Labour Must Become A Home For Jewish People Again – It Starts With Listening

For five years, anti-Semitism has become ever more interwoven with Labour’s factional struggles. In the Labour Party, attitudes to anti-Semitism are now almost a symbol of political allegiance, a stand-in for someone’s views on economic policy or foreign affairs. 

I’ve seen this first-hand. When I interviewed for a job with Labour in 2016, I assumed, perhaps naively, that while I did not agree with Jeremy Corbyn on things like foreign policy, and was uncomfortable with some of his past associations, different views would be welcomed because the point of political parties is work together to win power.

It quickly became apparent that judgement was wrong. As I worked with Corbyn and his team, I became acutely aware that some saw me not just in terms of my political or policy beliefs, but in terms of my Jewishness. 

This was clear in both what they did and did not do. It was clear when, after discovering I was Jewish, an aide spent a two-hour train-ride quizzing me about my views on Israel, not as an equal participant in a conversation about foreign policy, but as an employee being tested to see if my views on Israel were the predicable views of a Jew. It was clear when despite repeatedly pushing for swift, clear and heartfelt condemnations of anti-Semitism, I found the few condemnations that were issued were never swift, clear, or it seemed to me, heartfelt.

Like many forms of prejudice, anti-Semitism does not always involve discernible and conscious hatred. Nobody except Jeremy Corbyn will ever know what was in his mind while he led the Labour Party. But that was never the point. The point was that time and again, he failed to grasp attempts to build bridges with the Jewish community, and stood by as his supporters dismissed and derided Jewish people who were clearly under attack, hurting ... heck, even afraid. Under his leadership, Labour failed to apply the basic principle that those who experience prejudice are generally best placed to identify and describe it.

The upshot was this. I came to realise that Jeremy Corbyn and some of his aides felt their identities as anti-racist campaigners made them immune to Europe’s most enduring and persistent form of hatred, and viewed those who raised concerns about anti-Semitism as insulting, dishonest, even pathetic. I felt something all too familiar to those who are used to being stereotyped – self-conscious and defensive about who I am, as if I had to work doubly hard to defend what I believe because I am Jewish.

Even though being Jewish was not my primary identity, I had to listen to Corbyn and his team as a Jew, to read his words and watch his inaction through this new lens of anti-Semitism. It was strange, disorienting, and sometimes painful, but it was also instructive, and perhaps strangely, made me more proud than ever to live in a democracy that protects basic rights and freedoms, and more determined than ever to change the Labour Party.

Progressive parties should be a place where complex questions of identity and experience can be discussed, openly, with a sense of common purpose. We should be able to talk about the similarities and differences between anti-Black and anti-Jewish racism, and explore what it means to be white, Black, South Asian, or Jewish, in modern Britain.

Our country’s diversity is among its greatest strengths. Whether Labour members who prefer Keir Starmer or Jeremy Corbyn, or voters who chose Labour or Conservative, Remain or Leave, as citizens of a diverse and plural democracy, we all have a vested interest in working out how to live as free citizens who forge our common future together. Labour’s failure to address anti-Semitism didn’t just put off Jewish voters, it made citizens across the UK doubt Labour’s moral compass.

Labour now has an opportunity to make anti-Semitism a cross-factional issue. The release of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report is a moment not just for Keir Starmer to continue to demonstrate he is serious about anti-Semitism, it is a chance for all of us to explore together what anti-Semitism means, and how it does and does not relate to other forms of racism. These issues matter not just for the Labour Party, but for the country.

In Labour, we have to start by listening to each other, making space not only for what others believe but for how they feel. When there has been so much hurt and distrust, we must all find the courage and respect to ensure we don’t slide into tired factional debates, and the energy and patience to share experiences and develop a common language. Those who refuse to talk and listen and engage should have no place in the Labour Party. 

Making Labour a home for Jewish people again will be a long and often uncomfortable road, but I believe it can and must be done. It will require Jews and non-Jews who have left Labour to engage with energy and determination, to do the hard civic work of repairing the damage that has been done – to attend meetings, to vote, and to run. Achieving that goal is not just a political imperative, but a moral one. 

Josh Simons is a former Labour Party staffer who worked in Jeremy Corbyn’s leader’s office, and quit over anti-Semitism. He then worked in Labour HQ.

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