Antisemitism education and Party democracy

JVL Introduction

This article was prepared for the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and included in its 21 February bulletin.

Jonathan Rosenhead writes

Party democracy has been put under extreme strain by the recent decisions of General Secretary David Evans, who could only be acting as he does with the explicit agreement of Keir Starmer. The gagging messages from Evans which prevent local discussion on whatever he designates, backed up by suspensions of local officers who try to respect the wishes of their members, are already provoking widespread outrage. Now this undemocratic centralism is surfacing in the party’s approach to who may, and who may not, provide education on antisemitism to party members.

The EHRC report into antisemitism in the Labour Party found serious defects, amounting in effect to an absence, of training on antisemitism for the staff handling and deciding antisemitism complaints. This gaping hole was one, but only one, of the reasons for the utterly inconsistent and in many cases quite wrong-headed way in which allegations were handled. The report’s recommendations on education and training can be summarised as

  • education and practical training for all individuals involved in the antisemitism complaints process
  • an educational course for those found to have engaged in antisemitic conduct
  • a programme of education and training on identifying and tackling antisemitism, for all staff, Party officials, and other members in positions of responsibility within the Party

all of which should be developed “in consultation with Jewish stakeholders”.

The EHRC Report does seem hazy to say the least on the distinction between education and training. But it is clear from the party’s response to the report, its Action Plan, that for Labour this is a distinction without a difference. It uses the terms interchangeably as if they were synonyms. Which is disappointing, as the farsighted Chakrabarti Report of 2016 was emphatic that what the party needed for its members was not “narrow anti-racism training programmes”, but rather “broad-based education and training” using the wide range of sources and skills available.

Jewish Voice for Labour, an organisation of more than 1000 party members all of whose Full Members are Jewish, was founded in 2017. It has been delivering educational programmes on antisemitism in a number of formats since 2018. Our workshop-based offering has now been experienced by close to 20 locally-based Labour movement units, mostly party branches and CLPs, but also including trade union branches, and left caucuses. Under lockdown they have been taking place on Zoom.

The workshops allow participants to explore their understanding of the history of antisemitism, the significance of antisemitic tropes, the connections between antisemitism and other forms of racism, and non-discriminatory ways of discussing Zionism and Anti-Zionism. They are a ‘safe space’ in which people can make ‘mistakes’ and learn from them – and also learn that antisemitism is complex. Around 500 people have attended these interactive sessions; there have been many expressions of appreciation for the way the experience had clarified understanding and no complaints to date.

However JVL is now encountering what appear to be centrally-issued orders banning local party units from arranging these occasions for their members. It is indeed a strange approach to reducing the prevalence of antisemitism in the party, whose first concrete step is to prevent Jewish members from providing antisemitism education. It is worth mentioning that all our facilitators are Jewish; they are education professionals, many of them senior academics; and like the UK Jewish population as a whole, many of us have lost whole branches of our families in the Holocaust.

What makes this de facto ban particularly extraordinary is that the party’s own post-EHRC Action Plan promises only to “roll out a programme of education and training on identifying and tackling antisemitism, for all staff, Party officials, and other members in positions of responsibility within the Party”. The failure to distinguish between education and training seems to indicate a quite shocking lack of comprehension; but this is dwarfed by the absence of any educational provision at all for the great majority of party members.

Jewish Voice for Labour does not ‘do’ training. But we do provide educational opportunities in a sensitive and non-judgemental way. And that continues to be on offer. Party members can contact us via [email protected] to arrange sessions for members of their CLP or branch. So long as this indefensible ban continues, party communication channels may not be available to inform members, so some members will miss out. But we are finding that informal networks can also operate pretty well. Do get in touch. (And there is more information available here.)

But what does this ban tell us about the Labour Party under its “new management”? They are committed they tell us, in the very first line of the Action Plan, to “zero-tolerance of antisemitism” (itself, it must be said, a dubious concept). How does obstructing committed and qualified Jews from providing education on antisemitism square with that sentiment?

Indeed there is a deeper inconsistency here. The Labour Party seems to be operating under the delusion that there is only one kind of Jew, or only one type of opinion that entitles someone to be the ‘right kind of Jew’, indeed to be treated as Jewish. Why else would the party exclude whole swathes of Jewish opinion from their consultation? We too are among the ‘Jewish stakeholders’ that they were enjoined by EHRC to consult.

There is a word for the operational assumption that, unlike other peoples who are rich in diversity, all Jews are just the same. That word is antisemitism.

Jonathan Rosenhead is a member of Hackney South and Shoreditch CLP and Jewish Voice for Labour

Comments (4)

  • Ellie says:

    Another temperate appeal to reason from Jonathan Rosenhead but sadly still falling on deaf ears…

  • Martyn Meacham says:

    Starmer and his self serving cronies have completed their mission of destroying the Labour Party.

  • John Bowley says:

    The Labour Party hierarchy, now more than before, is clearly Anti-Jewish, as it is insisting on imposing a top-down Zionist and Conservative hierarchy on all British Jews regardless of individual thought, moral values and beliefs.

    The Labour Party hierarchy is now comparatively racist in its present grading of bias and worse against the black and asian populace below antisemitism.

  • Dave says:

    Good article as usual from Jonathan, who is in my CLP and I enjoy his contributions at meetings and so pleased he is there. What can I say except we dearly need education on what antisemitism really is.

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