Chakrabarti – Worthy, but a missed opportunity

In case it has slipped beneath the radar of the media, given the all-encompassing chaos swallowing British politics at the moment, today saw the publication of the report of Shami Chakrabarti’s investigation into antisemitism and other forms of discrimination within the Labour party.

I have read the report carefully, and would encourage anyone who intends to comment to do so too – you can see it here – but I have not yet read anybody else’s response to it, so these thoughts are entirely my own and may be better expressed elsewhere.

I should say that, as a Jew (I hate that phrase), my primary focus here is on antisemitism rather than any other form of prejudice to which Chakrabarti refers, although it is important to note that she reports that many BAME (black and ethnic minority) members, “including those from Afro-Caribbean, Muslim and Sikh communities in particular” have not found “a welcoming environment” within the Labour Party.  Indeed, she describes various types of direct racism against BAME people which are disturbing and, as she says, should have no place in the Labour Party.

Summary

The Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism.” That, as the opening sentence of the report, will inevitably be the headline.

However, Chakrabarti goes on to say “…as with wider society, there is too much clear evidence … of minority hateful or ignorant attitudes and behaviours festering within a sometimes bitter incivility of discourse” .

This exemplifies Chakrabarti’s approach, which is to encourage discussion, free expression, constructive debate and “disagreeing well” with a due appreciation of sensitivity to the feelings of others.

As such, Chakrabarti has deliberately NOT been drawn into what she describes as “an age-old ultimately fruitless debate about the precise parameters of race hate” but acknowledges that the standards of discourse within Labour must be “higher than merely not being or intending to be antisemitic, Islamophobic or otherwise racist”.

So is nothing explicitly stated as antisemitic?

Whilst she does not offer any thoughts as to a general definition of antisemitism, she does make some general comments.  She also specifically condems:

  1. Use of the racist epithet “Zio” (and other epithets, such as “Paki”).
  2. Use of Hitler, Nazi or Holocaust words and images as comparators in general, or to criticise Israel or Jews.
  3. Minimization of, or excusing the Holocaust or “attempting to blur responsibility for it”.
  4. Accusations of collective responsibility.
  5. Stereotyping, use of racial or religious tropes, or presumptions of views based on background or ethnicity.

She also comes out clearly AGAINST:

  • holding people to account for the views of others with whom they may have shared a platform;
  • automatic suspension from the Party upon receipt of complaint. Indeed, she argues for a presumption against suspension and proportional use of this, and other sanctions.
  • permanent expulsions from Labour (she proposes that 5 years should be a minimum term, but that people should be re-admitted where they have demonstrated a change of mind or clear remorse)
  • box-ticking, top-down anti-racism training.  Instead, she recommends the creation of a working group to consider a more comprehensive education program on Labour values.

What about the conflation of antizionism and antisemitism?

Chakrabarti admits that this is a complex matter, that the term “Zionist” is sometimes used abusively as a euphemism for “Jew”, and she does conclude thus:

My advice to critics of the Israeli State and/or Government is to use the term “Zionist” advisedly, carefully and never euphemistically or as part of personal abuse.

I would heartily agree with this advice (which I note does not make the list of 20 “key recommendations she gives at the conclusion of her report).  However, she points to different definitions of Zionism – used by groups and individuals of various backgrounds and motivations – and therefore comes to the conclusion that:

“It is for all people to self-define their political beliefs and I cannot hope to do justice to the rich range of self-descriptions of both Jewishness and Zionism, even within the Labour Party, that I have heard.”

For example, she refers to “left-wing British Jewry … becoming increasingly critical of, and disenchanted with, Israeli government policy in relation to settlements in the West Bank and the bombardment of Gaza in particular.” [This is not the place for this argument, but I’d be interested to know what you mean by ” the bombardment of Gaza”, Ms Chakrabarti? Are you suggesting that this is an ongoing event, or just to the 2014 conflict which, I am sure you know, was a two-way affair]. “This has led to some people personally redefining their Zionism in ways that appear to grant less support to the State of Israel and more solidarity to fellow Jewish people the world over.”

