Education about antisemitism and anti-racism in Sheffield

JVL Introduction

We were Interested to read this report on LabourList.

JVL has been offering its own educational sessions to Party branches, CLPs and trade unions, with  non-prescriptive, open-ended exploratory discussion of the issues. As experienced educators we aim to help people think about difficult issues, not tell them what to think. See our education page for more details and to arrange a session.

We note that Edd Mustill from Sheffield Heeley CLP similarly writes that “we purposefully did not label the sessions as ‘training’. We consider anti-racist politics as best developed by ongoing education in order to improve our understanding and ability to challenge racism wherever we encounter it…”

Little help has come from the Labour Party centrally. Instead we seem to have an ever-increasing number of arbitrary and secretive suspensions and investigations, with no discussion of how to raise antiracism awareness in general. Discipline as a first and only resort makes for poor pedagogy.

This article was originally published by LabourList on Fri 7 Aug 2020. Read the original here.

How our local party developed an educational programme on antisemitism

Sheffield Heeley Labour Party recently held the third of three sessions of an educational programme around antisemitism developed and run by party members. The final session, delayed by the election and the pandemic, was held over Zoom. The sessions were organised as part of the local party’s wider anti-racism work, which has included meetings on Islamophobia and the Windrush scandal.

The impetus came from members who were concerned both by antisemitism in the labour movement and the increasingly unhelpful tone of any discussion about the issue. Some of us felt that attempts to raise the issue in good faith were immediately derailed into other conversations relating to factional party matters or the behaviour of the Israeli government.

These issues were exacerbated when a meeting was held in Sheffield at which Chris Williamson, then a Labour MP, claimed that the party had been too apologetic over antisemitism. Following this event, a full Constituency Labour Party (CLP) meeting voted overwhelmingly to mandate a working group to develop a series of awareness-raising sessions on antisemitism.

The working group included members of varying political backgrounds, united in a determination to give the issue the space it deserves. Recognising that we are none of us world experts on the issue, we purposefully did not label the sessions as ‘training’. We consider anti-racist politics as best developed by ongoing education in order to improve our understanding and ability to challenge racism wherever we encounter it. We also felt that it was preferable to deliver our own in-house programme so that it could not be associated with any particular faction in the polarised national debate.

The sessions largely followed a facilitated discussion group format with a small amount of preparatory reading and a short introduction. For the first session, we asked people to read Steve Cohen’s indispensable text That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic and examined the history of antisemitic ideas being entertained and propagated in left-wing circles, which long predates 2015 or 1948. We asked participants to share their own experiences and reasons for taking part, facilitated as a ‘round’ so that everyone could have their say. Attendees came from across the political spectrum in the party, but all were strongly committed to challenging the policies and actions of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians.

In the second session, we examined the history of Zionism and anti-Zionism as relates to the socialist movement and antisemitism. We took Zionism on its own terms as a form of modern nationalism, which – like other nationalisms – has expressed the national aspirations of an oppressed group while often taking an exclusionary or oppressive stance towards others. We looked briefly at the contribution of Jewish socialists to our movement, including those of the labour-Zionist tradition. We discussed how and why ‘Zionism’ and Israel can become stand-ins in modern political discourse for the old ideas of the Jewish conspiracy, and whether Zionism is a meaningful political label in contemporary politics in Britain.

In the final session, we considered some contemporary examples of behaviour, language and tropes that have been criticised as antisemitic, including from high-profile figures in the labour movement. We did this not as an exercise in casting judgement about whether person X or Y ‘is antisemitic’ but to sharpen our own ability to recognise and call out problematic behaviour when we see it.

The programme shows that it is possible – and, we believe, necessary – to create the space to discuss the history of antisemitism within and without our party and labour movement in a respectful manner. While happy to share our reading lists and session outlines, we recognise that they may not be directly transferable to other CLPs. The political context may be different and, crucially, the priorities of local Jewish members should be taken into account.

In recent years, the party has waxed lyrical about ‘political education’ but actually done very little. Where political education occurs, it often still takes the form of listening to an important speaker or learning about the party’s policy on X. Here, we have tried a more participatory and discursive approach. It has, we believe, allowed us to cut through the often fraught arguments about antisemitism on the left and grapple with the complexities of the issue on their own terms. While we would not claim to have all the answers, we are proud of what we have achieved and urge other comrades to follow suit.

