On 31 May, Pete Willsman, a veteran of the Labour left and a current member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), was suspended by the Labour Party on charges of antisemitism. The suspension followed publication of comments made by Willsman at a chance meeting with a journalist. How should the left respond? Simon Nelson and Sean Matgamna present different views.
A victim of panic
The new Pete Willsman affair shows yet again that you cannot effectively fight antisemitism unless you have a working definition of what it is. In my opinion, the definition should be advocacy of the destruction of Israel and the hounding of Jewish people who support Israel (however critically) and its right to exist. And, of course, any of the traditional antisemitisms, which seem to be reviving and gaining new life.
Criticism of Israel is not necessarily antisemitic. In any case, the right to criticise Israel, as the right to criticise any other state, must be preserved. Pete Willsman has been suspended from the Labour Party because he was recorded voicing the opinion that the Israeli embassy is “behind” the outcry against antisemitism in the Labour Party. What does that tell you about him?
He doesn’t understand or accept that there is a problem of antisemitism on the left. He needs to explain the outcry as a result of outside intervention. He is at least a little bit paranoid. He thinks the Israeli embassy in London would not have a right to concern itself with the spread of anti-Jewish feeling and thinking in Britain. And possibly he gives credence to some variant of “Jewish conspiracy” theory.
What he said must of course be taken in the context of the militant “absolute anti-Zionist” antisemitism surrounding us on the left. Denouncing all or almost all complaints of antisemitism as manufactured is an implicit defence of actual antisemitism. But is Willsman’s comment, in itself, directly antisemitic? To the extent that he should be expelled for it from a party whose leaders identify with a daily paper which actively foments antisemitism, the Morning Star? And should he be expelled for an off-hand, casual remark, even one following similar off-hand remarks a while back? Shouldn’t expulsion be reserved for clear-cut, public, persistent violations? Isn’t the culture in the Labour Party (and more widely in the left), borrowed from the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland — “off with his head” as the answer to all disputes — a hindrance rather than a help in clearing up this mess?
Scapegoating the odd individual for the odd comment, and chucking him out without explanation or argument, is a poor substitute for a clear line from the leadership against the whole “absolute anti-Zionist”, Israel-hating, ideological stream. Pete Willsman is being unfairly singled out — a victim of panic among people who do not intend to fight the serious antisemitism in the labour movement.
Conspiracy talk untenable
The comments made by Pete Willsman to American-Israeli journalist Tuvia Tenenbom and now revealed publicly are antisemitic conspiracy talk from a member of Labour’s NEC [National Executive Committee]. If Pete Willsman now faces expulsion, we should accept that outcome.
This is not the first transgression by Willsman. I wrote at the time of the NEC elections in Solidarity 476, “Willsman’s apology... and his commitment to refer himself to equalities training is a start, but it’s a long way from him, or others understanding the root of the problem... The problem is rooted in a lack of common understanding of the specificities of left antisemitism...
“It sees Jews, or Zionism, or Zionists, or Israel as more powerful than other groups, nationalisms or states, as organised conspiratorially or with the potential to exert a hidden power.”
It is therefore unsurprising that Willsman claims that accusations of antisemitism are being fostered by the Israeli embassy, who have agents in the Labour party to stir up trouble for Jeremy Corbyn and have coordinated 68 rabbis to “attack” Labour over antisemitism.
So far there has been no statement from Willsman. We still have no details of the training he referred himself to last time. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), of which he remains secretary, has managed to avoid publicly backing Chris Williamson or Jackie Walker. Whether this will stretch to avoiding mention of Willsman remains to be seen.
CLPD has become much closer to the left-antisemitic wing of the Labour left in recent times. JVL (Jewish Voice for Labour) speakers have been at recent AGMs and their conference Yellow Pages has advertised their fringe events. If Sean Matgamna is right in Solidarity 497 that membership of the Labour Party should be incompatible with advocacy for the destruction of Israel, then surely Sean must accept that the peddling of antisemitic conspiracy theories, not once but twice with apparently no contrition, may disqualify Willsman from remaining a Labour member.