In May 2019, the Labour Party was referred to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) for investigation into institutional racism. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is the body that has responsibility for the promotion of equality and non-discrimination laws in all areas of the UK except Northern Ireland. It was originally set up during the New Labour government, in 2007, to combat systemic discrimination.
It is highly unusual for a political party to meet the EHRC’s evidence threshold that is required for it even to begin an investigation into institutional racism. The presence of individuals with racist views in any organisation is not enough to warrant an investigation: there must be evidence that its mechanisms, culture and policies may have unlawfully discriminated against a particular group of people. The only other political party to have met this threshold was the British National Party (BNP), a neo-fascist political party, in 2010.
In this article, we explain why this investigation is happening, its significance in the broader political landscape, and what we can expect to happen in the coming months. But first, it’s necessary to explain two things: what institutional racism is; and what antisemitism is.
What is institutional racism?
Institutional racism occurs when an institution’s processes or underlying culture lead to the discrimination of a specific ethnic group (or multiple ethnic groups). While the presence of a high proportion of people who hold racist beliefs in an institution may indicate its broader culture, the presence of individuals with racist views in an institution is not enough for it to be classified as institutionally racist. Institutional racism often involves discriminatory policies or disciplinary infrastructure.
With regard to the Labour Party, the Equality and Human Rights Commission will try to assess whether the party’s disciplinary processes have discriminated against Jewish people. It will examine only the period between 11th March 2016 and 28th May 2019.
What is antisemitism?
Antisemitism is prejudice against Jewish people. Jewish people are an ‘ethnoreligious group’ – this means a group of people that is related in ethnic terms and whose members may adhere to the same religion, or broader culture. It is worth noting that some Jewish people adhere to the religion of Judaism, but others do not and antisemitism does not always involve discrimination against Jewish people as a religious group alone: often antisemitism encompasses racism. Jewish people have experienced prejudice and discrimination for both their race and their religion over many centuries.
In the last 100 years in particular, prejudice against Jewish people in Europe was primarily driven by racism. In Nazi Germany, Jewish people were sent to death camps based on their family lineage, and not their faith. Many atheist Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, which resulted in the death of six million people. Israel now grants citizenship to all people who can prove that they have at least one Jewish grandparent, in part as this was the “test” used by the Nazis when deciding who to persecute. Israel’s policy is an attempt to provide a safe place for Jewish people if a similar regime were to exist in the future.
The term “antisemitism” was initially created by German and Austrian scholars in the late 1800s. Its widespread use was an attempt to make anti-Jewish racism sound scientific. Prior to this point, racism against Jewish people in Germany was normally termed Judenhass: literally, “Jew-hate”.
The term “antisemitism” sometimes causes confusion, as it appears to be a reference to “semitism” or a “semitic” ethnic group. However, there is no such thing as “semitism”, or a “semitic” people. There is a group of related languages called semitic languages, which includes languages such as Arabic and Hebrew, and the term “antisemitism” is a nod to that language category. This neologism was specifically created to make anti-Jewish racism appear legitimate, but this sometimes causes confusion when antisemitism is discussed, so we think it’s worth pointing this out here.
The way antisemitism manifests can be markedly different to other forms of racism. Racism is often based on the false idea that a minority ethnic group is in some way lower in status, or less worthy of dignity and respect, than other groups – or, conversely, that the majority ethnic group in any given country is superior to an ethnic minority.
Antisemitism, however, is often based in the opposite idea: that Jewish people are in some way special, better-off, given advantages above the average citizen, or even run the world at the expense of other groups. For this reason, conspiracies centred on the idea a small group, or cabal, controls world governments or world events often lapse into antisemitism.
Antisemitism is sometimes referred to as the “world’s oldest hatred” as it has a long, extensive history, across many continents and over millennia. This article will mostly focus on modern-day antisemitism.
So what does 21st century antisemitism look like?
