‘Whitewashed’: The Sordid Story of UK Labour Party Antisemitism Laid Bare
“Just sitting in the early morning light, looking out over my beautiful garden, and thinking how much I love this country that gave my family refuge in 1906,” Judith Ornstein — the co-producer of the joint book/documentary project “Whitewashed: Antisemitism in the Labour Party” — wrote to me in an email today. “I don’t know how it has come to this.”
Most British Jews who have been, or are still, members of the Labour Party will have an inkling of how Ornstein feels. For decades, loyalty to the Labour Party was a defining feature of British Jewish life. But in the era of Jeremy Corbyn, the days when someone like the late Jewish parliamentarian Ian Mikardo could be dubbed a “left-wing firebrand” while still remaining a committed and active Zionist, seem as part of a distant, misty past.
“Whitewashed,” in that sense, is very much a creature of its time: the present period, when the Labour Party’s image among Jews has collapsed amid a continued stream of antisemitism scandals. How bad is the relationship? Put it this way — despite the legendary hold of the Democratic Party over American Jewish political life, more American Jews voted for Donald Trump in 2016 than did British Jews for Corbyn in 2017.
To many observers, the relationship appears beyond repair — at least for as long as Corbyn, currently on a long honeymoon with British public opinion, remains Labour’s leader. And that is why “Whitewashed” is so important, and why it will endure as a representation of what life in Corbyn’s Labour Party is like for anyone who doesn’t believe that the Jewish state of Israel is a living curse upon humanity. As the wonderful British Jewish novelist Howard Jacobson put it, holding up his middle finger to the audience at Monday night’s London premiere of the documentary, “that was what Corbyn was saying to all of us who complained.”
The film’s narrator and writer, David Hirsh, has done a terrific job of presenting a deeply complex issue in clear, urgent terms even to viewers with only a passing familiarity with the Labour Party and its works. While “Whitewashed” occasionally strays onto “inside-the-Beltway” territory, the lasting impression it leaves is that British Jews have been scorned and abandoned not by just any old political party, but one that strides like a colossus across the last century and a half of British history. It’s the National Health Service, it’s the expansion of higher education, it’s the flowering of British pop culture. And under Corbyn, that heritage feels like it belongs to British Jews least of all.
In other words, it’s painful.
The film — which you can watch below — centers on 2016’s internal inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour Party, which led to the infamous “Chakrabarti Report.” As Hirsh tellingly points out, the only visible beneficiary of the report was its author, civil rights advocate Shami Chakrabarti, who was quickly elevated by Corbyn to the House of Lords –Britain’s upper parliamentary chamber — after she ensured that the issue of Labour’s antisemitism had been adequately “whitewashed.”
All the individuals who appear in the film submitted evidence to Chakrabarti’s investigation (collected in the book available here.) All of them have considerable experience and understanding of antisemitism, as academics or as Labour Party activists or both. All of them were ignored by Chakrabarti and her team without so much as an acknowledgement of their efforts.
A great deal of the material Chakrabarti was presumed to be examining was far removed from the complicated political debate over what qualifies as reasonable criticism of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians and what is antisemitic. Arguably, the sheer crudeness of the antisemitism scandals was before anything else an embarrassment to the Labour Party, which, as the film shows, became a natural political home for crackpots like Jackie Walker and her ilk – purveyors of conspiracy theories about “Jewish financing of the Atlantic slave trade,” ISIS as a front for “Zionist” interests, semi-literate jokes about wealthy Jews with dubious “Zionist” loyalties, and so on.
Would it have been difficult for Chakrabarti (a person much admired by a good number of the individuals in the film) to have uncomplicatedly called out this garbage for what it was? The film leaves little doubt that antisemitism was the issue that Chakrabarti was least interested in. More important for her was preserving a degree of distance from the fray for Labour’s leaders — a tricky task when you’ve got the Corbynista former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, ranting on the BBC about how Adolf Hitler supported Zionism one year before he actually came to power.
In tandem, Chakrabarti was determined to keep the underlying political culture in which antisemitism flourishes away from serious scrutiny. Many Britons are now experiencing Corbyn as the prophet of anti-austerity; but sadly, as has too often been the case on the left, such politics are invariably matched with “solidarity” for dictators both dead (Saddam Hussein ) and alive (Bashar al-Assad) and for terrorist groups (Corybn’s “friends,” Hamas and Hezbollah).
Against that context, Labour’s hostility towards Jews — for being more “white” than “ethnic,” for their visibility in cultural, political and commercial life, and most of all, for their emotional and political attachment to an “apartheid state” that “massacres” Palestinian civilians in Gaza — seems a lot less unexpected.
This is where “Whitewashed” is at its most powerful. The film demonstrates that a combination of lies, distortions, hearsay and what the American social psychologist Gordon Allport called the “law of least effort” — taken together, the lifeblood of antisemitism — all nourish the Corbyn Labour Party’s fixation with supposed Judaic malice.
As sobering as the film is, “Whitewashed” is not — at least as far as the film’s producers are concerned — the last word on a matter that is now closed. To the contrary, the Labour Party now has a moral duty to offer its perspective on the insights gleaned from this film, publicly and visibly. I’d like to think Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Ken Livingstone and all those other Labour Party figures who have twisted serious charges of antisemitism into reputational smears — what Hirsh calls “The Livingstone Formulation” — will have the courage to watch this film. Perhaps the fact that no one expects them to will encourage them, for once, to do the right thing.
Watch “Whitewashed: Antisemitism in the Labour Party” below: