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Labour contenders are wrong to have signed up to these antisemitism pledges

Candidates for the Labour leadership have accepted a problematic list of 'antisemitism' pledges laid out by the Board of Deputies of British Jews
Demonstrators protest outside the head office of the British Labour Party in London amid allegations of antisemitism in April 2018 (AFP)

On 13 January, the Board of Deputies of British Jews released its “Ten Pledges” for adoption by the Labour Party "to begin healing its relationship with the Jewish community".

The pledges, set out in two columns against a red background, commit the new Labour leader to taking personal responsibility for “ending Labour’s antisemitism crisis” - a tall order by any standards and difficult to execute.  

Voting for a new Labour leader opens on 21 February and the winner is due to be declared on 4 April. The outgoing party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, announced that he intended to resign following the party's poor results in the December election.

Onerous demands

The rest of the Board of Deputy’s demands are no less onerous. After holding Corbyn responsible for “antisemitism in the party” that has so distressed British Jews, the board outlined “the key points”.

But the requested measures are preposterous in the context of a small civil society organisation representing a minority of British Jews, making highly intrusive demands of a major political party.

They learned nothing from Corbyn's devastating defeat, which came at least in part due to the ferocious 'antisemitism' witch hunt against him

Among these demands is that all outstanding antisemitism cases in the party should be resolved through an “independent” agent, bypassing the party’s own processes. Expelled or suspended “prominent offenders” should never be allowed readmittance to the party. Alleged offenders and their associates should be denied a platform. 

This is a thinly veiled plan for a major purge of the party's mostly left-wing members, with no right of appeal.

Other pledges include the introduction of anti-racism training for party members, led by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), and confining the party’s Jewish interlocutors to the community’s “main representative groups” - presumably including the board itself, while excluding groups with differing views, such as Jewish Voice for Labour. 

In addition, the ten pledges require that Labour adopt the problematic and flawed International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, criticised by its own author, Kenneth Stern, without caveats and including all of its controversial examples. 

Attacks and appeasement

None but the most desperate Labour candidate - one who either failed to read the pledges properly, or mistakenly believed that adopting them would help their chances in the leadership contest - could possibly accept these humiliating conditions. 

The fact that all the top leadership candidates did so with alacrity is alarming. It suggests they have learned nothing from Corbyn’s devastating defeat, which came at least in part due to the ferocious “antisemitism” witch hunt against him, mounted by the Board of Deputies and other groups, including JLM. 

The cycle of attacks by these groups and appeasement by Corbyn only led to further attacks and more appeasement, until he was defeated. This has apparently gone unnoticed in this new rush towards appeasement. 

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks in London on 15 January (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AFP)
British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks in the House of Commons on 15 January (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AFP)

Keir Starmer, the odds-on favourite to succeed Corbyn, tweeted on 12 January that the party’s handling of antisemitism was “completely unacceptable”, thus dismissing its considerable efforts to that end.

Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary and another leadership candidate, went further, telling the Jewish News that the party needed “to get down on our hands and knees to the Jewish community and ask them for forgiveness”. 

The effects of this policy of appeasement are already apparent. New Labour MP Sam Tarry was recently criticised for not condemning a motion that opposed the board’s ten pledges. Also this month, former leadership candidate Jess Phillips suspended a key staffer for “antisemitic” tweets that in actual fact were related to criticism of Israel, not of Jews.

Conflating anti-Zionism and antisemitism

Through their uncritical acceptance of the ten pledges, Labour candidates seem to have fallen for a number of fabrications and obfuscations put out by the antisemitism lobby. Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, and criticism of Israel as a racist state that oppresses non-Jews is not antisemitic, but a statement of fact. 

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Whether the antisemitism accusations levelled against Labour members are of that nature is unclear, but where information is available, it seems likely.

The claim by the Board of Deputies to represent all of Britain’s Jews has been questioned by a 2015 Jewish Quarterly study. Its approximately 300 deputies are elected by synagogues, congregations and other Jewish organisations. The study estimated this electorate to be one percent of the Jewish community. Haredi Jews, who refuse to affiliate with the board, are excluded, as are those who do not attend synagogue. The board has a pro-Israel stance that not all British Jews share.

The JLM is a small Zionist organisation open to non-Labour and non-Jewish members, whose stated aim is to promote “the centrality of Israel in Jewish life”. Heir to Poale Zion, sister party to Israel's Labor Party, and part of a coalition inside the World Zionist Federation, its agenda is Israel-focused.

Dormant since its inception in 2004, it came to life in 2016 after Corbyn's election as leader, and since then it has worked diligently for his removal. Outside promoting Israeli interests, it should have remained marginal in British domestic politics.  

Dangers ahead

Clearly, neither organisation is in a position to dictate Labour policy on anti-racism, or to supervise its training. The Labour leadership candidates’ meek acceptance of this imposition, in spite of the facts, points to the Israel lobby’s success in this country. 

Weaponising antisemitism works, and the tactic won't be relinquished easily by those who gain from it

Politicians, leading figures and public officials have been intimidated, and will say or sign almost anything to stop accusations of antisemitism. 

And the signs are that this trend will increase. Weaponising antisemitism works, and the tactic won’t be relinquished easily by those who gain from it. That is dangerous for British society, the political left and supporters of Palestine.

Corbyn was the first high-profile casualty of this campaign, but will not be the last if it is allowed to continue.

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

Ghada Karmi
Ghada Karmi is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. She was born in Jerusalem and was forced to leave her home with her family as a result of Israel’s creation in 1948. The family moved to England in 1949, where she grew up and was educated. Karmi practised as a doctor for many years working as a specialist in the health of migrants and refugees. From 1999 to 2001 Karmi was an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, where she led a major project on Israel-Palestinian reconciliation. In 2009, she became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.