On 4th May this year Labour party activist and a vice-chair of Momentum, Jackie Walker, was suspended from the Labour party. The charge – alleged antisemitism. Jackie is a signatory of Jews for Justice for Palestinians. Here we discuss the affair with her, partly in our words, partly in hers. Her response to the Chakrabarti report, complementing the discussion here, is included as an appendix below.
Who is Jackie Walker?
Jackie describes her background like this:
I am Jewish, my Russian born Jewish father and Jamaican born mother of Jewish descent brought together in their shared political commitment to the Civil Rights movement of 1950s America. My mother brought me to England in the late fifties. My experience is not untypical of blacks of that generation. I have been a victim of violent, structural, and persistent racism ever since I arrived in this country in 1959. As a young child I was spat at and beaten by adult racists in the street. I was bullied and ostracised at school, have been victimised at work, been refused accommodation and consistently excluded from structures of power. My personal response to this, my own everyday resistance, was not to become a particularist or a separatist but to be a universalist.
Indeed Jackie has been a long-standing antiracist activist, who used to train police in Dorset in anti-racism. Recently she played an important part in the defeat of Nigel Farage’s UKIP campaign in the Thanet constituency where she lives.
So an accusation of antisemitism against Jackie is bizarre, to put it mildly. What was the accusation?
The accusation was based solely on a quote taken out of context from Jackie’s Facebook page on 27th February 2016. It was not a public posting but part of a private discussion with a Zionist friend and others about the African holocaust and the fact that Jews – notably Jackie’s own Portuguese Jewish ancestors whose history she has researched – had been involved in the sugar and slave trade. Her Facebook contribution was reduced to a sensationalist and inaccurate headline in the Jewish Chronicle (in an article which appeared on the same day the Labour party sent her a letter notifying her of the suspension, well before Jackie could have even received official notification): “Momentum Activist says the Jews Caused the African Holocaust.”
It turns out that her discussion was made public courtesy of the Israel Advocacy Movement which had hacked Jackie’s Facebook page, no doubt as part of its campaign to target and attempt to discredit critics of Israel, particularly those who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
The lifting of the charge and after
The Labour party is never very forthcoming about allegations, charges and suspensions or how it comes to its disciplinary decisions. But before the end of May, the charges against Jackie were dropped: “Following the outcome of an investigation, Jacqueline Walker is no longer suspended and remains a member of the party.”
For Jackie it wasn’t so simple – first being charged, now not, it was impossible to go back to the status quo. The world of hate which unfolded following her suspension might have been extreme – it got a lot worse after the suspension was lifted. Jackie says:
“As soon as the Jewish Chronicle wrote the first article, trolls circled for the kill, posting spooky blacked up faces (and worse) to my account. The Jewish Chronicle led the attacks, querying my Jewish identity (a racist move in itself), my work as an anti-racist activist and my political commitment.
When my suspension was lifted the Spectator added its journalistic spleen. Indignation at my alleged breach reached the heights of irony when Nigel Farage, anxious not to miss out on the fun being had by, among others, Labour MPs and officers of the Party, dedicated an article in Breitbart and a good dose of righteous indignation on national TV to publicly calling me out as a racist. This widespread hate campaign led to public abuse, strangers shouting ‘racist’ as I walked to the tube. With the murderous racist political discourse now taking the place of debate I became conscious I was recognisable on the street.
Then there were the smears, grist to the mill of every witch-hunt, the guilt by association innuendos like reproducing my Facebook post alongside the nonsense peddled by the Nation of Islam. These are barely worth a response except to say the Nation of Islam is an antisemitic group which seeks to set Jewish and Black people against each other. Any examination of my work, my writing, my life, would make clear my opposition to this ideology.”
What exactly did Jackie write on Facebook?
My aim was to argue that there are no hierarchies of genocide; there is no way to quantify or qualitatively describe the indescribable, the indescribably inhumane acts that are part of our histories. When a friend raised the question of “the debt” owed to the Jews because of the Holocaust I replied “Oh yes – and I hope you feel the same towards the African holocaust? My ancestors were involved in both – on all sides as I’m sure you know, millions more Africans were killed in the African holocaust and their oppression continues today on a global scale in a way it doesn’t for Jews… and many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade which is of course why there were so many early synagogues in the Caribbean. So who are victims and what does it mean? We are victims and perpetrators to some extent through choice. And having been a victim does not give you a right to be a perpetrator.”
