In Labour’s antisemitism debacle, the Guardian’s Owen Jones is above reproach. He is above reproach because he has written articles explaining that antisemitism is bad and that it must be confronted. He has also written one explaining that the Holocaust was bad. What more could he do?
Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn has also said that antisemitism, and all forms of racism, are bad. His mother was at Cable Street so how can he be criticised for supporting and befriending unabashed Jew-haters? He then is also above reproach.
In his piece from March, Jones called for a commission on antisemitism and, because balance or something, one on Islamophobia too. He suggested these should be chaired by a Jew and a Muslim respectively.
Corbyn eventually called for an inquiry, it wasn’t to be chaired by a Jew but so what, it was to be chaired by Shami Chakrabarti. She is above reproach because she is Shami Chakrabarti. Or as she is now known, the Baroness Chakrabarti CBE, Labour Member and soon-to-be Shadow Attorney General. Keith Vaz no doubt spoke for all of us when he called her a national treasure.
The Chakrabarti Inquiry concluded that the Labour Party is above any meaningful reproach because it’s the Labour Party and the Labour Party thinks racism is bad and has passed legislation to that effect in the past. The report even suggests we stop looking at people’s social media accounts for old racist incidents. Why not? Surely it’s all behind us and it’s time to move on.
And so, somehow, in a party that can’t be antisemitic because it’s been so strong at fighting racism, under a leader who can’t be antisemitic because he hates racism in all its forms, a Labour member and vice-chair of Momentum, friend of the leader and partner of a friend for many years of Owen Jones, can go to the Labour Party Conference and display clear and transparent antisemitism and seemingly believe she has done no such thing. This after a previous suspension. And her escapades were by no means the only ones to be found.
To understand how this seemingly inexplicable situation can occur we have to understand what isn’t being done.
Despite Corbyn’s boasts of a life-long fight against racism, in all its forms, I can’t see what he has ever done regarding antisemitism. As I wrote previously:
He is a patron of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement and a founding member of the Stop the War Coalition. He speaks at endless rallies and meetings. Now if a man is as dynamic and relentless as Abbott and Jones suggests and also believes he has a duty to oppose racism of any sort at any place, it should be easy to dig up countless examples of this process of ‘rooting out’. Where are they? What internal reports have these organisations put together, at his request, on antisemitism within their movements? Who has he named and shamed and dissociated himself from? Which group he is part of has fewer antisemites because of his actions and his backbone and his principles?
Recently, when discussing antisemitism in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee Corbyn again wielded his life-long opposition to racism ‘in all its forms’. When asked why he did nothing to stop the abuse of a Jewish Labour MP accused of ‘colluding’ with the ‘right-wing press’, Corbyn bravely responded, ‘I wasn’t chairing the press conference’. During the same session he had to be questioned repeatedly in order to make him finally admit that the Hamas charter was antisemitic. In the fight against antisemitism he’s leading from the back and hiding in a foxhole somewhere.
The Chakrabarti Inquiry was at best a non-event. At worst it was a shallow attempt to spare Labour’s blushes. The writer Jamie Palmer offered an essential critique of the report and lays out exactly why it’s such a shamefully inadequate document. The report has done none of the heavy lifting in explaining why Labour has a problem and why somebody like Jackie Walker behaves as she does or how such a person gets to the heart of Labour power.
People are not understanding antisemitism, sometimes seemingly willfully. This renders the problem very difficult to grasp. People, including Jackie Walker, still seem to believe that an antisemitic trope expressed about ‘Zionists’ is not antisemitism but merely a righteous act of support for the Palestinians. Worse than that, people, including Jackie Walker, believe that complaints about antisemitism are attempts to silence debate. The Livingstone Formulation makes the victims doubly traduced as not only do they have to bear the antisemitism but a complaint about it casts them as duplicitous and malign.
But Owen Jones does understand antisemitism. His performance on David Aaronovitch’s Briefing Room demonstrates a fairly acute sense of what antisemitism is and how it manifests. This makes his behaviour over Jackie Walker that much more worthy of condemnation.
