of national newspapers for coverage that mentioned Corbyn, Labour and antisemitism between 15 June 2015 and 31 March 2019, carried out by a group of academics, resulted in 5,500 articles.
Those same academics commissioned a national poll and worked with focus groups to establish that “on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members had been reported for antisemitism”. The actual figure was less than one percent.
Both Marks and Bird remain angry and upset by the idea that they, two elderly Jewish women, were seen as antisemitic. Both joined Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), a group not formally affiliated to Labour but set up in 2017 by Jewish party members supportive of Corbyn.
While Ellman spoke about “frightening levels of antisemitism”, Marks could not see the evidence for what was being broadcast in the media.
“As far as we know only about five people have been referred for investigation from Riverside for antisemitism,” Marks wrote in 2019. “Three were found not guilty, one has been expelled and one is suspended pending a decision. This is out of approximately 2,500 members.”
“They [her critics in the local party] can’t stand that it was because of Ellman’s policies,” Marks tells MEE. “Why would I attack her for being Jewish?”
For John Ware, the veteran reporter at the helm of the Panorama programme, things looked rather different.
“The evidence of antisemitic incidents/comments in Riverside CLP is also compelling, although I know that the JVL don’t accept that. I base that on having read emails and comments and spoken to witnesses from Riverside,” Ware told MEE in an email.
The reporter’s film featured interviews with “eight former Labour insiders”, who broke “their silence on Mr Corbyn’s failure to drive out antisemitism” in Labour.
A particularly shocking piece of testimony came from Izzy Lenga, a former student leader who said that “every day” in the Labour Party she was told that “Hitler was right, Hitler didn’t go far enough.”
For anyone watching, the answer to the question posed in the title of the programme – Is Labour antisemitic? – seemed clear. But after the film was broadcast, many of its major claims were disputed.
In December 2022, the BBC issued a correction regarding Panorama’s reporting of Lenga’s comments. While Lenga said she had encountered “antisemitic abuse… from the far left”, the comments about Hitler had actually come from the far right.
In a comment piece in the Jewish News newspaper published the following day, Ware acknowledged that the testimony had been, “mixed up in the editing”. A BBC spokesperson told MEE that if they ever rebroadcast the programme, “we would include some additional comments from Ms Lenga’s original interview to give viewers further context around her experiences”.
For Marks and Bird, it was a different part of the Panorama film that grabbed their attention. Watching at home on Merseyside, they were astonished to hear the story of their interview retold by Westerman as an example of “the very antisemitism he’d been investigating”.
The Labour Party official did not name either of the women, but he told Ware that at the end of his interview with them he had been asked, “Are you from Israel?” Clearly emotional, Westerman continued: “What can you say to that? You are assumed to be in cahoots with the Israeli government.”
Marks and Bird dispute Westerman’s testimony. They told MEE that they did not ask this question.
“I was very shocked to see it,” says Marks.
The women say they were not even aware Westerman was Jewish, whereas he knew they were, something he does not mention in the Panorama interview.
'Ware hasn’t contacted us. We were there, we know what happened. It was small talk at the end of an interview'
- Rica Bird, former Labour Party member
In the recording of the interview, Bird can be heard asking: “Which [Labour Party] branch are you in?”
Asked about Panorama’s reporting of Westerman’s account of his interview with Marks and Bird, Ware referred MEE to his article for the Jewish News in which he addressed criticism of the programme and said: “It’s not for me (or for you, for that matter) to assert ‘The Truth’ in this contested case because the tape is not definitive of every word that was exchanged… I had no reason to disbelieve Ben Westerman: in none of our many conversations did he strike me as a witness given to exaggeration.”
The recording of the conversation continues for 90 seconds after Bird asks her question and then cuts off as Westerman is thanking the two women for their time.
Both women also dispute Ware’s reporting of the interview with Westerman.
“Ware hasn’t contacted us. We were there, we know what happened,” says Bird. “It was small talk at the end of an interview.”
Bird mentions her father, who was from Manchester, and talks about the care he took as a soldier in the British Army during World War Two to always be properly presented and prepared. He knew that, as a Jew, he would be scrutinised. A lifelong trade unionist, Bird says she has always felt welcome on the British left.
Following the broadcast of the Panorama programme, Marks wrote a letter of complaint to the BBC. In October 2019, she wrote to the corporation again, having received what she describes as a “weak response”.
“There is enough evidence now from research that the campaign around antisemitism has done real damage to the Labour Party and to Corbyn as leader,” Marks wrote. “We are soon to go into a general election and it is reprehensible that the BBC has fuelled these distortions of the facts.”
'So much hope'
That general election took place on 12 December 2019. By then, Corbyn’s popularity had plummeted and allegations of antisemitism dogged him.
Led by Boris Johnson, whose invocation of “some of the oldest and most pernicious antisemitic stereotypes in a book he wrote when he was a Conservative shadow minister” had gone largely unremarked on by the media, the Conservatives were propelled back into office.
