Thursday 18 April 2019 8:14 am

Antisemitism just doesn’t matter that much to Labour – what a surprise

Spare a thought for poor Richard Burgon, the Labour front-bencher under attack after having his own words heartlessly quoted back to him.

The shadow justice secretary’s woes began when he was pressed in a 2018 BBC interview on his alleged quote that “zionism is the enemy of peace”.

Burgon repeatedly claimed “I didn’t say that” and “it’s not my view”.

Then on Tuesday, investigative journalist Iggy Ostanina found a video of him using those exact words. Indeed, he was shouting them.

Burgon’s excuse? That he’d forgotten. “When it was put to me… that I had made these remarks I did not recall doing so,” read his statement.

This, apparently, is meant to appease the UK’s 290,000-strong Jewish community, who are increasingly concerned at the unchecked antisemitism bubbling up within the Labour party.

Zionism has always been used as a shorthand for antisemites to veil their anti-Jewish prejudice as legitimate criticism of the Israeli government. To say that zionism, the philosophy that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish homeland, is the enemy of peace is both a full-frontal assault on the concept of Israel and an obvious dog-whistle to those who associate zionism with the wider Jewish community.

In ordinary political times, such a cut-and-dry example of an MP saying something bigoted, claiming he didn’t, and then being found out would result in widespread condemnation from his party and a hasty resignation.

Yet at the time of writing, Burgon remains in his post. Labour supporters have flocked to his defence, claiming either that his rationalisation for lying is acceptable, or that his original comments were entirely justified, as zionism is indeed the enemy of peace.

Jeremy Corbyn has so far not commented. Why should he? Last year, he endured a similar media storm of his own, when he denied laying a wreath near the graves of individuals linked to a terrorist attack which killed 11 Israeli athletes. As with Burgon, footage then surfaced proving the opposite.

That there is a streak of vicious antisemitism in the Labour party is not up for debate, not when Jewish MPs are subjected to daily abuse and Labour-affiliated social media groups are riddled with grotesquely racist content.

The argument from the top echelons of the party, however, is always that this is the work of a small group of toxic individuals, and not evidence that Labour is institutionally racist.

That defence is getting harder and harder to believe. Earlier this month, the Sunday Times reported on leaked emails showing that, of 863 complaints of antisemitism within the Labour party, fewer than 30 resulted in expulsion, while nearly 200 led to no action at all. In 28 per cent, no investigation has even been launched.

There has also been evidence that Corbyn’s personal office had interfered in a number of disciplinary cases, watering down sanctions and ensuring that some favoured perpetrators were not expelled.

The list of Labour members who have expressed antisemitic sentiment but received no punishment now includes the shadow lord chancellor. And that is why we should be shocked but not surprised that, according to a survey by the Jewish Chronicle, nearly 40 per cent of British Jews would “seriously consider emigrating” if Corbyn were elected to government.

Because the issue at the heart of the latest iteration of Labour’s antisemitism row isn’t what Burgon said.

He has a history of embarrassing himself in interviews and is widely considered to be seriously out of his depth. That he foolishly denied making such offensive comments in 2014 should not come as a surprise, and nor should his belief that claiming to have forgotten it excuses either what he said or that he lied.

Rather, what should appal anyone with faith in the political system is that, for the current Labour party, such an excuse is sufficient. Neither the party as an institution nor its leadership has shown any desire to hold Burgon to account. They do not care.

The next election may be sooner than any of us think. Labour has recently edged ahead in the polls. Anything could happen – including a government that doesn’t consider having a blundering and insensitive justice secretary to be a problem.