Jackie Walker was suspended from Labour and then readmitted in May this year following the exposure of this exchange on Facebook:
In it she repeats the antisemitic trope that Jews ‘were the chief financiers of the slave trade’. It is possible to be bogged down in the facts surrounding this favoured claim of David Duke and Louis Farrakhan, but it’s neatly dealt with in this recent letter to the Guardian. However, as significant as that claim is the context in which it was made. Upon being confronted with the word ‘Holocaust’ Walker’s immediate reaction is ‘oh yes – and I hope you feel the same towards the African holocaust?’. To people concerned with antisemitism this is a familiar sight, it’s the antisemite’s version of ‘All Lives Matter’.
This reflexive reaction is a form of Holocaust minimisation, it’s an attempt to rob the Jews of that part of their memory and identity as the victims of humanity’s worst crime. If not motivated by simple hatred it is politically motivated as it serves to isolate Israel and deny the Jewish state a facet of its founding narrative. This is compounded by the gobbledygook she ends with, an attempt to relativise away the sympathy that Jews might warrant from the Shoah. Her comment then was more than just the repetition of a falsehood, it was a transparent display of antisemitism.
Owen Jones reacted with the following Facebook post:
He also said the following on Twitter:
His repeated invocation of Walker’s Jewish partner and her own Jewish ancestry is a fine case of ‘Jew-Washing‘ and Jones uses it to support his argument that the idea she is antisemitic is ‘just beyond ludicrous’. Of most concern in Jones’ responses is his statement, “my understanding was she was talking about her own ancestors’. This is the argument that her partner put forward in a personal statement.
It’s clearly nonsense and she said no such thing. The unsupportable claim that she did is perhaps forgivable in a spouse but not from Jones. She said “and many Jews (my ancestors too)…”. That word ‘too’ renders Jones’ ‘understanding’ a non-starter for anybody who actually speaks English. A far more sensible reading of her noting the ancestry is as a defence from accusations of antisemitism. It’s a form of ‘some of my best friends are black’.
In reply to Jones making that statement other Twitter users immediately pointed out why that interpretation doesn’t wash. They received radio silence. Jones has almost half a million followers so I can’t say that a tweet sent to him, or even several of them, is definitive but I don’t believe he didn’t read any of those. I believe he evaded the truth by playing dumb. Regardless, he must have read the offending passage and an Oxford man and professional writer presumably has the basic comprehension skills to know a fast one was being pulled.
When faced with an expression of antisemitism, the man that demands antisemitism must be confronted spun total bullshit and described sanctions against the offender as an ‘outrageous suspension’ and then went silent in the face of clear evidence of his mistake.
Owen Jones isn’t just any other columnist. He is Corbyn’s friend and has long been his most prominent supporter in the media. He speaks at Corbyn rallies, he previously worked on John McDonnell’s leadership bid and he even helped name Momentum. Jones used his profile to campaign against Walker’s suspension and it was swiftly overturned. It’s not too much to say that his actions were likely instrumental in this antisemite being readmitted to the party.
Over the subsequent months, the ‘just beyond ludicrous’ became the screamingly obvious. Colour us shocked.
After peaking with her ‘just asking questions’ session at party conference Owen Jones finally took a stand.
Jones has offered no mea culpa, no analysis, no explanation of how he got it so wrong and why the people advocating something ‘outrageous’ were right. He couldn’t even call it antisemitism, merely ‘unacceptable’, a Corbyn favourite.
The seemingly firm ‘that is that’ seems to invite us to ask no more questions. But there are questions to ask. Was her suspension that he asked to be lifted truly ‘outrageous’? Or is it in fact now clear that it wasn’t? Was accusing her of antisemitism for her previous remarks ‘just beyond ludicrous’? Why was Owen unable to read plain English? Why was he willing to claim belief in a demonstrably false interpretation? And finally, how is Labour to ‘confront’ antisemitism if the moment a friend’s partner indulges in it, the very person demanding the confrontation spins a falsehood and then goes missing in action?
Toothless leadership, whitewash reports, and columnists who’d rather spin nonsense than confront a comrade all combine to ensure that efforts to deal with Labour’s antisemitism problem are going nowhere fast. Until Owen Jones demonstrates some honesty, self-reflection, and undertakes actions that go beyond referencing previously written articles as a form of arse-covering, he deserves harsh censure. If he wants antisemitism confronted he needs to do some of the dirty work himself.