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Labour antisemitism allegations: How Corbyn and Starmer are judged by different standards

Jewish groups that lambasted Corbyn's code of conduct as antisemitic are now silent over revelations it is being used by Starmer
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer are pictured in Harlow, UK, in 2019 (Reuters)

For years, allies of Jeremy Corbyn argued that allegations of antisemitism had been weaponised against the then-Labour leader and his supporters to undermine his socialist programme and stifle criticism of Israel.

Over the same period, pro-Israel lobby groups and Labour’s right-wing officials vociferously disagreed with them. Not only did they categorically deny that antisemitism had been weaponised, but they also accused anyone who suggested this of promoting an antisemitic trope. 

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But now, the cat appears to be well and truly out of the bag - care of Corbyn’s most prominent opponents, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Labour Movement, and Labour officials loyal to its new leader, Keir Starmer.

Newly released details of Labour’s disciplinary process indicate that accusations of antisemitism against the party were most likely used for political ends - to help oust Corbyn. 

Practices cited as proof by Corbyn’s critics of a supposed Labour “antisemitism problem” have continued under Starmer, we now know, but he has suffered none of the backlash faced by his predecessor.

Drummed out

The double standard has been exposed in a legal action being pursued by Labour Activists for Justice (LA4J), a group of party members who accuse Labour of failing to follow transparent and fair disciplinary procedures when it investigated members, including at least 30 Jews, over accusations of antisemitism.

In fact, several hundred members have been suspended or drummed out of Labour without even knowing what they have done wrong. They have not been allowed to consult lawyers, due to confidentiality clauses in the disciplinary notices. A High Court case challenging the procedure is due to be heard in June.

But a preliminary hearing in February, in which the judge rejected the Labour Party’s claim that the case should not be heard, flushed out one important piece of evidence that the members under investigation had sought.

Now that we know the same code is being used by Starmer, where is the outrage, or even concern? Is it not equally important that Starmer listen to Jews?

In an apparent attempt to indicate that its disciplinary procedures for antisemitism are fair, Labour made public that it had been secretly using a code of conduct on antisemitism drafted back in 2018 - during Corbyn’s leadership - in the investigations.

Members could not defend themselves or challenge their suspensions and expulsions, however, because the Labour Party had never previously admitted that the code was being applied – or how it was relevant to their cases.

Labour officials might be hoping that by belatedly divulging the code, they will be able to offer a legal defence that the procedures are fair and transparent, and thereby avoid a High Court ruling against the party. But publication of the code has inadvertently exposed two profound flaws in the claims from leading Jewish groups and Starmer’s officials that Labour had an exceptional “antisemitism problem” under Corbyn that is only now being tackled.

Secret code of conduct

The first of these flaws is that the code dates from Corbyn’s time. It was drafted to interpret and make sense of a highly controversial definition of antisemitism later foisted on Labour by organisations such as the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, and others.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s definition of antisemitism was seen as too imprecise by Labour officials, and its sledgehammer 11 examples shifted the focus away from hatred of Jews towards criticism of Israel, stripping away any consideration of context. It threatened many left-wing members of the Labour Party, including Jewish supporters of Corbyn, with suspension or expulsion over their political views on Israel.

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This appears to have been precisely the goal of the Board of Deputies and other groups. They erupted in outrage when the party published the code in summer 2018, claiming that Corbyn was diluting the standards set by the IHRA, so that antisemitic members could remain inside Labour.

Under the headline “Labour’s antisemitism code exposes a sickness in Jeremy Corbyn’s party,” Dave Rich, head of policy at the Community Security Trust, an organisation set up to protect British Jews, wrote in the Guardian: “The Labour leadership does not want to use the IHRA definition precisely because it addresses antisemitic attitudes that, for years, have circulated and become normalised in the parts of the left where Corbyn and his allies have spent their political lives.”

There was widespread backing for that view in the UK media, which sympathetically reported the decision of Britain’s three largest Jewish newspapers to share a front-page editorial warning that a Corbyn government would pose an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country”.

And Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland observed that the code’s publication “makes plenty of Jews want to slam their heads on their desks in frustration”. His article was headlined: “Yes, Jews are angry - because Labour hasn’t listened or shown any empathy.”

Safeguarding Israel

And yet, now that we know the same code is being used by Starmer, where is the outrage, or even concern? Is it not equally important that Starmer listen to Jews? Does Starmer’s adoption of the code not prove that there is still a sickness at the heart of the Labour Party? Why exactly is a Starmer government not also an existential threat to Jews?

Whereas the code provoked an uproar when Corbyn publicised it and had to be concealed to avoid stoking further claims of an antisemitism crisis, its publication by Starmer has elicited not a peep from the same groups. The Board of Deputies, the Community Security Trust, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Jewish Labour Movement have simply ignored the code’s re-emergence. All were approached by Middle East Eye for comment, but none had responded by the time of publication.

An Israeli flag flies in front of the Old City of Jerusalem in 2017 (AFP)
An Israeli flag flies in front of the Old City of Jerusalem in 2017 (AFP)

That was probably not what Labour officials expected. They must be very relieved. In court submissions, the party’s lawyers argued that the code had not been made public because the matter was regarded as “politically incendiary”.

