Thoughts on the latest episode of “Storm in a Teacup – our everyday summer saga of antisemitism allegations.” Tonight’s special guest: Pete Willsman

In Yiddish there are two words for a question: “frage’ (fra-geh) and “shayle” (shy-leh). But there is an important difference. you can ask anyone a “frage”. But a “shayle” is what you ask a rabbi. Rabbis welcome questions and are supposed to be good at answering them.

Actually I want to ask 68 rabbis a couple of questions:

1. Why did you sign that letter absolutely defending every word of the IHRA (working) definition of antisemitism and its accompanying examples (for guidance) as if they were carved in stone and handed to Moses on Mount Sinai?

2. What was your evidence for saying that the Labour Party had a “widespread and severe” problem of antisemitism?

Now my name is Rosenberg, and I spent my teenage years in Ilford. I reckon I’ve got a good chance of getting an answer.

If my name was Pete Willsman though, and I asked the questions in an intemperate, frustrated and pissed-off manner, I reckon that in today’s wild and febrile political atmosphere I might risk getting called an “antisemite”.

Willsman asked the second question. And speculated in a closed meeting – in what was supposed to be an open discussion where people speak their mind and might change their mind too – that the rabbis might be wrong, that a few Jewish Trump supporters are pulling the wool over people’s eyes, and that a number of the allegations relate to comments on fake social media accounts.

I don’t know Pete Willsman except as a name on the Labour left, an anti-racist Petes-Conference-Guide-e1346280445633campaigner, and activist in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.

But I do know that there has been an all-out War against Corbyn-led labour, and one of the battalions, alongside the Tory Party and the Pro-Tory press, and pro-Israel lobbyists, has been a narrow group of right-wing pro-Zionist Jews, some of whom are absolutely  open in their support and admiration for Trump. And I do know that antisemitic posts have been outed as being from fake accounts pretending to be Labour members/supporters, so I don’t think it is at all outlandish to contribute that to the debate with those thoughts. It is not how I would do it, and his badgering question to his fellow NEC members: “How many people have seen antisemitism in the Labour Party?” was not so clever,  but we are getting to the point where certain quite reasonable questions are being dismissed as “antisemitic” in themselves.

I absolutely understand the desire to suppress hate speech but what has happened to ordinary free speech and the right to ask questions in our Party? And why on Earth should we allow free speech to be inhibited because a member of that NEC is disgracefully making secret recordings of private discussions and then leaking them to hostile anti-Labour papers.

We don’t know who was responsible for the leak but I would hope that those responsible for disciplinary procedures will declare their intention to come down very heavily on them when they are discovered.

Meanwhile the heat is on any dissident Jews who stray from complete obedience to the Thought Police of the Jewish establishment organisations and complete agreement with the very flawed IHRA document, that 40 Jewish organisations from 15 countries have heavily criticised.

This is so unlike the Jewish culture I grew up in. A friend posted on a discussion the other day: “Whatever happened to two Jews, three opinions.” I replied: “In a cost-cutting exercise they have reduced it to one opinion.” A joke – only it isn’t. We are letting people impose a form of totalitarianism.

But let’s come back to those rabbis. How do they know what goes on in the Labour Party apart from encountering very biased news reports. I looked down the list and I recognised several names of rabbis I knew had very right wing/Conservative/pro-Zionist political views – so I understood them putting the boot into the Labour Party (though a bit of an unrabbi-like thing to do). I saw a few names of people I was surprised went along with this, but what I didn’t see were many rabbis I knew to be Labour Party members. Maybe a small proportion of them were.

I know what happens in the Labour Party because I go to meetings, at ward level, at General Committee level, at local Executive Committee level; I participate in online forums of Labour members and supporters. I canvass with other members, go to the pub after meetings, have lots of conversations with them. Since I rejoined the party in 2015 I have only encountered one (borderline) incident – a comment made by a member in a discussion in the pub. And though I accept that people who are not Jewish may not have as sharp a sensitivity to subtle antisemitism as Jews, I actually believe the members (non-Jews and Jews) I have interacted with around the country who tell me they haven’t seen it or heard it in their local party.

