After a concerted effort by the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) and the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) to vilify Ken Loach, the anti-racist organisation Show Racism the Red Card (SRtRC) and Ken Loach announced on 18 March that together they had agreed that Loach would not act as a judge for SRtRC’s School Competition 2020.
When the attack on Loach began and SRtRC felt compelled to reconsider its decision, I undertook to analyse the accusations levelled against him as set out in a letter sent on 5 February to Executive Director Ged Grebby by JLM. The Memorandum I prepared was one of a number of submissions sent to SRtRC in defence of Loach, utterly rejecting and disproving accusations against him that he was antisemitic.
At first it seemed that the impressive support given to Loach had stiffened the sinews of SRtRC, which decided to stand by its decision to appoint Loach as a judge of the essay competition. But when it emerged that in February 2019 Loach had responded to a request for support from Peter Gregson, who had been expelled from his union, the GMB, for antisemitic behaviour, pressure on SRtRC mounted once again to reverse its decision.
Once again, I wrote a submission in defence of Loach, this time analysing other accusations against him made in a letter sent on 13 February to Ged Grebby by the BoD. But after threats to withdraw SRtRC’s funding, vilification of its staff and abuse directed at Ken Loach and his family, SRtRC and Loach felt compelled to subsequently announce that, by mutual agreement, Loach would no longer be judging the 2020 School Competition.
Ken Loach’s response to Gregson was categorically not an endorsement of Gregson’s antisemitism. Gregson claimed that he had been expelled unfairly from the GMB, merely for expressing opposition to the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and had sent Loach a video about it, asking Loach for comments.
Loach made it clear that he was entirely unaware of Gregson’s ‘deeply disturbing and antisemitic comments’ which he found ‘utterly reprehensible’ and ‘unequivocally’ rejected’. He profoundly regretted not making himself aware of Gregson’s character and the complete picture. Had he possessed that knowledge, Loach said, ‘I categorically would not have engaged with him.’
SRtRC’s statement added: ‘Ken Loach accepts a mistake in expressing support for Peter Gregson and in failing to contact GMB prior to his reply to him. . . . The mistake in replying and expressing support for Peter Gregson does not detract from the support we have received from Ken and his own personal commitment to fighting racism. We do not believe that he is an antisemite or that he supports antisemitic views.’
I did not want to let this shameful attack on Ken Loach and the response of his supporters to pass without putting into the public domain, for the record, the submissions I made showing just how flimsy and vindictive were the unfounded accusations against him. There is a little overlap between the submissions, which were written in some haste. I could have said much more about the accusations, the profound moral and political errors made by those involved in attacking Ken Loach and SRtRC and the utterly misguided motives of organisations and individuals who are acting against the interests of the very people they claim to represent.
So I begin by publishing the JLM letter followed by my submission. After that I publish the BoD’s letter followed by my second submission.
Update: The text of this blogpost was corrected at 17:00 on Tuesday 24 March: ‘essay competition’ was incorrect and has been changed to the correct title: ‘School Competition’.
Jewish Labour Movement’s Letter to Ged Grebby, 5 February 2020
I am writing on behalf of the Jewish Labour Movement’s National Executive Committee, regarding your decision to appoint Ken Loach as judge for your School Competition this year.
As a charity which does incredible work tackling racism in football, it is disappointing that you have chosen someone with a long record of questionable and problematic views on antisemitism.
The record stretches back to 1987, when the play ‘Perdition’, directed by Ken Loach, was staged in London. An account of the libel trial in Israel of Rudolf Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew who negotiated the escape of 1,600 Hungarian Jews during the Second World War, the play heavily implied that Zionist leaders were responsible for the death of millions of Jews in the Holocaust and featured some disturbing lines such as:
[Hungarian Jews] ‘were murdered not just by the force of German arms, but by the calculated treachery of their own Jewish leaders.’
When the play was rightly cancelled after many protests from the British Jewish community, Loach remarked that he:
‘ . . . hadn’t tangled with the Zionist lobby before. . . .What is amazing is the strength and organisation and power of their lobby . . . [The Zionists] want to leave intact . . . the generalised sense of guilt that everyone has about the Jews so that it remains an area you can’t discuss.’
His more recent record of seeking to minimise and deflect from the antisemitism experienced by Jewish members of the Labour Party is just as disturbing.