Yes, I wrote “many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade”. These words, taken out of context in the way the media did, of course do not reflect my position. I was writing to someone who knew the context of my comments. Had he felt the need to pick me up on what I had written I would have rephrased – perhaps to “Jews (my ancestors too) were among those who financed the sugar and slave trade and at the particular time/in the particular area I’m talking about they played an important part.” The Facebook post taken by itself doesn’t, and can’t possibly reflect the complexity of Jewish history, of the history of Africa, the history of people of the African diaspora and the hundreds of years of the slave trade. The truth is while many peoples were involved in this pernicious trade it was the rulers of Christian Spain and Portugal that ordered the massacre and expulsion of thousands of Jews from the Iberian Peninsular who forced Jewish communities to seek refuge in the New World and the Caribbean. It was European and American Christian empires that overwhelmingly profited from the kidnap, enslavement and death of millions of Africans and I’m happy to make explicit and correct here any different impression my Facebook post gave. The shame is, at a time when antisemitism has been weaponised and used against certain sections of the Labour Party, nobody asked me before rushing to pin the racist and antisemitic label on me.”
“If my historical understanding is shown to be wrong by future research I will of course adapt and change my views as necessary. For the record, my claim, as opposed to those made for me by the Jewish Chronicle, has never been that Jews played a disproportionate role in the Atlantic Slave Trade, merely that, as historians such as Arnold Wiznitzer noted, at a certain economic point, in specific regions where my ancestors lived, Jews played a dominant role “as financiers of the sugar industry, as brokers and exporters of sugar, and as suppliers of Negro slaves on credit, accepting payment of capital and interest in sugar.” 
No people are exempt from truth. No people are better, more moral than any other. None deserve higher protection from the eye of history. All of us are subjects, products of material historical development. As Kagan & Morgan point out, “Jews in the Atlantic constituted a stateless minority, a ‘nation within a nation,’ the counterpoint to imperial cultures of early modern Europe; and yet from the fifteenth century onwards, Jews were also key participants in the effort to expand European empires into the western hemisphere and the broader Atlantic world. In short, they were, as Jonathan Israel has noted, simultaneously agents and victims of empire.”
This was the point I was attempting to make on Facebook, in a comic-strip, abbreviated, inadequate, deficient sort of conversational way. This was my point, as the Israel Advocacy Movement could see even as they decided to weaponise my words. No peoples have a monopoly of suffering or virtue. No peoples are special or free of the complexity of history. That is as true in the Middle East now as it ever was anywhere, in all places, with all peoples, across the diversity of our globe and so it will remain until, and unless, we achieve the goal of all internationalists – the liberation of humanity.
 Indeed, Eli Faber says in his book Jews, Slaves and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight: ”However, their contributions to the sugar industry were far more significant when it came to providing capital, exporting sugar, and advancing credit for slaves. As creditors, according to the historian of the Brazilian Jewish community, “they dominated the slave trade.” Faber’s footnote refers to Witnitzer, The Jews in Brazil, 67-73
Jackie Walker’s memoir Pilgrim State appeared in 2008 and was described by Good Reads as “a stunning memoir which tells the story of Dorothy Walker – equal parts beautiful, headstrong, brave and tragic. Her life is lovingly recreated by her daughter Jacqueline in homage to the remarkable woman she was.” In an interview by Tamara Gausi, Time Out says: “Jacqueline Walker’s remarkable Pilgrim State employs the story of her mother, Dorothy, to create a mythically charged meditation on blackness, Britishness, and belonging.” Louise Carpenter reviewed the book in the Guardian (13 April 2008) in Who are you calling a bad mother?
Here, as a separate item, though relating to some of the themes in the discussion above, is Jackie Walker’s response to the Chakrabarti report, marginally revised by her and posted on her Facebook page on 6 August.
[Just to say … since I made a comment on Black Lives Matter and the Chakrabarti Commission I have been inundated with racist comments …. again!
For information, this was my response to the Report – I re-post it as it seems many commentators are entering into a debate at the moment on a report they haven’t actually read ……or thought too much about.]
Shami Chakrabarti’s Inquiry into Anti-Semitism and Racism in the Labour Party made big news soon as it was published – and for all the wrong reasons, just one of the ongoing consequences of the “occasionally toxic atmosphere” that is “in danger of shutting down free speech within the Party rather than facilitating it.” Chakrabarti makes it clear her intention is not to “close down debate on delicate issues around all kinds of personal and political differences within the Party” but to conduct these debates “in a more trusting and constructive environment.” My response is made with the same intent.
As a recently suspended Labour Party member, and the only person as yet (at the point of writing) exonerated, I was bound to read Chakrabarti’s report, and the coverage that followed, with more than a little interest. I write as a long time Labour Party and anti-racist activist for whom Chakrabarti’s findings are personally and politically important. My partner is Jewish, his family observant, but I comment as a woman of mixed Jewish and other heritages who identifies as, and is perceived by others as, a black person of African descent.