Modern antisemitism is diverse, in part as it is an amalgamation of many forms of antisemitism that have existed across continents and over millennia. The advent of the internet is largely responsible for this amalgamation, and for this reason a thorough understanding of modern antisemitism requires a good grasp of the antisemitism that has existed historically across many cultures and in many regions of the world.
Despite this diversity, there are recurring themes that are often seen in antisemitic ideas, even across cultures. These themes are often referred to as “antisemitic tropes”. They include, but are not limited to:
- The belief that Jews have too much power, are all-powerful or are controlling world governments or financial institutions;
- The belief that Jews are disloyal, cheat non-Jews, or are more loyal to the state of Israel than their home country;
- The belief that Jews are greedy, wealthy or control financial institutions;
- The notion Jews killed Jesus Christ;
- The accusation Jews use blood (particularly children’s blood) to create bread or for other religious rituals (in modern antisemitism, this trope occasionally extends to accusations of paedophilia or other abuse of children);
- The belief that Jews control academic institutions or the mainstream press to pursue a political agenda;
- The belief that Judaism emphasises profit or materialism (ie, Jews are too capitalist);
- The belief that Judaism emphasises far left politics (ie, Jews are too communist);
- The belief that Jews use their power to benefit “their own kind” (ie, other Jews).
The question of whether anti-Zionism, the opposition to the existence of a Jewish homeland in the modern state of Israel, constitutes antisemitism is controversial and does not have a simple answer. As this question is particularly relevant to the debate concerning antisemitism in the Labour Party, we discuss this below (see “Is Labour Antisemitism Simply A Debate About Israel?”).
Is the Labour Party institutionally antisemitic? What evidence has been submitted to the Equality and Human Rights Commission?
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has not yet released its findings into whether the Labour Party is (or has been) institutionally antisemitic. Many groups and individuals will have submitted information for consideration by the EHRC’s lawyers.
Some information in the public domain may, however, provide insight into what may have been submitted to the EHRC for its consideration. Two dossiers of evidence pertaining to the EHRC investigation, one from the Jewish Labour Movement and another from Labour Party management, have been leaked to the general public ahead of the publication of the EHRC’s conclusions. BBC Panorama also interviewed former staffers (Labour Party workers) who had been responsible for the processing of antisemitism complaints and who resigned their positions over the antisemitism crisis during the period under investigation (11th March 2016 till 28th May 2019). Summaries of these documents and interviews, and the recurring themes within each, can be found below.
In December 2019 the Jewish Labour Movement’s submission document to the Equality and Human Rights Commission was released into the public domain. The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) is a Jewish organisation affiliated to the Labour Party, which has represented British Jewry in the Labour movement since 1902. The JLM’s submission document comprises allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party that occurred during the period under investigation, together with specific claims about antisemitism disciplinary processes within the Party.
There are many examples listed in the JLM document of incidents that appear to be antisemitic, which occurred in Labour Party settings or involved Labour Party members. These include, but are not limited to the following:
- One Jewish Labour Party member listed 22 examples of antisemitic verbal abuse directed at him at Constituency Labour Party (CLP) meetings. These included the phrases “Hitler was right”, “child killer” and “shut the f**k up Jew”
- One Jewish Labour member shared a breakfast table at Labour Party conference with delegates who agreed that Jews were “subhuman” and should “be grateful we don’t make them eat bacon..every day.”
- A Jewish sixth-former was forced to leave the Labour Party Forum on Facebook after members sifted through his account for links to Jewish organisations.
- One Jewish Labour member was the subject of a 30-minute film made by an antisemitic member, who abused him, calling him a “f**king Jew” and threatened to punch him in the face.
- The membership secretary in South Tottenham CLP allegedly objected to 25 applications from the Jewish community, and required home visits to their houses. This was not a requirement for other, non-Jewish, members.
