A few observations on the Chakrabarti report – Adrian Cohen

Shami Chakrabati should be commended for producing a report in record 20160405_213318 (1)time on such a colossal subject as antisemitism and other forms of racism. There is some helpful stuff in there around sensitivity, holocaust metaphors and the abhorrent use of the term ‘zio’ and misuse of the term Zionism.

There is one great line in there: ‘it is not sufficient narrowly to scrape across some thin magic line of non-antisemitc or non racist motivation, speech or behaviour.’

Unfortunately whether it is the speed at which the report has been produced or whether there are other factors which are at play the report and its analysis and recommendations are somewhat flawed and leave the author and her team open to the allegation of superficiality or worse whitewash.

I list some of these flaws as follows:

1. The opening line of the report states: the Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism. This has been seized upon by those who wish to play down the significance of the problem. The second paragraph of the report refers to an ‘occasional toxic atmosphere’. All of this conveys the impression of the ‘few rotten apples in the barrel’ which of course is the classic apologism used by any institution under criticism for institutionalised attitudes. Whether the party has been ‘overrun’ is to set up a straw man. That the Labour Party has a serious problem sits somewhere between being overrun and an occasional toxic atmosphere.

2. Recent polling suggests that support for the Labour Party has fallen to 8% amongst Jews – a remarkably small amount. It had been sliding under Ed Miliband to some 20% but the process of alienation seems to have accelerated under Jeremy Corbyn. Some of this might be explained by his wider politics and the party’s dramatic shift to the hard left but perceived antipathy to the Jewish community and Israel is another. The leader’s failure to explain, account or if appropriate apologise for his associations with Paul Eisen (Holocaust denier), the Larouche cult, Stephen Sizer (9/11 conspiricist), Raed Salah (blood libeler), Hamas, Hezbollah and Press TV and more recently the leader’s dismissive attitude to complaints by his own MP Louise Ellman and peer Lord Levy are at the core of the problem. But none of this is addressed in the report. These issues identify a problem at the top of the party which suggests more than a few rotten apples. And this behaviour has been argued to have licenced some of the more egregious behaviour by the leaders supporters who are ascendant in the party but again none of this is discussed in the report.

3. The report commends the leadership for commissioning the inquiry. The inquiry was in fact announced as a consequence of extreme political pressure after numerous allegations had been made about antisemitism in the party and the leadership had become subject to ridicule for not taking the issue seriously, particularly following the incendiary comments by the leader’s long term political associate Ken Livingstone. None of this context is referenced. One comes back to the point that the former director of Liberty would never be so charitable if asked to do a similar exercise say in relation to a police force.

4. The inquiry was announced on Passover and on Friday night, with no consultation with the Jewish community as to terms of reference or the individuals who were appointed. No reference is made to the need to have sensitivity around religious calendars in the report. The terms of reference of course refer to antisemitism, and other forms of racism, including Islamophobia. This brings us back to the leadership and the well known inability of the leader to address antisemitism without mentioning ‘other forms of racism’ in the same breath. There may well be good practical reasons to address other forms of racism in this report – in particular in the procedural aspects but the report doesn’t address one fundamental charge made about left-antisemitism (save a cursory nod at it) that it doesn’t take it seriously.

5. This segues into the lack of any analysis of left-antisemitism – nothing about the socialism of fools, the Stalinist legacy of ‘anti-Zionism’, the baleful influence of classical antisemitism through the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated movements and their impact on anti-imperialist politics and what is sometimes called campism, Likewise it doesn’t deal with the impact of the propaganda of the Iranian regime. Perhaps it would be too ambitious to cover these issues in the short time frame given to the process. But it seems that a lot of intellectual input by serious experts into the inquiry has been wasted.

6. The most alarming aspect of the report is the call for a moratorium on triggering new formal investigations on conduct arising prior to the report. Really? It is precisely the issues around the leader that remain unresolved and unaccounted for and are, perhaps with the exception of the interventions of Ken Livingstone, the biggest cause for anxiety in the Jewish community. Chakrabati asks for a moratorium on the retrospective trawling of members’ social media accounts and past comments. First this implies there has been ‘trawling’ in any organised sense by members of the party to expose antisemitism, whereas there is no evidence to suggest that it is true. More importantly the way it is put implies it is reprehensible to do so. This seems to be seeking to disarm the victims of antisemitism particularly as the call for a moratorium is without qualification. It sounds like a positive thing to do but would only work if there was was commitment from the leadership by example to be open and transparent. But there is no evidence of this to date.

7. The failure to publish the Royall report in full or the NOLS report into the Oxford University Labour Club again go to the issue of transparency.

8. The section on Zionism and Zionist is open to the challenge in that it employs gross simplifications of the beliefs of strictly orthodox Jews and young Jews. For example whilst it is true many Haredim do not consider themselves ideologically Zionist most are passionately concerned with the well being of the State of Israel and can be quite conservative in attitudes to defence and the peace process. This is a nuance that will be missed by readers. Gaza is referred to as under bombardment – it’s unclear if this is a permanent state of affairs and certainly doesnt allow for any notion of rocket attack going the other way. It’s an odd deployment of language in a report which seems otherwise to avoid a historical or contemporary analysis of Israeli- Palestinian relations.

In summary whilst there is much to be commended in the report the bar has been set very low as to what is unacceptable and the real issues of concern haven’t really been addressed. Curiously the recommendations all seem to have been foreshadowed by published comments much to the same effect made by chair of Momentum Jon Lansman – eg about avoiding debates around Zionism and use of Zio. That isn’t to knock their utility but does give an insight into possible provenance and thinking behind the report.

Finally on the meeting itself the role of the leader and the choreography of the event and the defence of the leader the next day by Chakrabati on the Today programme have reinforced the concerns expressed above.

NB: this post was substantially drafted prior to the Home Affairs Select Committee hearing save for the addition of points 7 and 8 which I had run out of time to previously add. The hearing gives rise to a number of other points which I would like to address on another occasion.

Adrian Cohen (in a personal capacity)