Labour’s leaked report does not tackle the central question, argues Moshé Machover
The internal Labour Party report The work of the Labour Party’s governance and legal unit in relation to anti-Semitism, 2014-2019 (‘the report’), leaked during the Easter holiday, is - as its title makes clear - about the way the Labour bureaucracy dealt with the accusations of anti-Semitism made against the party since Jeremy Corbyn was unexpectedly elected leader. More specifically, the report is an attack by one faction of party administrators and advisors, who were close to Corbyn and who gained partial control in April 2018 (when Jennie Formby was appointed general secretary), against their predecessors, who had been appointed in the pre-Corbyn era and were hostile to him.1
Unsurprisingly, the report documents the moral depravity of some of those former high-ranking officials, who are exposed as bullies, racists and misogynists, expressing themselves in the disgusting language of the cesspit. They conspired against the party that employed them, sabotaging its election campaign in 2017. They hoped and acted for an electoral defeat, that would lead to the resignation of Corbyn as party leader. In the event, they may have succeeded in preventing an outright Labour victory, but the party achieved impressive gains, so Corbyn remained leader for a while, until he was finally undermined.
But the report does not reflect too well on its authors and on the political friends they champion. In fact, they broadly share with the scoundrels whom they denounce the same view of the validity of the accusations that the Labour Party has a serious anti-Semitism problem. They also wilfully ignore two of the three sources of hostility to the Corbyn leadership, which fuelled and motivated the campaign of alleged ‘anti-Semitism’ against this leadership and the party as a whole. I will deal with these two interconnected failures of the report in turn.
You have to be extremely prejudiced or pathetically credulous to take at face value the tsunami of ‘anti-Semitism’ accusations against Labour, which erupted soon after Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely election as leader. Let me make it clear: the issue is not the existence in the party of the odd real anti-Semite: a person who hates Jews in general or is prejudiced against them. In this connection I have on several occasions used the parable of the spotted hyenas, which I am going to repeat here.
As you may know, spotted hyenas are some of the least attractive members of the animal kingdom. Now, here is a quiz question: “Are there spotted hyenas in Holland?” This is the sort of question that neurologists use to diagnose people with frontal lobe lesions, who usually answer immediately, “No!” But in fact the right answer - which most normal people give, perhaps after some reflection - is “Yes, there probably are some” (eg, in zoos or safari parks), though Holland is not the natural habitat of spotted hyenas.2 Well, if you see an expedition organising at great cost and effort to go to Holland, and to your enquiry why they are going there they tell you ‘We are spotted-hyenas spotters, and we are off to spot spotted hyenas in Holland’, then you would suspect that they don’t really have a thing about hyenas, but about Holland …
There is an abundance of firm evidence that the anti-Labour ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign has been a huge pall of smoke with precious little fire.3 As a typical example of how the mainstream press gleefully joined the brass-necked band playing the ‘Labour anti-Semitism’ march, consider the sensationalist Sunday Times article, headlined ‘Inside Labour’s hate factory - vitriol and threats of violence: the ugly face of Jeremy Corbyn’s cabal - anti-Semitic and holocaust-denying posts are rife on Facebook groups cheerleading for Labour’s leader’. Although the article appeared on April 1 2018, it was not meant as an April fool spoof. On careful analysis, posted by Jewish Voice for Labour the following day, it proved to be an inflated balloon full of malodorous hot air.4 Yet the authors of the report show no awareness of the manifest fact that the accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ were hugely exaggerated and formed part of a contrived, politically motivated campaign.
The report is disingenuous in yet another way: it does not challenge or express the slightest misgiving regarding the absurdly stretched definition of ‘anti-Semitism’ used by the anti-Corbyn campaign. The definition, promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, is pathetically deficient; and the 11 “examples” often appended to it go far beyond the normal understanding of anti-Semitism: hatred and/or prejudice and/or discrimination and/or persecution directed against Jews for being Jews. The “examples” largely focus on Israel; they are used - and designed - to delegitimise serious questioning of the Zionist colonisation project and the regime of the Israeli settler state.5 The ‘definition’, with its appended examples, has been thoroughly debunked by highly qualified critics, including Jewish ones.6
As an illustration of the abuse of that misdefinition, consider my own case. In an official letter expelling me from the party, dated October 3 2017, a Labour official who gloried in the title, ‘head of disputes’, informed me:
Allegations that you may have been involved in a breach of Labour Party rules have been brought to the attention of national officers of the Labour Party.
