View from the house: Abbott failed during anti-Semitism debate

PUBLISHED: 12:00 21 April 2018 (free to use)

On anti-Semitism, parliament roared, but Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t listening.

On Tuesday, for the first time ever, parliament held a general debate in the chamber of the House of Commons on anti-Semitism. It was one of those rare parliamentary events when the Commons comes together, when raw emotion is unmistakable and when you feel that this debate will make a difference.

Anti-Semitism has risen to the fore in the Labour party in the last two years, manifesting itself in a sharp increase in racist incidents: from attacks on social media, to heckling, hounding and abuse of MPs at meetings and in the streets.

Considered speeches by Conservative colleagues were overshadowed by the powerful, emotive and deeply personal speeches given by some Labour members. Ruth Smeeth and Luciana Berger, both excellent MPs, read out the litany of abusive messages they’d endured since Corbyn had taken over as leader of the Labour party.

John Mann MP, who is not Jewish but who chairs the cross-party group on anti-Semitism, gave a thundering speech recounting the threats of rape his wife and daughter had received simply because of his staunch defence of the Jewish community, and for criticising a Labour leader who has stood by while racism has festered among his own supporters.

Time and time again, MPs steeped in the Labour movement – often for generations – talked about their party that had once stood proudly on anti-racist principles, but had now turned a blind eye to anti-Semitism, perhaps the oldest form of racism there is. It was at once both uplifting to hear the fierce defences of Britain’s Jewish community and shockingly depressing that they need to be heard at all.

In response, home secretary Amber Rudd carefully and rightly committed the government to doing as much as it could to stamp out this evil. Importantly she judged there was no need to try and build on the contributions of others who had illustrated the issues so powerfully.

In contrast, the shadow home secretary’s contribution was beyond parody. In less than a minute Diane Abbott turned her response to the debate into a speech about herself, claiming she had suffered more abuse than other MPs. Which might be true, but ignored almost entirely the debate on anti-Semitism, called to address the prolific Jew-hate in her party. She was beyond insensitive and left MPs visibly incredulous.

My friend Rob Halfon spoke hauntingly of the “air tightening” for British Jews across the nation and perhaps summed up the debate best in his metaphor of the Labour leadership as the three unwise monkeys who saw no antisemitism, heard no anti-Semitism and did nothing about antisemitism.

For those of us who remain steadfast allies to the Jewish community, we will continue to call out anti-Semitism wherever we see or hear it. We will not stand by and do nothing – we will fight to eradicate this poison once and for all.

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