I’m sure it does exist in pockets. It would be surprising given how deeply embedded antisemitism has been in British history and culture, if it didn’t surface somewhere consciously or unconsciously, out of the mouths of some Labour Party members, and I hope when it does that it gets challenged in an effective educational way.

But how would those rabbis know unless they are telepathic? Is it that unreasonable to ask them for evidence? And just because they are rabbis does that make them amazing intellectuals? I think about my late mother-in-law, Zelda, who used to sometimes go to synagogue on the Sabbath. When it came to the rabbi’s sermon, she used to take her hearing-aid out and was lost in her own thoughts. She got her intellectual nourishment elsewhere.

Theresa-May-and-Ephraim-MirvisA quiz question: Where were Theresa May and her husband the night before she became Prime Minister?
Answer: at dinner with the Chief Rabbi at his house. He mentioned to her how friendly he had been with David Cameron. Politically neutral? No, I don’t think so.

So, there have been calls from the usual Blairite quarters for Willsman to step down from the NEC slate for the election, to step down from the NEC, to be expelled from the party… he must wonder what he has achieved all these years with the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. I note that he has issued an apology for aspects of his behaviour at the NEC, clarified his stance towards antisemitism, and referred himself to equalities training by the Party. Good. But he is not stepping down, and that is also good. The release of the tape a week after the meeting but after the NEC elections has begun, was meant to result in one less seat for the pro-Corbyn slate and too late to put in someone else. At least that failed. I have every intention of voting for the full #JC9 slate, and hope you will too if you have a vote..

 

 

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Speech: at Arise Festival workshop on uniting against racism and fascism 28.7.18

Last November I helped to lead an educational visit to Krakow for 50 anti-racists and trade unionists, through Unite Against Fascism, which included a day at Auschwitz. We were trying to understand what happened in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s to bring that awareness into the present.

Just days before we landed, 60,000 ultra nationalists had a riotous Independence Day rts1jhv4-e1510599172201march through Warsaw. Marchers on this day have largely been right wing conservatives but more recently the fascist presence has grown substantially. Last November fascist groups were the most active mobilisers, with flags, banners, flares, chanting slogans. One banner said “Pray for Islamic Holocaust”.  Groups were chanting “Jew-free Poland”. The fascists welcomed  overseas visitors including Tommy Robinson.

A taste of things to come here, in Britain, where fascist groups have risen then fallen, beaten back by strong anti-fascists resistance, aided by the incompetence of the fascists groups themselves. For several years now they have mustered little more than a few hundred on the streets, but last month that changed.

5b1c05fbdda4c8915e8b457915,000 marched and rioted through central London in support of Tommy Robinson, vastly outnumbering less than 300 anti-fascists. Remnants of every small deeply ideological Nazi group from the last 30 years were there, joined by large groups of Islamophobic football thugs,  Polish fascists and UKIP. UKIP’s temporary leader Gerard Batten makes speeches indistinguishable from the BNP – weaving together crude Islamophobia, anti-refugee sentiment with more subtle antisemitism.

They had hi-tech equipment – flash screens, powerful PA systems. Among the bonehead thugs were sharply-dressed, educated young men from the European-based Generation Identity movement and the American Alt-Right who were bankrolling it. Far right politicians were there from Holland and Belgium and a speech from American white supremacist Steve Bannon conveyed on screen.

A real step change – a new, threatening coming together of the far right in bigger numbers than anything we faced in the NF marches in the 1970s.

What has changed to help bring this about? The election of Donald Trump and the ascendancy of populist far-right movements and parties in several central and East European countries. Events in Britain are ripples from that wider international movement plus austerity and neglect.

Such movements normally arise during an economic crisis, although in Hungary, Czech Republic, and Poland there is no economic crisis; quite the opposite. Those movements have considerable working class support. There is something more deeply ideological happening. Islamophobia, antisemitism, anti-Roma racism are rife. So are homophobia, attacks on women’s rights, and defence of the Christian family. Fascists are increasingly versatile. They can switching their main targets, or attack several targets at once. We have to be just as versatile in the forces we bring in and unite together

We need to improve our our analysis and rethink our strategies.

