An educative event which was being organised by Lewes CLP, about challenging antisemitism, has been banned by order of the Labour Party’s South East Regional Office. Mark Perryman, a member of Lewes branch (though not the organiser of the event) spoke to us in a personal capacity to explain what has been going on.
The EHRC report was published and Jeremy Corbyn was almost immediately suspended. We had a branch meeting to discuss this. We weren’t of a mood to challenge David Evans or Keir Starmer or our Region on Jeremy’s suspension: hardly anyone could see the point of that, all that would result in is the CLP being closed down. But we wanted to state clearly that we didn’t believe that bureaucratic suspensions were the answer. Most importantly, we felt that we needed, as a branch to make clear that, in the words of the motion I put “our opposition to anti-semitism is unconditional”. As I said moving the motion: if a Muslim woman outside a supermarket in Lewes was being abused, we wouldn’t ask her position on feminism. We’d oppose the abuse.
I lived for some years in Stamford Hill, where there is a large Jewish community. If I saw a Hasidic Jew being abused in antisemitic terms, as happened quite regularly, I wouldn’t ask his or her position on Israel. I would oppose the abuse. That’s not to say that I’m not in favour of Palestinian self-detrmination. I absolutely am. But that’s not the issue there.
The problem is that the Labour Party as a broad church is not capable of giving political education – whose ideas would the substance of that education? One year Jeremy Corbyn’s, the next Keir Starmer’s? So we decided to provide what I called an educative space. People would bring their views to that space for a discussion. We were aware that people might come with antisemitic views, and we’d challenge them. So that was the idea.
Very interesting people were involved in leading on this project, Gaby Weiner, who has written a book, Tales of Loving and Leaving, about her family’s history of persecution at the hands of antisemites in central Europe; and Palo Almond, one of the few BAME officers in the entire South East Region of the Labour Party, an experienced educationalist. These two people collaborated on this, devising a programme on the history of antisemitism. This was regarded as uncontroversial in the CLP. There is a variety of views in the CLP, we nominated Keir and Angela in yhe leadership elections. Our CLP is not a part of the hard left but it sees itself as providing a space for ideas. Since 2018, we have been organising big “ideas events” which draw crowds of hundreds. We have a national reputation for this.
Our antisemitism event was announced along with the names of the session leaders in an email to members. And then a day before the event was due to take place, another email had to be sent quoting South East Region’s directive 48 hours ahead of the session, saying that we were banned from having this educative event. So imagine you’re a member, not very involved in the ins and outs of the branch, and you get an email saying that there’s going to be a series of educative events on antisemitism, then the day before you get an email saying that they’re not allowed to take place. The clear inference of this is that the two named indivduals involved are not capable of giving education about antisemitism, or even are suspected of antisemitism! So we are up in arms about this. Again, we didn’t see the point in defying this directive, we don’t want to get suspended, but we are making every effort to contest this directive.
So now we’re stuck. We are told we can’t have a discussion about antisemitism and one is needed. We have a members-only Facebook Page, and the moderators had to remove some comments because they were antisemitic. These were what I’d call simple-minded conspiracy thinking. ‘The media is run by billionaires, lots of billionaires are Jewish’. That kind of thing. Or I’ve opened a discussion, and twice I found myself replying to people criticising Israel – criticisms I agree with – but they were using the word “Jew” where they should have used the word “Israeli”. That’s the kind of ideas that we’d want to address with an event like this.
There has been a response to David Evans’ office, we sent a considered explanation of our concerns, and a two-line answer has come back: a response essentially treating us as idiots.
The EHRC report makes no mention at all of banning educative events amongst members. What it specifies is that there needs to be careful preparation for training staff. So people who are waving this report in our faces haven’t even read it!