Articles  •  Britain

Board of Deputies lays anti-Palestinian trap

31 January 2020

IN A VICTORY for the forces that spent five years undermining Corbyn’s leadership, all five candidates for the Labour leadership contest, who gained sufficient support from Labour MPs and MEPs to proceed to the second round, signed up to the Board of Deputies 10 “pledges” concerning the alleged antisemitism crisis in the party.

The four candidates of the right – Lisa Nandy, Jess Philips, Keir Starmer, and Emily Thornberry – were widely expected to sign the pledges, but the affirmation of the pledges by the “left” candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey will surprise many.

One leadership candidate, Clive Lewis, refused to sign the pledges… and was effectively vetoed from the leadership election, after Momentum and the Blairite parliamentarians colluded to prevent him getting enough nominations.

A similar attempt to exclude deputy leadership candidates Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler, who have both refused to sign the BoD’s pledges, failed after they both reached the required threshold of 22 nominations from MPs and MEPs to get onto the ballot. The other deputy leadership candidates, including the Momentum backed Angela Rayner, have signed up to the pledges.

The 10 Pledges

Jewish Voice for Labour has issued a Response to the Board of Deputies’ 10 Pledges, which, point-by-point, exposes the BoD’s demands as an attempt to force Labour to outsource its disciplinary system to hostile forces, like itself, to turn itself and the Jewish Labour Movement the sole representatives of British Jewry, to make the IHRC definition of antisemitism, including its Zionist clauses, the legal framework for disciplinary cases and to accuse anyone who supports an accused member guilty by association.

What the Board’s pledges amount to is an intensification of the campaign against anti-Zionists, and against the left more generally within the Labour Party. While the campaign previously focused on high-profile figures like Ken Livingston, Jackie Walker, and Marc Wadsworth, the pledges are a statement of intent to begin a new stage of the attacks, which will go further in taking on ordinary members of the party.

This intention is most clearly expressed in the fifth pledge, which calls on the suspension of any party member that has publicly defended figures that have been “suspended or expelled in the wake of antisemitic incidents”. The careful wording ensures that even figures like Livingstone and Walker – who are both mentioned by name but neither of whom were disciplined for antisemitism – are considered pariahs.

In ensuring that Labour can be gutted of its left-wing members at the behest of the BoD, the pledges set demands on time limits for investigations that no serious political organisation could possibly accept. Labour has the capacity to conduct investigations as quickly as necessity demands; indeed they took on extra staff – once the principle demand of the smear campaign – in order to do so. However, the pledges demand time limits to the investigations, presumably implying that defendants be found “guilty” should the time limit elapse.

The pledges also demand the BoD and its allies be granted a monopoly on legitimate Jewish public opinion and representation within the party. Their eighth pledge calls for the exclusion of “fringe” Jewish organisations on all matters relating to “engagement” with the Jewish community.

This clearly refers to growing left-wing Jewish political organisations, such as the Jewish Socialists Group, Jewdas, and above all the Jewish Voice for Labour. These organisations have led the way in providing evidence-based opposition to the unjust expulsions, and the weaponisation of antisemitism against Labour.

Socialists should not allow the larger size and influence of the BoD to convince them that they are any more legitimate that the left-wing Jewish groups. We should not call simply for groups like JVL to be given a seat at a table alongside the Board, but for active engagement and cooperation with them on issues effecting Jews in the Labour Party and beyond. That they are class-conscious socialists and consistent defenders – and participants – in the ‘Corbyn project’, far outweighs any baseless and offensive claims about their position on the “fringes” of British Jewry.

The BoD is not neutral

Like many “community organisations” the BOD has carefully constructed an image of itself as a democratic and legitimate representative of British Jews at large. The reality, however, is that the Board is an overtly political organisation, decisively on the right of British politics, with close relations to the Conservative Party and to Israel advocacy groups in Britain.

