This week in Britain the Labour Party began to unravel. In a move that was predicted for some time, seven MPs left to form the Independent Group.
Their reasons were many, but in particular they cited the party’s history of anti-Semitism, refusal to stand up to Brexit and bullying by leftist elements in the party for their departure. This will not destroy the party, but it will make it extremely difficult for it to win an election – and is likely a sign of more trouble to come.
Under another leader these accusations would have been beyond imagination. The Labour Party has long been the natural political home of Britain’s Jewish community. But under Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected leader in 2015, the party has taken a hard turn to the left.
This is not the Bernie Sanders or Jack Layton left, but former members of radical socialist parties who joined what had traditionally been a social democratic Labour party to take it further left. Many among them harbour an extreme dislike of Israel. Which brings us into deeply muddy waters.
While Jewish people aren’t the issue, Jews who are Zionists and supporters of Israel most certainly are and, far too often for Labour, the lines blur. A small number of Labour MPs and hundreds of activist members of the party have made remarks that go far beyond informed criticism of Israeli policies. A few have been suspended or expelled from the party.
The party was then urged to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, one that is internationally accepted and used by the British government and numerous police services. They did so, but not in its entirety.
The IHRA definition argues that it’s anti-Semitic to compare Israel to Nazi Germany, to claim that the foundation of the Jewish state was a “racist endeavour” and to use anti-Semitic images to criticize Israel. Labour’s response is that, “Discourse about international politics often employs metaphors drawn from examples of historic misconduct. It is not anti-Semitism to criticize the conduct or policies of the Israeli state by reference to such examples unless there is evidence of anti-Semitic intent.”
Yet party members who have spoken about Jewish conspiracies and posted pictures and statements from Nazi blogs have too often been tolerated, and Jewish people in Britain feel increasingly unsure of their future. Corbyn has been weak and even ambiguous on all this.
Does a similar current run through Canada’s left?
The NDP’s socialist wing has long been critical of Israel, but by electing Tom Mulcair and then Jagmeet Singh as leader, the party appeared to reject the project of offering the electorate a vehemently left-wing platform.
Unlike Britain’s Labour Party, the NDP is not likely to form a national government and has less to lose. But the BDS movement, the economic and cultural boycott of Israel and disinvestment from its economy, continues to have significant support in the party. Groups within the party are also trying to take policy to the left, calling on the NDP to ban products made in the West Bank.
Last year, prominent members of the party signed an open letter calling on NDP MPs to withdraw from the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group. The letter compares Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories to apartheid-era South Africa. That was after a resolution calling on Israel “to end its occupation” and on Canada to ban products made in Jewish settlements failed to make it to the floor for a vote at the federal NDP convention in Ottawa.
It’s essential to repeat what should be obvious: that supporting the rights of the Palestinians is certainly not the same as anti-Semitism. But some critics of Israel simply go too far. Similar fissures are already coming to the surface in the U.S., with new members of Congress coming under enormous pressure for their statements critical of Israel.
The NDP has already had to deal with the issue to a certain extent, but has yet to embrace the criticisms of Israel that now so influence European socialist parties. Much will depend on what the current party leader does and says, and on the composition of the next parliamentary caucus.
A reasoned and sensitive discussion of Israel and Palestine within the NDP could be a model for left-wing parties the world over. That would be a glorious thing, because Corbyn has failed miserably.