Were Jackie Walker’s comments antisemitic, and should she have been removed from post and suspended from the Labour Party?
The reported comments are as follows:-
1. A Facebook conversation in which she suggested that Jews hold particular responsibility for the American slave trade.
2. At a Jewish Labour training session, she questioned why a speaker on antisemitism raised the issue of enhanced security at Jewish schools.
3. At the same session she remarked “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Holocaust Day was open to all peoples who’ve experienced Holocaust?”
4. At the same session she remarked that she had been unable to find a definition of antisemitism that she could work with.
Jackie Walker is black Jewish.
I’m white Jewish, a Corbyn supporter, and a strong critic of Israeli government policy.
I think Jackie’s comments were certainly a) misinformed, b) insensitive and c) unprofessional. I also think that they were – possibly unwittingly – antisemitic.
This is why.
1. On Jews and slavery:
Jackie is reported to have said on Facebook:
“Many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade which is of course why there were so many early synagogues in the Caribbean. ”
This is factually incorrect. Jews were not the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade. In fact, the majority of the slave trade was funded by Christians, and – according to Madge Dresser (Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port, 2001) – particularly by Quakers.
Whilst I appreciate that Jackie may be genuinely misinformed, her comments unfortunately play into antisemitic tropes and stereotypes about “Shylock type ruthlessness.”
This is really not acceptable for a vice chair of Momentum, particularly in the current political and media climate in which accusations of antisemitism are being levelled at Corbyn supporters. As a person in a highly public and sensitive position, Jackie of all people should also have been aware of the risks of debating such a sensitive subject on social media.
2. On fears for the safety of Jewish schoolchildren:
Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of racist threats knows how scary and intimidating it is. The fact that the children of other ethnic groups may be equally threatened doesn’t in any way lessen the perceived threat that Jewish parents feel.
Arguing that Jewish parents are “not the only ones” minimises and belittles their legitimate concerns. As in any case of abuse, this just adds insult to injury.
This sort of insensitivity and lack of basic awareness is inexcusable for someone in a responsible position in the media spotlight.
3. On Holocaust Day not being all about Jews
Although Holocaust Memorial Day actually commemorates not only the victims of Nazi persecution but also the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, it is true that most people nowadays associate the word Holocaust with Jews and the Nazis.
But at a training session on antisemitism, it is not appropriate to argue about the “ranking” of genocides. Victims and survivors – and their descendants – primarily deserve respect, compassion and empathy, not quibbling over who is more or less deserving.
The idea that Jews claim special victim status is very much a part of racist rhetoric, and Jackie should of course have been aware of this.
As vice chair of Momentum, a person very much in the public eye, and at a time when Corbyn and his supporters are being subjected to an onslaught of smears and slurs about perceived antisemitism, she was not the person to be voicing these points.
Certainly not without checking her facts.
And certainly not in a training session on antisemitism.
4. On raising the issue of definitions of antisemitism:
If vested interests are trying to wrest control of the definition of antisemitism this is easy to counter.
Antisemitism = racism against people purely because of their Jewishness.
Everyone can agree on that.
Jackie’s comments about difficulties with “definitions of antisemitism” were just unhelpful.
If she had something to say about her perception of the appropriation of the term “antisemitism” by certain groups, she should have been more explicit about that, and certainly – as vice chair of Momentum – her comments on definitions of antisemitism should have been accompanied by reassurance as to her strong condemnation of discrimination and racism against Jews.
As it was, her remarks simply came across as undermining, implying that perhaps the whole concept of antisemitism is somehow fraudulent or exaggerated.
Again, this fits neatly with the stereotypes and excuses of the racist agenda.
I get the impression that Jackie feels the pro-Israeli Zionist lobby has appropriated the word Holocaust and is rewriting the definition of antisemitism in their own favour, and that Jews are trying to claim some sort of special status as sufferers, to the exclusion of other victim and survivor groups.
There are points to be made about Israel and Zionism, but as vice chair of Momentum Jackie had a responsibility to be highly sensitive about if, how, where, when and why she raised such issues.
And deriding any group for claiming special victim status is simply unacceptable – whether Jews, blacks, women or any other scapegoated minorities/groups.
Jackie didn’t check her facts.
The assertions that Jews were chiefly behind slavery, and that Holocaust Memorial Day is only about Jews, were plain wrong.
As vice chair of Momentum, and particularly in the comment climate with accusations of antisemitism being levelled at Corbyn supporters, she needed to be sure such controversial assertions were at least correct.
There was clearly an agenda behind the remarks Jackie made, and that agenda seems to have been largely about anti-Zionism. But only some Jews are Zionists, and Jackie’s assertions – about slavery, the holocaust, schoolchildren’s security and definitions of antisemitism – caused offence to many Jews like myself who are not Zionist or pro-Israel.
Jackie’s comments suggest she lacked basic awareness about racist stereotyping and how to talk about abuse without adding to it.
She seemed quite unconcerned about either the potential of her remarks to cause offence or the sensitivity of her position as vice chair of Momentum.
Ill informed, unprofessional and insensitive – I don’t see how Jackie could have been allowed to remain as vice chair of Momentum, and I support her temporary suspension from the Labour party.
I do think she should be allowed to remain in Momentum and to return to the Labour party – on the condition that she accepts training not just in antisemitism but in anti-racism, and commits to developing greater skills and awareness in supporting and empowering victims and survivors of abuse.