I’ll never forget the first time I knowingly experienced anti-Semitism, the point at which all the communal anxieties, stories from history and warnings from my elders suddenly made sense. I can’t have been more than 12 years old when I found myself sat on the dodgems at a funfair, somewhere on England’s drizzly North West coast.
I was part of a group of Jewish children on a day trip from a summer camp, buzzing on far too much Kosher Haribo and the prospect of jumping on a few dodgy rides.
Rather than wear a kippah – the traditional Jewish skullcap – our teenage leaders had told us to put baseball caps on our heads on this occasion for safety reasons. As someone who didn’t usually dress in clothes which signify my religious affiliation (the camp was orthodox, and so doing so here was mandatory), it wasn’t entirely obvious to me at the time what was going on.
A few hours later I buckled myself into the dodgems, and the alarm went to signal our time on the ride had begun.
What must have been just moments later a kid, a few years older and not one of our party, leaned over into my dodgem, and made the face of someone who was going to sneeze. As he did so he grabbed the cap from my head and yelled “AAAAJEWWWW” in my direction, before spitting on my cap and chucking it away. Suddenly the need for me, a vulnerable young child, to temper outward signs of my identity made sense.
I know experiences like mine are not uncommon, so it’s profoundly important that we take each and every accusation of anti-Semitism – in a political party, like Labour, or otherwise – with the highest level of concern, not lazy disregard. I don’t like the fact I feel I have to write this, but today it feels as if I do.
Political parties are by definition places of tribalism: organisations that foster a sense of competition between distinct and polarised sides. Our electoral system creates space for just two major parties, and the official opposition is tasked with scrutinising the actions of government and holding them to account. It doesn’t take a Westminster insider to see that within party structures there are similar tensions. Brexit has caused a toxic rift within the Conservatives that looks far from healing, while the divide in Labour over Corbyn’s premiership, while slowly decreasing, prevails nonetheless.
But as these Labour camps have been developed in this civil war, so too has anti-Semitism’s place within it. What has become apparent since the most recent story surfaced is that we’ve lost sight of a simple truth: some Jewish members of our party have said they sometimes feel uncomfortable, that our party isn’t always a safe space for them. Moreover, some Jewish people who have criticised Corbyn have received anti-Semitic abuse.
Those on all sides of the Labour Party must now take stock of their positions, because the last 48 hours have exposed some uncomfortable realities that I, and many others, had hoped were not there.
It’s true that for years now Corbyn and his supporters have – wrongly – been portrayed as rampant anti-Semites. Commentators have told Labour members that their presence can be equated to enabling anti-Semitism, that they’re an ‘army of racists’ who deserve to be shunned. At points this was through implied associations with individuals who have rightly been kicked out for their disgusting views, at other times it was nothing more than slander.
Sorry, but I've said it before. If you remain a Labour member, you are no longer fighting anti-Semitism. You are enabling it.
— (((Dan Hodges))) (@DPJHodges) July 25, 2017
In fact, today Labour is the home of people committed to fighting bigotry. The left has a long and proud history of standing up for oppressed and marginalised people. A quick flick through your history books will confirm that this is the case.
Yet just because many of the accusations against Labour and Corbyn have been unfounded, it does not mean Jeremy Corbyn is beyond critique. To put it bluntly, he can fuck up. And let’s be clear, five years ago that’s exactly what he did.
It was back in 2012 when Jeremy Corbyn, then an obscure back-bencher, posted a comment on social media which has now attracted heavy criticism, and an enormous amount of media attention.
“Why?” Corbyn wrote underneath an image of a mural on Facebook with a caption that explained that the following day it would be taken down from a wall in London. “You are in good company,” the Labour leader continued, “Rockerfeller destroyed Diego Viera’s mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.”
The mural in question pictured used anti-Semitic tropes that have no place in public (or private for that matter). It’s right that Corbyn has apologised and explained how his comments came about.
