The Labour party, the blood libel, and me.
WARNING: This post contains images of abusive tweets which some readers might find offensive.
I’ve been a Labour supporter my entire adult life (I’m 57). I’ve always voted Labour, and I support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party. I campaigned for Labour in 2015 and 2017, I will campaign for Labour come the next general election, and I will vote Labour again. I’m a regular leafletter.
I decided to become a member of the party last year to support Corbyn’s leadership, and was proud to do so.
But I’ve now cancelled my party membership, and I’d like to take a few moments to say why.
A personal note. I am (or have been anyway) a novelist. One novel I wrote but never published had this storyline: set in Brighton in 1937, it tells the story of a young German Jewish immigrant woman, who disappears. A detective is assigned to the case and what he (and we) discover is that, operating in Brighton with the complicity of the police, local doctors and a minor aristocrat who funds a fascist groupuscule, is a kind of proto-concentration camp in the basement of a disused pub. The story, which I’ve been working on for at least fifteen years now, was prompted by the accounts we read of the Holocaust, which tend to present it as an inexplicable thing that happened in a foreign land, perpetrated by an inexplicably and uniquely evil people, the Germans. My novel tried to place the Holocaust in a specifically English setting, amongst the custard creams and the Coronation commemorative plates. ‘It could have happened here,’ was the message. ‘It could happen anywhere. Beware!’
The Holocaust has haunted me my entire life, and the novel was an attempt to place it in a domestic setting so that we could understand it, not as a uniquely German phenomenon, but as something which could happen anywhere, could have happened here: could happen here.
Before we go any further, I’ll just explain something: I’m not an antisemite. It shouldn’t be necessary to say that, but apparently now it is. I’m not all sorts of other things too — not a pick-pocket, not a dog-beater, not a drunk driver — but for our purposes here, it’s an antisemite that I’m not. I deplore it and believe it must be driven out wherever it occurs, including in the Labour party. It’s wholly contrary to the Labour values I uphold. Zero tolerance. I’ve tweeted about this many times. The Labour party is right to demand the highest standards in this regard from its members.
When I’ve inadvertently used language clumsily such that someone was offended or insulted by it, I’ve apologised and made sure I don’t repeat the mistake.
My tone can be combative, particularly when I’m discussing those who have smeared me with plainly false allegations of antisemitism, such as this:
I can also be brisk with abusive people, such as these:
On and on it goes. I’ve stopped responding to them now. No-one in the Labour party has ever condemned this sickening and relentless abuse. It’s as if the feelings of Labour members abused in this way don’t matter.
It would be perfectly permissible to object to the combative tone of some of my tweets, but again, a combative tone is not antisemitism, and again context is significant. I had been the victim of an organised smear attempt and was routinely being abused as an antisemite. This had hardened my attitude to the whole story. I thought at the time, and think now, that a small problem in the Labour party was being blown up into a supposed ‘crisis’, that Corbyn-hostile MPs and media, in which I include the BBC, exploited this to exaggerate and catastrophise the issue, turning a comparatively minor disciplinary matter affecting a small number of Labour members into a major political storm. Many of the allegations I’ve seen have struck me as tendentious at best (Marc Wadsworth) and downright vexatious at worst (Ken Livingstone). Talk of ‘existential threats’ to UK Jews, and ‘fears of a second Holocaust’ strike me as extreme and disproportionate. Again, you might agree or disagree, but commenting on the media storm is not in any way antisemitic, nor is questioning some of the judgements that have been arrived at, nor is pointing out crude smear attempts.
A very small number of Labour members are antisemites, and they are being dealt with.
Many others, in my estimation, have been falsely accused, and the issue has been exploited for political reasons.
Both of these statements, in my opinion, are true.
One in no way undermines or contradicts the other.
We can all make mistakes. ‘Antisemitism’ cannot, surely, be the same thing as ‘wording something badly.’ Offence that’s caused without intent should be apologised for of course, and appropriate changes made, but without the intention to offend, all that remains is ill-chosen words: mistakes. Jew-hate cannot be done by mistake. It requires intention. It’s possible to offend without intending to, of course, but it is not possible to intend to offend without intending to. That seems obviously true to me. Where I’ve unintentionally offended I’ve apologised and taken note. I have no wish to offend. But it must be possible to disagree without being branded an antisemite, or debate has no meaning and we are all lost.
So I was slightly surprised when I got an email just before Christmas from the Labour party, a ‘notice of investigation’, telling me I was being investigated for — antisemitism.
The notice of investigation was a long list of tweets — 12 in all — which they wanted me to respond to 23 ‘questions’ about.
It was astounding. Tweets wrenched out of context and given the wildest and most extreme interpretations possible. Accusations (‘questions’) about spreading antisemitic tropes about control of the media, for instance, because I’d remarked that there was a lot of coverage of the issue on telly at that time. Oh yes, and Question17:
Did I think I was spreading the blood libel?
