My experience of antisemitism - Josh Garfield

I joined the Labour Party after Gordon Brown lost the 2010 general election. At fifteen, I feared Cameron’s coalition would reverse the progress made by Labour with an austerity agenda justified by the financial crisis, blighting my generation’s prospects. Raised in a Newham council flat by my mum, I was keenly aware that we were one of the families who had benefited from Labour in power. Inspired by her political activism, I decided I wanted to help shape the party’s future, so in a teenage display of chaotic idealism, I cast my leadership ballot for Diane Abbott and David Miliband.

I was raised in the labour movement. My dad, the son of immigrants from Cyprus and Ireland, spent the eighties protesting Thatcher and clashed with police over refusal to pay the poll tax. My mum’s family were East End Jews that hailed from Eastern Europe and had escaped pogroms to make Bethnal Green their home. Political activism was second nature in my family, and I spent much of my childhood attending West Ham CLP meetings in lieu of a babysitter. The Labour Party was my home.

Newham is a borough without a Jewish community. There are no synagogues or communal institutions. As the only Jewish pupil in my primary school, I was often drafted in as the example of Judaism for an RE class or compared to Jesus for potential likeness, and while the odd antisemitic taunt was not uncommon, I never felt under threat in my home borough for being Jewish. This has sadly changed in recent years.

Elected on a wave of huge optimism, Jeremy Corbyn pledged to make Labour an anti-austerity party set on eradicating inequality after our second consecutive defeat at the polls in 2015. Drunk on enthusiasm for this new movement, I joined Momentum and got full-swing behind Corbyn’s Labour, blissfully unaware of his past convictions and the calibre of activists he was enthusing to rejoin the party.

While I had plenty criticisms of Tony Blair, the New Labour government headed by him and Gordon Brown lifted my family out of poverty. I believed strongly in learning from their mistakes, but found it reductively self-defeating to tarnish our entire record of success. I sought to set myself aside from the embittered former Militant activists who’d spent the noughties enamoured with Respect or the SWP and aligned instead with the younger, more energised campaigners who wanted the Tories out of Number Ten. These two pillars of the Corbynista spectrum would eventually falter over many things, but failed to wobble much when it was uncovered that Corbyn had defended an antisemitic mural in neighbouring Tower Hamlets.

In March 2018 I watched with horror as nearly every member of Newham Momentum’s steering group lined up to excuse Corbyn’s behaviour in a Whatsapp group. Some defended the mural itself - one even wrote in the Morning Star that it artistically reflected society ‘feeling controlled’ and ‘asked political questions’ -  while others chose to deflect blame unto the ‘pro-Israel’ and ‘pro-Zionist lobby’ that only want to ‘smear’ Corbyn. One activist, now a Labour councillor, posted a photoshopped image of Wes Streeting MP stirring a pot captioned ‘professional shit-stirrer.’ Streeting’s crime had been standing up for the Jewish community at the Dayenu rally and standing up to Jeremy Corbyn in the process. After it was found Christine Shawcroft had defended a Holocaust denier and resigned from the NEC, one local member labelled it a ‘scalp by right wingers’ before another queried who would be ‘sacrificed next at the altar of Zionism?’

I was shaken by what I had witnessed, and was left in no doubt that the people making these comments were antisemitic, and those who watched on had been complicit in their silence. Without much hesitation, I publicly resigned from all involvement with Newham Momentum and lodged formal complaints with Labour.

I had expected solidarity and pledges of action from senior local Labour figures, but few declarations to that effect were made and even fewer seemed to share my repulsion for the racist poison that had taken hold of our local party. Instead, I was branded a troublemaker. Supposedly well-meaning members took it upon themselves to bridge-build, arguing that a newly elected councillor like me should find a way to get along with the antisemites that had taken over the CLP. Conspiratorial antisemitism was routinely published in local online forums and went mostly unchallenged, leaving the heavy lifting to Newham’s only Jewish councillor. Local meetings further toxified as it became clear that I’d be punished for standing up to racism. A councillor who had once been a family friend told colleagues that I should languish on the backbenches and be deselected as punishment for ‘betraying the left.’ He would later donate to a fundraiser in Chris Williamson’s honour. 

The last CLP meeting I attended before mentally checking out of West Ham Labour heard from a guest speaker who, in the middle of a presentation on the NHS, decried that allegations of antisemitism were fabricated and a ‘waste of time’ to a room full of applause. It was the only party meeting I ever left in tears.

In the time since, only two local members have been suspended for antisemitism, and colleagues that have defended me have found themselves victim to anti-Black racism, homophobia, or misogyny by a group of cranks who should never have been allowed to toxify our Labour Party.