These allegations relate to an apparently anti-Semitic article published in your name, by the organisation known as Labour Party Marxists (LPM). The content of these articles [sic!] appears to meet the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, which has been adopted by the Labour Party.
I strongly urge readers to consult that article, which is available online,7 and see for themselves that there is not a scintilla of real anti-Semitism in it. But perhaps, with sufficient ill-will, the views I express in it could be squeezed into a purpose-built misdefinition. My case can serve as an exemplar of the baseless, malicious smears made against numerous party members.
By the way, the head of dispute’s nasty insinuation of ‘anti-Semitism’ against me was not only an absurd lie, but a gratuitous one, as the pretext used for my expulsion was quite different. In the event, that flimsy pretext did not work and, faced with a large wave of protests (for which I am deeply grateful), the party bureaucrats were compelled to rescind the expulsion. But the calumny of ‘anti-Semitism’ was never withdrawn, and my repeated demands for apology were ignored.
Since fair-minded party members, including many Jewish ones, could see plainly that the allegations of ‘anti-Semitism’ against their party were hugely inflated in scale and often relied on very questionable evidence, the instigators of the campaign against the Labour left were faced with the danger of being refuted by credible witnesses. They were helped in silencing righteous protest by the mainstream media, including not only the BBC, but also the supposedly ‘progressive’ Guardian, which gave little or no space to refutation of the lies.
But this was not enough. A new device for silencing the truth had to be invented. This is the heresy of ‘denialism’. Any party member who attests that Labour does not have a ‘big problem with anti-Semitism’, in the sense of being ‘institutionally anti-Semitic’, or that a specific accusation is highly questionable, are themselves guilty of this heresy, which is as bad as being anti-Semitic. Such protestors are to be hounded from the party. An example was made of Chris Williamson, a leftwing MP who dared to point out that Labour should not apologise for something for which it was not guilty. Moreover, a party member who defends, or shares a platform with, someone accused of ‘anti-Semitism’ or of the denialist heresy is likewise as bad as an anti-Semite.
The authors of the report (and their political friends) do not have any problem with this: the inflated scale of the accusations, their often dodgy nature and the excommunication of ‘denialist’ heretics. They are quite happy with the treatment of Chris Williamson and other less well-known victims, which took place under the post-April 2018 party regime, not under the previous one. In fact the main complaint of the report against the loathsome baddies of that earlier regime is that they did not act expeditiously on allegations of ‘anti-Semitism’ (a large proportion of which were false!), because they wanted to create the impression that the party’s procedures of dealing with anti-Semitism were ineffective, for which Corbyn would bear the blame - as indeed happened.
The report deserves limited credit: for exposing the swamp of the bureaucracy that Labour inherited from the pre-Corbyn era. But true leftwingers should be highly critical of the ideological concessions it makes to the vile swimmers in that swamp.
In order to appreciate the severe faults and limitations of the report, we must look at the wider context and analyse the structure of the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign against Corbyn and the Labour left. The campaign has in fact been waged by three contingents, which can be schematically represented by a Venn diagram.
As the diagram makes clear, these contingents are not mutually exclusive, but overlap: some individual campaigners belong to two of them or even to all three. The three contingents operate in synergy, and each plays a specific role, indispensable to the entire campaign.
Contingent A: consists of a group of Israeli officials and operatives, as well as Israel advocacy groups in Britain. Members of this contingent are ideologically motivated: they care about Israel and the Zionist colonisation project. For the Israeli politicians and operatives, it is part of their job description. For the British advocates of Israel, support for the Zionist project and its state is a matter of mission. Some organisations - such as We Believe in Israel, Labour Friends of Israel and the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre - have advocacy for Israel as their raison d’être. Others - such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Labour Movement - have commitment to Israel as a formal or informal part of their constitution. In either case, part of their creed, held with various degrees of conviction, is that rejection of Zionism, antagonism to the Israeli regime, and support for Palestinian individual and national rights, are a ‘new form of anti-Semitism’.