Back in the 1980s I worked in the East End with Revd Ken Leech an Anglo-Catholic priest on the Marxist/anarchist spectrum and a great anti-racist activist. He wrote:

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Ken Leech

“The battle against racism and fascism cannot be won by outsiders who march into an area, chant slogans, and then march out again; it can only be won by the most dedicated, rooted and persistent commitment to undermine and destroy the injustice and neglect on which such movements thrive.”

Which is where Labour comes in. Only Labour is organised in every locality, can change people’s lives around, and combat injustice and neglect. It is not enough to moralise and say racism is evil. We need to embed the fight against racism in our struggles for better housing, health, employment, education for all. We also need to mix politics and culture. The most successful anti-fascist initiatives of the 1970s and ’80s mixed politics with culture.

We were taken by surprise in June partly because of another situation that emerged in April/May this year around the scandalously treated Windrush generation, victims of Theresa May’s deliberately hostile environment. They had also been neglected by the anti-racist movement who took more notice of the frequent attacks on Muslim communities. We have to be sensitive to how each group experiences racism but always keep the big picture in mind. Alongside Islamophobia, deep racism against communities of Caribbean heritage continues.

As we organised with, and in support of the Windrush generation, we found enormous sympathy across society. Minorities instinctively support each other but suddenly it felt like the majority were on our side.

So the opposite movement around Tommy Robinson was a serious reality check.

Another reality check for anti-racists: problems we thought had disappeared but haven’t: I became active in the mid-1970s, animated by slogans such as “black and white unite and fight”, “self-defence is no offence”, “here to stay here to fight”, but one slogan bothered me then: “Yesterday the Jews today the Blacks’, because I instinctively knew then what I am much surer about today– that antisemitism is a very light sleeper. Every so often it awakes with a real jolt. The idea of world Jewish conspiracy that explains the economic system and politics remains crucial to the ideology of fascist groups today.

All the ridiculous mainstream media headlines about antisemitism try bizarrely to pin it on the left and Jeremy Corbyn. Make no mistake, antisemitism is alive and kicking – on the far right of politics. The far right have flooded the internet with Jewish conspiracy material (some of it thinly disguised as opposition to bankers, some of it thinly disguised as pro-Palestine). Unfortunately some on the left are sharing it. We cannot allow any space for antisemitism, we cannot allow antisemites to taint the Palestinians’ cause

When the Tories goad Corbyn about antisemitism in the Labour Party and paint themselves as friends of the Jews, we need to hit back hard and show how the Tory Party is directly linked through the Conservative and Reformists groups in the European Parliament to openly antisemitic, Islamophobic, anti-Roma, anti-refugee , homophobic parties in Poland, Latvia, Bulgaria, Denmark and others.

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Jacob Rees Mogg at a TBG dinner

We need to expose Tory-led groups here like the Traditional Britain Group – thoroughly racist, friendly to Holocaust deniers, and recommending Mosley’s books.

I want to finish where I started – with the group of anti-racists and trade unionists visiting Poland. In those few days we uncovered the processes through which the situation of minorities worsened until anything could be done to them: labelling, scapegoating, discriminating, dehumanising, isolating… and so on. We can recognise aspects of these in our society today against different minorities.

But these stages are not inevitable. They can be challenged and interrupted. In the 1930s many people enthusiastically joined the oppressors, others just went along with it –  as by-standers. Too few resisted. Don’t be a by-stander, be an up-stander!

 

Chief labeller and libeller

When will the mainstream media stop treating Britain’s Chief Rabbi (Ephriam Mirvis) as a neutral political commentator in the argument about the Labour Party, antisemitism and the controversial IHRA document?

He nailed his political colours to the mast, and simultaneously displayed an appallingly narrow and selective attitude to anti-racism, back in May 2016, just before the London Mayoral election.

ShowImageThe story about that election for anyone concerned with racism was the disgraceful dog-whistle Islamophobic campaign run by the Tories for Zac Goldsmith against Sadiq Khan. It included repeated inferences about Khan’s alleged links to Islamic terrorists and extremists, and leaflets were distributed by Goldsmith’s campaign targeting Hindu voters warning of a plan by Khan to tax jewellery. Some mainstream commentators even compared it to the infamous  racist Tory campaign of the 1960s, scaremongering about “coloured neigbours”, that unexpectedly unseated Patrick Gordon Walker.

