What does the Jewish communal leadership really want?

Jonathan Arkush and Jeremy Corbyn: Photo: Jewish Chronicle

In the light of yesterday’s meeting, Richard Kuper ask what the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council really want. It clearly isn’t confined to the issue of antisemitism.

Corbyn and Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council

Richard Kuper, 25 April 2018

What on earth is the real agenda of Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council (hereafter Bod/JLC)? They say it is to see antisemitism in and around the Labour Party dealt with fairly and effectively so that the Jewish community is assured. I wonder. The way they are going about it suggests another agenda as well.

On 26 March the Bod/JLC wrote a letter to Jeremy Corbyn accusing him of siding with antisemites against Jews and of having failed to deal with antisemitism in the Labour party. The tone of the letter did not allow any actual room for disagreement or discussion.

In his reply Corbyn did his utmost to meet the criticisms head on. He acknowledged the anger and upset that provoked it, stated that antisemitism has surfaced within the Labour Party, and has too often been dismissed as simply a matter of a few bad apples, reiterated his commitment not to tolerate any form of antisemitism in or around the party and movement, accepted the argument that newer forms of antisemitism have been woven into some criticisms of Israeli governments, and repeated his offer of an urgent meeting to discuss the issues raised.

In response to this attempt at conciliation the BoD /JLC responded a few days later with a new set of demands which look as though they were designed not to help reach an agreement, but to make it impossible for Corbyn to satisfy them.

They demanded, in advance that the meeting “must produce concrete, practical outcomes to be implemented by the Party” and set an agenda with the following demands

  1. The Party leadership, and Corbyn personally, must be seen and heard to lead this work.
  2. That antisemitism disciplinary cases must be brought to a swift conclusion under a fixed timescale. They specified further: “An independent, mutually agreed ombudsman should be appointed to oversee performance, reporting to the Party and to the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council.”
  3. That MPs, councillors and other party members should not share platforms with people who have been suspended or expelled for antisemitism and CLPs should not provide them with a platform, at the price of being suspended themselves if they did.
  4. Education of a very particular type was called for, viz that “The Party should circulate the IHRA definition of antisemitism, with all its examples and clauses, to all members and branches. The Party should work with mainstream Jewish community organisations to develop and implement education about antisemitism. This should include a clear list of unacceptable language, based on the full IHRA definition and on the examples included in your letter of 26 March.”
  5. The party should work only with “the main representative groups of the Jewish Community” and “not through fringe organisations who wish to obstruct the Party’s efforts to tackle antisemitism”.
  6. There should be agreed process to monitor the progress and implementation of these actions in the future.

And, finally, they wanted Corbyn’s personal pledge to be a “militant opponent” of antisemitism and to always be “our ally”.

While the first and last points might be regarded as uncontentious, it is obvious from how the others were formulated that little room was left for any real discussion or negotiation and how much Corbyn’s bona fides were called into question in such a way that nothing would be likely to satisfy their demands.

Indeed yesterday (24 April), before the meeting took place, Corbyn nonetheless went out of his way to try to lay the grounds for a successful meeting with a long article published in the Evening Standard entitled ‘What I’m doing to banish anti-Semitism from the Labour Party’. In particular he acknowledged again that forms of antisemitism were indeed present in parts of the Party, tried to understand their source, and pledged to deal with them. But he also made it clear that he would not accede to what were totally unreasonable demands.

In other words, he responded to the agenda he had been offered where he felt it possible to meet the demands, but he made it clear that he would not agree to demands that were unreasonable, or simply not in his power to accept (the Labour party is a democratic party in which the leader, thankfully, is not a dictator who can simply ignore all other bodies in the party and run it at their whim).

So, although he did not in this article respond directly to the 6 points laid out by the BoD/JLC he did make it clear, for instance, that

* he fully accepted and had already committed himself to leading on this work;

* he wanted progress on any disciplinary cases and that the Chakrabarti proposals – due process, transparency, proportionality – that he had already instructed the new General Secretary to move forward with a sense of urgency on them. (He did not say – and the BoD/ JLC did not deign to mention –  that the delays were not his responsibility but that of the old Blairite machine which has been resisting Corbyn for the best part of the last 3 years and that only now, with a slender majority on the NEC and a new General Secretary, was Corbyn able to impose some authority on it and move ahead.)

* education was key: “We will also embark on a programme of political education to deepen Labour members’ understanding of what anti-Semitism is and how to counter it.”

But he did not commit to the IHRA definition with all its examples (which are not part of Labour’s policy – and for good reason as they are in large measure politically motivated, often rather incoherent, obscure when criticism of Israel is legitimate and when it might be antisemitic, expressing a hatred of Jews etc)

* he was dismissive of the attempt to control which Jews the Labour party was allowed to talk to, implicitly refusing the categorisation of those, like JVL, as  “fringe organisations who wish to obstruct the Party’s efforts to tackle antisemitism”. Rather, he affirmed that he would “have no truck with any attempt to divide the Jewish community into the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sort of Jews”

* He also did not accept the line which the IHRA definition encourages which is to regard criticism of Israel as inherently likely to be antisemitic unless it could be shown to be otherwise. Rather, he insisted that criticism is just fine and necessary unless “criticism of or opposition to the Israeli government uses anti-Semitic ideas — attributing its injustices to Jewish identity, demanding that Jews in Britain or elsewhere answer for its conduct, or comparing Israel to the Nazis — then a line must be drawn”. Anti-Zionism, he also affirmed, is not in itself antisemitic and that many Jews themselves are not Zionists

At the time of writing we only know how the Bod/JLC have reported the outcome of the talks as “a disappointing missed opportunity.” It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to realise that Corbyn stood firm on several important issues and they didn’t like that one little bit.

He didn’t, for instance, concede on the IHRA definition and all its examples nor did he accept the “transparent oversight of their disciplinary process” that was being demanded (which meant an independent ombudsman who would report to the BoD/JLC!).

Other things like timetables etc are simply not in Corbyn’s hands to agree to. You simply can’t have fair rules and at the same time override them to produce immediate outcomes. Corbyn is already committed to action, real action, to introduce proper disciplinary procedures and to move ahead to deal with outstanding cases of alleged antisemitism where disciplinary action is the appropriate form of action (although he is also clear that real political education is vital for any long-term effectiveness on the issue). You can’t demand action not words and but then refuse to allow the necessary time for the commitments that do exist to be translated into effective action. You get the feeling that nothing short of Corbyn grovelling at the feet of the Board and JLC’s chairs would have sufficed – and then even that would have been followed by a demand that Corbyn be replaced by someone who really never argued back but conceded to the Bod/ JLC both the right to decide what was antisemitic, and to dictate the outcomes in particular cases of alleged antisemitism (and, one might add, wasn’t so enthusiastic about Palestinian rights and the establishment of a Palestinian state).

Or, to put it another way, what is being demanded is that the BoD/JLC have the right to decide what is or is not antisemitic, that allegations of antisemitism aren’t treated as allegations, but as established facts, and that, with implementation of the IHRA in the spirit of the Bod/JLC, criticism of Israel should be presumed to be antisemitic unless proved otherwise…

All praise to Jeremy Corbyn for having resisted so much of this absurd pressure while pressing on setting up the structures that can deal with real issues in a grown-up way.