Meet the activists defending the community: ‘This was everyone’s fight’
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Meet the activists defending the community: ‘This was everyone’s fight’

Some of the activists who waged a bitter five-year battle against Labour antisemitism tell Jenni Frazer why they took up the anti-racism baton

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his house in north London.
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his house in north London.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission report had one focus: to decide “whether the Labour Party had unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish”.

The commission was aware of many who had spent the past years in what sometimes looked like a hopeless battle, to raise awareness of antisemitism in the party – and to challenge its proponents wherever possible. 

Simon Myerson, a barrister, is not a party member (he left in 2018). But, along with all those to whom Jewish News spoke, he has paid a price (of vitriolic abuse) for his vigilance and monitoring of anti-Jewish hatred. 

He battles what he calls “the triumphalist left”, who are “thick and stupid – and malign”, adding: “These are people who are genuinely unpleasant. The minute you start making excuses for racism, or say it is justified because of Israel – when people are prepared to put aside their moral principles to do those things, where do they stop?”

Myerson took up the cudgel on Twitter because he is passionately anti-bullying, seeing it as “morally offensive”. His wife has urged him to stop, telling him “nobody listens”; but he says: “What about all the people who say nothing, but watch and read [antisemitism]? If they don’t hear the voice, it’s too easy for them to assume there’s something in it.”

These are people who are genuinely unpleasant. The minute you start making excuses for racism, or say it is justified because of Israel – when people are prepared to put aside their moral principles to do those things, where do they stop?

Gnasher Jew is the anonymous online collective that has taken a leading role in challenging the Corbynistas. Three of the group were Labour members and one a Labour voter. They have a professional background in OSI, or Open Source Investigation, and had been challenging antisemitism on social media before Corbyn’s advent as Labour leader. 

Their spokesman said: “We noticed a huge upswing in left-wing antisemitism around the time of Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015. Initially, we were unconcerned – until 2016 [when] we started tracking some of the cases and realised rather quickly that Labour was not acting on even the most horrific examples of antisemitism.” 

They say their decision to be anonymous online is born of long experience with neo-Nazis and has been a wise decision. 

“We have had our lives and the lives of our families threatened, our properties threatened with vandalism and being ‘house cleared’. Most Jews (and non-Jews) who expose antisemitism have been the target of not only antisemitism, but racially motivated threats of violence, online harassment and abuse, and vexatious complaints to employers.”

We have had our lives and the lives of our families threatened, our properties threatened with vandalism and being ‘house cleared’. Most Jews (and non-Jews) who expose antisemitism have been the target of not only antisemitism, but racially motivated threats of violence, online harassment and abuse, and vexatious complaints to employers

For Gnasher, the EHRC report is “not a magic bullet and should not been seen in that manner”. It adds: “Sir Keir Starmer has undoubtedly made headway in tackling antisemitism, but not enough.” 

Post-EHRC report, the group is interested in “those let off under Corbyn for the grossest antisemitism and Holocaust denial”, whom they will continue to highlight, but they are scaling back their work for the time being. 

David Collier noticed in 2015 that various online forums that had nothing to do with Labour or UK politics and were “exclusively anti-Israel” had begun to urge people to join Labour and vote for Corbyn.

“I saw we had a problem and I followed. Alarm bells rang when I could see hundreds of these people [with extremist views] joining the Labour Party,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone could have foreseen what was to come, not on our side and not on theirs.” 

Collier has produced intricate reports such as the March 2018 Palestine Live and he has consistently responded on social media. He has remained a Labour member because, he says, he could not do what he does without being a member. 

I saw we had a problem and I followed. Alarm bells rang when I could see hundreds of these people [with extremist views] joining the Labour Party

“Too many Jewish Labour members left on a matter of principle. We needed to have eyes and ears inside the party, good Labour people who were horrified at what was going on.”

He doesn’t consider himself an Israel defender; rather, he says, he is there to defend Israel’s right to make mistakes. And, for Collier, despite the vital importance of the work, it has had a devastating effect. 

