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I cried. Now, I admit I cry easily. I tear up when friends tell me they are going to have a baby. I welled up when I saw Ringo Starr join Paul McCartney on stage.
But this time it was different. When I watched Luciana Berger deliver her speech resigning from the Labour Party I cried because of its integrity and bravery and grace. And I cried because in my entire adult life what happened yesterday is the one of the lowest, most dispiriting political moments for British Jews. I cried because I despair at what has happened. I cried because I don’t think it is over.
There is so much to say about the creation of a new political grouping. So much about its profound effect on Labour. So much about the challenge to Tory moderates. So much about Brexit and about the history of the SDP and about, well anyway, so much. Yet every time I think about all these sophisticated points I find myself struggling to see beyond one simple one.
Yesterday, in modern Britain, a young woman was driven out of Britain’s biggest progressive party by people who hate Jews and by other people who won’t do anything about it. Set against that, so much else just seems blah.
I attend meetings of the Jewish community where we discuss the problem and what to do about it. The room is full of dynamic people used to getting things done. There’s plenty of strength there and determination and brains too. Yet we all feel numb.
How did this happen? How can we stop it? There’s not a person in the room without relatives who have been killed or exiled by antisemites. So there isn’t just numbness. There is fear. When I came home from the last one, I just shook my head rather than explaining what we talked about. I didn’t want to bring it into the house.
What really set me off when I watched Luciana speak was when she started by accidentally referring to herself as a Labour MP. It was something she had done at hundreds of meetings and it just slipped out. That little mistake spoke to the years she has spent campaigning for the party, her years of comradeship and devotion to the cause. It spoke of her ambition, which surely she had, and has probably had since she was in college, to be a minister in a Labour government serving the cause. She has the talent for that and more.
And now it’s over. She won’t get back in for Liverpool Wavertree I suppose. She may not be able to get back in to parliament at all, even if her venture soars. So what we saw was raw courage as well, I think, as utter despair.
I found that very moving. She couldn’t stay any more in a party where her own constituency chairman appears on a crackpot conspiracy-theory talk show claiming the Rothschilds finance neo-liberalism while internet viewers watch antisemitic images pass across the screen. And nobody does a thing about it.
John McDonnell said yesterday that his party needs to have “a mammoth, massive listening exercise”. Well OK. Let’s start with this. There’s plenty more, but here’s a couple of things.
Mr McDonnell is president of the Labour Representation Committee. It’s very much his baby and he has been involved in it from the beginning. Within the last fortnight, he was reappointed to his post. Along with him, a group of officers were elected that include Jackie Walker, who will be responsible for the LRC’s work on ethnic minorities.
Ms Walker is one of the leading voices on the left who argue that complaints about antisemitism are a zionist-inspired witch-hunt concocted to protect dissident Labour MPs from criticism. “Look at Luciana Berger — they think they are untouchable. And they’re right,” she told the LRC conference earlier this month.
She has stepped up this campaign ever since she ran into trouble for calling Jews “chief financiers” of the slave trade. This slur is an invention of the Nation of Islam, the political vehicle of Louis Farrakhan, one of America’s leading antisemites. If John McDonnell wants to listen, he can listen to this: tell Jackie Walker that either she goes as a board member of the LRC or you will go as president. Serve with her in charge of “equalities” and all your words are meaningless. And if he wants to listen, he can also ask Jeremy Corbyn why he hasn’t had a meeting with Luciana Berger since 2017.
Last March the Jewish community held a rally in Parliament Square at which Luciana spoke. There were quite a few speeches but I particularly remember hers because it was eloquent and had moral force. And because it finished with an appeal I thought touchingly ridiculous. She urged us all to join the Labour Party.
We were all standing outside with banners and loudspeakers protesting against the way Jew-hatred had grown inside Labour and the leadership was doing nothing about it. It wasn’t the most propitious moment for a membership drive, let me put it that way. As she spoke, a friend of mine turned to me and said “I might just do it, right now I reckon they’d give me a good rate”.
Yet Luciana was still fighting. She still wanted to make it work. She probably knew deep down that it wouldn’t work but she hadn’t given up. How, in these circumstances, and given all the things that were happening, could the leader of the party have failed to meet her?
On Newsnight on Monday, the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said that Jeremy Corbyn had “reached out” to Luciana. How? By ESP? I think what Angela Rayner meant is that she’d like to believe that Mr Corbyn had reached out to Luciana, because that is the sort of person she imagines that he is. Never mind that in fact he didn’t, because he isn’t.
So if you are going to listen, John McDonnell, then you have to accept that Mr Corbyn has been part of the problem. That he has repeatedly met antisemites and provided succour for them, and that he has done nothing remotely sufficient to tackle the problem.
There has been a fair deal of talk since Monday about the SDP and whether it was a success. We can debate that for ever but in one respect the SDP’s success was undeniable. Joining meant that its members didn’t have to stand up for things they thought unconscionable, or promote as potential prime ministers people they thought unfit for office.
That is Luciana’s position now. And I am happy for her freedom, truly I am. But as a Jew it was a desperate day.