The vital contribution of this contingent to the campaign was to provide its very theme: ‘anti-Semitism’. Without this contribution, Contingents B and C would have had to invent other accusations.8
The Israeli part of Contingent A was in fact set up before Corbyn’s election as Labour leader (September 12 2015), and it was first focused on the US, not Britain. By the spring of 2015 Israel had suffered some well-deserved loss of support in world public opinion and erosion of its image. This included the US and, most painfully, American Jews, especially those under 30. Netanyahu’s obviously tense - not to say hostile - relations with Barack Obama did not go down too well among this public. Some acerbic commentator pointed out that more Jews had voted for Obama than for Netanyahu.
So on May 25 2015 Gilad Erdan was appointed minister of strategic affairs and Hasbarah (propaganda). At the time of writing, he still holds this post, as well as being minister of internal security. While the latter post is concerned with policing the Israeli public, especially Palestinian citizens, the ministry of strategic affairs and propaganda was designed to operate outside Israel’s borders - originally mainly in the US. But soon, following Corbyn’s election, the operations shifted heavily to Britain. A special target was the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in support of Palestinian rights, which was gaining ground in Britain (and worldwide). This led to a turf rivalry with Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs. On September 4 2016, Yossi Melman reported in the Israeli paper Ma’ariv:
The problem may arise when the operations section, as hinted by Erdan at the YNET conference on BDS this year, will try to carry out, directly or indirectly, ‘special ops’, which may also be called ‘black ops’. These may have the form of defamation campaigns, harassment and threats to the lives of activists in ‘the boycott movement and delegitimisation’ groups, infringing on, and violating, their privacy, etc. Last March BDS accused Israeli intelligence of responsibility for cyber attacks against its website.9
And Peter Beaumont reported in The Guardian:
Erdan’s ministry was asked in 2015 to “guide, coordinate and integrate the activities of all the ministers and the government and of civil entities in Israel and abroad on the subject of the struggle against attempts to delegitimise Israel and the boycott movement”.
Most controversially, Erdan has been put in charge of large-scale efforts to target foreign individuals and organisation, reportedly including staff recruited from the Mossad foreign intelligence agency, the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency, and the military intelligence directorate.10
A favoured tactic of Erdan’s operations is accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’:
Israel has no convincing arguments with which to combat the arguments made against it, so it relies on skilled debaters and on personal attacks against those making these arguments, hoping to silence them - shaming and countershaming in the struggle against anti-Semitism.11
In this activity, Erdan’s operatives in foreign countries are aided by local advocacy groups. An exposé of how such an undercover operative, Shai Masot, worked in Britain, and his subversive attempts - aided by Israel advocacy groups - to meddle in the Labour Party, was provided in January 2017 by Al Jazeera in a fascinating four-part TV series, The lobby.12
These revelations, if they became widely known and discussed, risked undermining the credibility of the ‘Labour is anti-Semitic’ campaign. Therefore the leaders of the campaign insisted that the revelations be swept under the carpet. Anyone mentioning, let alone condemning, Israeli activity, such as disclosed by Al Jazeera, was now also suspected of being an ‘anti-Semite’. The Corbyn leadership complied; after a brief and feeble protest, the Shai Masot scandal was no longer mentioned. (In the general council of my local Constituency Labour Party, a motion, supported by a majority of the members, that the party launch a proper investigation into Israeli interference, was ruled out of order by the chair as “crossing the line of what is acceptable” and being possibly ‘anti-Semitic’.)
Contingent B: consists of sections of the British establishment concerned with foreign policy. Members of this contingency do not have an ideological commitment to Zionism or emotional attachment to Israel (unless they happen to belong to Contingent A as well), but they are genuinely worried that a left-leaning Labour Party may disrupt a basic precept of British foreign policy: toeing the US line. Accordingly, Israel must be supported - not because it is lovely, but because it is a favoured ally and junior partner of the imperialist hegemon. A Labour Party in which the majority of members are anti-imperialist and supporters of Palestinian rights is regarded as dangerous - so much more if it is led by someone with a similar record.
The indispensable contribution of this contingent to the campaign has been the mobilisation of the mainstream media and other facilities of the state to spread anti-Corbyn propaganda and suppress any opposition to it in the wider British public.