As the JVL explains, “The Board can make no claim to represent either the 20% or so of Jews who are Charedi, or the approximately 50% who are secular.” Far from “representing” all Jews, the BoD represents less than a third – and then only through their synagogues, not direct election.

The Board came to prominence when it organised the “Enough is enough” demonstration in March 2018, which was striking in both its lack of concrete political demands, and in the eclecticism of those attending. Corbyn, prior to the march, had apologised for the “hurt and pain” caused by some of the cases against the Labour Party, and had offered to meet with the BoD to discuss future steps.

The demonstration did not so much call for any further steps to be taken, but instead escalated the crisis against Labour by demonstrating its opponents’ ability to mobilise people on the streets. Those attending included Tory and right-wing Labour MPs as well as members of extreme-right pro-Israel organisations like Herut, who publically praise Meir Kahne, founder of the Israeli fascist Kach party, and – in perhaps their only ever appearance at a rally describing itself as anti-racist – the Democratic Unionist Party. All in all, no more than 500 protestors attended.

The rally nonetheless demonstrated the mutually beneficial relationship between the Board and the ruling class at large, which uses the BoD to strengthen and legitimise its attacks against Labour via its media and political representatives. Meanwhile, the public platforms, media access and connections to major political parties afforded by the ruling class allows the BoD to consolidate its “leadership” of the Jewish community and to use this leadership to recruit support from British Jews with strikingly divergent political orientations in the name of “community unity”.

However, when the BOD’s position within the ruling class has come into conflict with the security of British Jews, it has always elected to preserve the former. This is precisely what it did as antifascists were organising to oppose Mosley’s Blackshirts in Cable Street, disgracefully telling Jews to avoid the mobilisations.

Of course the vast majority of British – and all – Jews are instinctively and vehemently anti-fascist, not least because of the Nazi holocaust, which is why socialists call for its remembrance, in its full horror, to be maintained and deepened. But the Jewish community, like all communities, has left and right wing forces within it. The Board has consistently been on the conservative, right wing; its previous president Jonathan Arkush called on Jews to vote Tory against the Jewish Ed Miliband and welcomed the election of the racist Donald Trump. Fine arbiters of justice in the Labour Party!

JLM welcomed back

The clearest testimony to the BoD’s right wing character is its demand for the rehabilitation of the Jewish Labour Movement, an organisation that has effectively split from Labour in all but name. An organisation that its own leaders described as a “dormant mailing list” prior to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Since then the JLM has played a central role in the attacks against the Labour Left.

After four years of relentless sniping, the most decisive break with Labour came in the 2019 general election when the group announced that it would refuse to campaign for the party. This was the logical conclusion of a motion passed at its conference, declaring Corbyn “unfit” to be Prime Minister. In the context in which socialists in the Labour Party are routinely expelled for the most tenuous links to parties opposing Labour in previous elections, the leniency extended to the JLM, despite it having worked against a Labour victory, is testament to the success of the smear campaign in preserving the domination of the right in the party’s disciplinary system.

The BoD not only wants to welcome back the JLM, but to secure its position as the sole organisation representing Jews in the Labour Party. It plans to do this by demanding Labour hand the group the responsibility of the “political education” of the members. While the JLM’s dishonest inclusion of why anti-Zionism must be considered antisemitic in its “antisemitism training” programme should discredit it on this score, the entire premise is misleading.

Labour has allowed JLM to lead political education on antisemitism since this was first formulated as a demand, and has made participation on JLM’s education programme a suitable outcome for those found guilty antisemitic offences – and anti-Zionist (non-)offences. The reason why JLM do not currently lead the education on this topic is not due to non-cooperation from Labour, but because of their own refusal. Now Corbyn’s gone, they want their old job back – on their terms.

Equality and Human Rights Commission

One of the more recent developments of the campaign has been its manipulation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) ongoing investigation into the Labour Party.

Labour’s opponents have routinely used the simple fact that Labour is being investigated as evidence of its “guilt”. That the EHRC has not found – and may never find – Labour to be “institutionally anti-Semitic”, the central claim of the campaign’s leaders, is conveniently omitted.