For both Marks and Bird, the Panorama film “was a factor” in the defeat.
Marks says Corbyn didn’t always handle the issue of antisemitism well. “He should have nipped it in the bud, but you can see why he didn’t. I feel sorry for him. He was surrounded by vipers,” she says, referring to Labour MPs and party officials who were hostile to the former leader.
Following the election defeat, which was brutal, an exhausted Labour left sought some refuge from the war it had been engaged in. Its preferred candidate to succeed Corbyn as leader, Rebecca Long-Bailey, was easily beaten by the man who had served as the party’s shadow Brexit secretary, the lawyer Keir Starmer.
Starmer ran on a platform broadly sympathetic to Corbyn and his policies, but with an emphasis on professionalising the operation. “I still see myself as a socialist,” he said in one interview. Once Starmer had won, though, the “ten pledges” he made to “maintain our radical values” and implement a series of left-wing policies began to fall away, one after another, until there were none left.
Key figures on Labour’s left have been removed from their positions, deselected as MPs or in other ways side-lined. Other elements of the British left have disconnected from Labour of their own accord.
'We’ve lost a huge opportunity to do something for the people of this country'
- Helen Marks
In October 2020, Corbyn himself was suspended from the party, after he responded to an Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report into Labour’s handling of antisemitism by saying:
“One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.”
But the question of antisemitism has not gone away. Leaked WhatsApp conversations have reportedly shown that Labour bureaucrats – including some who spoke to Panorama – hated Corbyn and his team and were involved in efforts to undermine them.
This alleged sabotage stretched into efforts made by Labour under Corbyn to deal with complaints of antisemitism.
In July 2022, a report conducted by Martin Forde, a barrister charged with investigating factionalism and racism within the Labour Party, described the use of internal Labour emails by Panorama and other media organisations as “entirely misleading”. Forde later went on to reveal that the BBC asked him to remove criticism of the corporation’s coverage from his findings.
In September last year, Al Jazeera’s Labour Files series picked up on this, suggesting that Ware’s programme had edited an email from Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, to remove vital context from a message in which Milne had questioned the suspension of a Jewish member accused of antisemitism.
The series also criticised Panorama for basing its argument on the testimony of officials who were hostile to Corbyn – or belonged to organisations that were hostile to him.
Arguments between Bird, Marks and Al Jazeera producer Richard Sanders on the one hand; and Ware and his executive producer Neil Grant on the other, have since played out on the letters page of the Guardian newspaper.
Ware has vigorously defended his Panorama programme, most recently last month in a three-part series of articles for Fathom, a journal published by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).
In March, Labour’s governing body banned Jeremy Corbyn from standing as a Labour candidate in the next election. The BBC reported that this decision had come “following a row over antisemitism”, but the motion to block Corbyn did not mention antisemitism.
Since Bird and Marks met MEE in Liverpool, the Israel-Palestine conflict has dominated media coverage all around the world.
"Israel has a right to defend herself," Starmer tweeted, echoing the UK government's position after an Israeli flag was projected onto the side of 10 Downing Street, the British prime minister's residence.
Labour's shadow foreign secretary David Lammy addressed a gathering in support of Israel. Labour's shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, referred to Gaza as unoccupied and said she had "no time" for people supporting the Palestinian cause in Liverpool.
“They are all great pillars of the current Labour administration and are entitled to their views. But I would never support that take,” Bird tells MEE, referring to Reeves' comments and defending the right to protest.
"What happened to Israeli citizens is truly shocking and appalling. But this has been happening to the people of Gaza, and the international community has let it happen."
Bird says she supported Corbyn because of her “aspirations for working people” and her “desire to see a more inclusive and diverse society”.
Earlier this month, JVL wrote a letter of complaint to Labour’s general secretary, in which the group claimed that Jewish members of the party are now almost 13 times more likely to be expelled for supporting proscribed left-wing groups than non-Jewish members.
For Marks and Bird, this highlights what they believe and have said all along, which is that accusations of antisemitism were levelled at them for political reasons.
“I am upset about this party, where there was so much hope,” Marks says, reflecting on what has happened to Labour. “We’ve lost a huge opportunity to do something for the people of this country.”
“My key agenda is to get rid of this very unfair and unjust system,” Bird says of a capitalist economy she believes is driving climate change, vast income inequality and widespread social injustice. “It’s just I’ve got dwindling energy now.”
And yet, sitting side by side, laughing and talking, neither woman seems particularly tired or downhearted. Neither are members of the Labour Party anymore, but both are still campaigning on a wide variety of issues, from the National Health Service to Palestine.
Somewhere a mile or so away, seagulls fly above the Royal Albert Dock and the ferries push out across the Mersey. A group of Belgian football fans, in town to see their team play Liverpool, step off a red sightseeing bus and out into the rain.
“We are not giving up,” Bird says, a smile on her face. “I am proud to be the wrong sort of Jew.”