Labour’s Action Plan lacks principles for antisemitism education

by Tony Booth on behalf of the JVL Education Group


“…it is not my view that narrow anti-racism training programmes are what is required. There is a grave danger that such an approach would seem patronising or otherwise insulting rather than truly empowering and enriching for those taking part.”

Chakrabarti Report 2016 p 6

In this article we respond to the section of the Action Plan that looks at “training” to “drive out antisemitism” by setting out principles for education to promote understanding of, and reduction in, racism and discrimination, including antisemitism, in the Labour Party and wider society.

Keir Starmer’s and Angela Rayner assert in the foreword that all forms of racism and discrimination should be addressed by the Party. Disappointingly, the plan fails to deliver on this promise, focusing almost exclusively on antisemitism. In failing to set antisemitism in the context of other forms of discrimination, either qualitatively or quantitatively, it promotes a hierarchy of racism and discrimination. This is racist in denying other forms of abuse the attention they are due.

1. Engage in education not training

The action plan follows the EHRC report in using “education” and “training” interchangeably. We make a firm distinction between the two. In our education workshops we aim to increase understanding of discrimination and how to combat it and to initiate a process of reflection and action over the coming months and years. This requires an educational approach involving deep engagement with people, drawing them into dialogue, debate and reflection on practice. This is needed to create sensitive and productive interventions in response to discriminatory words, actions and images. Education requires us to set aside power differences so that people are freed to express themselves.

We distance ourselves from the “training” approach of other organisations which attempt to bring about surface behaviour change without deep understanding and ownership of concepts and how they should be deployed in action.

2. Avoid discriminatory assumptions

The plan is being established by people who seem unaware of their own racism and discriminatory actions. In the foreword to the Action Plan, Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner use the antisemitic trope referring to a single Jewish Community three times; and this is repeated elsewhere in the document. Its use is widespread. It is promoted by some groups of Jews, forming one side of a sectarian divide who wish to see themselves as the only legitimate spokespeople for all Jews and to delegitimise the voice of Jews who see the world differently.

Keir Starmer produced a bizarre addition to the definition of antisemitism when he claimed as antisemitic any suggestion that allegations of antisemitism were exaggerated or used for factional purposes in order to suspend Jeremy Corbyn. Thus, he provided a very good example of the use of antisemitism for factional purposes, which is antisemitic. This strand reached its pinnacle in guidance from the David Evans, General Secretary of the Party when he issued instructions to prevent members from talking about contentious issues in Labour Party meetings and then blamed this on the sensitivities of Jews.

In making the combatting of antisemitism their priority, Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner establish a hierarchy of racism which they assume “the Jewish Community” supports. Such a hierarchy downplays discrimination against all other groups vulnerable to abuse. It deflects attention from the urgent action required to tackle, for example, the increase in domestic violence during the pandemic. It fails to recognise the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement most glaringly indicated by the failure to act on the racism of Labour Party staff alleged in the leaked report on the Governance and Legal Unit. By asking Jews to buy into such a hierarchy the authors of the action plan assume that we Jews are inherently racist, eager to put our self-interest before the welfare of our comrades.

Without addressing its discriminatory assumptions, the action plan will promote rather than “drive out” antisemitism and other discrimination.

3. Recognise that no-one is above engaging in education

The racist and antisemitic assumptions which the leadership of the party bring to the action plan clearly indicate a need for education about racism at the top of the Party. This continues the absence of such self-reflection on competence that was evident in the EHRC report. A freedom of information request was sent to the EHRC asking what “training” its authors had received in understanding antisemitism and the handling of complaints about it. The reply stated that they had not had any because they did not need it. Many would argue that the muddled nature of that report and the lack of close attention to definitions of antisemitism suggest that this is a mistaken view.

4. Eschew macho posturing

The action plan has been established with a political purpose to appeal to particular constituencies. This is quite different from a deep concern to reduce discrimination in society. It imports language analogous to that used to create the “hostile environment” for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers beloved of Theresa May, Amber Rudd and Priti Patel. It contains echoes of conservative policies on crime which increase the size of prison populations and cut support for rehabilitation. It is concerned, overtly, with “driving out” antisemitism and with “zero tolerance” towards it. There is an absence of awareness of the extensive critiques of “zero tolerance” policies in social and educational contexts. The use of such language is entirely inappropriate in setting up a learning atmosphere for any group: labour leadership and staff, those handling complaints or ordinary members. Zero tolerance policies have become relatively common in schools and take the form of “extreme discipline”. They culminate in such overreactions as the sending home from school of a child in Liverpool for having eyebrows that were too bushy, skin that was said to be artificially tanned and shoes that were the wrong kind of black and another girl in London who wore skirts, in accordance with her Islamic tradition, that were deemed to be too long. Zero tolerance policies easily lead to a rush to judgement, and the institution of superficial solutions or “training” that fails to engage understanding and effect lasting change in values and actions.

