Murray Glickman reflects on the large number of Jewish Labour Party members being accused of antisemitism by the Labour Party. Murray is a long-time signatory of JJP and member of the JJP lobby group. He has extensive experience, as a trade-union activist, and briefly a trade-union employee, of supporting members facing disciplinary action by their employers.
He also belongs to Jewish Voice for Labour. Here he draws on his experience as JVL’s Support Officer, helping people accused of antisemitism.
He struggles to make sense of it all.
“Everyone should feel able to take part in discussion about our party, country and world.”
(Code of Conduct: Antisemitism and other forms of racism, Labour Party Rulebook 2020, p.116)
A large number of Jewish Labour Party members have faced, or currently do face, formal investigation by the party on charges of antisemitism. JVL is aware of at least 25 such investigations: that is unlikely to be the full tally.
This number is far too high to be the result of chance or attributable to circumstances specific to individual cases. On the contrary, it suggests that Jewish party members are disproportionately exposed to being investigated for antisemitism.
I am Jewish and reasonably well read in Jewish history. I am only too aware that my ancestors, near and remote, have been accused of all manner of hateful things over the centuries. But I don’t know of any precedent in which a group of Jews has been accused — institutionally accused — of antisemitism.
I know that I share a close Jewish identity with those accused so far. That makes me frankly fearful that it may be only a matter of time before my turn comes. In a sense it already has: I have now been the victim of slurs portraying me as antisemitic on several occasions, all pretty clear violations of the Party’s code of conduct on social media.
I am beginning to feel distinctly unwelcome as a Jew in the Labour Party.
Jewish emotional life and antisemitism
Just as much as members of other social groups, Jewish individuals vary enormously in outlook and mental attitudes.
In my experience, however, there is one constant: everyone raised in a Jewish family setting – hugely diverse though these are — grows up knowing what antisemitism is in the depth of their being. We all carry the fear of it with us through our lives. Knowing Jewishness from the inside as I do, I can honestly say that the idea of Jews being accused — virtually en masse — of antisemitism is something I cannot get my head around.
No reason to know
As JVL’s Support Officer, I have advised many distressed party members facing investigation. In the process I have looked in detail at a large number of individual NOIs [Notices of Investigation] issued by the party. Below I set out some observations on them that can, I believe, shine some light on why accusing Labour Jews of antisemitism has become so routine.
The Party does not go in for ethnic monitoring of members under investigation, and I am prepared to believe officials are actually unaware of the disproportionate number of Jewish members being investigated on the most implausible of grounds — antisemitism. This article is intended as a wake-up call. It is now time for the Party to act.
If we want to understand how this situation has crept up on the Party, we need to look at the methodology it uses in its investigations. I highlight three areas of concern:
Jewish political history is just as contested as, say, the British variety. There is, however, a key difference: whilst most party members will have some familiarity with the political history of our country, it has become clear to me that few have even a basic acquaintance with Jewish political history. Why should they?
NOIs typically come with lists of questions. I have seen a lot of them, and have given the questions a lot of thought. The conclusion I have come to is that, all too often, they have been drafted by people who have no background in the contested terrain of Jewish political history. Here is where I think we should start in order to understand why the Party has accused so many of its Jewish members of antisemitism,
As a Brit I am deeply interested in the history of my country. At the same time I am, as a socialist, no supporter of nationalistic narratives of British history. Some may call that ‘anti-British’, but I would never in a million years expect the Labour Party to agree. As a Jew, I am also deeply interested in the history of my ethnic group. But again, as a socialist, I am no supporter of nationalistic narratives of that history either. In no way does it make me ‘anti-Jewish’. But Jewish members like me stand accused of antisemitism by the Party for just this reason. It must stop.
I have seen enough NOIs to be familiar with their format. This typically comprises ‘evidence’ in the form of one or more social media posts the member under investigation is alleged to have shared, coupled with a set of questions referring to them. These questions are predominantly brief and open-ended in the extreme — often no more than a demand for the member to ‘explain’ what he or she meant by a given post or their ‘reasons’ for sharing it.
What is striking is that these posts are presented without context. (I call them ‘uncontextualised fragments’). The onus to provide context is placed entirely on the member under investigation.
To judge by this way of treating members, the Party does not seem to accept any responsibility for making inquiries of its own, prior to issuing an NOI, into the context of a post — for example, by studying the political situation within which it appeared or the thread from which it derives its meaning.
I believe this format is inherently unfair, not least when used in the course of accusing Jewish members of antisemitism. When this happens, the Party’s failure to examine context for itself combines with deficient knowledge of the political terrain to produce a toxic mix.
When one individual accuses another before a tribunal with the power to impose sanctions, the intentions of the accuser as well as those of the accused must be liable to scrutiny. The integrity of the process depends on it.
There is no indication in any NOI I have seen that the Party takes steps to gather information on the identities and motivations of complainants, or on how they came by the ‘evidence’ they have submitted. Based on what I have seen however, I think I can safely say that the complainant is hardly ever a Jewish person who has been subjected to antisemitic abuse personally directed at him or her. (Precisely this happened to me recently in a local shop. I know what it feels like.)
The vast majority of items alleged to be antisemitic that I have seen in NOIs are posts which have been shared in small social-media bubbles and then quickly forgotten by all concerned. They only come to light, often years afterwards, because a systematic trawling operation has been undertaken to seek them out. We have also now had it officially confirmed (in the recently leaked party report), that a very small number of complainants is responsible for a large number of complaints.
If a formal disciplinary process is to be fair, it must start with a serious attempt by the Party to bring together all the relevant information t can, whether that strengthens or weakens the case against the member under investigation. The identities and motivations of complainants may often be of critical importance to the case, as may the provenance of material complained about. It is worrying that the Party seems perfectly content to operate in a state of ignorance on these matters. The responsible way forward would be for it to make sure from now on that it gathers this information in advance of issuing NOIs. It might then see complaints in a clearer perspective and sometimes take a different view on whether a formal investigation is actually warranted. At the very least, the process of drafting investigation questions would be significantly better informed.
All this could go a long way towards rescuing the Party from the absurd position it has put itself into — in which, as a non-Jewish organisation, it accuses Jews of antisemitism and then delivers judgement on them.
I understand the external pressures the Party is under to appear macho on antisemitism. But I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that bowing to these pressures has put the Party in the invidious position of effectively targeting Jewish members for being the Jews they are. I call for a comradely dialogue on how to stop all this.
Some of the most vicious episodes in the history of antisemitism have occurred when powerful non-Jewish institutions have seen fit to persecute individual Jews who have for one reason or another come to their notice. The most notorious example is the Dreyfus affair, but the mediaeval Barcelona Disputations also come to mind. The treatment of Shylock in the Merchant Of Venice depicts the same in dramatic form. I hear faint but painful echoes of these in the way the Party is behaving. As a Jewish member, I should not find myself writing this.
I assert my right as a party member to post this critical reflection on party affairs. This right is confirmed in the passage from the party rulebook quoted at the beginning of the article. It is worth noting that it forms part of the Code of Conduct on Antisemitism.