How not to improve the Labour Party’s relationship with the Jewish community

The Jewish News has reported that “Hampstead and Kilburn Labour MP Tulip Siddiq will push for a new ‘truly independent’ review of the Labour party’s problems with anti-Semitism when Parliament reconvenes. And she will make further attempts to have former London mayor Ken Livingstone expelled for his comments about Hitler.”

Tulip is quoted as saying: “I think there are certain elements of anti-Semitism in the party that have not been dealt with properly. I am determined that MPs like me, Wes Streeting and Joan Ryan will stand up and say, to borrow from Theresa May, ‘enough is enough’. We can’t go on like this this while the community feels so disenfranchised and disillusioned.”

If Tulip is genuinely concerned about improving the Labour Party’s relationship with the Jewish community, I’d direct her to the case of former Camden Council leader Sarah Hayward. In a recent series of tweets (which attracted mainstream media attention, being referenced on Radio 4’s Today programme) Sarah made the inflammatory and entirely unsubstantiated claim that conservative religious attitudes towards gender relations amount to misogyny, which in turn leads to violent extremism and should therefore be dealt with as part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy.

As an example of such religiously-inspired (and supposedly terrorism-inducing) misogynistic attitudes, Sarah cited her experience of meeting an Orthodox rabbi who attended an annual interfaith service in Camden as a representative of the local Jewish community. She recounted:

“Rabbi took such strict interpretation of Judaism that they refused to shake hands with women (just women). At time Leader, Deputy Leader & Mayor of Camden all women. Half cabinet women. Rabbi refused to shake all our hands. As one attend [sic] I didn’t disrupt the civic services. But did take steps after the fact to ensure that particular rabbi wouldn’t be invited to a Camden event in official capacity again and that other celebrants of all faiths wouldn’t be able to use Camden events to promote religiously inspired misogyny.”

In this diatribe Sarah takes it for granted that the rabbi’s actions displayed contempt towards her and other Labour politicians because they were women. But it doesn’t require an expert knowledge of Halacha to grasp the fact that shomer negiah (the practice of avoiding physical contact with the opposite sex outside of one’s immediate family) applies to both men and women equally. If the politicians at the Camden event had been male rather than female, and they had offered to shake hands with an Orthodox Jewish woman who followed that religious principle, she would have done exactly what the rabbi did — politely declined to shake their hands.

Yet Sarah Hayward angrily denounces the poor rabbi as a misogynist, boasts that she used her authority as council leader to get him banned from appearing on the platform at any further official events in Camden, and also asserts that combating such practices should be the responsibility of the state because they can lead to terrorism — all this on the basis of ignorant prejudice towards the rabbi’s religious beliefs, beliefs that are shared by an important section of the Jewish community.

Now, I’m not keen on charging people with antisemitism without due process, and I won’t do so here. But at the very least Sarah Hayward’s views and actions show a jaw-dropping lack of awareness of the religious sensibilities of Orthodox Jews that should be entirely unacceptable in the Labour Party, particularly on the part of an individual who until recently held a prominent position in the party in Camden.

The irony is that this same Sarah Hayward is, like Tulip Siddiq, a firm supporter of the ongoing antisemitism witchhunt in the Labour Party. Sarah was reported as stating that she was “appalled” by the decision not to expel Ken Livingstone from the party following disciplinary action based on his (historically entirely accurate) remark that Hitler “was supporting Zionism” in the 1930s. “His comments were offensive in the extreme”, the Ham & High quoted her as saying. “Livingstone’s comments should be anathema to anyone who believes in the Labour Party’s core values of tackling inequality and fighting for social justice.”

So antagonising the pro-Israel lobby by mentioning embarrassing facts about the history of Zionism is grounds for expulsion from the Labour Party, according to Sarah. But smearing a Jewish religious leader as a misogynistic extremist and having him banned from representing his community at Camden Council events is apparently fine. Could there be a clearer illustration of how a proclaimed concern to avoid offending the feelings of a section of the Jewish community has been opportunistically used as a cover for a rightwing political campaign against the Labour left?

First published on Medium in June 2017