I’m inclined to believe this was oversight rather than driven by a hatred of Jews – there’s no doubt the man is a tireless anti-racist campaigner. But the very fact the imagery failed to capture his attention should make us all pause for thought. It has certainly encouraged Corbyn himself to do so. If it’s unclear to you why the imagery depicted is a problem, then take a moment to read up, and feel free to ask questions. If you’re today making excuses for Jeremy Corbyn’s post without acknowledging it was offensive, quite frankly you’re part of the problem, too.
Anti-Semitism exists in Britain, and it manifests itself in a variety of forms. The neo-Nazis and the racists who assault and attack us are a threat to our safety, but so too are the more subtle incarnations of bigotry that pop up in the day to day. There are the conspiracy theories and the hooked-nose drawings, those who use the word Jew as a synonym for stingy, and those who say we run the world.
I have a message too for those who will continue to blindly defend Corbyn on this issue, arguing that this is just another attempt to undermine his leadership in a long-running smear campaign. What was posted by the now Labour leader on social media showed a distinct lack of judgement and rightly offends Jewish people. Your knee-jerk reaction to defend his every action, even if it’s a response that has developed through necessity, needs reconsidering. We must always hold our leaders to account.
It doesn’t matter that the issue today is being weaponised by some. Jeremy Corbyn handed them the ammunition. It doesn’t even matter that some of those continuing to criticise Corbyn today do so with ambitions to remove him from the Labour leadership. What matters is that it happened, and can never be allowed to happen again.
The vast majority of those rushing to defend Corbyn today are doing so because it’s now second nature. They’ve become accustomed to the media unfairly attacking him. On this occasion though, there’s merit in the uproar. I ask you to listen to the concerns being raised, and read the response Jeremy has written. These rash responses are, while not excusable, understandable. They’re a result of a never-ending smear campaign. If Labour is going to be a truly anti-racist party, it has to stick to this key principle of anti-racism: you listen to people from minority ethnic communities, you respect their experiences, and you don’t tell them it’s all in their head.
There’s also a fair amount of fear-mongering from those looking to whip up anxieties that don’t need to be there. “The reality is that there are no safe spaces online or in meetings for Jewish people within the Labour Party,” reads a letter today written to Corbyn by the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council. It’s a sentiment that I, a Jewish Labour member, know to be divisive and wrong.
Many Labour members are the most dedicated opposers of bigotry I’ve ever had the privilege to come across. I attend Labour events and meetings both as a member and a journalist, and I’ve never felt unsafe because of my religious identity. Making such sweeping and false generalisations is not constructive.
But as people who define ourselves in light of our progressive values, we are obliged to hold ourselves to higher standards when it comes to anti-Semitism, as with all forms of prejudice. The fact anti-Semitism exists in our society is not justification for its presence in Labour. If you inspect the mural and see Corbyn’s apology, and still consider his comment to be a-okay, it’s time to cut up your membership card.
This afternoon in Westminster two separate groups will gather outside Parliament, one will be in support of Jeremy Corbyn, the other will be critical of him – the fact both are united in abhorring anti-Semitism has been lost in the hysteria. We’ve let an internal battle over the Labour Party and its future distract us from the real and present dangers that anti-Semitism presents us with.
In January 2018, figures released by the Community Security Trust showed anti-Semitic incidents had reached an all-time high in Britain, with a 34% increase in the number of violent anti-Semitic assaults. The situation is even bleaker in America. When the level of anti-Semitic attacks on our streets is soaring, why are all the op-eds, leader columns, news stories and TV debates about a Facebook post by Corbyn?
Tackling anti-Semitism doesn’t just mean Labour chucking someone out of the party. What should be obvious is that is just the start. It means taking a long, hard look at our society which allows racism and prejudice to prosper, and ensuring that we work to make sure bigotry is eradicated today and for generations to come.
This means taking on the far-right, but also making it clear conspiracy theories aren’t left-wing, and there’s no space for apologists in progressive movements. It’s Labour’s responsibility, as the country’s most progressive party, to take on that task. I know that Jeremy Corbyn is no anti-Semite just as well as he does. There is no harm in rising to the occasion, and proving your critics wrong. I hope those on both ‘sides’ today feeling outraged will join him.
Michael Segalov is News Editor at Huck. Follow him on Twitter.