At Labour Party conference 2017, Ken Loach was interview [sic] by the BBC. He claimed that accusations of antisemitism within Labour were aimed at destabilising Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership—denying the very real experiences that many of our members had been through at the time. He was then asked by Jo Coburn whether Holocaust Denial, as had allegedly been discussed at a fringe meeting, was acceptable. He responded by saying:
‘History is for all of us to discuss. All of history is our common heritage to discuss and analyse. The founding of the State of Israel, for example, based on ethnic cleansing, is there for all of us to discuss . . . So don’t try to subvert that by false stories of antisemitism.’
I would hope that it should not need explaining just how crass and offensive this is.
In a Morning Star article in September 2019, Ken Loach decried Rt Hon Dame Margaret Hodge MP, our Parliamentary Chair, who has faced appalling abuse and intimidation for speaking out against anti-Jewish racism in the Labour Party—the same abuse that led to the hounding out of the Labour Party of Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman. Loach dismissed her concerns on the crisis of antisemitism in the Party, saying:
‘We have allowed individuals like Margaret Hodge to indulge in revolting foul-mouthed abuse of the leader. I don’t know any Labour Party member who was not disgusted by that, yet she is allowed to continue to stand as a Labour MP.’
Loach also defended disgraced former Labour MP Chris Williamson, who resigned from the Party following the withdrawal of the whip and suspension of his party membership following his continually [sic] baiting of the Jewish community and sharing platforms with those suspended or expelled themselves for antisemitism. Despite outcry from other MPs, and the fact that Williamson took the Party to court, Loach defended him saying:
‘Everyone knows Chris is not an antisemite. And if you pass on defending him for some tactical advantage, we are all losers. It’s a slippery slope.’
In short, Loach may well regard himself as an anti-racist, but no fair appraisal of his record could come to the conclusion that this is the case when it comes to antisemitism.
We are not alone in this view. When Loach was awarded an honorary degree by the free university of Brussels in 2018, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel accused him of an ‘accommodation with antisemitism’.
Thus we would ask you to re-consider your decision to appoint someone with such an appalling record on anti-Jewish racism as a judge for your School Competition this year. Educating young people about racism is one of the most effective ways of in which to combat the scourge of racism in our society—and ensure that the next generation is armed with the tools to tackle it wherever they find it.
Your organisation’s endorsement of Loach through his appointment would send the opposite message; that your organisation is not committed to tackling anti-Jewish racism, which sadly is on the rise, both in the UK and abroad.
National Chair, Jewish Labour Movement
SUBMISSION IN SUPPORT OF KEN LOACH
18 February 2020
I am writing in defence of Ken Loach and wish to draw on my expertise on antisemitism, contemporary Jewish issues, the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict in order to challenge the charges made against Ken by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Labour Movement that he is not a suitable person to be judging the young persons’ School Competition run by Show Racism the Red Card. I will begin with a general comment about the mostly unspoken assumptions as to what is and what is not antisemitic that underpin the JLM letter. I then briefly examine what I see as the five principal charges of antisemitism made against Ken and explain why I judge them to be unfounded.
Opinion polling in the UK over the last 5 years clearly shows that there is great public confusion about what constitutes antisemitism today. This confusion manifests itself among Jews too. Moreover, among academics studying contemporary antisemitism there are deep divisions, often more like an ongoing war, over what they regard as antisemitism, largely connected to the question of whether certain kinds of criticism of Israel are antisemitic—what is mostly referred to as whether anti-Zionism is antisemitic. Those academics who argue that the two are the same generally use the term ‘new antisemitism’ for this phenomenon. Contrary to what these academics claim, this is far from being a settled matter. Those who do not accept the ‘new antisemitism’ thesis vigorously and thoroughly argue their case.
It is the case, however, that the ‘new antisemitism’ position, the anti-Zionism is antisemitism thesis, has made a very significant impact in the world of anti-antisemitism action, particularly so in the UK where the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Community Security Trust, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, the Jewish Labour Movement and many other groups and organizations, including within government, operate as if the matter is closed. However, as the ongoing controversy surrounding the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism shows, this is far from the truth.
It is therefore of fundamental importance to point out that ‘new antisemitism’ assumptions are present throughout the JLM letter such that the authors feel it enough merely to quote Ken referring to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Palestinians as proof of antisemitic intent. Every such assumption must be challenged. Without verifiable evidence of antisemitic expression, taking into account the context in which the words were said or written, the charges cannot be justified.
