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Guest Writer: Lib Dems stance on Labour anti-Semitism row is authoritarian and illiberal 

Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, 6 October 2014 [Liberal Democrats/Flickr]
Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, 6 October 2014 [Liberal Democrats/Flickr]

We are a group of Liberal Democrats committed to free speech, particularly concerning Israel and Palestine.

On 16 September, we used this Open Democracy article to ask our leaders to distance themselves from the constant anti-Semitism smears against Labour. Tim Farron started by welcoming “Jewish people who feel alienated by the Labour Party”, while Vince Cable, Jo Swinson and others have gone on giving credence to the smears.

We had planned to concentrate on electioneering this month, but three things drive us to comment:

Firstly, on 13-14 November, just as nominations were closing, the leadership sought to corral prospective parliamentary candidate (PPCs) into endorsing the IHRA “working definition” on anti-Semitism. The editor of Liberal Democrat Voice (Caron Lindsay) supported the move with this post that contains two clips, one with Luciana Berger claiming to have suffered large-scale anti-Semitism and misogyny within the Labour Party, and the other where Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson presses PPCs to sign up.

READ: The transatlantic anti-Semitism smear campaign

Secondly, on 24 November, we were dismayed to read a leaflet where the Lib-Dem PPC for Gateshead, as if heeding the leader’s advice, used selected newspaper quotes to accuse Labour of failing to tackle anti-Semitism.

Thirdly, on 26 November, Swinson spoke in support of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis outburst in the Times newspaper, in which, referring to allegations of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, he said that “a new poison – sanctioned from the very top – has taken root” under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

We find this deeply problematic, for the following reasons.

The leadership is prioritising party line over evidence-based discussion

Swinson has continuously failed to discuss hard statistical evidence, neatly summarised by Alan Maddison’s illustration below, challenging repeated assertions that anti-Semitism is rampant in the Labour Party.

The IHRA definition picks up on some genuine concerns about anti-Semitic discourse, but Israel and its supporters have mobilised it as a smoke-screen, with the aim of shielding Israel from criticism about its dispossession and oppression of native Palestinians. Regardless of caveats about “protecting free speech”, the IHRA definition has created an environment where public figures run for cover and/or opt for self-censorship rather than criticise Israel, as Antony Lerman demonstrates in the Independent.

READ: #Jews4Labour trends after calls not to back UK’s Corbyn

On 31 May of this year, 12 of us addressed Swinson in an “Open Letter” raising these issues, but at no time has she sought to discuss them with us. She has instead reacted in an authoritarian manner, pressing PPCs to sign up to a party line that she herself is unwilling to debate.

All ears for Luciana Berger, but none for dissenting Jewish voices

Swinson has likewise ignored the voices of the approximately 41 per cent of British Jews who are not Zionist, as the Home Affairs Select Committee report on Antisemitism discovered. Many have expressed themselves in letters to the Guardian and on websites like Free Speech on Israel. But our party leader only has ears for people like Berger who has been at the heart of the pro-Israel lobby since she was a student, occupying top posts in Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM). JLM is not an organisation for all Jews, but only for those who support Zionism, the doctrine behind the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

READ: ‘A vote for Labour is not a vote for antisemitism’, insist prominent British Jews 

Berger has certainly received anti-Semitic abuse, but this carefully-researched article provides evidence that she has been economical with the truth, intentionally blurring the distinction between abuse from the left and the far right, as part of a politically-motivated campaign to defame Labour Party members. Four of the six people convicted of anti-Semitic threats and abuses against Berger (and all three jailed) were far-right extremists; yet she seems determined to paint the abuse as a mainly left-wing phenomenon.

Party discussion platforms are toeing the party line

Lib Dem Voice is supposed to be “a neutral platform where the views of all members are welcome” but in this case it has simply peddled the party line, only allowing a single comment and making it difficult for PPCs to consider the pros and cons of signing the pledge.

This is not the only time Lib Dem Voice has censored posts and comments on Israel and Palestine, a policy Caron Lindsay justifies by saying that the topic “brings more heat than light”. But she fails to point out that most of the “heat” comes from pro-Israeli elements who routinely avoid discussing the evidence and resort to attacking the personal qualities of those advancing evidence, as can be seen from this thread.

READ: UK minister vows to pressure councils and universities to adopt IHRA definition of anti-Semitism

All this comes on top of what happened when we first put forward our ideas back in June.  We were shut out of all party discussion platforms, and on one platform, several party activists and officers treated us, and others, to troll-like abuse, including f-words – with impunity.

Finally, we appeal to the party to stay true to liberal and democratic principles, which means:

  1. Ending internal censorship and opening up discussion forums to proper debate;
  2. Leaders making sure their arguments are evidence-based, and insisting party members do likewise, and;
  3. A consistent approach to the media: a party that supports Justice Leveson’s recommendation for independent press regulation to protect the public and uphold press freedom must oppose the press’ acting as a conduit for a tsunami of unsubstantiated allegations about anti-Semitism.

Jonathan Coulter, Peter Downey, John Hall, Roger Higginson, Mike Jones, Dr Thomas Hugh Manning, Pamela Manning, Denis Mollison, John Payne, Penny Rivers, Jeanette Sunderland, Denise Watkins and Dr Rodney Watts contributed to this article. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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