On the day before the mayoral vote, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis was handed space on the front page of the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph. He penned an unbridled assault on Labour under Corbyn, attacking the left in general for opposition to Zionism and criticism of Israel. Mirvis made the fatuous claim that Zionism (a political ideology)  was an intrinsic part of Judaism, and managed to label and libel all opponents of Zionism as antisemites. Of the Tories’ racist innuendo against Sadiq Khan in the mayoral race, the Chief Rabbi uttered not one single word.

The Telegraph received a letter signed by more than 50 Jews (at very short notice) condemning the Chief Rabbi’s “party political intervention”, which was “selective in its anti-racism”. It accused him of adding to the “sensationalist allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party, where the headlines’ decibel level is in inverse proportion to the evidence to back them up”, and utterly condemned his silence both about “the disgusting dog-whistle campaign by Zac Goldsmith’s Tory team against a Labour candidate of Asian Muslim background” and recalled the “callous, racist and bigoted comments of Tory politicians, calling refugees ‘a swarm’ and ‘a bunch of migrants’”.

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Bundist slogan

It concluded with a pertinent piece of history, reminding the Chief Rabbi that, “The vast majority of Jews who perished in the Holocaust were indifferent to Zionism and many opposed it. In the last municipal elections in Europe’s largest Jewish community, in Poland, just before World War 2, Poland’s Jews voted overwhelmingly for the secular, anti-Zionist, socialists of the Bund, while Zionist parties got derisory votes.” (The religious parties’ vote also declined significantly from previous elections). The letter concluded by asking: “Is Rabbi Mirvis recasting those victims of the Holocaust posthumously as enemies of Judaism and therefore as antisemites?”

I don’t know if Chief Rabbi Mirvis ever read it. He never responded. The Telegraph refused to publish it, though the Guardian printed a version of the letter a few days later (signed by even more Jews – though no doubt the “wrong” kind of Jews).  The specious claim that opposition to Zionism was antisemitic, effectively libelled all Palestinians dispossessed by Zionism as antisemites, simply for seeking redress for their injustice. That point was made succinctly by the respected Palestinian academic Dr Kamel Hawwash. The Telegraph refused to print his letter too.

The current attack on the Labour Code of Conduct, made simultaneously today, by three Jewish newspapers makes the same fatuous claim that anti-Zionism is “political antisemitism”, that Rabbi Mirvis made two years ago. It was wrong then. It is still wrong today.

 

 

Stand down Margaret

Not content with calling Jeremy Corbyn a “fucking antisemite and racist”, and treating herself as the victim when the Labour Party threatened to act on a third party complaint about her use of outrageous and abusive language against a fellow Labour MP whom she has known for several decades, and is the leader of the Labour Party, Margaret Hodge has had the chutzpah to compare her fight against Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism with her fight in her Barking constituency against the British National Party (BNP). She has cynically drawn on her family’s direct experience of the Holocaust to bolster her special right to pronounce on the subject.Strategic Framework for English Tourism launch

The usual suspects who regularly target their venom at Corbyn instead of the Tory Party, (and happen, coincidentally, to be members of Labour Friends of Israel), Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger, Jess Philips, Chuka Umunna and others, have all lined up to defend Hodge’s comments and have praised to the hilt her proclaimed brave and courageous fight against the BNP.

Let’s unpick this a little. In 2006, the BNP certainly pulled off a political surprise in the council elections when they won 12 seats in Barking and Dagenham, where the local MPs were Jon Cruddas and Margaret Hodge. Labour paid the price of taking votes for granted and not doing the work on the ground to counter the narratives of the BNP. The BNP replaced Labour councillors and former Labour voters provided most of the new voting strength of the BNP. Nine out of those twelve new councillors were in the brave and courageous and effective anti-racist, Margaret Hodge’s constituency. It was certainly a failure of that Labour council but equally her failure. Maybe even more her personal failure. The singer and writer, Billy Bragg, who grew up in Barking, and still has family there, pointed out that she didn’t even have an office in the constituency until after those 12 BNP councillors were elected. She had effectively made a deal with the local Labour councillors that they look after the constituency and she will concentrate on her role at Westminster.

