Pleas made for Jewish Labour supporters to remain in the party
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Pleas made for Jewish Labour supporters to remain in the party

Shadow cabinet figures and activists addressed a packed Jewish Labour Movement meeting focusing on anti-Semitism

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Impassioned pleas were made for Jewish Labour supporters to remain inside the party last night as political figures from all wings of the party came together in an unprecedented show of unity against anti-Semitism.

Figures from Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis an Momentum-backed NEC member Rhea Wolfson to Luciana Berger and Michael Dugher were among around 15 speakers to address a packed rally against anti-Semitism and racism, organised by the Jewish Labour Movement.

They were joined by Naz Shah, who was suspended from the party before being reinstated, and the two peers who had conducted inquiries into anti-Semitism in the party, Shami Chakrabarti and Jan Royall.

But Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell withdraw after JLM members raised concerns about his planned appearance, days after he shared a platform with previously suspended activist Jackie Walker.

Lewis, a key figure in the hard left of the party, acknowledged it had been an “appalling year” for Labour Jews, saying the extent of the problem was brought home to him when a former boss at the BBC said she wouldn’t vote for the party again until “we had sorted out our anti-Semitism problem”.

He recalled getting “into a spat” with someone who asked “what about Israel?” in a discussion about anti-Semitism. “I said ‘why don’t you then blame me for what Idi Amin did in Africa to the Asians. That’s in effect what you’re doing when you’re blaming Jewish people for what’s going on there. There’s no place for it.”

Fellow MP Chris Bryant, who is gay, said he would continue to criticise Israel “as the Labour Party there does every day” but insisted those who question the Jewish state’s right to exist should reflect on fact there’s only one nation in the Middle East where gays are safe.

In one of the most passionate moments of the event, he said he was “sick and tired” of those who claim to be anti-racist but “don’t follow through on anti-Semitism. “If you wake up in the morning and you want to try to defend other people and say it’s just this or that or just one person..get out of my party and get out now,” he said to loud applause.

It was a message echoed by Bradford West’s Naz Shah, who came to Liverpool especially for the rally to speak of her “journey” after being suspended for endorsing social media posts calling for the “transportation” of Israel. “I’m not really anti-racist” without tackling anti-Semitism, she told the gathering, adding that it was for the victim for define what is racist. She urged “compassion” like that shown to her by the Jewish community that enabled her to learn from her mistakes.

The rally – a response to months of torrid headlines about the state of Labour-Jewish relations – also saw speakers including MP Rupa Huq back JLM proposals for a change in party rules to make it easier to expel members displaying anti-Semitism or other forms of racism. The NEC last week decided that the proposal wouldn’t be voted on until next year.

NEC member James Asser pledged to “fight to strengthen the rule book”, while Progress director Richard Angell said Jeremy Corbyn could have helped ensure the rule changes were put before conference this year. “I’ve had enough of statements from Jeremy Corbyn I’m afraid. We need action,” he said.

Speakers including former shadow cabinet minister Michael Dugher expressed solidarity and admiration for how Jewish MPs Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman have confronted vitriol they faced. While saying Corbyn and his shadow chancellor were not themselves anti-Semitic, he insisted leadership was about calling out racism even when it comes from your supporters.

Berger demanded that Ken Livingstone be expelled and said it was up to “those at the sharp end” to determine if anti-Semitism in the party was exaggerated – a claim made at a momentum meeting on the subject that evening.

Speakers addressing the Jewish Labour Movement Fringe event at the Labour Conference. (L-R: Luciana Berger MP, Tulip Siddiq MP, Lisa Nandy MP, Naz Shah MP, Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, Clive Lewis MP, Rhea Wolfson, Joan Ryan MP and Chris Bryant MP
Speakers addressing the Jewish Labour Movement Fringe event at the Labour Conference. (L-R: Luciana Berger MP, Tulip Siddiq MP, Lisa Nandy MP, Naz Shah MP, Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, Clive Lewis MP, Rhea Wolfson, Joan Ryan MP and Chris Bryant MP

A defiant tone was struck by Smeeth, despite being forced to have personal security at conference after receiving an anti-Semitic death threat. “If I after the last few months am staying to fight in the party, then so are every single one of you,” she said. “We are going to make the party a safe space for Jews if it bloody kills me, no matter what they say and even if they try. This is our party. The Jewish community helped build this party.” Ellman, who received the loudest applause of the night, called on the leader to denounce claims that anti-Semitism allegations represent a smear but insisted she was “inspired by the show of support across the party.

Baroness Royall also pleaded with members not to resign and pledged to sign up as a member of JLM.

Rhea Wolfson, the RSY worker who was recently elected to the NEC, said she aware that anti-Semitism existed but receiving images of herself and family members superimposed on to concentration camps “took my breath away”.

“To deny it doesn’t exist in any capacity is totally unacceptable. It’s a scourge on our society and the Labour Party and anyone who says otherwise is so misinformed,” she said. She pledged to ensure the Chakrabarti report is implemented “in terms of language and procedure” and so the progress of disciplinary cases is known.

Shadow energy secretary Lisa Nandy, who was representing Labour Friends of Palestine, I costed criticism of Israel must never stray into questioning its right to exist or anti-Jewish rhetoric “that is is opposite of the values we stand for in this party”.

She added: “We must be quicker to act when concerns are raised, we must be far more robust in our approach. All of us – from the very top to the grassroots – have a duty to go out there and proactively create a culture in which all of us are free to be ourselves and speak our minds.”

This rally was not an event that organisers wanted to see repeated, JLM chair Jeremy Newmark said. “Next year when we return to conference we want to see a party that looks and feels very different in terms of how it projects itself and welcomes its Jewish members.” After leaflets were distributed in Liverpool calling for JLM to be expelled, he pledged: “We’re not going anywhere!”

JLM will be meeting McDonnell on the fringes of the conference tomorrow and have pledged to tackle him on sharing a platform with Walker.

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