Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party: A Comprehensive Study of Nothing

December 10, 2019

Jamie Stern-Weiner discusses his collection of essays, articles, and studies that examine the allegations of anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party. The book finds extensive evidence that accusations have been fabricated in order to delegitimize the Labour Party, and that party leader Jeremy Corbyn is struggling against a wave of fake news, manipulation and lies.

Jamie Stern-Weiner discusses his collection of essays, articles, and studies that examine the allegations of anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party. The book finds extensive evidence that accusations have been fabricated in order to delegitimize the Labour Party, and that party leader Jeremy Corbyn is struggling against a wave of fake news, manipulation and lies.


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Story Transcript

SHIR HEVER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Shir Hever coming to you from Heidelberg, Germany.

The general elections in the UK are scheduled for Thursday. One of the main issues of the campaign is the antisemitism accusations against the Labour Party, especially under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Although Jews comprise less than half of a percent of the UK population, it seems that the Conservative Party as well as right-wing elements within the Labour Party itself are using the alleged racist attitudes of the Labour Party against Jews as a central argument to dehumanize and delegitimize Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.

The British media–and not just right wing media–gave extensive coverage to pro-Israeli groups, politicians and activists who raised these accusations against Corbyn and the Labour Party. But last week after Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis also joined the chorus of accusations, the Guardian gave Corbyn a rare chance to respond to the accusations. Let’s listen to this.

JEREMY CORBYN: Our party… Can I make it clear? I and our–

PHILLIP SCHOFIELD: Just say sorry.

JEREMY CORBYN: Wait a minute. I and our party–

PHILLIP SCHOFIELD: No. Just say sorry.

JEREMY CORBYN: Come on. Let me say, can I say something? Our party–

PHILLIP SCHOFIELD: I want you to say sorry.

JEREMY CORBYN: Our party and me–

PHILLIP SCHOFIELD: Yeah.

JEREMY CORBYN: Do not accept antisemitism in any form–

PHILLIP SCHOFIELD: So are you sorry for anything that’s happened?

JEREMY CORBYN: Obviously I’m very sorry for everything that’s happened, but I want to make this clear: I am dealing with it; I have dealt with it. Other parties are also affected by antisemitism. Candidates have been withdrawn by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives and by us because of it. We just do not accept it in any form whatsoever.

And I think the Chief Rabbi’s comments really ought to be taken for what they are. He hasn’t contacted me about it. I’m very happy to meet him, very happy to talk to him, very happy to talk to any representatives of any part of the Jewish community in our society. Because I recognize that antisemitism is a poison and it’s very dangerous and if it’s allowed to run on, you know what happens, you know the history of Europe in the 20th century, but any other form of racism is equally unacceptable. Islamophobia or anything else.

SHIR HEVER: A new book by Verso called Antisemitism and the Labour Party is a collection of essays, articles, executive summaries, of reports addressing these accusations from political, moral, sociological, legal and historical perspectives. It is an anthology written by a variety of scholars, including several prominent Jewish scholars, to answer once and for all: what are the grounds for the antisemitism accusations? Are they justified? And how did the Labour Party respond to them? It also includes testimonies of Jewish members of Labour.

Verso published the book free of charge and anyone can just download it from their website, mere days before the UK elections. For those people who want to base their decision on voting for a particular candidate based on the accusations of antisemitism, it is a must read.

We’re now joined by the editor of the book, Jamie Stern-Weiner. Jamie Stern-Weiner is a graduate student at the University of Oxford. A dual British-Israeli national, he has written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for The Nation, Vice, and elsewhere. His edited collection, Antisemitism and the Labour Party, was recently published by Verso. Thank you for joining us, Jamie.

JAMIE STERN-WEINER: Thanks very much.

SHIR HEVER: So in the introduction of the book, you write something which I doubt anyone has ever written in introducing their own book. You suggest an alternative title for the book, a Comprehensive and Exhaustive Examination of Nothing. Having written that, I want to ask you to explain the importance of writing a book about nothing.

JAMIE STERN-WEINER: Well, what’s gone on over the past four years in the UK is truly bizarre. A story about the Labour Party, which has no basis in fact and which is prima facie absurd, has repeatedly not just featured in, but dominated the national political conversations. One recent study counted 5,500 articles devoted to this topic in eight national newspapers over this time.

But when you come to examine it, when you come to pass it and try to reach the truth of the matter, you come up with a strange problem, which is that there’s really nothing there. There’s a saying: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” In this case there really is smoke without fire. There’s been this national controversy lasting for four years. It’s a story that just keeps coming. It never seems to… It just won’t die. And it now might even influence the result of this momentous, epochal election. And yet, at the base of it, there’s nothing. There’s just nothing there.

