SIMON JOHNSON

Let’s hope furore changes Labour’s hateful culture

IT is fascinating how great developments come from such small moments. This is the story of how the Jewish community’s “Enough is Enough” demonstration came to dominate the news agenda for 48 hours and what might be next.

On the afternoon of Friday, March 23, I was returning home by train from a meeting in Leeds.

As the train pulled into London’s Kings Cross station, a colleague rang to see if we wanted to make a statement about the failure of the Labour leader’s office to properly condemn an antisemitic mural which he had defended in 2012.

MP Luciana Berger was dissatisfied with the response to her challenge to the leader on the issue.

With one minute to go until the Shabbat “cut off” for Shabbat Hagadol, the Jewish Leadership Council issued a brief statement which ended with the words: “If the party is serious about zero tolerance, then Jeremy Corbyn must show that he at least understands antisemitism and must distance himself from this offensive work.”

It was a rapidly constructed statement, which we rushed out.

Over that Shabbat, something stirred in a number of us. It had been the fifth successive day of antisemitism-related stories about Labour and we were getting fed-up with responding to them.

In fact, we had let many go without comment as we could not find anything different to say and any comment we made had less resonance.

As soon as Shabbat ended, phone calls were under way — with JLC chairman Jonathan Goldstein and I wondering if we could develop an idea that someone had suggested to hold a rally against antisemitism in the Labour Party.

This would be unusual; our community did not readily come out on political rallies and it was unusual in the extreme to protest against an opposition party.

But we knew that the Parliamentary Labour Party would be meeting on Monday at 6pm, and that Luciana Berger would be raising the issue of antisemitism at the meeting.

By 10pm on Saturday night, we had the outline of a plan, which we had now agreed with the Board of Deputies.

We would write a public letter and deliver it to the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting, and we would issue a “call to action” to the community to gather in Parliament Square to show solidarity with the MPs protesting against antisemitism and in favour of the joint letter that we would send.

By 9.30am on Sunday, this was the confirmed strategy — and so began 48 hours of frantic preparation to deliver this plan, including organising the rally, preparing the letter, issuing the call to action, publicising it widely and interesting media outlets in the subject.

We all liked the idea of the name of the rally being “Dayenu” as a nod to Pesach, which we had all begun to prepare for.

But, it was clear that anyone not Jewish would have little idea what this meant, and so “Enough is Enough” was pressed into service.

This was already in use in America to describe the anti-gun marches and we felt that it represented a fair translation of Dayenu for the circumstances.

What nobody really expected was how much this activity would capture our community and the media.

Two thousand people turned up in Parliament Square, many of them entirely unaccustomed to protesting against anything.

And, from Sunday night, when we released details of our plans, the media grabbed this story. It led broadcast bulletins for two days and dominated the front pages of newspapers the day after the rally.

What seemed to have resonated was the unprecedented idea of the mainstream Jewish organisations protesting against a political party in a peaceful way. That seemed to resonate in the media and widely in the community.

Our action generated two statements from Corbyn and two letters. In fact, he wrote to us twice on the day of the rally. The first was to invite us to a meeting; the second contained his most fulsome words yet condemning antisemitism.

So, where did all this action leave us and where are we now?

Well, we certainly have given more attention to the issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party than ever before. It has garnered more media coverage and has been heard loudly and clearly within the Labour Party and the leader’s office.

But we have to ensure that it generates meaningful action to change the prevailing culture within the party; a culture which seems to tolerate antisemitism.

The reaction within the party was depressing. The MPs who had supported or attended our rally received vitriolic abuse, and a number of them have been summoned to their constituency parties or threatened with deselection.

This is hardly the action of a party that takes the issue of antisemitism seriously. In fact, it shows a membership which the leadership cannot control.

In fact, the antisemites continue to act as though emboldened by the lack of action against them.

Even journalists have become aware of the scale of the problem. Robert Peston put a Facebook message out about the rally and how he felt about it. He received a depressing catalogue of abuse for doing so. Even journalists covering the issue for the first time have been exposed to the type of hatred and abuse which some of us have become used to.

We have had the predictable response that this is all part of a right-wing, pro-Tory smear.

It is not. It is a serious issue which has galvanised a great deal of support in the community. It is designed to create change; a change in the attitude to antisemitism within parts of the Labour Party.

So what next?

The JLC wrote a carefully balanced letter to the Labour leader setting out what we wanted to achieve from the meeting, which he had offered to us. These are practical and effective steps that would rebuild confidence amongst the community.

At the time of writing, we are waiting for a response. How, or indeed, whether that response comes will tell us a great deal about whether we have started a movement that will lead to change.

Or instead if our demonstration shone a light on a situation which is not going to change. And that no amount of media coverage or political support is going to shift.

The next days and weeks will give us the answer.


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