Trying to fathom Labour’s Jewish question…

WITH a heavy heart, let’s peep through the door into the row about Labour and antisemitism.

Quoted in last Sunday’s Observer, the Labour MP Luciana Berger said something worthy of note: “It is unfathomable that we find ourselves in this situation.”

Berger is the chair of the Jewish Labour movement and she wants her party to recognise the full and internationally accepted definition of antisemitism, rather than what you might call its new ‘pick-and-mix’ version. She is supported by various fellow Labour MPs and peers, including the MPs Louise Ellman and Ruth Smeeth.

How do we fathom these inglorious depths; and how has a party with a long history of Jewish support and involvement fallen out so badly with Jews? Or at least, some Jews, as nothing about this story is clear-cut.

Some disaffected Jews blame Jeremy Corbyn. He has always been pro-Palestine and therefore anti-Israel – a stance that leaves room for negative assumptions to be made about his party’s attitudes towards Jews.

This long-running row erupted further last week when the veteran Labour MP Margaret Hodge confronted Corbyn in the House of Commons and accused him of being “an antisemitic racist”.

While that may seem an unlikely charge, this row has broken out under his leadership, so he must carry or at least share the blame. Never mind that the followers of Jeremy will point a jabbing finger at the Blairites or say it is all a plot by the mainstream media, that handy whipping boy for all sides.

Blaming Blairites or the newspapers doesn’t lead anywhere useful, because everything the party tries to do only makes matters worse. In the latest attempt to clean this suppurating wound, Labour wrote its own definition of antisemitism instead of drawing on the internationally accepted definitions.

The Labour MP Wes Streeting, also quoted in the Observer, said he believed the national executive committee (NEC) had taken this approach over defining antisemitism because “it is intended to make it easier to let more people off the hook”.

But a problem doesn’t go away if you redefine it, as shown by the stance adopted by three rival Jewish newspapers. Taking a leaf out of all the northern titles who came together recently to attack the government over failing railing services in their region, these papers today publish the same front page.

The Jewish Chronicle, Jewish Telegraph and Jewish News do this because they believe that a Corbyn-led government would pose “an existential threat to Jewish life in this country”.

Here’s how the papers further explain their joint effort: “We do so because the party that was, until recently, the natural home for our community has seen its values and integrity eroded by Corbynite contempt for Jews and Israel. The stain and shame of antisemitism has coursed through Her Majesty’s Opposition since Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015.”

These may be small newspapers, but the combined impact of their assault should surely worry the Labour party. And shouting down opponents or plastering “Jeremy Corbyn isn’t a racist” memes across the social media walls isn’t the answer. In fact, it only makes the situation worse, and discourages voters who tend to look to Labour – and you can include me in that presently wary congregation.

Trying to fathom the unfathomable is enough to give you the bends, but Labour needs to come up with a solution soon. Otherwise this unlikeliest of controversies risks doing great damage to a party that offers the only alternative hope for the Tory-weary tribe (yes, I’m in there somewhere, head down and mumbling).

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