During the period under investigation, it was not unusual for Labour spokespeople to say that there was a relatively small proportion of Labour members who had engaged in antisemitic conduct: writing in the Guardian in August 2018, Jeremy Corbyn, then Labour leader, himself stated that members who had engaged in antisemitic conduct comprised “less than 0.1% of Labour’s [then] membership of more than half a million.” Because of the presence of anonymous social media accounts whose operators have engaged in antisemitic conduct online and who claim to be Labour supporters or party members, but cannot be confirmed as such, assessing what proportion of online left-wing antisemitism is attributable to the Labour Party membership is bound to be difficult.
While specific instances of Labour antisemitism may seem shocking, the EHRC investigation will likely be focused on the Labour Party’s disciplinary processes, which decide which (if any) Labour members are to be reprimanded or even expelled from the party for engaging in racist conduct. One concern among former staffers and Jewish Labour members is that the antisemitism disciplinary process had become politicised, used for political factional ends, or that the then-Labour leader’s office had a direct say in its operation.
The JLM document makes several allegations about the role of the Labour leader’s office in disciplinary processes. These claims include, but are not limited to, the following:
- The Leader’s office allegedly interfered directly in the disciplinary process. An advisor allegedly stated that “JC (Jeremy Corbyn) [is] interested in this one”, while discussing action on a specific case.
- Staff in the complaints team were allegedly told that they were not to provide updates or responses in respect of antisemitism complaints.
- Staff allege that after the 2017 general election, the Labour leader’s office expected staff to disregard antisemitic incidents from a long time ago.
- Pete Willsman (former Labour National Executive Committee representative and Corbyn loyalist) and Claudia Webbe were said to defend alleged antisemites to the complaints team.
Multiple parties have alleged that Camden Labour Councillor and Corbyn loyalist Thomas Gardiner acted as an ex-officio link between the Labour leader’s office and the staff presiding over disciplinary cases. Thomas Gardiner has also been implicated by mainstream media outlets for the Labour Party’s failure to suspend a member who shared a grossly antisemitic image of a scorpion-like monster with a superimposed Magen David (sometimes called the Star of David) suffocating the statue of liberty. During the BBC Panorama documentary, author of “The Left’s Jewish Problem” Dave Rich, described this image as “[one] that belonged in 1930s Germany.”
The JLM document contends that Gardiner was involved in the disciplinary process and acted as a de facto link between staffers responsible for responding to antisemitism complaints and the Labour leader’s office. It says:
“In April 2018, Jennie Formby became the General Secretary of the Labour Party. In her first week in post, she installed the Political Advisor to the Chair of the Party – Thomas Gardiner – to an initially undefined seconded role in the Governance and Legal Unit (GLU). In practice, staff understood his role to be acting as “the final arbiter of which complaints of antisemitism were to be investigated”. Staff were informed that all antisemitism complaints should be passed to the Head of Complaints, who would then pass them to Mr Gardiner, who was considered to be acting with the office of the Leader of the Opposition (LOTO). He would then discuss the complaints with LOTO’s staff. The team were encouraged not to leave a paper trail by emailing Mr Gardiner directly; instead the Head of Complaints would act as a conduit.
“By mid 2018, Mr Gardiner had been made the Acting Director of the GLU. He had sole authority to decide whether antisemitism cases needed to be progressed, and the Complaints Team were now instructed to prepare and send summaries of antisemitism cases directly to him, before logging the cases onto the complaints database.”
Former Labour Party staffers featured during the BBC Panorama documentary initially broadcast on 10th July 2019 alleged that Gardiner was given an effective veto over which complaints should be investigated, referencing an email allegedly circulated by Corbyn’s chief of staff that proposed giving Gardiner “political oversight” of antisemitism complaints. One former staffer stated during the programme that “Thomas Gardiner was, for all intents and purposes, the leader’s office’s representative in head office.”
Former staffers featured in the Panorama documentary also described emotional distress caused by their work for the Labour Party during the period now under investigation. One former staffer described being signed off with depression and anxiety, another claimed to have quit and then had a “mental breakdown”, while another admitted contemplating suicide at the height of the antisemitism crisis.