Much of the mainstream media response to the Inquiry focused on anti-Semitism, was superficial, poorly informed or with one intent – destabilising Labour and its present leadership. Chakrabarti’s generally well expressed ‘state of the Party’ contextualisation of race relations, and her many well thought through and sensible recommendations, were sidelined as charges of anti-Semitism yet again took centre stage, immediately undermining the Inquiry’s key findings on BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) members.
At the core of the debate is the way competing claims by minorities are positioned in the (at this point in time) supercharged arena of Labour Party politics. In the political arena, perhaps more than elsewhere, race is about power – who has it, who is chosen to represent the Party, who gives power to others and how that power is communicated. Two areas are highlighted in the part of the Chakrabarti Report that focuses on BAME members – that of representation and vocabulary.
Chakrabarti begins with evidence; that in 2010 the BAME community voted for Labour more than double in relation to whites. She describes an unwelcoming environment and a lack of representation at all levels, including in Parliament, but also in the administrative structures of the Party, singling out the lack of black members in the NEC for special mention. What an irony then that it is the voices of people of colour, in particular those of African descent, that were so effectively sidelined in reporting of the Inquiry.
In today’s Labour Party Chakrabarti situates anti-Semitism within a set of feelings and responses as reported in many submissions by some in the Jewish community. Stereotypes limit the ability of peoples to be treated and respected as individuals and Chakrabarti’s comments on the need for sensitivity in the language of debate, whether on issues that relate to Israel or elsewhere, are to be welcomed. But there is acknowledgement that it is power, or the lack of it, that excludes and discriminates against BAME people in the Party, as it does of course in the rest of society. Blacks do not only feel under-represented, or stereotyped in the Party. They are under-represented. They may be members and supporters, they are of course, particularly in Labour’s urban heartlands, often the foot soldiers and voters, but BAME members are effectively excluded where it matters – from power.
Given the terms Chakrabarti was given for her inquiry, with the separation of anti-semitism from other forms of racism, it is however difficult to see how this focus on one minority, could have been avoided. If anti-Semitism is set apart from ‘other forms of racism’, can we be surprised when the Inquiry fails to attract a significant number of submissions from BAME groups, or when black individuals are significant only by their absence at its launch? The reception of the Inquiry in the media and elsewhere underlines the relative powerlessness of the BAME community. The paucity of any black response, at a national level, confirms the exclusion the report attempts to redress. In this three card trick discrimination against BAME members is the card that appears, I hope only for the moment, to have been made to magically vanish.
I come now to the issue of vocabulary, in particular comments on the use of the term ‘holocaust,’ a point that concerns many people of African descent who await both recognition or recompense for past wrongs inflicted.
Chakrabarti makes plain her Inquiry is an attempt to bring people together. To stand in solidarity, as Chakrabarti suggests all minorities need to, people of African descent must see the structures that exclude them from power, and have kept them silenced for so long, being changed. This is the only way in which attempts to build an inclusive Party will succeed.
Groups that have suffered oppression need to have conditions, a level playing field, in which they can form united political fronts, working in solidarity with others, rather than having to fight for a place at the table, forever bogged down in disputes about equity, access to power, or the meaning of the past. If the Party does not succeed in this, Labour will remain entangled in the impossible task of being a moral referee as minority ethnic groups engage in a ‘competition of victimhoods’ in order to gain, build or protect recognition.
Others have argued elsewhere for dropping the use of the contested terminology of ‘holocaust’ and replacing it with ‘genocide’. Some suggest opening Holocaust Day more fully to all communities that have suffered mass murder. As Jews retain the word Shoah, so peoples of African descent refer to Maangamizi for their holocaust. Maangamizi describes the slave trade and history of enslavement when millions of Africans were killed, tortured, kidnapped and enslaved for profit but it also refers to the genocides and deprivations of colonialism and the ongoing, consequential suffering and oppressions of peoples of African descent.
I am in agreement with Chakrabarti there are, and can be, no hierarchies of suffering. The Inquiry rightly warns of dilution of effect ‘if every human rights atrocity is described as a Holocaust’. However, I cannot see the term ‘holocaust’ as something the Labour Party can, or should police, though it may provide a useful forum where terminology can be discussed. As ever, the Labour Party must recognise the right of minorities to both name themselves and choose how their history is narrated.
I trust in the strength of people of colour to keep with the struggle to change society for the better. I place my trust in the ability of the labour movement to not just listen to the experience of people of but to act in solidarity with them. It is with hope, as ever, that I ask our leaders listen to the concerns of people of colour whose voices before, during the Inquiry, and even now, remain barely attended to.