Last week Jackie Walker, Vice-chair of Momentum‘s national steering group (of which I am chair) was suspended by the Labour Party pending investigation of remarks she made in a Facebook conversation. These were brought to the party’s attention by the Jewish Chronicle whose coverage does not describe them as antisemitic though it does claim in a headline (not supported in my view by the text of the article) that she “claimed Jews caused ‘an African holocaust’“.
Jackie Walker is a longstanding anti-racist activist of both African and Jewish heritage, who was instrumental in ensuring that Nigel Farage was defeated in her home constituency of Thanet. The conversation was one about her own heritage, and the roles of both victim and perpetrator played by her own direct ancestors. Some of her direct Jewish antecedents were, according to her own genealogical research, involved in the financing and operation of the slave trade. It was a serious discussion about how one is a victim or perpetrator “to some extent through choice” in the context of her own heritage and current debates about racism. In my view, the tone and context of that conversation makes absolutely clear that nothing about it were antisemitic.
Unfortunately, it is hard to conduct a rational debate about antisemitism and other forms of racism in the presence of a “lynch mob” whose interest in combatting racism is highly selective. I refer to those who seek primarily to serve the interests of the Tory party, highlighting allegations of antisemitism in the days immediately prior to an election whilst simultaneously either ignoring or in some cases actively promoting islamophobia (like the campaign against Sadiq Khan) and racism based on skin colour (like Boris Johnson’s remarks about “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles” when he “didn’t mean to be racist“). If you want an extreme example of this, look no further than former Labour Party speechwriter and researcher turned Sun journalist censured by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) for crudely mocking a woman’s gender identity and her disability:
For many Muslims the anti-Semitism is visceral, an ingrained part of their unpleasant ideology. For the idiotic white lefties it is an adjunct to their self-loathing and hatred of firstly Britain and second the West. In both cases it is predicated as much upon envy – at Jewish success, worldwide and in Israel – as anything else. If you handed over Israel to the Palestinians they would turn it into Somalia before you could say Yom Kippur.
Identifying real antisemitism is often not a simple matter, involving shades of grey not “black and white” judgements, which does not, in my view, justify a one-size-fits-all “zero-tolerance” approach. Antisemitism must not be judged solely on the words used but on tone and context. And whilst much greater awareness is needed of how the choice of language can alienate people and cause unnecessary offence (like the use of the word “Zionist”) the most serious cases, the ones which should be dealt with most severely, do involve more than just a poor choice of language. Others are best dealt with by education and training, whilst some allegations turn out not to involve antisemitism at all.
The Labour Party is ill-equipped to deal with such complex issues in its current disciplinary process. It doesn’t help that established practice is routinely to suspend from membership pending investigation. I’ve criticised this before (though in the case of Simon Danczuk I do think that suspension was eventually justified). Essentially, the Labour Party also has procedures which deny those charged with anything the normal principles of natural justice which Lord Denning summarised as for the accused to:
know the case which is made against him. He must know what evidence has been given and what statements have been made affecting him: and then he must be given a fair opportunity to correct or contradict them…. Whoever is to adjudicate must not hear evidence or receive representations from one side behind the back of the other.”
Suspension from membership of the party does affect peoples’ reputation. It was used in Jackie Walker’s case by the media to validate suspicion. To use it routinely whilst denying the accused any prior notice of anything about the charge is like operating a system of justice without provision for bail or any hearing prior to imprisonment. It is wholly unacceptable that the Compliance Unit of the Labour Party is able to suspend based on the agreement of just two managers without the prior knowledge of the accused, and often denies the accused adequate information of what they are accused throughout the proceedings.
If you consider the words quoted in the Jewish Chronicle alone without a proper consideration of the tone and context, and without speaking to Jackie as I have done, you might well reach the wrong conclusion
[(not quoted – Ed) My ancestors were involved in both and] 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… 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.”
The phrase “the chief financiers” in particular may have led to someone in the Compliance Unit ticking the antisemitism box and pressing the “suspension” button. That was the wrong call, through a process that is quite simply not fit for purpose. And I suspect it may have been done without proper consideration of the sensitivities surrounding historical analysis of the slave trade that is every bit as shoddy as Lenni Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of the Dictators on which Ken Livingstone based his highly unfortunate statements on Hitler and Zionism. There are already enough tensions between different faiths and communities that have been put under strain by the current focus on antisemitism rather than racism in all its forms – which was part of what Jackie was concerned about in her conversation.
The action of the Compliance Unit unfortunately fuels concern about a witch-hunt and directs it the “Israel lobby” since on this occasion – unlike virtually every other – the accusation originally came from the Israel Advocacy Movement, an organisation that appears to be on the fundamentalist wing of pro-Israeli organisations. It is linked (through its chair) to the Campaign against Antisemitism which I have criticised before and has pretty robust views on British Muslims, based on a survey whose methodology has been criticised, that does little to promote better inter-faith relations and some would categorise as Islamophobic:
On every single count, British Muslims were more likely by far than the general British population to hold deeply antisemitic views. It is clear that many British Muslims reserve a special hatred for British Jews, rating Jews much less favourably than people of other religions or no religion, yet astonishingly British Muslims largely do not recognise antisemitism as a major problem.
It has long been suspected that sections of the British Muslim population harboured hatred towards British Jews. This survey goes some way to identifying pockets of prejudice, but it also shows that the prejudice is horrifyingly widespread.
Inter-faith and inter-racial relations are not assisted by the current media focus exclusively on antisemitism. Jackie Walker was right to be concerned about this and the Labour Party’s inquiry rightly puts antisemitism into a wider context.
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