MPs from across the parliamentary spectrum lined up on Tuesday in an unprecedented House of Commons denunciation of anti-Semitism.
But the target of much of their anger, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, absented himself from the chamber for a large part of the three-hour debate, only returning towards the end to sit on the front bench while his colleague, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, summed up for the Opposition — and generated shouting and catcalls from her own party.
Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson pointedly moved from the front bench to sit among the backbenchers next to Luciana Berger, whose passionate personal story was one of the highlights of the debate and drew an extraordinary standing ovation from other MPs — a rarity in the Commons, where strictly speaking applause is not allowed after speeches.
But MPs were in a bullish and defiant mood as evidenced by the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, who had called the debate. “We need to show the Jewish community that we do get it, that we recognise the pernicious prejudice ofanti-Semitism”, he told the Commons, and, though thanking Jeremy Corbyn for attending the opening of the session, accused him of “a lack of moral clarity and leadership” in stamping out anti-Sitism in his party.
Quoting the Board of Deputies, “Where does anti-Semitism lead when it is unchecked?”, Mr Javid declared: “We have to change minds and attitudes. The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers. It began with nothing more than words.”
And Mr Javid set the tone for many of the 27 speakers who took part, by ending his speech with the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council slogan: “Enough is enough”.
So many people wanted to speak — primarily from the Labour Party, with heartfelt and emotional denunciations from MP after MP — that speeches were severely curtailed for time.
But that did not prevent an early intervention from Labour Dudley MP Ian Austin, calling for Ken Livingstone to be “booted out” of the party. He made his call in the middle of a pledge by the Shadow Communities Secretary, Andrew Gwynne, that Labour would “put our house in order”, while going on to deplore the “coded language and dog-whistle euphemisms” infecting anti-Semitic discourse.
Among the contributions across the Chamber were MPs who represented constituencies with a strong Jewish community, including Scottish Nationalist Stewart Malcom McDonald, who sits for Glasgow South, and his East Renfrewshire Conservative neighbour, Paul Masterton. Jewish MPs took a prominent part in the debate, particularly Conservative Rob Halfon, whose characterisation of anti-Semitism as “a sensation that the air has grown tighter” struck a particular chord with Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who summed up for the Government.
But the three stand-out speeches were undoubtedly the fierce and passionate words from Labour’s Luciana Berger, her colleague Ruth Smeeth, and the veteran campaigner against anti-Semitism, John Mann. Ms Berger, MP for Liverpool Wavertree, gave a deeply personal account of the almost endless anti-Semitic abuse she has suffered since her student days. Her words prompted Birmingham MP Jess Phillips, a rising star in the party, to applaud her in solidarity.
“I was 19 when I received my first piece of hate mail,” Ms Berger said. “It described me as a dirty, Zionist pig.” Four people have so far been convicted since 2013 for the anti-Semitic abuse directed at her as an MP, three of whom have been imprisoned: in the wake of one of those convictions, she said, an American far-right website had launched a hashtag, “Filthy Jewbitch campaign”.
Ms Berger said she made no apology for holding her own party to a higher standard. “My party urgently needs to address this issue publicly and consistently”, she said. “Denial and prevarication are not options”.
John Mann, speaking without notes, spoke of threats of rape made to his wife and other threats to his family as a result of his campaigning against anti-Semitism. He denounced members of the left-wing action group, Momentum, who had targeted MPs for standing in solidarity with the Jewish community at the Enough is Enough demonstration; and he said clearly that those who described the complaints about anti-Semitism as “a smear [against the Labour leadership]”, needed to apologise publicly.
Mr Mann said that 13 years ago when he had begun his campaign, Jewish people would say to him, “Is it true that there is a growth in anti-Semitism?” Today, he said, Jewish people responded differently. “They say, I’m scared.”
Watch John Mann’s speech here:
Ruth Smeeth, who said she had been “born into Labour as surely I was born into my faith”, read out a litany of the anti-Semitic insults levelled at her on a daily basis. And she made it clear that many of those came from people under the banner of “JC for PM” while accusing her of being against the Labour leader. “How dare they reduce something so toxic and heinous to the level of political point-scoring?:” she asked.
One of the most pointed speeches came from an unexpected place — MP Lisa Nandy, vice-chair of the Labour Friends of Palestine — who said that the fact of the debate “shames us all” — and that anti-Semitism did not exist in “pockets”, the term notoriously used by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to acknowledge the issue after the Parliament Square demonstration.
Summing up for the Government, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the debate had belonged to the Labour Party. But the anguish expressed by its MPs, she said, was sending a “strong message” to the Labour leader — “take action. We expect nothing less”.