On 15 February 2016, I stood down as co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) following the club’s decision to endorse Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). As I saw Jewish students’ concerns about IAW being ridiculed publicly, I realised that the antisemitic incidents I had encountered over the past year in the club were part of a much wider and deeper cultural problem than I had previously envisaged.
Following my resignation and the publication by the university JSoc of other reports that they had received, the party leadership acted as an obstacle to transparency at every turn. Labour Students launched an investigation – rumoured to be damning – that was subsequently suppressed by the leader’s office. Baroness Royall than led an inquiry, which was blocked from publication and allegedly fed into the wider Chakrabarti Inquiry, which in turn transpired to be a whitewash.
Baroness Royall’s decision to go ahead and publish her inquiry anyway is a welcome one. Her statement that the club is not afflicted by ‘institutional antisemitism’ has been seized upon by defenders of the party leadership as evidence that there was nothing wrong in OULC to start with, but this misses the point. Neither I, nor anyone else who came forward, claimed that it was an institutional problem; this would imply that the problem was rooted in the club’s structures, governance, or constitution, which we believed to be irrelevant. Baroness Royall agreed with us that a vocal faction’s at times sinisterly monomaniacal obsession with Israel had created a culture where Jewish students felt reluctant to express their opinions or get involved.
It was, however, disappointing that the report, despite alluding to the weight of evidence behind its findings, confined its substantive discussion of the club to only a couple of pages. More disturbing are the rumours circulating in some newspapers that the party leadership tried to lean on Baroness Royall to protect key allies in Oxford.
This is symptomatic of a wider problem within the Labour Party. Antisemitism isn’t given parity with other forms of discrimination and those talking about it are assumed to have an agenda. Following my resignation, I was accused by some of being part of a sinister Israel lobby conspiracy to bring down Jeremy Corbyn. Similarly, one doesn’t have to search hard to find examples of Labour Party members being accused online or in person of having dishonourable motives for daring to discuss antisemitism. Corbyn himself has used this kind of rhetoric, describing an article written by Jonathan Freedland on antisemitism in the party as ‘utterly disgusting subliminal nastiness’, whilst his supporters jeered Owen Smith at a leadership debate for noting the undeniable fact that the number of reported incidents of antisemitism within the party has increased since September.
Antisemitism has always existed in British politics and in all political parties, but Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to power, as well as encouraging many well-meaning idealists, has brought a number of unpleasant people into the Labour Party and has emboldened others who had been lurking on the fringes. His lack of leadership, his inability to talk about antisemitism in its own right without referring to other forms of racism, and his persistent indulgence of conspiratorial thinking has undoubtedly made the problem worse and may well tarnish permanently the reputation of a party with a proud history of anti-racist struggle.