5. Develop ground rules for respectful dialogue

Anti-discrimination education should proceed by establishing a set of agreed ground rules which lay the ground for informed, respectful, dialogue. JVL asks participants in our workshops to agree to the following rules to help them examine and revise their opinions and actions:

  • We treat each other with respect and listen carefully to each other without interruption.
  • We indicate when we want to speak and wait for our turn.
  • We take all contributions seriously however much we may disagree with what is said.
  • We always keep our minds open enough to revise our opinions and learn from others.
  • We treat contributions as confidential to promote freedom of expression and the absence of fear of censure for any mistakes made during discussion.

While confidentiality is difficult to ensure, creating a safe space where differences of view can be aired, and mistakes made and discussed, is essential for successful anti-discrimination education.

6. Encourage the use of evidence

A denial of the relevance of evidence has allowed much discussion around

antisemitism in the Labour Party to become foolishly factional. Evidence denial about antisemitism may have started with the 2016 Home Affairs Committee report on Antisemitism in the UK, which reported that there was less antisemitism in Labour than in the Tory Party and then focused entirely on the Labour Party. This conveyed an entirely false impression to the media and was seized upon without further questioning. Jeremy was suspended in 2020 for talking about evidence. Keir Starmer’s new addition to definitions of antisemitism included proscribing the use of evidence and any talk about it. Yet any worthwhile education about discrimination has to refer to available evidence about the levels of discrimination in society generally as well as in political parties. Once you know that 85,000 women in England and Wales are subjected to rape and other serious sexual assaults each year it undermines a blinkered view of discrimination priorities.

7. Support critical thinking

Denying the relevance of evidence curbs curiosity and a lack of curiosity precludes

Education. Yet we have a leadership and General Secretary who have attempted to ban critical discussion of a number of issues important to members. This has added to the climate of fear that exists. Members, across the Party, are afraid that they will misspeak about antisemitism and so avoid talking about it. This may have a knock-on effect on the expression of concern about any forms of racism or discrimination. There is a concentrated effect on those on the left of the Party who sense that excuses will be sought to suspend and exclude them. The notion of an authoritarian “training” in which chosen “trainers” hand down right-thinking to a compliant audience, complements the hardening of a Party culture that is antagonistic to party democracy and free speech. JVL will continue to provide educational activities that treats our participants as equals and assumes that they can think critically and act responsibly.

8. Attend to the denial of discrimination.

We have seen many efforts to expose the denial of discrimination that happens in plain sight. This is commonly expressed through demands for the recognition of rights, for example, for women, disabled people, black people, LGBTQ+ people and children. In recent times we have seen publicity about “everyday sexism”, everyday sexual abuse exposed in the Me Too movement; and a determination to end racism in policing and all other spheres of life through the Black Lives Matter movement. Statues of racist individuals can be seen to embody the denial of racism as they face down criticism of their achievements.

The denial of the existence and significance of antisemitism by people of themselves and in their observations of others certainly happens too and needs to be understood in the context of other forms of denial.  We have pointed out how this has involved the leadership of the Labour Party, in their own unwitting antisemitism as they pursue a factional agenda.

9. Be aware that allegations of discrimination can be false, mistaken and legitimately contested

Discrimination happens even while its perpetrators and accomplices deny that it is happening. The extent of discrimination can also be exaggerated or be the result of false allegations. This is an uncomfortable truth. The discrepancy between public beliefs and actual figures for the numbers of Labour Party members accused of antisemitism testifies to this exaggeration. The accusations of antisemitism against Marie Van Der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and Sheila Gewolb, the Vice-President, are examples of the factional exploitation of antisemitism allegations and mistaken applications of definitions. In the latter case, after Sheila Gewolb criticised the Israeli Nation State Law, a petition with 450 signatures claimed that she had fallen foul of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in singling out Israel for censure. This involved an erroneous conflation of antisemitism with criticism of Israel and a misapplication of the IHRA definition. If this could happen to a prominent member of the Jewish establishment it speaks volumes about what might have motivated allegations towards others, both Jewish and non-Jewish, outside of this group.

Antisemitism involves abuse, prejudice, discrimination or hatred expressed towards Jews. The IHRA definition has been routinely misapplied to suggest that making a statement close to one of its illustrative examples is antisemitic without further evidence of discrimination towards Jews. While some examples of antisemitism may be easy to agree upon, others are disputed. Expertise may often involve the acknowledgement of areas of uncertainty and contention.

Concluding remarks

We have indicated some issues that any adequate antisemitism education must include. The leadership of the Labour Party’s present approach to “training” is likely to exacerbate rather than reduce the mess it has created for itself over antisemitism. We, the Labour Party, need to rediscover a commitment to addressing all forms of racism and discrimination, bringing clarity and as well as determination to this important and difficult task.

With thanks to Miriam David and Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi for comments on an earlier draft .


Comments (11)

  • Harry Law says:

    If the Jewish Labour Movement are invited to teach at these Labour party sessions, I do hope no party member raises this thorny issue below, it could cause a mass walk out and more accusations of Anti Semitism from the JLM.

