A lawmaker caused a media firestorm at the launch of an independent UK Labour Party report into anti-Semitism and racism on Thursday.
The report failed to back claims that the Labour Party had been overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of racism.
The manufactured media storm aimed to overshadow the London launch of the highly anticipated report that has been welcomed even by some of party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s harsher anti-Palestinian critics.
Similarly, The Guardian, which has called on Corbyn to resign, falsely accused the Labour leader of using the press conference to compare Israel to the Islamic State group.
Ruth Smeeth, a former Israel lobby spin doctor, called for Corbyn to resign after she was criticized by an activist at the press launch.
Marc Wadsworth accused Smeeth of collusion with the right-wing press to unseat Corbyn, who is currently facing a coup attempt by a majority of his own party’s lawmakers.
Speaking from the floor, Wadsworth told those gathered at the launch: “I saw that the Telegraph handed a copy of a press release to Ruth Smeeth MP, so you can see who’s working hand in hand.”
Wadsworth had been handing out copies of an activist press release which condemned Labour MPs who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet this week and called for him to step down. “The groundswell against the traitors will get much bigger,” it said.
Wadsworth is the editor of citizen journalism website the-latest.com.
Smeeth walked out of the packed press conference and claimed in a statement that she had been “verbally attacked” by a “Jeremy Corbyn supporter who used traditional anti-Semitic slurs to attack me for being part of a ‘media conspiracy.’”
But audio of the press conference recorded by The Electronic Intifada shows that nowhere in Wadsworth’s question did he say anything about a “media conspiracy” or about Jews.
Wadsworth said in a statement that Smeeth’s claims were “poisonous slander” and he had not even known Smeeth was Jewish. Tweets by the Telegraph journalist in question support this, indicating that Wadsworth had had to ask Smeeth what her name was when she had approached him before the event.
Smeeth did not reply to an email from The Electronic Intifada requesting comment.
The press conference had been called for the launch of the independent report commissioned by Corbyn in the wake of accusations earlier this year that the Labour Party was rife with anti-Semitism.
The group has been criticized by Jewish members of Labour for refusing to represent their critical views on Israel.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign also welcomed the report on Thursday, saying it was happy “that legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies with regard to the Palestinians and the occupation have not been conflated with anti-Semitism.”
Corbyn said at the press conference that “our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organizations.”
Some media reports misquoted this, with The Guardian initially claiming Corbyn had compared the “Israeli government to Islamic State,” the extremist group also known as ISIS.
The text of the article even misquoted Corbyn as saying “Islamic State” when he had in fact said “self-styled Islamic states or organizations.”
This was later corrected by the paper after outrage from Corbyn’s supporters on social media.
Noted lawyer and human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti, who chaired the report, later took to the airwaves to criticize the “things that have been spun in the media.”
She said that the misleading reports had “cast a shadow over two months’ really hard, open-hearted work” on the report.
The report, available to download from www.chakrabartiinquiry.org, concludes that the “Labour Party is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism.” But it states that there is “too much clear evidence” of “minority hateful or ignorant attitudes” and a “sometimes bitter incivility of discourse.”
It recommends procedural changes to the party rule book. It also removes the interim power to suspend party members from the general secretary and party staff, investing it in “the senior democratic body that is Labour’s National Constitutional Committee.”
In the “anti-Semitism” witch hunt against party members critical of Israel that has engulfed Labour since February, it has mostly been party staff in the Compliance Unit who had carried out these suspensions in practice.
Mostly leftist activists had campaigned to have many of these suspensions overturned.
Corbyn called for the report as right-wing media and pro-Israel Jewish communal publications alleged that the Labour Party had in effect been taken over by anti-Semitism.
The Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz stirred the furore with headlines such as “UK Labour Party’s anti-Semitism problem just got a lot worse.”
After the Chakrabarti report’s publication, Guardian columnist and pro-Israel campaigner Jonathan Freedland asserted, “I don’t think anyone credible claimed the party was ‘overrun’ by anti-Semitism – but that there was a problem to be addressed.”
However, in a March column, Freedland himself had claimed that the Jewish community was “fast reaching the glum conclusion that Labour has become a cold house for Jews.”
Mind your language
While not supporting such dire and overblown allegations, the Chakrabarti report recommends that members temper their language and says that “racist epithets” and “racial or religious tropes and stereotypes about any group of people” have no place in the Labour Party.
It states, for instance that “the word ‘Zio’ should have no place in Labour Party discourse.”
At the press conference Corbyn called it a “vile epithet.”
The report also recommends that critics of Israel “use the term ‘Zionist’ advisedly, carefully and never” as a euphemism for “Jew.”
Calling such language “incendiary,” it recommends that “Labour members resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons in debates about Israel-Palestine in particular.”
“Labour members should be free and positively encouraged to criticize injustice and abuse wherever they find it, including in the Middle East,” the report states, “But surely it is better to use the modern universal language of human rights, be it of dispossession, discrimination, segregation, occupation or persecution and to leave Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust out of it?”
The report acknowledges that some party members have faced discriminatory assumptions because they are Jewish, but emphasizes that racism is a problem that affects party members of various backgrounds.
Chakrabarti writes that she has “heard Muslims (en masse) being derided as inherently sexist and/or anti-Semitic and potentially of split or dubious loyalty in the context of party membership and political participation.”
Her report also calls for “a moratorium on the retrospective trawling of members’ social media accounts and past comments,” a tactic that has been used by pro-Israel activists to fuel the controversy by provoking suspensions.
Formed in 2000, BICOM has historically been close to the right wing of the Labour Party, including former CEO Lorna Fitzsimons.
A 2009 US embassy cable from London, revealed by Chelsea Manning and published by Wikileaks, detailed a conversation with Ruth Smeeth about Labour Party affairs, saying she was a source they should “strictly protect.”
Speaking to the Telegraph in 2011, Smeeth admitted to being at a breakfast meeting in the embassy, but said “I have no recollection of saying what has been attributed to me. I would not consider myself to be a source for the US government.”
Editor’s note, 10 January 2018: Some time after its publication, Labour Party staff appear to have quietly deleted the Chakrabarti report from the Labour website, with the original links now dead. But the party now appears to have recently re-uploaded the report elsewhere on their site.