The EHRC’s report into antisemitism in the Labour Party, which revealed unlawful discrimination, was a moment of truth for those who defended the party and spent five years accusing anyone who spoke out against it of orchestrating a smear campaign…
Naively, I imagined those who had been responsible for the party during the time frame considered would, at the very least apologise, perhaps resign. Instead, they doubled down. Jeremy Corbyn’s public downplaying of the report was an acute demonstration of the intransigence that has characterised so much of the party’s past few years. To his successor’s credit, and notwithstanding his own recent and long-time dalliance to the Court of Corbyn, this outburst was met with suspension. There is to be no place in the party, said Sir Keir Starmer, for antisemitism nor for “the denial of antisemitism.”
There has been little on the bear-pit of Twitter, there was a petulant backlash from the former leader’s fans, expressing sympathy for “Jeremy” (their habitual use of his first name always seeming infantile or cult-like), often admitting in the same breath that they do not really understand the issue, just as they happily pour scorn on a report they haven’t bothered reading. I can think of few things more damaging than rubbishing the findings of a statutory body and sharing conspiracy theories in the process, when public distrust in institutions is high, and an entire community has been made to feel unwelcome or unsafe in their own country. One of the main recommendations to stem from the inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence was that we should listen, in good faith, to people alleging discrimination. Yet in the days immediately following the suspension, British Jews were subjected to trolling, and with little contrition from those who had predicted the report would exonerate Labour.
Had the EHRC found in Labour’s favour, these people would be upholding its report as gospel. Indeed, the EHRC was set up as a body by the Labour Party (and I’ve seen people who, in light of this report, dispute its right to function while also paradoxically calling for it to investigate parties they dislike). There were no complaints from “anti-racists” when the EHRC quite rightly found the BNP guilty of institutional racism. Some even seemed to want it both ways – London Young Labour accepted the findings, but contested the suspension. Some have pointed out the left’s tendency to assume that Jews are a “privileged group” and therefore not as in need of support as genuinely oppressed communities. This approach is not only an enormous and inaccurate generalisation, it also overlooks the fact that discrimination is wrong regardless of whom it is directed against. Even if every British Jew were a multi-millionaire, there would be no excuse for overlooking antisemitism. Perhaps some, having spent so long within a self-congratulatory, simplistic, Manichean culture, were also so cocooned in bubbles of confirmation bias, which the echo chambers of anti-social media can reinforce, that accepting their side had got it wrong was a bridge too far. Victim blaming has become the norm on anti-social media, and is dangerously on the rise in the real world, too, but in my absurd naivety, even after the ugliness of the last five years, I had not expected to see allegations of “exaggerating” or “weaponising” antisemitism and bullying – from people who identify as “compassionate” or “progressive.”
Perhaps the explosive responses of a few outriders should have been expected, and ought to be ignored. But the collective shrug with which the report was met by many of those who I saw relentlessly embracing Corbyn’s Labour, by those who refused to believe the Jewish community and even those who had acknowledged there was “a problem” but ploughed on with promoting Labour anyway, was almost more depressing. People who post ten or fifteen tweets a day on politics, for whom Labour and their leadership had been a seemingly central pillar of existence, were suddenly silent.
I am fiercely defensive of the right to silence, I ridicule the notion anyone “should” tweet a view on any subject – indeed, having experienced anti-social media’s hotbed of abuse, I understand why some steer clear of politics entirely. Nor do I believe it is in any way necessary to have a view on many subjects. But when those who take the trouble to comment about every issue going, who splash their “anti racist” credentials at the slightest opportunity, who routinely accuse others of prejudice or selectivity, are wholly silent in the face of Britain’s official opposition party being guilty of unlawful, racist, discrimination, there are no neutral conclusions to be drawn. Those who spent five years demanding everybody vote the way they do and accusing all who disagree of being heartless child killers by proxy, or, indeed, of making heartfelt accusations of racism against other parties, are suddenly devoid of a response when the man they celebrated as a saint is seen as having led a party into institutional antisemitism.
Most of this summer saw protests against racism. We are living in emotive times. Louder than the voices of any one discriminated-against group tend to be those of self-appointed allies – except when it comes to antisemitism. Even such a statement as “I backed someone I thought held decent values, but realise now I was mistaken,” is beyond them. Outspoken campaigners, activists given to broadcasting their opinion, people who drench right-wing politicians in tirades of condemnation, celebrities hungry to be seen to fly the flag for whatever cause is “in” (including, at one time, Corbyn’s Labour), or to show “solidarity” with the disadvantaged, people usually offended by almost anything, have lost their voices.
What the EHRC report makes clear is there is a price to pay for prejudice. Those who discriminate against the Jewish community will not get away with it. But the last five years, and the last few days, have also proven that “life-long anti-racists,” who oppose “all forms of racism” are often the first to vanish when the going gets tough. Of Jewish descent myself, I have borne the brunt of antisemitism, including violence, from the far right. Before 2015, whenever I met or mixed with people on the far left, or self-styled “anti-fascists”, I usually felt reassured that, that, whatever political differences we may have, they would “have our back” when it came to the crunch. I cannot speak for anybody else, but from my own perspective, if I come across anyone describing themselves as an “anti-racist” now, there is always a part of me which is wary, suspecting they may be an apologist for antisemitism, or look the other way when it rears its head. Or even in some cases, that they may themselves be antisemites. I am sure some are not. But they have a long road ahead if they are to convince anyone of the sincerity of their anti-racism, or to ever be believed about anything again.
Photo credit: Sky News