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The EHRC report on antisemitism: denial as a form of harassment

Posted on 06 November 2020

Recently the Equality and Human Rights Commission ("EHRC") published its much anticipated report on antisemitism within the Labour Party. The Report is the product of two years' hard work by the EHRC and its detailed findings are a testament to the forensic analysis of testimony and Party processes conducted by its team. The Report is unequivocal: the Labour Party has committed multiple breaches of the Equality Act 2010 in relation to its treatment of Jewish members.

Unfortunately, in the run up to the publication, there have been examples of individuals continuing to deny or belittle the extent of the issue of antisemitism within Labour.  Karie Murphy wrote last week that "Under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, antisemites were removed from the Labour Party more quickly, transparently and effectively than ever before" and Chris Williamson recently described the number of cases of alleged antisemitism as "miniscule", claiming that they had been exaggerated as part of a "pernicious smear campaign".  What the EHRC has now made clear is that the refusal to acknowledge antisemitism is, in itself, a form of harassment under the Equality Act 2010.  Indeed, the EHRC has issued an Unlawful Act Notice which stipulates that the Party has unlawfully harassed its members, through the acts of its agents; Pam Bromley and Ken Livingstone.  Whilst the report names only two individuals, it is clear that they were not alone in committing acts of harassment against the Party's Jewish members.  However, under Equality law, the Party can only be held liable for the acts of its agents and not its ordinary members.

The weaponisation of denial is a tactic the Jewish community is all too familiar with. The memorable David Irving case, concerning his persistent holocaust denial, is still fresh in the minds of many (not least because the case was recently dramatised in the film Denial). More recently, in a culture fostered by high profile members of the Party such as Ken Livingston and Chris Williamson, the EHRC Report found that the Party became an echo chamber for antisemitic views; creating a culture within the Party in which the Jewish community no longer felt safe. The issue of denial was then allowed to flourish unchecked, by the failure of the Party to properly or effectively deal with complaints of antisemitism.

The issue of antisemitism within the Party reached a head early last year when Party employees approached the EHRC as whistleblowers. Their testimony was featured in an explosive Panorama documentary "Is Labour Anti-Semitic?" which aired in July last year.  The whistleblowers' statements, and today's Report, have shone a light on the Party's failure to implement processes capable of handling the onslaught of antisemitism related complaints.  It is clear from the Report that staff working in the Governance and Legal Unit ("GLU") were not provided with adequate training on how to handle antisemitism complaints. Employees reported to Panorama that they faced immense pressure to get a handle on complaints and yet, it is evident from the Report, that the process was marred by political interference.  The EHRC's Unlawful Act Notice makes clear that this practice of political interference in decision-making on antisemitism complaints amounts to indirect discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Numerous reports have emerged of inadequate and improper decision-making processes and farcical disciplinary hearings.  Indeed, the appointment of Thomas Gardiner, formerly advisor to the Labour Party's Chair, to a positon within the GLU is cited in the Report as a further example of LOTO seeking to gain political control over antisemitism complaints.  In essence, LOTO was acting as judge, jury and executioner. 

The issue of antisemitism is undeniably complex.  Under the terms of the Equality Act 2010, being Jewish is a protected characteristic as both a race and a religion. Judaism (the religion) is straightforward to understand and the protection afforded to it is akin to that afforded to Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. It is the concept of the Jewish race that sparks hostility. An inability to extrapolate criticism of Israel from Jews as a race lies at the heart of the problem. As evidenced in the Report, the Party's failure to implement an adequate complaints process meant that online hostility from grassroots members of the Party, who conflated their support of Jeremy Corbyn and his pro-Palestinian views with a vitriolic dislike of Israeli political policies and, by extension, the Jewish race, was not effectively dealt with by the Party.  Clumsy remarks by high profile members of the Party regarding "the Israel lobby" played into classic tropes of Jewish power and influence. No training was provided to enable staff, or council members, to address or explain the issues within their local Party constituencies. Instead, certain members hid behind a wall of lies and misinformation seeking to gaslight the Jewish community into believing that the problem did not exist. 

The Report's findings highlight the critical role played by independent bodies, such as the EHRC, in ensuring oversight of the actions of public figures and bodies, particularly in circumstances in which denial of an issue exacerbates the damage caused.  Political organisations will not be permitted to ride roughshod over the rights of their members.  We hope that the Party will, as promised earlier today by Keir Starmer, implement each of the EHRC's recommendations.

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