(RNS) The identity of Britain’s Labour Party is at stake as its leaders struggle to address accusations that anti-Semitism is rife within its ranks.
Once unchallenged in its confidence as the progressive, central-left party that former Prime Minister Tony Blair reformed into a viable political machine, Labour has reportedly suspended as many as 50 members for anti-Semitic comments made on social media and TV.
Complicating the crisis is many party members’ unapologetic criticism of Israel for its actions in the occupied territories and elsewhere, a related but different strain of thought often known as anti-Zionism.
This anti-Zionism has prevented Labour from rooting out anti-Semitic members until this crisis erupted, said Geoffrey Alderman, a professor of history at the University of Buckingham and a Jewish affairs expert.
“There is no party in Britain that hasn’t been tainted by anti-Semitism at one time or another,” Alderman said. “But in the case of the Labour Party, there is an additional element to it provided by a rampant anti-Zionism.”
The scandal began 10 days ago when a website called Guido Fawkes published a 2-year-old Facebook post by Naz Shah, a Labour member of Parliament elected last year. In it, Shah said the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was to relocate Israel to the United States. In a separate post, she compared Israeli policies to those of the Nazis.
“Apartheid Israel,” she wrote above a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. holding a superimposed placard with the words, “Never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal.”
Shah has since apologized profusely. But the row continued when former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone tried to defend her by evoking Adolf Hitler’s name and saying the Nazis had supported Zionism.
"Let's remember that when Hitler won the election in 1932, his policy was that Jews should be moved to Israel," Livingstone told the BBC.
Livingstone was echoing a commonly held perception in many British circles that Israel had given up the moral authority it might have once enjoyed in the wake of the Holocaust and now was perpetrating the same violence Jews experience in Europe on the Palestinians.
“It’s tied to the idea that Israel is the new Nazi Germany and that Gaza is the new Warsaw ghetto,” said Colin Shindler, an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London.
Still, Livingstone’s comments led to widespread condemnation from the Jewish community and other Labour members. He is now among those suspended from the party. How long the suspensions will last, or exactly what a suspension entails, has not been made clear.
“Ken Livingstone’s comments were indefensible and he absolutely knew what he was doing,” said Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council. “To try and say that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were Zionists is appalling. It’s perfectly possible to be anti-Israel and not be anti-Semitic, but if in doing that you use Holocaust imagery then you’re straying into anti-Semitism.”
In the meantime, journalists began digging through the social media archives of Labour Party members in search of other potentially anti-Semitic posts, resulting in more suspensions.
Miqdad Al-Nuaimi, a local Labour politician in Wales, was suspended two days ago for writing on Facebook last year that Jews have the “same arrogant mentality as the Nazis,” for example. Similar stories have been appearing throughout the British press.
Politicians from the ruling Conservatives have also denounced Livingstone’s words, but seem fairly content to sit back and watch their rivals as the bad news cycle unfolds.
Shah, Livingstone and other Labourites’ anti-Semitic views are deeply rooted in the party’s past, said experts.
The Labour Party anti-Zionist faction developed its political ideals during the 1960s when its agenda promoted independence efforts in countries once under Western European rule.
“They identified with Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara,” said Shindler. “They see the Palestinians in that light and I think these views have moved from the periphery of the far left into the main Labour Party.”
These newer members helped to elect Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has previously referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as friends.
“I don’t mean to suggest Corbyn himself is anti-Semitic,” said Shindler. “But I think the very fact he’s in control is a signal and a green light for these views to come out.”
Jeremy Newmark, a member of the Jewish Labour Movement, an official affiliate of the Labour Party, denied claims his party has become endemically anti-Semitic. Instead, he said, the spotlight is on a small but vocal group of members.
“The Jewish community has fantastic friends in the Labour Party,” he said.
Corbyn has proposed adding racism to the criteria that can lead to expulsion from the party.
“Labour is an anti-racist party to its core and has a long and proud history of standing against racism, including anti-Semitism,” said a Corbyn statement. “I am now proposing to Labour’s national executive committee that it adopts a code of conduct on anti-Semitism and other forms of racism.”
But that hasn’t satisfied Labour members closer to the political center who have been labeled as “Blairites” by Livingstone and his allies.
“Our frustration is that we get powerful rhetoric from party leaders about no tolerance,” said Newmark. “But on the other hand we get impotence or lack of ability to act on that.”
(Benjamin Plackett is a freelance journalist based in London)