Claims that the Labour Party was a toxic working environment during this period is also supported by a leaked dossier of a proposed response on behalf of the Labour Party to the EHRC, initially to be released once the EHRC had issued its findings. The Labour Party dossier claims the complaints system was subject to partisan interference. The dossier alleges that a culture of bullying (primarily, it claims, instigated by Corbyn sceptics) existed among Labour staffers, and this included their bullying of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) figures in the party as well as at least one Labour member who had mental health problems. The dossier claims that Labour Party staffers deliberately held up actioning of complaints in order to create a crisis that would tarnish Jeremy Corbyn’s reputation.
This dossier was leaked to the public unredacted and, as a result, the names of Jewish victims listed in the document have become publicly known – some even ultimately appeared on neo-Nazi websites. For this reason, we are not providing a link to the dossier. Some individuals named in the dossier may be considering legal action against the Labour Party for leaking their details to the general public. This alleged data breach may have lasting financial consequences for the Labour Party, if matters are pursued through Britain’s justice system.
Is the Labour antisemitism row simply a debate about Israel?
The short answer to this question is no, the Labour antisemitism crisis is not simply a debate about Israel. As discussed in the previous section, many instances of antisemitism in Labour had little or nothing to do with the territorial conflict in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine. But much of the Labour Antisemitism row in 2018 focused on a proposal that the Labour Party adopt an internationally recognised definition of antisemitism, named the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, as part of its code of conduct. This definition would be used to decide which Labour Party members would be reprimanded for antisemitism.
The proposed implementation of the IHRA definition was met with fierce opposition by some Labour members and officials, who expressed concern that the IHRA definition conflated opposition to Israeli government actions with antisemitism. This naturally would have freedom of speech implications for an organisation whose meetings often involve intense political debate. For this reason we think it’s important to explain this aspect of the Labour antisemitism debate, and to discuss whether anti-Zionism inevitably is antisemitic. You can read the IHRA definition of antisemitism, in full, by clicking here.
The IHRA definition of antisemitism asserts that some stances on the state of Israel are antisemitic, but the definition isn’t as far-ranging as some suggested during the row. Firstly, the IHRA definition does include the following statement saying that context matters in defining which actions or statements are antisemitic:
“Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to…”
More specifically, however, the IHRA definition labels the following as antisemitic:
- Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations;
- Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation;
- Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (eg. claims of Jews killing Jesus of blood libel) to characterise Israel or Israelis;
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis;
- Holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel.
The Labour Party’s National Executive Committee ultimately passed the IHRA definition into its code of conduct in September 2018, in part as it faced widespread pressure to do so from the broader population and mainstream press.
Part of the problem is that “anti-Zionism” means many different things to different people. Sticking strictly to a dictionary definition, a “Zionist” is a person who supports the existence of the state of Israel – regardless of their stance on Israeli government policy, while an “anti-Zionist” is a person who believes the state of Israel should be eradicated. Opposition to the government of Israel’s actions, similar to that levelled against any other state in a similar circumstance, is not antisemitic according to the IHRA definition. Israel is not alone in having been involved in a territorial conflict in a similar time-frame: Turkey, for instance, has annexed Cyprus for almost as long as Israel has been engaged in a dispute over the West Bank. But denial of the Jewish right to self-determination – that is, denial of the right of Jewish people to form a state for their own protection against persecution – can be viewed as antisemitic in that it demands the state of Israel is held to standards different from any other democratic nation. Opposition to other nations’ governments rarely exists alongside calls to delegitimise or dismantle the state as a whole, yet for Israel it often does. Calling for the destruction of a state that has primarily acted as a safeguard for persecuted minorities (particularly post-Holocaust) is very different from intense criticism of that state’s government’s policies. In short, a country’s government is not the same as its people. Individuals may label themselves “anti-Zionist” and exist anywhere on the spectrum from merely criticising the Israeli government to calling for the state of Israel’s destruction entirely. For this reason there is a wide spectrum of opinions on the topic of anti-Zionism, some of which are antisemitic while others are not.