David Collier

“Five years ago, I had just finished a master’s degree and was running a consultancy advising small and medium-sized businesses, and it was doing quite well. It took six months of me publicly coming out [to challenge antisemitism] to destroy that business. Everything stopped, the phone stopped ringing. It’s been a very high price, and if it wasn’t for my wife, being so supportive, I wouldn’t have been able to carry on. If you Google my name now, you find ‘racist blogger infiltrates Labour Party’. But this was a battle that had to be fought.”

For actor and writer Marlon Solomon, “everything changed” in 2016. Although he had been to a Jewish primary school, up to that point he had few Jewish friends and did not live in a Jewish neighbourhood. He wasn’t even politically active, although he was a lifelong Labour voter.

“At the beginning, I was actually supportive of Corbyn. But as soon as the [Ken] Livingstone thing happened, that was it – people I knew were posting about antisemitism – and not in a nice way. I ended up having to confront people because I was the only Jew they knew. This stuff reverberates way outside the Labour Party, to ordinary Jewish people who found their identity was up for grabs – and they had to defend it.”

 

CAA rally against antisemitism

Antisemitism became “a daily fact of life, put on my social media by people I knew”, he says. “It returned me to the Jewish community: I joined the Jewish Labour Movement, and I found lots of other Jews with stories similar to mine”.

As well as hitting back on social media, he developed, and toured with, a hugely popular one-man show, Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale, satirising the conspiracy theories about Jews that were appearing online. 

Conspiracy theories with Marlon Solomons

Solomon believes that the EHRC report will be “a tool to help people understand why the Labour Party became rotten with antisemitism”, but he by no means feels the fight is over. “This will go on for a long time to come, and it has changed my life as a British Jew.”

Labour Against Antisemitism (LAAS) is an online collective with passionate Jewish and non-Jewish defenders of Jews. It began, says Euan Philipps, one of its leading members, in February 2017, and prides itself on being a group with unique knowledge of Labour circles.

There is a core group of around 70 people and LAAS does not confine itself to social media, but spends time reporting antisemitic eruptions in Labour circles, particularly constituency branches. Its spokeswoman, Fiona Sharpe, agreed to take on her role after a family visit to Lithuania “shook me to the core”. She adds: “There, I came face to face with the result of antisemitism. How could I not do this?”

Philipps, who is not Jewish, believes that the fight against antisemitism is “everyone’s fight. It was quite shocking in 2017 to see how quickly antisemitic tropes became embedded… It wasn’t an option not to fight.”

For Alex Hearn, the trigger to join LAAS was Livingstone. “People who should be our natural allies, because we are a minority, started essentially parroting propaganda from the far right. It was a perfect storm. My worry was that these ideas were becoming normalised.”

LAAS, as a reporting organisation, provided the EHRC with 15,000 pages of evidence, not just of antisemitism but of the lack of response by the party to repeated complaints. Hearn, Philipps and Sharpe emphasise the importance of the EHRC report as “a public record of what went on”. But none of them envisages stopping their work now that it has been published. Hearn predicts more “denial and gaslighting” from those determined to defend Labour Party behaviour.

“There’s not going to be a magic wand,” they say. “There are some very deep-rooted issues here. We won’t stop until there is zero tolerance for antisemitism.”

2018 protest against antisemitism outside Labour HQ in central London

Retired bookseller Gillian Lazarus has been a Labour member all her adult life. She spends her time sifting through Labour-affiliated forums on Facebook where criticism of Israel inevitably morphs into antisemitism. “I saw there was very old-fashioned, unreconstructed antisemitism, posing as being anti-Zionist.”

She began shining a light on the forums in 2016. “People didn’t believe there was Labour antisemitism and would ask for evidence. I saw this as evidence.” 

Although she initially thought of it as a short-term project, Lazarus’ work has occupied more and more of her time, taking hours every night. She found “they” – the antisemites – “campaign, while we Jews ‘fix or rig’”.

She believes that the Corbynists and their outriders will cast doubt on the report’s independence. “They will say the EHRC are ‘bought’ Zionists – and the Jews will say, ‘Oh, they could have been stronger.’”

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