    JLM says it organises and is affiliated within the World Zionist Organisation [WZO], whose goals include establishing Eretz Yisrael as greater Israel from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean, including the whole of Jerusalem. WZO’s Settlement division actively supports settlements in the Occupied West Bank, although both the occupation and the settlements are illegal under International law

    Opinion | Haaretz Editorial
    Editorial |
    The World Zionist Organization’s Land Theft Division
    It’s time to investigate, and then shut down, this quasi-governmental agency, which steals both state and private Palestinian lands to realize its sacred goal of settlement construction

  • Terence McGinity says:

    Thank you for such clarity. I am in agreement.

  • Alan Maddison says:

    Very good critique, and so informative and interesting, thanks Tony!

    A brief review of evidence I undertook on the effectiveness of various techniques to reduce prejudice in society supports many of Tony’s points.

    For example, simply telling people why their prejudice is wrong, trying to debunk their adopted false stereotypes with rational arguments or evidence, does not seem to work. Anyone involved in education on prejudices should know this.

    People tend to adopt false negative stereotypes for various reasons, not all rational, as this often helps meet some of their fundamental social needs. Attempts to remove them may often create anxiety or discomfort, and so will be resisted.

    I expect the Labour team putting this shoddy political action plan together know this, they simply do not have the genuine goal of reducing racial or religious prejudice, or the many ‘otherisms” so common in our Party and in society. They just wish to silence legitimate criticism of Israel and remove as many socialists as possible from their political home, just as Palestinians were removed from their real homes.

    Such a shameful betrayal of all those suffering or fighting prejudice.

  • DJ says:

    Nothing to disagree with here. The problem is that the Labour leadership has no interest in any meaningful education for the membership on racism including antisemitism. It intends to provide the JLM with a platform to indoctrinate the membership with pro Israeli views. They want zero tolerance of anti zionism. They are clearly indifferent towards fighting against Islamaphobia and anti black racism which go beyond box ticking exercises.

  • Malcolm Bradstock says:

    Thank you Tony Booth and IVL for producing such an excellent article and making it available for use. It clearly illustrates the gulf in level of thinking between the biased ignorance of the leadership team and the depth and breadth of thinking of the erudite LVL.
    Thanks also for Harry Laws cogent point about WZO
    I would just add a reminder of the JVP detailed condemnation of the Israeli Police training for US and UK police in their excellent report “Deadly Exchange”. Awareness of this report got RLB sacked!

  • jenny Mahimbo says:

    I laugh in the face of 2-hour “unconscious bias ” lessons as the path to zero tolerance – did Starmer do it whilst taking the knee in an otherwise empty room and proclaiming BLM to be a “moment”? Anti-racist education sessions I’ve been on were facilitated not taught – participatory and self-learning. I learned that being anti-racist is never “done” – it is only ever “starting” or “continuing”. We are striving to be anti-racist/anti-discriminatory rather than being a finished product – it’s not like passing an “O” level.

    The lack of ground rules in JLM “training” oversaw and presumably condoned the release of a recording of a session all over social media and contributed to the expulsion of Jackie Walker. It’s the first thing I picked up on with the incident. In any education session what is said in the room should stay in the room and can’t be the subject of any disciplinary action – that has to be the result of evidence outside the room.

    Recently I was sent a letter by GLU that was addressed to a branch by them – presumably for information only, because it wasn’t directly addressed or cc’ed to me – forbidding the branch from organizing antisemitism awareness sessions because the LP will be organizing something themselves instead …. but not yet. The LP doesn’t have any antisemitism education sessions to offer. Meanwhile, we are told we must take responsibility and challenge antisemitism …. but we aren’t allowed to provide the means to do so. We are also not allowed to talk about it.

    So what are we left with? Talk about tackling antisemitism but don’t talk about it. Urgently address it but don’t do it urgently. One is left with the conclusion that the General Secretary’s dictats aren’t really about antisemitism at all, are they? But we can’t talk about that either can we?

    What madness is all this? But then maybe the architects of all this know what they are doing, and it has nothing to do with antisemitism, is it?

  • Sheelagh Strawbridge says:

    Completely agree with the approach advocated by Tony Booth and JVL’
    Education critical thinking is needed.

  • Wonnie says:

    This is an excellent addition to tackling antisemitism and I hope helps to inform others less knowledgeable.

  • Sarah Perrigo says:

    I think the Tony Booth article is excellent and should be circulated to all CLP secretaries for wide distribution as they discuss the ‘Action Plan’

  • Emma Tait says:

    If you are Jewish, are you expected to undergo anti-Semitic training, or can you get a ‘free pass’?

  • Kathy McCubbing says:

    A well-needed article which is critical, thoughtful and reflective – qualities which would be desirable in the Labour leadership. As said above this needs to be shared widely in CLPs. Thank you Tony Booth.

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