But it gets worse the more you dig. In the run-up to the elections of 2006 Hodge claimed that eight out of ten white working class people were thinking of voting BNP. For the BNP activists this was manna from heaven. Those who were leaning towards the BNP’s policies but couldn’t necessarily see the point in voting, as Labour always got in, were suddenly very motivated to vote. Small wonder that the BNP sent Margaret Hodge a bunch of flowers to thank her.

A year later, what do we find this brave and courageous anti-racist doing? She is busy advocating a housing policy which explicitly talks of privileging “the legitimate sense of entitlement felt by indigenous families” over the “legitimate needs demonstrated by new migrants.” Not exactly the words of an anti-racist champion who is entitled to casually throw accusations of racism at others.

She was widely accused, not least by the Refugee Council and several other anti-racist bodies, of legitimising the BNP’s arguments, competing with the BNP on the territory they were establishing by absolutely conceding to their arguments. Not surprisingly the BNP’s then-leader, Nick Griffin, saw Margaret Hodge’s seat as vulnerable to a far right challenge at the next General Election. It is just a tad embarrassing and tasteless even that a politician who wields her family’s Holocaust history as a weapon to give her license to say what she likes in arguments with fellow Labour MPs, was being criticised then by leading refugee bodies for bolstering the racism of a party whose roots were in classical Nazism.

Britain Refugee MarchWhat was Jeremy Corbyn in the same period? The same as he has always done – taking on the racists and fascists within his own and other constituencies, in tireless door to door work, on public platforms and on the streets, supporting grassroots anti-racist and anti-fascist activists and always advocating principled arguments that gave no ground at all to racism, and helping to make Islington a borough that was proud to welcome refugees.

Hodge’s close pals on the right wing of the Labour Party talk of her “crushing the BNP in Barking”. Thankfully the fascists were defeated, but Hodge was part of the problem not the solution. It was the round the clock efforts of local left-wing Labour activists, trade unionists, and local and national anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations who were responsible for seeing off the BNP councillors and Nick Griffin’s parliamentary challenge in 2010.

IMG_5737.jpgIt was an extraordinary effort. In every council seat the total number of voters went up, but the BNP vote went down. I did the easy bit with my fellow trade unionists – we put anti-racist and anti-fascist literature through the letter boxes of every home in Barking and Dagenham. Billy Bragg, though, returned to Barking and spent a month knocking on doors to have the face-to-face arguments with first time BNP voters, and to try to convince them to see things from a different perspective. We did a bit of joint personal work. I interviewed Bragg for the West Ham football fanzine. it was published about six  weeks before the election. We discussed football and his feelings about the area he grew up in and its current social and economic problems, knowing that the cross section of people buying that fanzine would have included a significant number of first time BNP voters. He gave sophisticated arguments for them not to vote BNP, without talking down to the voters or dismissing their sense of disenfranchisement and neglect.

In this, and in his work on the doorstep I am sure Billy Bragg was much more effective than Hodge who had simply ended up boosting the BNP’s arguments in a typically unprincipled right-wing Blairite attempt at triangulation.

Billy Bragg who, like Corbyn, has impeccable anti-racist credentials, has also commented in recent days on the controversy around the IHRA definition of antisemitism. He is very supportive of those who have raised perfectly legitimate criticisms of it and in particular has praised and promoted the arguments of the Jewish academic Brian Klug, who in turn argued that what Corbyn and the NEC have done is a significant attempt at improving the IHRA document and making it fit to challenge antisemitism and protect free speech and comment about Israel, Palestine and Zionism. If Hodge was consistent she would have a go at Billy Bragg, but she sees Corbyn as a more suitable target because this is not really about antisemitism but is a battle to defeat the left of the Labour Party and defend Israel from criticism.

5300If Hodge and her sisters in struggle, Smeeth and Berger, were not craven opportunists and selective anti-racists and defenders of human rights, they might have been speaking out more, or even at all, about the disgusting and openly racist Nation-State bill that the Israeli  government has just approved while Netanyahu was simultaneously hosting a visit from the Hungarian PM Victor Orban – a political leader who is pushing antisemitic, anti-Roma and Islamophobic themes at every opportunity.

You have chosen a side Margaret. It is the wrong one. As The Beat sang about another Margaret, “Stand Down Margaret, Stand Down Please!”