By Sam Tilley
If there is one key issue consistently placing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party under strain, it is that of anti-Semitism. The problem has dogged Labour’s executive board for years, but it is only since Corbyn’s leadership that allegations of anti-Semitism have hit mainstream discussion.
Allegations against Labour MP Naz Shah and former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone have led to a cataclysm of claims of anti-Semitic abuse, directed at MPs, trade unionists and grassroots campaigners. The most recent case was that against Chris Williamson, MP for Derby North, who was caught on camera saying that Labour had been “too apologetic” over the anti-Semitic crisis. Whilst he was suspended by the party pending an investigation, other MPs were quick to question why it had taken most of the day to do so. It is clear that some in Labour believe that the issue of anti-Semitism has corrupted what, in their eyes, used to be an open, welcoming party. But just how bad is the problem of anti-Semitism, not only inside the Labour Party, but in the wider society today?
A 2015 study by the Anti-Defamation League suggested that 8% of all respondents harboured anti-Semitic attitudes in the UK. An astonishing 27% responded “Probably True” to the statement “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country.” If, as the ADL study has, you translate these percentages to the adult population; it suggests that 3.9 million adults in the UK have typically anti-Semitic attitudes and that an astounding 13 million adults believe that Jews harbour more loyalties to Israel. Further figures suggested that 7% of all respondents don’t believe that Jews are just like everyone else and that 17% were not concerned about violence towards Jews, Jewish symbols and Jewish institutions.
It is interesting to note that none of the respondents to the above survey identified as Jewish. If we bring Jewish opinions into the debate, the figures appear even more damning. Four out of five Jews believe that anti-Semitism is a major factor in British politics; the highest rate in Europe. More pointedly, 89% of Jewish respondents believe that, since 2012, anti-Semitism has increased and that a similar percentage believed that anti-Semitism was a growing problem in politics.
A 2016 Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry was critical of both the Conservative Party and Labour, in addition to criticism directed at Twitter, the police and the National Union of Students. It argued that there was a toxic atmosphere in certain sections of the Conservative Party, especially within certain university political societies, proving that eradicating anti-Semitism is not just a problem for Labour to face. It also tore into the Labour-backed Chakrabarti Report, stating that the report appeared to skirt around a clear definition of anti-Semitism. The International Holocaust Remembrance Society’s (IHRS) Working Definition of anti-Semitism states that “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Labour’s initial reluctance to back all of the working examples including within the definition and the adding of an addendum requiring “anti-Semitic intent” to be proven in relation to criticism of the state of Israel along with the suggestion that: “It is not antisemitism to refer to ‘Zionism’ and ‘Zionists’ as part of a considered discussion about the Israeli state.” The outcry caused by this decision eventually forced Labour’s National Executive Committee to make a full u-turn but it appears that, based on the recent criticisms of Chris Williamson and the defection of Luciana Berger, there is still a problem with anti-Semitism within the ranks of Labour.
There also seems to be an anti-Semitic problem affecting higher education institutions as of recent years. The University and College Union (UCU) faced a similar problem to Labour in 2011 when it disassociated itself from the IHRS’s Working Definition and agreed upon an academic and cultural boycott of Israel; actions that some Jewish members described as “openly racist”. Recently, the University of Essex faced criticism after their policy on enforcing an open vote on the creation of any new society showed a stark opposition to the creation of a Jewish Society. Further controversy was courted when it was revealed that a lecturer at the university was rallying students to vote against, one action amongst a number of potentially suspect activities. Even within Cardiff University, there was outcry at a motion placed forward at this year’s Annual General Assembly which appeared to decry both anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian actions was allegedly not produced in consultation with the Jewish Society. Furthermore, the original motion had accepted heavy amendments in order to clarify its opposition to current Israeli-government policy rather than the state of Israel itself.
It is clear that the spectre of anti-Semitism is not going away any time soon and, with the far-right losing their long-held political monopoly on anti-Semitism to pockets of the left, it perhaps is no wonder that Jewish citizens and students are feeling isolated from both national and student politics and from wider society in general.