Edd Mustill is a member of Sheffield Heeley Labour.

Comments (8)

  • DJ says:

    Much more constructive than trawling for tropes or reporting on people who unwittingly may have said something at a meeting which could be construed as anti semitic

  • Mike french says:

    I am dismayed that JVL sees fit to reprint, without any correction, an article from Labour List which recycles the slander circulated by the ‘liberal’ and right wing press that Williamson claimed the Party had been too apologetic over anti-Semitism. His speech to a Momentum meeting in Sheffield is available on line and says nothing of the sort.

    As Naom Chomsky observed Williamson’s Sheffield speech argued that Labour had “given too much ground” and had been “too apologetic” in defending its record on fighting racism and “the scourge of anti semitism.”

    Our web editor writes:

    We reported extensively on the Chris Williamson at the time and hoped our position was well known – simply search for “Chris Williamson” on our website to find numerous articles endorsing the point you make.

    We often repost articles from other sources that contain assertions or judgments we disagree with. Where they are central to the argument, we generally point them out. Where, as here, the comment is made in passing and has little bearing on the general argument, we trust our readers to post comments – like yours – which correct the record.

    Nonetheless, we accept that should have drawn attention to our disagreement with this particular assertion.

  • DJ says:

    Fair point. The media did twist Chris Williamson’s words and he was thrown under the bus. I support his claim that the EHRC lacks independence. A body packed with Tory cronies and no black or Muslim representation has no credibility.

  • Stephen Williams says:

    It would be fair to describe the Labour Party as having bent over backwards to dignify the views of Zionists without making any effort to confront anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic bigotry.

  • Mike Cohen says:

    Such I initiatives are at best pointless, at worst counter-productive in as much as they accept the idea that Labour has a problem about antisemitism. I am no longer a member of the Labour Party as I will not contribute to the settlement made by Starmer on behalf of members. So I will no longer subscribe to JVL.

  • John Hall says:

    I think that whether Williamson argued that labour had been “too apologetic” over anti-semitism or “had given too much ground” and “been too apologetic” is a little too nice. Some of us feel that Corbyn had made too much of a doormat of himself rather than confronting the (necessarily human-rights abusing) manifestation of settler-colonial Zionism. Criticising this modern form of zionism cannot be anti-semitic as it is endorsed and promoted by millions – possibly tens of millions – of Christian Zionists in the USA and elsewhere. In this sense, Williamson was quite right. Anti-zionism could not be “anti- semitism and there is no way that the Labour Party should have been apologising for it without other evidence of anti -semitic intent. Anti-Zionism is NOT anti-semitism not even “code for” anti-semitism.

  • ian duncan kemp says:

    unfortunately the LP has constantly bowed to the weaponization of A/S Corbyn let MPs like Hodge and Streeting get away with making accusations that were both false and wrong. A/S is a much bigger problem in wider society than it ever has been LP.It has been used by the right wing of LP to get at Corbyn because this civilised man was against all forms of racism and injustice.
    It was a sad reflection on LP that it was allowed to develop and fester without any serious challenges made to MP s like Hodge and Streeting Burgier . Now in my view it should be seriously challenged by anybody in the LP who recognises the damage that has been done .

  • Philip Ward says:

    This article is by a labour councillor who welcomed the suspension of his former ward secretary for tweeting (or re-tweeting) a graphic showing a doctored Job Centre sign reading “Arbeit Macht Frei”. This action was considered antisemitic.

    A sign saying “Arbeit Macht Frei” was first used outside Dachau which was opened in in March 1933 for the incarceration of left-wingers. Any Jews there at that time would have been arrested for their alleged political activities. This shows how much those who complained about this “antisemitic” tweet know. In any case, the graphic is a comment on the DSS and cannot be construed as antisemitic (it doesn’t offend me).

    It is not possible to have a meaningful discussion about current “antisemitism in the labour party” without discussing “factional issues” in the Labour Party or the Israeli government, as this article suggests happened. They are both central to what is going on and the article is thoroughly disingenuous in ignoring this.

    It sounds as though a discussion by JVL of Steve Cohen’s book would be interesting. I don’t know it, but I assume that it doesn’t say that criticism of Israel and Zionism as racist or Apartheid is antisemitic, which is the claim that is at the core of the witch hunt.

Comments are now closed.