I am sorry, Ms Chakrabarti, you can tinker round the edges of the definition, but at its core, Zionism is the belief in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in (at least part of) its ancient homeland.  And to pretend that all definitions of Zionism have equal merit is patently absurd and, I am afraid to say, rather cowardly.

It is sometimes alleged (it has been said to me on many occasions on social media) that to be a socialist is to support Hitler’s Nazi party, as they self-described themselves as “National Socilaists”.  I am sure, Ms Chakrabarti, you would agree that this is absurd.  As a Zionist, it is equally absurd to acknowledge a definition that focuses on “solidarity with fellow Jewish people the world over”.

Ms Chakrabarti, you have missed a massive opportunity to say clearly and loudly that Zionism is NOTHING WHATEVER TO DO with the policies or actions of any given Israeli government, and that therefore, to declare yourself “antiZionist” is not to be critical of such, or even to support the Palestinian claim to self-determination, it is a direct denial of Jews’ right to self-determination.

It is also notable what she doesn’t discuss.  Nowhere in her report does she mention:

  • the spreading of provable lies about Israel, her government or army (e.g. the lie that Israeli medics harvested the organs of Haitian earthquake victims); or
  • the demonisation of Israel, most specifically the offensive representation of Israel as being “the worst” human rights abuser in the world, an “apartheid state”, or uniquely responsible for all unrest in the Middle East or even the World.

There can be no question that these issues were raised to her by at least some of the contributors, and they ought not simply be dismissed as matters of complexity.  Any Jew who has any experience on campus or on social media will confirm that these tactics DO seriously impact on their lives as Jews, and DO make them feel unsafe and/or unwelcome, so they are not to be dismissed merely as “foreign policy” questions.

Ms Chakrabarti has missed a huge opportunity to say loudly and clearly that the spreading of malicious lies and gross exaggerations about Israel have the effect of being antisemitic and are therefore unacceptable within the Labour party.

If she’s not into definitions, what does the report recommend?

Chakrabarti’s main focus is on procedure. She recommends:

  • a Code of Conduct
  • appointment of in-house Counsel
  • a thorough and fair disciplinary procedure

I do not pretend to have examined these procedures in any detail, and therefore won’t comment on the specifics.

However, I do commend the general approach that if all this is in place, it will enable Labour to continue to be “a place where you feel comfortable and safe even and especially when things are more difficult on the outside. A place where people of shared values can disagree with kindness and civility and where difficult issues are resolved without resorting to abuse.”

Conclusion

I support Chakrabarti’s attempt to take the fury and bile out of the situation, and her general desire for all concerned to conduct themselves in a less divisive and hateful way, and in a spirit of constructive criticism.

However, I do feel she has fudged the issue which was, perhaps the major driver behind the need for this report – the overlap between antiZionism and antisemitism.

Finally, I understand that Chakrabarti did not see her role as to comment on specific incidents or individuals.  And yet, while some individual incidents (of exclusion of BAME people) are referred to, I can see no reference at all to the incidents in the Oxford University Labour Club, the report on which has STILL not been published, but whose author, Baroness Royall, was thanked as a contributor by Shami Chakrabarti.

I find this puzzling and concerning.

The Labour Party still has a long way to go.

Speak soon

Labenal (@Labenal1)

UPDATE:

Since I published this, I have seen and read what occured at the launch event:

Jeremy Corbyn’s statement that “our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslims friends are for those various self-styled Islamic States”, was at best, incredibly ill-judged and at worst, does indicate his view that Israel and ISIS share a place in the world as being evil wrong-doers.

Either way, it merely adds to the clamour for his removal as leader of the Labour Party at a crucial time in British history, when a strong opposition is desperately needed.

I have also read (and seen) what was said to Labour MP Ruth Smeeth. What can I say?

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