Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party

Allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party
The Chakrabarti Inquiry was an inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism in the British Labour Party in 2016, and the reason the inquiry was held by the party was because there had been a whole series of Labour Party members and activists, including quite senior people, who had allegedly made antisemitic remarks, and some of them had been suspended from the party and some had even been kicked out, and this reached a head in April 2016, when a Labour Member of Parliament, Naz Shah, who is the MP for Bradford West, was revealed to have put various statements on Facebook in 2014 at the time of the conflict in Israel and Gaza which many people considered to be antisemitic.
One such statement was a map of Israel superimposed on to the United States of America,
with a title saying: “A proposed solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - relocate Israel into the United States,” and she had endorsed this idea and made a joke about it on Facebook and other comments as well. These emerged in 2016 and after two days of prevarication, the party suspended her membership and launched an investigation into her comments. Then the very next day, Ken Livingstone, who is one of the best-known politicians in this country and a very senior figure in Labour Party politics for 30 years, went on to the BBC to defend Naz Shah, and in so doing made some really quite outrageous comments about Hitler and about Zionism.
He said that Hitler was supporting Zionism in the 1930s and only after that, he, in Livingston’s words “went mad” and ended up murdering six million Jews, and he also claimed, as Ken Livingston often claims, that there is some kind of conspiracy to use the smear of antisemitism as he sees it to silence criticism of Israel. Ken Livingstone was then also suspended from the party and in order to really put a stop to this snowballing even more, the party announced an inquiry, and it was going to be headed by Shami Chakrabarti who had just recently resigned as the head of one of Britain’s leading human rights organizations.
So that was the immediate cause, but really what had happened before then was that there had been a drip-drip effect of lots and lots of Labour Party people allegedly making antisemitic comments, and there was a whole question about antisemitism around the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn himself. The Labour Party has a long tradition of support from British Jews, and has long upheld a lot of things that British Jews really care about, including support for Israel over many years.
But in 2015 Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the party, and he comes from the hard left of British politics, from an anti-Zionist left, from a left which is extremely hostile to Israel and to Zionism, which really does not have much connections to the Jewish community at all. And Jeremy Corbyn himself, at the time that he was standing for the leader, was accused of endorsing or sharing platforms with various unsavory people, some of whom were accused of Holocaust denial, others of making various antisemitic comments.
Corbyn himself was on video in 2010 making a speech in which he called Hamas and Hezbollah his friends, and he described Hamas as a movement for social justice and political justice, which coming from someone on the left is language that really means an ideological connection, and Corbyn didn’t answer these questions very well, in fact he didn’t really like being asked them, and so this whole question of antisemitism hung around the Labour Party. It came to a head in April 2016 with the suspensions of Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone, it made antisemitism a national political story in Britain, a headline story for the first time in decades, and to try and get control of the story the party launched the inquiry.
Now sad to say it didn’t work, partly because the content of the inquiry report didn’t really go deep enough into the problem. It addressed some of the symptoms it, talked about some of the language the people should not use. For example it recommended that it was not a good thing for Labour Party members to compare Israel to Nazi Germany or to use the words “Zio” as an insult, which you think would be pretty obvious things for an anti-racist party, but it didn’t really go into the question of why these things have become prevalent in parts of the left, and whether it’s connected to a really obsessive emotional hatred of Israel that exists in some parts of the left.
The issue of antisemitism never went away, there was a kind of continuous bubbling up of stories emerging, some of them old, some of them new, some of them about the structures of the Labour Party failing to deal properly with with antisemitism, some of them about things that Corbyn had said and done, and it bubbled up again and it kind of increased, certainly the Jewish community became more worried because Corbyn became more powerful.
There was a video emerged from Jeremy Corbyn, when Corbyn had been recorded really denouncing a couple of people who he called “Zionists”, and he said the Zionists don’t understand the irony that the Palestinian ambassador was employing, and he said they’ve lived in England all their life but they still don’t seem to understand English irony. And again it becomes then a matter of interpretation, and Corbyn said this was just about language, but many many people saw in that statement a kind of othering of British Jews, of saying that British Jews live here but they’re not really of us, and that was quite a big event.
The Jewish community, having had a kind of remarkable degree of unity and consensus, began to say that it’s important for them that Labour adopts the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which is a framework, a set of guidelines to help Labour decide, understand, what is antisemitic and what isn’t. And of course the anti-Zionist activists hate IHRA because IHRA is explicit that certain kinds of hostility to Israel should be understood to be possibly or potentially antisemitic. The formal adoption of IHRA, I think calmed everything down again a little bit in the way of Chakrabarti, and in the time after that in the autumn, the fall of 2018, the Brexit issue came to the fore again and became a kind of really compelling discussion.
It’s now the very beginning of January 2019, the Brexit date is March 29th 2019, it’s in three months time, and we have no idea what’s going to happen. What frightens me in terms of antisemitism is this - that the events in the Labour Party have been creating, educating a cadre of activists to believe that the Zionists are their key enemy, the Zionists or the Jewish community stand between us and socialism, between us and our best chance in a generation to have JC - Jeremy Corbyn - in power.
And on the right the discourse also can be seen as a kind of conspiracy theory - we’re being run by Europe, by the EU, by the foreigners, the elite, the cosmopolitan elite, the citizens of nowhere, are bringing in immigrants to undercut labour, and this whole discourse about cosmopolitans and citizens of nowhere, and the elite from the cities, who are really in charge, is itself not antisemitic but it’s very close to an antisemitic narrative.
So there’s a cadre on the left educating itself, its formative political experience is that the Jews stand between us and socialism, and there’s a cadre on the right educating itself to believe that the will of the people is being betrayed by a globalist, anti-democratic, cosmopolitan, citizen of nowhere elite. And I think if there’s a political and/or economic crisis then this pair of cadres of political people, which have been created over the last few years, might grow and get a hearing and become powerful and important, and I think either of them could develop into much more explicitly antisemitic movements, that’s the danger I see.

Dr. Dave Rich, Dr. David Hirsh

In 2016 the Labour Party established an inquiry, known as the Chakrabarti Inquiry, to investigate allegations of antisemitism and other forms of racism amongst its ranks. Dr. Dave Rich will talk about the events that led to the launch of the inquiry as well as about its goals and outcomes. Following this, Dr. David Hirsh will discuss some additional developments related to the allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party that took place over the course of 2017-2019. He will explore how these relate to the Right-wing conspiratorial discourse on Brexit in the UK and explain how this combination of factors is created a complicated and sensitive climate for the Jewish community in Britain.

Please note that as these lectures were filmed prior to the 2019 General Elections in the UK, they do not discuss the situation in the UK following the results of these elections.

In this video Dr. Hirsh mentions the IHRA definition of antisemitism. We will examine this definition in some depth in step 6.13. You can familiarize yourselves with this definition by pressing on this link.


  • Hirsh, David, Contemporary Left Antisemitism (London: Routledge, 2018).

  • Rich, Dave, “Antisemitism in the Radical Left and the British Labour Party,” Kantor Center Position Papers, January 2018.

  • Rich, Dave, The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism 2nd ed. (London: Biteback Publishing, 2018).

  • The Shami Chakrabarti Inquiry, 30 June, 2016.

This article is from the free online

Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now