Nonetheless, like the Board, the Commission has an overtly political character and evidence, which could seriously undermine its legitimacy to conduct an objective investigation Labour, has been suppressed.

On 26 November, BBC’s Newsnight announced that it had received a letter from the CEO of the EHRC, Rebecca Hilsenrath, questioning the impartiality and the credibility of the organisation. To date the full letter has not been published but, in an excerpt that the BBC revealed, the CEO alleged that the Chair of the organisation, David Isaac – who is appointed by and accountable to the government – was unfit for the job, because of his refusal to take positions on serious human rights abuses by the government, such as its revocation of Shamima Begum’s citizenship.

It is also clear that there are elements at the heart of the EHRC that were willing to attempt to influence the election result. A strategically timed leak, on precisely the same day that the BBC announced its receipt of Hilsenrath’s letter, revealed 70 reports of antisemitism cases within Labour. The evidence backing up these accounts has never been released, nor has either the EHRC or the media made any attempt to emphasise that these are leaks from a wider, unpublished investigation. But the electoral damage had already been done.

The staff that have been assigned to the EHRC’s probe should raise suspicion. The lead investigator is Adam Wagner, who just weeks before his organisation set up the inquiry, wrote an article in The Guardian – which has, like the BBC (the infamous Panorama documentary), supported the smear campaign – arguing:

“When people look back on Labour and Jeremy Corbyn’s response to antisemitism, the question is unlikely to be whether the party became institutionally antisemitic, but when. I do not make that statement lightly. But as a Jew, a former Labour voter and a human rights lawyer, I believe it is accurate.”

Yet all the leadership candidates expect Wagner to play the impartial investigator? Rather they are all prepared to join in the smear of Jeremy Corbyn and those many members who support the Palestinians.

Momentum’s Anti-Democratic Manoeuvres

But the task of organisations, like the BoD, the JLM and the EHRC, is made significantly easier by the deferential actions of the leadership of the Labour Left. At every step the task of socialists and Palestine activists resisting the smears has been frustrated by the anti-democratic leaders of Momentum.

The first sign was Momentum’s support for the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which would severely threaten free speech on Palestine by preventing individuals from accurately describing Israel as a racist state. More recently, Momentum and its leader Jon Lansman have called on their candidates in Labour’s leadership and deputy leadership races to accept the BoD’s demands.

Worse, they have collaborated with the right in attempting to suppress left wing candidates willing to break with Momentum on the smears, like Lewis, Burgon (unsuccessfully) and Jo Bird (for the NEC) from making it onto the ballot. They then unilaterally endorsed their two leadership candidates, later agreeing to hold “confirmatory” plebiscites, in which both candidates received unconvincing victories with staggeringly low turnouts.

The leadership elections demonstrate the need for socialists to take the lead in opposing the smear campaign, and in lobbying the leadership against backtracking on party democracy and in its support for the Palestinian cause. Whoever wins, we can expect further concessions to the BoD and JLM and further witch-hunts against genuinely anti-racist campaigners. And since one can only be a true anti-racist by opposing all forms of racism, including antisemitism and anti-Palestinian racism, currently being bloodily exercised in Gaza and the West Bank, this is an attack on the left as a whole.

While crucial struggles in their own right, concessions on these will only lead to further concessions on new issues, as the ruling class carries out its ultimate task of suppressing the rise of a party demanding serious reforms in favour of the working class. The ability of the Labour Party to continue these policies is entirely dependent on its ability to defend itself from attacks.

That Rebecca Long-Bailey is willing to accept 10 fundamentally unreasonable and dishonest demands is an underwhelming start to the fightback. Win or lose, the left needs to reconstitute itself around a programme that doesn’t give an inch on the genuine gains of the Corbyn years, demands the party goes further in its support for the Palestinian cause and turns its guns on Boris Johnson and the Tories.

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