It is understandable that a left wing movement such as the Labour Party would be concerned with human rights abuses occurring in the Middle East, including the annexation of citizens in the West Bank. But there is a long history of anti-Zionism lapsing into antisemitic rhetoric, dating back well over a hundred years.
Modern left-wing antisemitism and antisemitic anti-Zionism can in part be understood as a descendent of Soviet era antisemitism. In the Soviet Union, the state of Israel was portrayed as a hyper-capitalist, hyper-western imperialist state and the term “Zionist” was regularly used both as a term of abuse and as a derogatory term for Jewish people.
For this reason, sweeping use of the term “Zionist” has caused controversy – historically, it has been used as a racist term of abuse for countless Jewish people, whose families have often lived in the West for centuries and have never even set foot in Israel. Jeremy Corbyn is recorded as saying that “Zionists” “have no sense of English irony despite having lived here all their lives.” Whether he intended to refer to all British Jews, or simply those who accept the legitimacy of the state of Israel when he said this, is impossible to know. His statement at least superficially seems to “other” – to ostracise or portray as alien – British Jewish people who support the existence of the state of Israel. Speaking to an audience in the UK Parliament, the British head of policy at the Community Security Trust Dave Rich commented that Corbyn had implied when he said this that “they [British Jews] are not quite English enough.” The use of “Zionist” as a slur from apparent Labour Party-supporting accounts on social media is now common.
The BBC Panorama documentary alludes to a staffer being questioned as to whether they are “from Israel”, as they were perceived to be Jewish and dealing with antisemitism complaints in the party. The notion that Jewish people are more loyal to the state of Israel than to their home countries is an antisemitic trope going back centuries. More, the notion that this dual loyalty is linked to plans for global domination has hallmarks of the fabricated antisemitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a pamphlet purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination. It was published originally in Russian in 1903 and in English in 1919 and, even though it has been discredited, the themes of the document still exist in modern politics. At the height of Labour’s antisemitism crisis, it was not unusual for self-professed Labour members to share an Al-Jazeera documentary named “The Lobby” on social media. This documentary makes very similar assertions to the Protocols, albeit in a modern context. During the 2018 Labour Party conference, a Labour member speaking to the conference floor on the topic of Zionism encouraged all Labour members to watch the documentary.
When anti-Zionism holds the state of Israel to standards not expected of other nations, accuses global Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to their home countries or claims Jewish people are part of a plot for national (or even world) domination, it lapses into antisemitism. Antisemitism is multifaceted and has varied over centuries and across cultures, so the topic should be treated with nuance. But when so much antisemitism seems to exist in anti-Zionist circles, it isn’t surprising that former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs said in an address to the House of Lords in September 2018:
“My Lords, it pains me to speak about antisemitism, the world’s oldest hatred. But I cannot keep silent. One of the enduring facts of history is that most antisemites do not think of themselves as antisemites. We don’t hate Jews, they said in the Middle Ages, just their religion. We don’t hate Jews, they said in the nineteenth century, just their race. We don’t hate Jews, they say now, just their nation state.”
What can we expect to happen, and when?
The EHRC is due to conclude its investigation this year (2020). The EHRC will then publish its findings, stating whether the Commission adjudges the Labour Party has unlawfully discriminated against Jewish people. While the EHRC does sometimes make simple recommendations to institutions found to have been discriminatory, the EHRC recommendations are sometimes legally binding and non-compliance may lead to the initiation of legal proceedings to ensure compliance. The EHRC is permitted to use legal powers to instigate change within organisations: it is therefore wrong to treat the EHRC investigation as akin to a simple advisory body’s recommendations. The EHRC reserves the right to use court action to challenge policies or practices that cause significant disadvantage. For this reason, if the Labour Party is found to have been unlawfully discriminatory, the implications of this may well impact severely on the Party – financially as well as reputationally.