Members of this contingent have formed ties with the Gilad Erdan set-up in Israel. An interesting example is Priti Patel. Although a member of Conservative Friends of Israel, I would be surprised if she has a special ideological or emotional commitment to Zionism. But she is a noted rightwing friend of Narendra Modi and, of course, of Binyamin Netanyahu. In the summer of 2017, when she was secretary of state for international development in the Theresa May cabinet, she spent a ‘family holiday’ in Israel and had unauthorised secret meetings with Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu. She suggested diverting UK foreign aid funds away from Palestinian recipients to subsidise Israeli army “humanitarian” operations in the illegally occupied Syrian Golan Heights. For this unauthorised piece of diplomacy she was sacked by May.
But most puzzling was her secret meeting with Gilad Erdan, as it had apparently nothing to do with her official job. Indeed, Peter Beaumont’s Guardian article quoted above bears the heading, ‘What did Israel hope to gain from Priti Patel’s secret meetings?’ What indeed! Ms Patel is, of course, now home secretary in Boris Johnson’s cabinet.
Contingent C: is made up by Labour’s rightwing MPs and party officers. Their vital contribution to the campaign has been to undermine Corbyn’s leadership from within the party and conduct a witch-hunt against its leftwing members.
The report is concerned solely with the party officers belonging to this contingent. It ignores all the rest. It is therefore not much more than a piece of scandalous gossip that simply confirms what has been widely suspected about those scoundrels, but contributes little to the understanding of the defeat, or self-defeat, of Corbynism.
. There are good reasons to believe that the report was composed by people close to the leadership of Momentum. See Asa Winstanley’s forensic analysis, ‘Leaks show how Labour sabotaged Corbyn’ The Electronic Intifada April 17.↩︎
. In fact there are some spotted hyenas in the Beekse Bergen safari park. You can watch them frolicking at youtube.com/watch?v=rJf7cxwZ0dY.↩︎
. See, for example, J Stern-Weiner Anti-Semitism and the Labour Party London 2019. Freely downloadable from versobooks.com/books/3215-antisemitism-and-the-labour-party.↩︎
. W Patterson, ‘The truth about Corbyn supporters’: jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/social-media/the-truth-about-corbyn-supporters-facebook-groups.↩︎
. ‘Working definition of anti-Semitism’: holocaustremembrance.com/working-definition-antisemitism.↩︎
. See, among many others, H Tomlinson QC, ‘In the matter of the adoption and potential application of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism’, March 8 2017: freespeechonisrael.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/TomlinsonGuidanceIHRA.pdf; S Sedley (former appeal court judge), ‘Defining anti-Semitism’ London Review of Books May 4 2017; G Robertson QC, ‘Anti-Semitism: the IHRA definition and its consequences for freedom of expression’ September 3 2018: prc.org.uk/upload/library/files/Anti-Semitism_Opinion_03.09.18eds.pdf; G Alderman, ‘Why the anti-Semitism definition is flawed’ Jewish Telegraph July 12 2019, also posted by JVL: jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/article/why-the-antisemitism-definition-is-flawed.↩︎
. ‘Anti-Zionism does not equal anti-Semitism’ Labour Party Marxists September 21 2017: labourpartymarxists.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/LPM17-web.pdf. This was an edited version, prepared by Labour Party Marxists, of an article published more than a year earlier, before I had joined the Labour Party (‘Don’t apologise - attack’ Weekly Worker May 19 2016). The older version too has lost none of its topicality.↩︎
. In fact, they attempted, but the issues they tried to raise did not work, or did not arouse much interest. See, for example, ‘No evidence Corbyn was a communist spy, say intelligence experts’ The Guardian February 20 2018; ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Russia leaves his own MPs “fuming”’ Financial Times March14 2018.↩︎
. maariv.co.il/journalists/Article-555835. My translation.↩︎
. ‘What did Israel hope to gain from Priti Patel’s secret meetings?’ The Guardian November 8 2017.↩︎
. A Oren, ‘Israel setting up “dirty tricks” unit to find, spread dirt on BDS groups’ Ha’aretz June 20 2016.↩︎
. See aljazeera.com/investigations/thelobby.↩︎