The last person who should make Chris Williamson’s claim that “too much ground” has given to those complaining about antisemitism in the Labour Party is Williamson himself.
For the last two years, Williamson has repeatedly spoken out in defence of people who have demonstrated antisemitism. He tweeted: “Hands off Gilad Atzmon — sign the petition!” He has defended people who portray the political battles in the Labour Party as run by Israeli government manipulation, with the “lobby” — people in the Jewish community — as its agent. On occasion Williamson has expressed regret, for example for tweeting in support of Atzmon. But that has not led him to greater restraint.
Many in the Labour Party adopt a simplistic scheme of “taking sides” against the “centrists” and the “mainstream media”: applying a plus where they put a minus. Williamson has played to that audience. Such carriers of those crude and simplistic politics as the SWP are his strongest advocates, egging him on. Williamson has been presented by some as an unofficial, uncensored voice of the Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Williamson did a high profile tour around the country popularising the cause of mandatory selection. But on the evidence his status is self-proclaimed.
Williamson gets support on the basis that, day after day, the press talk about Labour’s antisemitism problem. Little is said of the racism of the Tory government’s “hostile environment” legislation. Or the identification by Tory-defector Anna Soubry of Theresa May’s “problem with immigration”. Or Baroness Warsi’s claim that Islamophobia is rampant in the Tory Party.
The claim by Chuka Umunna’s Independent Group that their split from Labour was largely because of their concern at antisemitism has been hard for many to believe. There have been disturbing events in Wavertree CLP and elsewhere, and Luciana Berger was subjected to some genuinely dreadful treatment.
Berger herself has some consistency in opposing left antisemitism. As early as 2005 she was pointing out Labour’s and others’ antisemitism when she resigned from the NUS Executive in protest at unchallenged antisemitic comments. She also made a clear link then to Labour’s accommodation to the growing demonisation of migrants and refugees. “I think the insensitivity surrounding all parties’ approach to asylum and immigration has a lot to say for the rise in not only antisemitism but any form of racism”. But TIG are not a genuine protest movement against antisemitism or Brexit. Linked up already with some Tories, they are laying the ground for a centrist realignment to block Labour.
None of that makes Williamson right. Those who support Williamson cite Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) as a significant voice of the Jewish community. It isn’t. Any more than is the reactionary, cranky, Jewish religiousfundamentalist and misogynist and anti-Israel Neturei Karta. The concerns of the wider Jewish community have not been heard. And if the Labour Party does not listen, the Jewish community will be alienated more.