Chris Williamson: ‘I don’t know what you mean by contemporary anti-Semitism’

Chris Williamson: ‘I don’t know what you mean by contemporary anti-Semitism’

Labour MP tells Jewish News the party should 'move on' from fury over Pete Willsman's remarks, as he stands by his support of the NEC member

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Chris Williamson MP
Chris Williamson MP

MP Chris Williamson has provoked fresh outrage by suggesting “we should move on” from the fury over Pete Willsman, as he condemned his parliamentary colleagues over an upcoming motion to adopt the international definition of anti-Semitism with examples.

The long-time NEC member faced heavy criticism including from the Labour left after suggesting that Jewish “Trump fanatics” were behind accusations of anti-Semitism in the party and angrily insisting he’d never seen Jew-hate in the party.

Williamson, a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, made a point of urging Labour members on Twitter to back Peter Willsman even before the NEC member acknowledged there was in fact anti-Semitism in Labour in a public apology. And speaking hours before Momentum announced they were withdrawing support for him as one of nine candidates on their slate, Wiliamson told Jewish News: “I think people should vote for him. He’s standing for election and people have to make their own mind up. Many people have already voted. He’s apologised and I think we should move on.”

While he “wouldn’t necessarily have expressed himself” in the way Willsman did at the NEC meeting last month, the MP suggested it was a “reasonable question” to ask about evidence for the claim of widespread anti-Semitism made by a group of 68 rabbis. “Then he asked people in the room if they’d witnessed anti-Semitism and he made the point some people are Trump supporters. That’s true across society. His comments didn’t make him an individual who isn’t committed to fighting anti-Semitism.”

Williamson claimed former Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush “has expressed his support, for example”. After Jewish News pointing out that Arkush had released a statement of congratulations rather than support when Trump was elected, he countered falsely “I think he’s released a few statements”. He also insisted the “context” of the comments were not known, and suggested being hard of hearing meant Willsman has a “loud voice in any event”.

Corbyn has been criticised for not disciplining Willsman, with some comparing the case to the action taken against Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin. But Williamson cited Holocaust survivor Walter Wolfgang, a former NEC member who spoke out against Labour suspending Ken Livingstone, for “continuing to urge people to vote for him. If it’s good enough for Walter its good enough for me. You don’t know Peter Willsman, do you?”

He also countered a claim by the Jewish Labour Movement’s Peter Mason that there could be no trust in the party while Willsman remained on the NEC, adding “the party has a very strong record of fighting anti-Semitism from its inception. Anyone who indulges in any form of anti-Semitism has no place in the party and their feet wouldn’t touch the ground.”

Turning to the wider row over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, he questioned whether the views expressed by the rabbis, communal leadership bodies and the UK’s three main newspapers represented the majority view in British Jewry. “I don’t know, just as you don’t know,” Williamson claimed

The MP also attacked the Parliamentary Labour Party for plans to vote on a motion to include IHRA with all its examples in its rulebook. He said: “They can vote if they want but they’ve got no standing in this. It’s out of order. It’s a matter for the NEC. The PLP has already expressed a view – there’s been a vote on it already.” It was up to the NEC to decide whether to alter the party’s approach, he said, while claiming the current course appeared “sensible” given that “it is being used to stifle criticism and action against Netanyahu’s apartheid regime” as part of efforts to clamp down on BDS.

The Derby North MP has previously described the suspensions of Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker as “ridiculous”. But, challenged on those comments, Williamson became agitated: “I’ll take no lectures from anybody about my record and position on anti-Semitism or bigotry of any kind. I’ve spent my life fighting it literally on the streets shoulder to shoulder with other activists and members of the Jewish community. Please don’t imply I don’t give a s*** or I don’t care about the feelings of the Jewish community. “

But asked about contemporary anti-Semitism, he interjected: “What do you mean by contemporary anti-Semitism? Anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism. I don’t understand what you mean by a contemporary form of it.

“What I do know is we see a rise of the far-right and that’s an incredibly troubling situation that we should be seeking to work together in solidarity to fight that menace not actually demonising or seeking to put words into the mouth of people like myself who are on your side.”

JLM yesterday called for the whip to be withdrawn from Williamson after he failed to speak out during a Momentum meeting in Liverpool, when an audience member suggested: “Israelis with their foot soldiers in Labour” were “trying to take our democracy”.

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