Labour ‘not intrinsically antisemitic’, say Hitchin politicians in wake of parliament protest

Hitchin and Harpenden Labour chairman John Hayes, pictured while campaigning to become MP last year.

Hitchin and Harpenden Labour chairman John Hayes, pictured while campaigning to become MP last year. Picture: Layth Yousif - Credit: Archant

After Jewish groups yesterday rallied outside parliament and accused Jeremy Corbyn of failing to do enough to stamp out antisemitism, two Hitchin Labour politicians have admitted the party’s response has not been perfect – but insist it is not “intrinsically antisemitic”.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, pictured at Airbus in Stevenage in 2016. Picture: Danny Loo

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, pictured at Airbus in Stevenage in 2016. Picture: Danny Loo - Credit: Archant

In a joint personal statement this morning, Hitchin and Harpenden Labour chairman John Hayes and Hitchin councillor Judi Billing – who are both Jewish – said “antisemitism is vile and repugnant and we utterly condemn it”, adding that it has “no place in society or in any political party”.

They said: “The rancor within our party, and its perception to others outside the party concerned with antisemitism in all its forms, causes us both great sadness and concern. We both firmly support Labour Party policy and its adherence to the international definition of antisemitism.

“We believe that there is much that is wrong with the way that some allegations of antisemitism have been dealt with by the Labour Party, but we do not believe that our party is intrinsically antisemitic and we do not believe that Jeremy Corbyn hates Jewish people. If we did we would not continue to be members.”

But Terry Wolfe of the Stevenage Liberal Synagogue – which also serves North Herts – told the Comet yesterday that while his congregation of about 50 people did not face antisemitism locally, Labour’s problem nationally was serious enough that he would now “not even consider” voting for the party.

He said: “I feel extremely uneasy with a Labour government taking power with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm. I have voted for Labour in the past – but most Jews feel extremely uneasy.

“If I were younger and a Labour government took power, I would seriously consider emigrating to the United States or Israel.”

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National criticism comes as Labour’s East of England division investigates Hitchin activist and 2016 council election candidate Martin Burke, amid complaints about an allegedly antisemitic tweet.

Hitchin Labour activist Martin Burke, pictured at the town's food and drink festival. Picture: Karyn

Hitchin Labour activist Martin Burke, pictured at the town's food and drink festival. Picture: Karyn Haddon - Credit: Archant

Mr Burke tweeted: “As Hitler sat down with the popcorn, he asked his movie-going companion: ‘Sweet or salty’? ‘All the same to me,’ came the answer from Balfour. ‘I’m so very glad we’re friends. They’ll never find out, surely, and I’m so glad that social media hasn’t been invented yet.”

Adolf Hitler led Nazi Germany during the Second World War and the Holocaust, in which six million Jews and others were murdered. Lord Balfour issued the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which Britain stated support for a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine – at that time a region of the Ottoman Empire.

At least two formal complaints have been filed with the Labour Party – one by Mr Asher in a personal capacity – in the wake of Mr Burke’s tweet, which he has deleted since posting it in December.

Mr Burke said the tweet was “poetic licence”, and denied it was antisemitic.

Mr Hayes, who at the time was chairman of Labour’s Hitchin branch, in January said Mr Burke’s tweet was unacceptable – but declined to initially escalate the matter or call the post antisemitic, saying it was “too cryptic for me to understand or take offence to”. He said that as a branch chairman he was unable to take action personally. Speaking to the Comet this week he admitted he was out of his depth because he hadn’t had any training – so he just answered the best he could.

“When I realised a formal complaint was being made I responded immediately and pointed him in the direction of someone who could investigate it,” he said.

Mr Glasman in January described Mr Burke’s tweet as an example of how antisemitic myths flourish, and expressed concern over Mr Hayes’ initial response before the complaint was made. Mr Hayes subsequently condemned Mr Burke’s comments as repugnant and referred the matter to Labour’s regional director. The party’s investigation continues.

The now-removed mural by artist Kalen Ockerman, known as Mear One, which has been interpreted as dep

The now-removed mural by artist Kalen Ockerman, known as Mear One, which has been interpreted as depicting Jews playing Monopoly on the backs of the poor. Picture: Bablu Miah via Flickr - Credit: Archant

Ahead of yesterday’s protest by the two most senior Jewish groups in Britain, Joe Glasman of the Campaign Against Antisemitism charity accused Hitchin and Harpenden Labour chairman Mr Hayes of resorting to “silence and obfuscation” over the national issue surrounding an allegedly antisemitic mural, and in response to questions from Comet reporter JP Asher via Twitter.

The mural in east London, which has been widely interpreted as depicting Jews playing a board game on the backs of the poor, was highlighted on Friday by Labour MP Luciana Berger – who publicly requested an explanation from Mr Corbyn for a 2012 Facebook post he had made questioning its removal.

The Labour leader initially defended his Facebook post as a “general comment about the removal of public art on grounds of freedom of speech”. He later agreed the mural was antisemitic, saying he had not looked at it properly, and in a statement issued during last night’s protest apologised for his 2012 post.

Asked by Mr Asher via Twitter on Sunday what he thought about concerns raised by Ms Berger and other Labour MPs over the party’s handling of antisemitism incidents including the mural comments, Mr Hayes did not reply.

Mr Glasman told this newspaper: “Mr Asher’s investigation into Hitchin and Harpenden Labour clearly illustrates the party’s wider quandary. When faced with clear examples of both their own member’s alleged antisemitism and Jeremy Corbyn’s clear endorsement of antisemitic imagery, Mr Hayes – the constituency party chairman – appears to prevaricate and fall back on silence and obfuscation to avoid the truth.”

In a subsequent conversation with the Comet, Mr Hayes said that not replying to two of the unsolicited tweets, sent on a Sunday afternoon when he was with his family was not obfuscation – and that putting pressure on him to respond on a weekday, when we knew he was working as a headteacher, was unfair.

Joe Glasman went on to say: “From local level to its party’s leadership, Labour has an existential crisis as a nominally anti-racist party that is now riddled with racism. From Mr Hayes to Mr Corbyn, we call on all of Labour’s leaders to speak out clearly against the racism in their midst.”

In response, Mr Hayes and Ms Billing said in a joint statement: “There has been no obfuscation by the local Labour Party but some thoughtful reflection from those of us who think the situation is so serious that it requires considerable thought and local discussion among its membership.”

• Editor’s note (Thursday, March 29): Following the publication of this article, Mr Hayes has made the following statement: “I think the article is dishonest and misleading.

“I think JP Asher has brought his own personal view to this issue, and that he deliberately misled me by soliciting a response from Joe Glasman – to whom JP had previously exonerated me in a personal email sent from his Comet email address in which he said my responses were ‘not for publication’ – while keeping secret the origin of the quotes. He has not given me a fair hearing, and given a skewed view of the events.

“JP praised me for openness on Saturday and then published an inaccurate summary of my responses on Sunday. He did not seek a face-to-face interview with me, instead conducting it all on Twitter.

“As a result of the actions of JP, and the pressure that the Comet has put me and my family under to rapidly respond to questions, I have resigned from my role as constituency chairman and I will no longer be standing as a Parliamentary candidate. I will continue to actively campaign for a Labour win in the local elections in May and the next General Election.”