A response to Jonathan Freedland’s “Labour’s denial of antisemitism…” report in the Guardian

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, 29 September 2017

[See also Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi wows Labour Party conference]

Jonathan Freedland’s response to the launch of a new organisation, for Labour Jews who do not find the party a hostile place, was to ignore it completely and attack Leftwing grandees of the movement for denying “antisemitism in the ranks.”

This requires quite a feat of intellectual gymnastics and is worth unpicking in some detail, because Freedland’s approach epitomises that of the full range of pro-Israel punditry these days, from liberal Zionists to ardent admirers of Netanyahu and those even further to the Right.

They say nothing about the oppression of Palestinians; repeat old charges of antisemitism on the Left as if they were proven; pick words or phrases out of context to imply hatred of Jews; allege that antisemitic tropes are being used; ignore any Jews who inconveniently disagree; and paint anyone suggesting a link between the wave of allegations and attempts to discredit the Left as either themselves an antisemite or tolerant of it. Catch 22. Question the basis of the allegation and you are deemed guilty by default.

Freedland’s attack on Ken Loach, Len McCluskey and Ken Livingstone followed remarks made by the first two during Labour Party conference in Brighton.

Livingstone was not in attendance, but was included in Freedland’s article anyway, presumably to make up an amusing trio of names and to provide the excuse to retail a favourite story about his inept comments linking Nazis and Zionists.

The three veterans of the Left are derided as being “not Jewish – a fact that might limit their authority to speak on the matter.”

But Freedland has no quarrel with John Mann, Dennis McShane, Eric Pickles or the legions of other anti-Corbyn non-Jews who deploy antisemitism allegations on his side of the argument.

His readers are left ignorant of the fact that when Loach and McCluskey spoke out in defence of the party, they were following Jewish delegates who told conference that they had set up a new organisation – Jewish Voice for Labour – precisely in order to counter fake allegations of antisemitism used as weapons against Corbyn’s supporters.

Neither does he report that McCluskey had attended the group’s launch meeting on the evening of Monday Sept 25 and heard speeches from David Rosenberg, writer and activist from the Jewish Socialists’ Group, Oxford Professor Avi Shlaim, one of Israel’s “new historians”, and Sir Stephen Sedley, retired appeal court judge.

The leader of Unite the Union said afterwards: “The existence of JVL means Jewish members on the left of the party now have an organisation that represents their views – and that transforms the discussion into one of left vs right as it should be.”

When McCluskey and Loach say they know Labour is not a hotbed of antisemitism, they speak with the authority of Jewish comrades who have said so repeatedly, and been ignored.

Is Jewish Voice for Labour wrong to dissent from the “Labour has a problem with Jews” narrative? Freedland cites John Cryer MP, who sits on Labour’s disputes panel, saying some of the anti-Jewish tweets and Facebook posts he has seen from Labour members are “redolent of the 1930s”.

Any genuinely antisemitic material generated by Labour Party members of course requires action – that goes without saying. But its existence does not disprove JVL’s premise – large numbers of accusations are levelled at people who have nothing against Jews but who are angry that Israel gets away with murder, literally and metaphorically, in its treatment of Palestinians, and say so vociferously. The vast majority are motivated by compassion, not hatred.

Freedland makes the alarming allegation that during the conference “There were loud calls for the expulsion of Jewish groups…” Alarming and dishonest. The reality is that one member of the audience at a fringe meeting made a controversial call – applauded by some other audience members – for expelling the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel. The person making the call was a Jew and he was not targeting JLM and LFI for being Jewish. In fact being Jewish is not a membership requirement of either. They are groups defined by their support for Israel. LFI is not, in any case, IN the Labour Party. It is a group for Labour members of parliament, Jewish and otherwise, who advocate for the State of Israel.

Jewish Voice for Labour recognises the right of the JLM to organise in the party, but rejects its claim to act as the sole voice of Jewish opinion. Nor does JLM have the right to set the limits of what members may say about Israel and Palestine, nor determine policy on antisemitism without reference to other Jewish party members.

So is it true as Freedland asserts, that “Some Jewish activists turned away from the conference, describing an atmosphere that felt too hostile to endure?”

The link he provides takes us to a page of tweets from supporters of the JLM who had been discomforted by the support shown for their critics during conference. It was indeed very clear that many – if not most – delegates resent the role of JLM and its allies in the Blairite Progress faction in shutting down support for Palestine and facilitating many suspensions and disciplinary actions against members. Two speakers, both members of Jewish Voice for Labour, called for safeguards to protect freedom of speech when codes of conduct are drawn up, and insisted that JVL should be involved as well as JLM.

No speaker opposed the insertion in the rules of new clauses regulating racist or other discriminatory behaviour.

Freedland’s labyrinthine and dishonest arguments plumb the depths when trying to portray film maker Ken Loach as a Holocaust denier. In his cited interview, Loach was pursuing an argument about the importance of free speech when he was called upon to comment upon an ambiguous sentence mentioning the Holocaust in a speech that he had not heard. He stuck to his line of argument saying that “history is for all of us to discuss”, for example the history of the founding of the state of Israel, in which serious violations of human rights occurred. For failing to make the, to him, blindingly obvious point that denying the holocaust is abhorrent, Freedland marks him down as a “echoing…the language of Holocaust denial.”

Freedland’s logic means that those who support justice for Palestine and Corbyn’s project to revitalise Labour as a party of the Left are at risk, if they talk about friends of Israel feeding stories to the media; or accuse them of supporting a state responsible for criminal actions in Palestine; or write about the exaggeration or downright fabrication of antisemitic incidents, or suggest that allegations are being made for political ends. Even if these are all true, and even if the authors are Jewish, Freedland will find a way to make an antisemitism allegation stick.