This was the tweet under discussion:
Now, some explanation — some context — is essential here. I’d commented on the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ (BoD’s) notorious statement after the Gaza massacre, in which they blamed the Palestinians and absolved Israel of responsibility for the deaths of Gazan youths. I’d said the BoD ‘defends the slaughter of children’. Emotive language to be sure, but it was an emotive event and it’s hard to argue I mischaracterised the BoD’s response: their argument was that it was the children’s (or their parents’) fault for getting in the way of Israeli bullets. I found that deplorable, as did a great many Jewish people, and so I deplored it. And I deplored the BoD’s claim to represent ‘the Jewish community’ on this question, since they plainly did not. My words in reply, ’This Jewish community?’, are an ironic reference to this claim. Clearly, on this issue, the BoD did not ‘represent the Jewish community’, since many Jewish voices were condemning their response to the massacre. My meaning is: ‘The BoD cannot be coterminous with ‘the Jewish community’, itself a fiction, since the BoD defend the Gaza massacre and many Jewish voices disagree.’ The tweet looks cryptic and even sinister in isolation, and would have been clearer had I used quote marks for ‘Jewish community’, but that’s why the context matters. Without understanding what the conversation was about, the comment cannot be properly understood. The context is important. ‘Quote-mining’, wrenching things out of their context to distort their meaning, is a dishonest tactic.
So I answered no, I didn’t think I was spreading the blood libel, and politely explained why. Emailed the form back.
It was only a few hours later that a kind of wave of revulsion and nausea and rage overcame me. The party I had supported my whole life was now, in all seriousness, asking me ‘questions’ about whether or not I was propagating the blood libel against Jews.
Blood libel. Just let the words hang in the air for a moment. The blood libel is the oldest and most pernicious of all the hateful lies that have been directed towards the Jewish people over centuries. It’s the Medieval claim that Jews kidnap and murder Christian children to use their blood in rituals. The blood was said to have been mixed with the matzo meal. It’s been used to legitimise pogroms and massacres, and it played its part in the ultimate horror of the Holocaust, which took six million Jewish lives. I was doing that, apparently. Or rather, ‘Did I think I was doing that?’
I don’t think anything has ever quite shocked me in the way this has shocked me. I was accused here of being a monster, a person who would propagate hate against the entire Jewish people. I was on the side of the Nazis, the fascists, the raging mob who daub Swastikas on synagogues and desecrate Jewish sacred sites. That was me. Or rather, ‘Did I think that was me?’
What struck me most forcibly about this is that there was no possibility of it being an innocent mistake or reasonable interpretation of what I’d said.
I made my comment alongside the statement from the BoD: clearly I was referring to that. No other reference was in any way plausible. And yet, someone had cynically decided they could twist this into an accusation of ‘spreading the blood libel’. They couldn’t have genuinely believed I was doing this — the context forbade that — they had simply decided they could get away with the accusation. It was a fraud. It was another antisemitism smear. That was what the Labour party was doing. To me.
I realised at that moment I couldn’t continue to be a member of the party at this time. I’d read damning accounts of the kangaroo court of the Disputes Panel. Cyril Chilson, son of Holocaust survivors, former Captain in the Israeli army and Oxford historian, angrily told ‘We’re not here for a history lesson!’ and found guilty of antisemitism for talking about Germany in the 30s, a field he has a historian’s knowledge of, unlike his ignorant and hostile accusers. Marc Wadsworth, accused of (though never formally charged with) antisemitism for saying a Labour MP was ‘working hand in hand’ with a Tory journalist from a Corbyn-hating Tory paper. Left blogger Mike Sivier told he must attend a humiliating ‘equalities workshop’ in order to rejoin the party, despite the allegation of Holocaust denial against him being shown to be unarguably false. I had no confidence in this process, and I had not the slightest intention of submitting myself to its flimsy accusations and rough justice. I had no confidence in the Disputes Panel’s ability to take context and nuance into account, to arrive at a fair assessment, to act justly. I had no confidence in them.
But it’s more than that. Something inside the Labour party is rotten. Something has grown monstrous. It’s now actively hounding its own members with outlandish, baseless and barely sane accusations. It’s eating itself alive from the inside. If an accusation as extreme and abhorrent as ‘spreading the blood libel’ can be casually thrown about with only a wilfully misinterpreted tweet as evidence, things have gone too far.
Something’s gone horribly wrong.
In trying to cleanse itself of a comparatively minor malady, the party has allowed itself to become a self-destructive machine. It has unleashed a terror. Members are not safe from the demented zealotry of this purge, and a party that cannot defend or protect its members has lost its moral authority.
False and vexatious accusations such as this are a hindrance to the real fight against real antisemitism. They discredit the entire programme, and waste party resources and time. They are a problem in their own right, and should be treated as such. Failure to do so, failure even to acknowledge that the problem exists, is a significant dereliction of duty by the party.
I call for change. I call for an investigation into the smearing industry operated by the @GnasherJew vigilante collective. I call for apologies and re-instatement for Cyril Chilson and Marc Wadsworth and Mike Sivier and the countless others who have been chewed up and spat out in this process. I call for justice for those falsely accused, and I call on Labour MPs to actively denounce the injustices that have been committed. If the Labour party is about anything, it’s about fairness. It now needs to look inside itself and restore fairness into its own processes and procedures. The party must heal. Justice must prevail. My intention here is to draw attention to this problem and to urge the Labour party to acknowledge it and take action about it.
I wish for better days for the party. I wish it whole and well. But right now it’s far from that. It’s a kind of vicious playground where Corbyn-supporting members are targeted, picked off, beaten up behind the bike sheds by anonymous hands (the whole shabby proceeding cloaked in ‘confidentiality’) and flung out the other side, reputation lost, good name stolen: branded. The party is not a safe place for leftists.
We should not be afraid to call this what it is — persecution. And we should not be afraid to demand it ends.
Enough is enough.
[Note: The Labour party were invited to comment but declined. They attempted over a three month period to threaten me with ‘prosecution’ were I to publish this, a threat they now deny making. They have conceded they are ‘not a prosecutorial authority’.]