A critical response to Richard Angell’s ‘8 steps Labour needs to take to tackle anti- Semitism in its ranks’

We have decided to come back from our break to address the recent events on anti-semitism. It goes without saying that LYON and its writers thinks that racism of any kind is abhorrent and wrong. In this article, Rachael Ward, a member of the London Young Labour Executive Committee, puts forward a critical review of Richard Angell’s ‘8 Steps Labour needs to tackle anti-semitism’. Rachael blogs at http://rachaelwrd.tumblr.com/. 

Over the last few weeks an open letter by Richard Angell, outlining steps to combat anti-Semitism, has been doing the rounds on social media, and has been signed by various organisations.

If it wasn’t already painfully apparent to Labour members, the suspension of Ken Livingston and Naz Shah following their deeply concerning anti-Semitic remarks, should make it patently clear that Labour has a serious problem with anti-Semitism. Tackling this should be a priority for us all.

But the realisation that ‘something must be done’ should not mean we provide our uncritical support to any and all initiatives proposed in response. This would risk alienating Jewish Labour members on the left, who find the party signed up to an action plan, which unintentional or otherwise, they may perceive as factional and problematic.

Whilst I think it’s commendable that Angell has opened a discussion on practical steps to tackle anti- Semitism, I am concerned that a number of the steps are misguided. I fundamentally disagree with others.

Action on this issue is urgent, but it must be the right course of action. The specifics of the steps we take to deal with anti-Semitism matter in and of themselves, as much our commitment to ridding our party of anti-Semitism.

Below I’ve outlined three areas where I think we should be critical of the 8-step plan as it stands:

Step 3 ‘New capacity for the compliance unit’:

Angell calls for new resourcing of the compliance unit. This would dramatically redefine this body’s role in a way which I believe is unhelpful. Dealing with cases of racism is not currently within the remit of the compliance unit and I do not believe it should be. The introduction of a third party ombudsmen would probably be better placed to deal with such complaints, a proposal that Angell himself makes in Step 5.

Complaints of bigotry, particularly ones that may result in an expulsion, should follow thorough investigation, and it would not be appropriate for the compliance unit (which handles the political eligibility of Labour membership) to carry out such investigations, which fall far outside their remit and training.

In general, I think Angell’s letter does well to steer clear of obvious factionalism, but here I find it worrying that tackling anti-Semitism is being used as a rationale for the expansion of a unit that has made a number of high-profile and controversial political expulsions. Given that even Angell himself recommends a third-party outside of Labour handle cases of anti-Semitism, it is hard to understand why the compliance unit is even mentioned in the letter.

Step 4 ‘Time to clarify the rules – anti-Semitism must lead to a lifetime ban’

Angell calls for clarity over the rules regarding racism and anti-Semitism. Whilst this is a sensible suggestion, I do not believe the call for a ‘life-time ban’, which is mentioned in the signatory form (and which John McDonnell also previously called for) is the right approach.

As he rightly points out in Step 7, a ‘modern understanding of anti-Semitism’ is essential. As things stand there is not enough consensus within Labour about what constitutes anti-Semitism, and not enough sensitivity to the subtle distinction between how some expressions of anti-Zionism can act in effect as proxies for anti-Semitism. At the foremost of tackling anti-Semitism we need to educate people about what it is in its subtler forms. The Labour Party’s focus should be on educating people, rather than life-time bans.

Moreover, recent incidents within Young Labour and NUS have proved that there is no clear consensus about what constitutes anti-Semitism. Until we have greater agreement on this, the proposal will not work. We do not want to either restrict our definition of anti-Semitism to the most explicit and obvious forms, nor do we want to overstretch and condemn behaviours which are not problematic.

Step 8 ‘Join the Jewish Labour Movement’

I take issue with this concept of what solidarity means. Whilst the Jewish Labour Movement is free to choose its own membership criteria, and Jews, and non-Jews in Labour can freely choose whether or not to join, I do not believe that we should advocate affiliate membership as a form of solidarity with Jewish people.

The Jewish community is diverse and holds a wide range of views. We should recognise that there are many Jews, myself included, who do not feel comfortable joining the JLM. One common point of disagreement is its affiliation to the World Labour Zionist Movement but I am sure that Jewish members will have a range of views on this issue and others. This is obviously a deeply personal choice which we should show sensitivity towards.

Advocating for non-Jews to join the JLM may be well-intentioned, but I find it a problematic way of showing solidarity with the Jewish community. It shows a lack of understanding of the different opinions within this community, and is actively unhelpful to Jews who may feel excluded from that organisation. Solidarity with Jewish people must be shown by an openness to learn about modern anti-Semitism, a willingness to call it out, and raising awareness of it in its various forms.

On a final note, I want to reiterate how important it is that we can have open discussions around how to tackle anti-Semitism. I may find disagreement with Angell’s 8-step plan, but I respect its intentions. If we want to tackle anti-Semitism within our movement then it is essential that we create a safe space where a range of voices can consult and interrogate proposals to develop a plan of action that is inclusive and routed in the experiences and concerns of Jewish members themselves.

Rachael Ward
Rachael Ward

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