But the only significant change in the handling of antisemitism cases since 2018 is that Labour is now no longer led by Corbyn, who has long criticised Israel for its abuses of Palestinian rights and the UK for subsidising and arming Israel.

Unlike Corbyn, Starmer has publicly declared himself a Zionist, and he has signed up to the so-called 10 Pledges issued by the Board of Deputies, which effectively give pro-Israel groups a veto over Labour’s handling of antisemitism cases. Starmer has also crushed all but the flimsiest criticism of Israel from the party.

Pro-Israel groups might now be happy with the code because Starmer, unlike Corbyn, is seen as a safe pair of hands on matters relating to Israel. In other words, Labour’s “antisemitism crisis” was never about safeguarding Jews; it was, as many of Corbyn’s supporters pointed out at the time, about safeguarding Israel.

Double standards

But the double standards and deceptions are not limited to these Jewish groups. The admission that the code is still being used suggests that Labour’s right wing has been playing politics with antisemitism too.

The right has dominated both Labour’s bureaucracy and its parliamentary faction since Tony Blair became leader. An internal Labour report leaked a year ago showed that party officials actively sought to sabotage Corbyn and even throw the 2017 election to be rid of him.

Labour never had an antisemitism problem to begin with, under Corbyn or Starmer, beyond the levels found more generally in British society

The right continues to argue that Labour under Corbyn failed to take antisemitism seriously - evidence, it claims, of an institutional indulgence of antisemitism that was supposedly addressed only when Starmer took over the leadership.

But Starmer’s officials are now citing the code – the very code devised by Corbyn’s officials – as proof that they have a fair and transparent system for dealing with antisemitism.

When the Equality and Human Rights Commission published its highly flawed report into Labour and antisemitism late last year, it criticised Corbyn’s office for “political interference” in the handling of disciplinary cases relating to antisemitism.

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Notably, although the commission obscured this point in its report, that interference was invariably designed to hasten the expulsion of members accused of antisemitism, not aid them, in the forlorn hope of placating Corbyn’s critics. Those treated unfairly, the commission implies, were the party members accused of antisemitism, not those like the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Labour Movement, who were doing the accusing.

So if Corbyn’s team was interfering to hasten the suspensions and expulsions of members, and it implemented a code that Starmer’s Labour is now also using, how is that Corbyn’s Labour Party had an “antisemitism problem” and Starmer’s doesn’t?

In fact, it was Corbyn’s effort to make this point - observing in response to the equality commission’s report that the scale of antisemitism in Labour had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons” - that led to Starmer expelling him from the parliamentary party. The admission by Starmer’s officials that the same code is still in use, however, suggests that Corbyn’s comment was justified.

Whipped into a frenzy

Labour never had an antisemitism problem to begin with, under Corbyn or Starmer, beyond the levels found more generally in British society.

The double standard that has been applied to Corbyn is still evident. This month, the Jewish Chronicle published a new YouGov poll that showed 70 percent of Labour members agree with Corbyn that the “antisemitism problem” in the party was overstated.

The Chronicle cites this as proof that the Labour Party is still beset with antisemitism and its membership is in denial. And yet, it does not blame Starmer for this, even though it constantly berated Corbyn over Labour’s supposed “antisemitism problem”. Instead, it warns Starmer that he has “a mountain to climb” and urges him to step up his efforts “to purge the party”.

Activists protest against alleged Labour antisemitism in London in 2018 (AFP)
Activists protest against alleged Labour antisemitism in London in 2018 (AFP)

Another glaring problem for Corbyn’s critics concerns the IHRA definition. Labour officials produced the code in 2018 because they found the IHRA and its 11 examples – seven of them relating to Israel – unworkable as a benchmark for judging antisemitism cases.

That is something Starmer’s officials have effectively conceded by continuing to use the 2018 code in secret, while Jewish leadership groups have remained silent at its publication now.

What seems most likely is that these Jewish organisations intentionally turned antisemitism into a political football

That leaves us with a troubling further implication. The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Labour Movement, aided by newspapers such as the Jewish Chronicle, whipped British Jews into a frenzy of fear about the existential threat posed by Corbyn.

Now, we must conclude either that they deceived the public about Corbyn’s Labour, or that they are indifferent to the continuing, supposed dangers posed by Starmer’s Labour to the Jewish communities they claim to represent. Either way, it is inexcusable.

What seems most likely is that these Jewish organisations intentionally turned antisemitism into a political football, one to be kicked around when it would damage Corbyn, a critic of Israel, and one to quietly put away when they had a Labour leader they could trust to be onside about Israel.

If that is the case, then Corbyn’s supporters - who have always maintained that antisemitism was weaponised to undermine him - have been shown to be emphatically right. And those who played politics with antisemitism, like the boy who cried wolf, have degraded the meaning of antisemitism and distracted from the very real threat posed to Jews from bigots on the right and far-right.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Jonathan Cook
Jonathan Cook, a British journalist based in Nazareth since 2001, is the the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is a past winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website and blog can be found at: www.jonathan-cook.net