Antisemitism must be confronted, says David Miliband

David Miliband

Antisemitism is “repulsive” and must be exposed and defeated, the former foreign secretary David Miliband has said amid growing controversy over prejudice against Jews within the Labour party.

Miliband, who narrowly lost the Labour leadership election in 2010, said the response to antisemitism “can’t be to turn away. It must be to engage, not to ignore.”

There was a duty to “highlight and expose the perpetrators and what they stand for. To fight and defeat their ideas,” he added.

Speaking on Monday at the annual dinner of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Miliband said: “It should not be the Jewish community’s fight alone. It is everyone’s fight, everyone’s responsibility.”

The Commons home affairs select committee said it would carry out a short inquiry into antisemitism, looking at whether prejudice against the Jewish community had increased and the particular dangers facing Jewish people arising from terrorism.

One committee member said he was sure party officials would be called to give evidence in light of accusations that Labour had not done enough to deal with antisemitism among some of its activists.

Miliband, who is Jewish, did not explicitly mention Labour, but his comments come as the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is facing growing calls to root out antisemitic statements and behaviour by members.

Corbyn, who has launched an internal inquiry, said on Sunday that any Labour member committing an act of antisemitism would be automatically excluded from the party.

Speaking to the BBC, he said antisemitism was “abhorrent” and that Labour was “absolutely resolute” in tackling it. “Anyone who commits any act of antisemitism is auto-excluded from the party and an inquiry follows immediately. We will suspend any member who behaves that way.”

Several recent incidents, combined with disquiet over Corbyn’s criticism of Israel and past alliances, have deterred some Jewish supporters of Labour from donating funds, according to Michael Foster, a major donor.

In the run-up to the 2015 general election, members of the Jewish community donated about £3m to Labour, he wrote in the Mail on Sunday. “This year, no major Jewish donor has yet given £1 to the central Labour party,” Foster said.

Foster, a former showbusiness agent who stood for parliament as a Labour candidate in 2015, donated £400,000 through his family last year. But since Corbyn’s election, he said, he and other Labour-supporting Jews had only given funds to local campaigns. “We would be foolish to donate to a cause whose leaders view us with contempt.”

The most recent case of antisemitism surfaced at the weekend when a Labour councillor from Luton was suspended after a message claiming Hitler was the “greatest man in history” appeared on her Twitter account. Aysegul Gurbuz, 21, apologised for the post, which was published in 2011.

Vicki Kirby, a former Labour parliamentary candidate from Woking, was suspended for the second time last month over a series of tweets in which she apparently suggested that Hitler might be a “Zionist God” and that Jews had “big noses”.

The party is investigating allegations of antisemitic behaviour and intimidation at the Oxford University Labour club after its co-chairman Alex Chalmers resigned, claiming that a large proportion of members “have some kind of problem with Jews”.

Labour insiders say the leadership is dealing with cases of egregious antisemitism, but some still have concerns about a blurred area where criticism of Israel can cross a line into anti-Jewish sentiment.

“You can’t duck the Israel issue. A minority of people, when talking about Israel, lapse into antisemitism. Decent people with legitimate criticisms of Israeli government policies need to acknowledge that and tackle it head on,” one party source said.

“It’s time to give serious consideration to an independent inquiry into antisemitism on the left generally, not just in the Labour party. At the heart of this is a complete failure to define when criticism of Israel is appropriate and when it crosses the line into antisemitism. There are no easy answers, but that’s not a reason not to address this.”

Louise Ellman, the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, who is Jewish, said: “Antisemitism is not confined to the crude ‘Hitler was a great guy’ variety. It has mutated into attributing to ‘Zionists’ the conspiratorial and malevolent slurs historically levelled at Jews.”

The use of “Zionist” as a term of abuse had spread, particularly on university campuses, according to party figures. “Some of Corbyn’s supporters are in that area, and it needs to be dealt with,” one said.

Jonathan Arkush, the president of the board of deputies, who has called on Corbyn to take concrete action to tackle antisemitism, said: “Every week seems to bring a fresh revelation, and that’s very disturbing.

“The change in leadership and shift in the balance of cross-currents has emboldened some people with ugly, racist views to come out of the woodwork. Corbyn is known for his anti-racist credentials, but he’s also known for his hostility to Israel.”

Arkush welcomed “tougher language” from the Labour leader in recent days. “It’s becoming more clear that it’s not just words that matter, but actions.”

However, he said he wanted Corbyn to publicly acknowledge that past meetings with representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah were inappropriate. “I don’t believe there’s a shred of antisemitism in Jeremy Corbyn, but he shouldn’t meet with antisemites.” Arkush said.

Antony Lerman, a writer specialising in antisemitism, said: “For all that is thrown at Corbyn about his ‘connections’, his stated position on antisemitism and racism is very strong.”

Despite this, he said Labour needed to show it understood “some of the complexities”.

Jewish organisations were also open to criticism, Lerman said. “There’s a strong tendency within the Jewish community to automatically link certain criticism of Israel to antisemitism.”

The “bitterness” of the debate was clouding rational judgments, he added.

Claims of antisemitism among political activists spread to the Conservatives this week, when the Bradford Telegraph and Argus reported that the deputy chairman of the Bradford Conservative Association had been suspended for allegedly making inappropriate comments in a speech.

Abdul Zaman endorsed “misogyny and antisemitism” in his remarks, according to the Labour MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah, who complained to David Cameron. Zaman’s party colleagues denied the claims.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent, for The Guardian on Tuesday 12th April 2016 19.54 Europe/London

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