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Labour antisemitism allegations: Are left-wing Jewish party members being targeted?

By applying a fundamentally flawed definition of antisemitism, Labour appears to be rooting out anti-Zionist critics of Israel
Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks on the second day of the Scottish Labour Party Conference in Glasgow, Scotland on 5 March, 2022 (AFP)

British MP Neil Coyle was recently suspended from the Labour Party after he allegedly made racist comments to Henry Dyer, a Business Insider reporter, at a House of Commons bar. They were discussing Barry Gardiner, a Labour MP who received funds from a suspected Chinese spy, dubbed by Coyle as “Fu Manchu”.

The journalist challenged this racist trope, noting that he was British-Chinese, to which Coyle allegedly replied: “From how you look like, you’ve been giving renminbi [the Chinese currency] to Barry Gardiner.” As he left the bar, Dyer said he waved goodbye to Coyle, but the MP responded by sticking two fingers up at him. After Dyer reported this incident, Coyle was suspended from the party, pending an internal investigation. 

While apparently ignoring our complaints, Labour has rigorously investigated left-wing Jewish members on charges of antisemitism

Coyle, a mediocre politician with a reputation for oafish behaviour in bars, is of little interest to me. What concerns me is the Labour Party’s double standards on racism and its Kafkaesque disciplinary system for dealing with antisemitism

The speed with which Labour rightly acted to investigate Coyle’s alleged remarks to Dyer stands in sharp contrast to its stonewalling on allegations of antisemitism against the very same MP. In July 2021, Coyle publicly attacked Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), which represents Jewish members of the party - many of whom are allies of former leader Jeremy Corbyn and critics of Israel.

Responding to a report that Labour leader Keir Starmer was set to expel 1,000 “far left Labour members” in four “poisonous” groups, Coyle tweeted: “Not far enough. JVL should be gone too. And other outright Communists who have their own political party/ies they can ruin.”

'Shocking to hear'

Along with lawyers Sir Geoffrey Bindman and Harold Immanuel, both long-standing Labour members, I formally complained to the party in September 2021 about Coyle’s outburst.

British Labour MP Neil Coyle speaks to the media in London in 2015 (AFP)
British Labour MP Neil Coyle speaks to the media in London in 2015 (AFP)

“I am a Jewish member of the Labour Party and also a member of JVL. I am most definitely not a Communist and I do not have another party,” I noted in my complaint. “Mr Coyle’s call for the mass expulsion of all JVL members from the Labour Party is unmistakably, crudely, and disgustingly antisemitic. By calling me and my JVL colleagues ‘outright Communist’, Mr Coyle adds insult to injury. This is the kind of thing that was said about Jews in Nazi Germany. It is shocking to hear it in this day and age and in the Labour Party of all places.”

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I further noted that Coyle’s diatribe constituted hate speech against Jewish members of the party, and that it clearly violated Labour Party rule 2.1.8, which requires the National Executive Committee to regard “any incident which in their view might reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility or prejudice based on … race religion or belief … as conduct prejudicial to the Party”. 

I received an automatic acknowledgement of my letter, but no reply or update of any kind, despite follow-up inquiries on my part. Bindman and Immanuel have also received no reply to their complaints, even though Bindman sent copies to the party’s top officials and to Starmer himself.

I cannot help wondering how the Labour Party would have responded to a call for the mass expulsion of Labour Friends of Israel. To me, the message seems clear: under the leadership of Starmer, Labour does not want anti-Zionist, left-wing Jews like us in the party.

Bizarre situation

While apparently ignoring our complaints, Labour has rigorously investigated left-wing Jewish members on charges of antisemitism. At least 46 Jewish members have faced or currently face disciplinary proceedings related to antisemitism, although most complaints actually concern anti-Zionism, rather than anti-Jewish bigotry. 

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s definition of antisemitism, which Labour adopted in 2018, conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism. It constrains free speech and criticism of Israel. By applying this fundamentally flawed definition, Labour has ended up in a bizarre situation where Jews are now a primary target for accusations of this hideous prejudice.

Why is Labour continuing to ignore this issue after being so quick to sanction Coyle's alleged anti-Chinese racism?

The offensiveness and cruelty of Jews being investigated for antisemitism by non-Jews is best illustrated by the case of Diana Neslen, an 82-year-old Jewish member of JVL and committed anti-Zionist. She has been investigated by the Labour Party no less than three times in less than three years in relation to antisemitism.

The allegations stemmed from a 2017 tweet in which she said that “the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour and I am an antiracist Jew”. According to the IHRA definition, this statement is antisemitic. After Neslen threatened legal action against the party, the latest investigation was dropped last month.

Recent data shows that a JVL committee member is nearly 300 times more likely to be targeted for investigation by Labour than a non-Jewish member.

More than six months have now passed since Coyle’s tweet attacking JVL. The response to our complaints and repeated reminders has been stony silence. Why is Labour continuing to ignore this issue after being so quick to sanction Coyle’s alleged anti-Chinese racism, and why does the party appear to reserve the charge of antisemitism for left-wing Jewish party members? 

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

Avi Shlaim is an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2014) and Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (2009).
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