And so I think to reach for a historical precedent, which can help us understand what’s going on here, you have to look for episodes like the Salem witch trials or the McCarthyite purges in the United States. It’s that combination of moral hysteria with elite weaponization which characterizes this propaganda offensive about Labour. Now for all of that, baseless though it is, it nevertheless might well have an impact, an impact on this election in which the stakes really couldn’t be higher.

SHIR HEVER: I want to ask you about this impact on the election. After reading the book, my perception of the upcoming election on Thursday has changed because I think it’s not just about the UK or about Brexit or the left versus right.

If Johnson wins after such a smear campaign using the antisemitism argument without ever proving it, wouldn’t it be said later that the Israeli lobby tampered with the British elections and that populist politicians can win elections in other countries as well just by claiming that their opponents are antisemites, again without proving it. We’ve seen on Saturday, president Trump said that some Jews don’t love Israel enough. And this is already starting to look like a dystopia in which Jews are only allowed to have one political opinion and it looks like the UK is hurtling towards that dystopia as well.

JAMIE STERN-WEINER: I think both parts of your question are absolutely right. On the one hand, it’s very clear that the campaign against Corbyn, the campaign against the Labour Party, is in some respects a trial run. It’s a template for how to demoralize, discredit, and defeat a popular mobilization to transform society in the interest of the majority of the people. And the next movement, which is likely to face the same attacks, the same line of attack, would be the movement which has coalesced behind the Bernie Sanders campaign in the United States.

And in fact, we’ve already seen the first stirrings of such a campaign in the attacks against Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and now even against Bernie for associating with such political allies. So this is certainly a template that will be used against other left-wing movements in the future. Now the other side of your question is also true and it’s very dangerous and it’s very worrying. The Jewish community in this country has presented itself as a unified block. With the board of deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, three leading Jewish newspapers which published a joint editorial in the name of the entire Jewish community, their message has been clear, unequivocal, and repeated ad nauseam.

The entire Jewish community is United against the Corbyn project. Well, people are going to take them, some people are going to take them at their word. And if Corbyn is defeated on the 12th of December, we’ll blame this supposed united Jewish community for having thwarted what is and will continue to be their only hope for a better life, for less miserable times in our healthcare system, for wages that allow you to survive. And of course there’ll be resentment. And what’s a real shame and what’s dangerous is that in so far as people will blame the Jewish community, they’ll be justified.

SHIR HEVER: I want to ask you something about the IHRA, a working definition of antisemitism, which is a major topic in the book. The Labour Party adopted that definition and this is something that the other 33 countries, which are members of the IHRA, are considering doing, some of them have, a majority of them have not yet endorsed that definition. What can you tell activists in those countries that they can learn from the experience of the Labour Party? Was that a good decision to adopt that definition? And should other countries do that as well?

JAMIE STERN-WEINER: The IHRA so-called definition of antisemitism has been dismissed as unworkable, illiterate, incoherent, hopelessly vague, and a menace to free speech by every serious judicial, academic, civil liberties authority that’s examined it. So as a definition of antisemitism, it’s junk. Its sole purpose is to stigmatize and discredit criticism of Israel. The Labour Party came under pressure, enormous pressure to adopt this definition, and eventually it succumbed. That was a, in my view, political betrayal, but also a political mistake. It didn’t appease for even one second the forces which had called on Labour to adopt the IHRA definition because for those forces, the IHRA definition, it was never their real concern. It was never their real objective. It was just the latest pretext for the campaign against Labour.

Once adopted, the definition was then immediately picked up and utilized as a weapon to continue the campaign against Labour because now the forces arranged against the party and against its elected leadership could say, you yourself have agreed with this definition of antisemitism, so now we can use it to judge your behavior and anyone who falls foul of it’s ridiculous, it’s absurd contents should be suspended, expelled, and so forth. It’s also a political betrayal because one of the tenets, one of the fundamental supreme values of the best of the liberal left tradition, of which the Labour Party is an inheritor, has been freedom of speech, freedom of expression. Until 2016, the Labour Party code of conduct was a faithful expression of this heritage. It provided that the highest disciplinary body in the party shall have no regard to mere speech and expression of opinions.

Under pressure from this juggernaut, and seeking to appease un-appeasable critics, the Labour Party junked that entire libertarian tradition and introduced into its code of conduct, a whole mass of vague and arbitrary language, which has the effect of censoring thoughts and opinions. And indeed we’ve now reached the point where the parties’ authorities, the parties’ disciplinary apparatus, proactively trolls the private Facebook posts and tweets of its half a million members and for people who want to become members for incriminating material. And if they find anything which could be or is offensive, they will either reject membership, suspend, or expel people or send them for reeducation. This is sinister and it’s a real betrayal of fundamental Labour values.

SHIR HEVER: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. I’ve been speaking to Jamie Stern-Weiner on his newly edited book, Antisemitism and the Labour Party. Thank you, Jamie, very much for joining us.

JAMIE STERN-WEINER: Thank you.

SHIR HEVER: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.