- The play Perdition
This charge ignores the historical context and truth about the Rudolf Kastner trial, a huge controversy in Israel in the early 1950s, which polarised opinion and triggered the fall of the Israeli cabinet. Kastner was a Hungarian Jewish leader who helped Jews escape from Hungary when the Nazis invaded in 1944.
Many Jews in Israel, Holocaust survivors included, believed that Kastner benefitted from the well-documented deal he negotiated with Eichmann, which resulted in 1,684 Jews, including members of his own family, being allowed to escape by train to Switzerland in exchange for money, gold and diamonds. Kastner was accused of failing to warn the tens of thousands of Jews who remained that their ‘resettlement’ meant transport—12,000 a day—to Auschwitz and the gas chambers, and of putting the priorities of the Zionist movement, which wanted to focus rescue efforts on bringing Jews to Palestine, above any effort to save Hungarian Jews more widely. With the support of the government, of which he was an official, he sued his main accuser for libel, but after an 18 month trial, which ended in 1955, the verdict went against him. The judge said that he had ‘sold his soul to the devil’.
He was assassinated in 1957 by former right wing Jewish terrorists. In 1958 the Israeli Supreme Court overturned most of the original judgement. In 1961, the hugely successful American Jewish scriptwriter Ben Hecht published a book, Perfidy, a powerful attack on Kastner. Hecht was a right-wing Zionist.
Whenever the Kastner affair surfaces, strong feelings among Jews are expressed. In 2007, Jager Elliot published an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post, calling Perfidy ‘a devastating account’ of Rudolf Kastner’s betrayal of Hungarian Jewry. Jerome A. Chanes, writing for the Jewish Daily Forward in 2009, described Perfidy as an ‘ill-conceived and irresponsible anti-Kasztner’ account.
As for Ken’s comments about the ‘Zionist lobby’, since this was how the mostly Jewish pro-Israel organizations described themselves at the time, the implied charge that Ken’s use of the term is antisemitic is groundless. And it is the purpose of all lobbies to exert a ‘powerful’ influence to achieve the aims of the cause they represent. Associating Jews with ‘power’ can be regarded as an antisemitic trope, but only if the exertion of power is ‘sinister’, clandestine’, ‘conspiratorial’ etc.—none of which applied in this case. The groups protesting about the play did so openly and vocally, bringing pressure to bear on the theatre to end the run.
There is therefore no reason to see Ken’s directing and supporting of this play as unacceptably going beyond the bitter arguments and disagreements about Kastner that prevailed among Jews themselves.
- Minimising and denying the experience of antisemitism of Jewish Labour members
There is some very peculiar logic in the next allegations. According to JLM, if you believe that antisemitism was weaponised to bring Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to an end, you are denying that some Jewish members of the party have experienced antisemitism. If you accept that Jewish members have experienced antisemitism, you must hold Corbyn to account for it and deprive him of the leadership. This is an untenable position.
But for JLM, it is claiming that antisemitism was used to destabilise Corbyn’s leadership and at the same time acknowledging that some Jewish members experienced antisemitism—which is the view held by Ken and many others—which is untenable.
A September 2018 study of press reporting on antisemitism, carried out by the Birkbeck College London and Media Reform Coalition Research Project, concluded that their ‘findings were consistent with a disinformation paradigm’, adding weight to the view that antisemitism was used for undermining Corbyn. And it is at the heart of the claims, made by Joe Glasman, head of the CAA’s ‘political investigations team’, in the video he made and posted in December 2019, never refuted by the Jewish establishment bodies, where he took credit, on behalf of a legion of volunteers, for the successful defeat of Corbyn and Labour in the general election.
We know from a national poll conducted by Survation in early 2019 that public perceptions of antisemitism in the Labour Party were grossly exaggerated—on average, people believed that 34 per cent of Labour Party members had had complaints made against them. The actual percentage of complaints received, according to data provided by Labour General Secretary Jennie Formby in February, was 0.1 per cent. Simply reflecting this reality cannot be grounds for accusing someone of antisemitism.
- Holocaust denial
JLM seek to give the impression here that it is not even necessary to provide any argument as to why critical discussion of the Holocaust, of the circumstances in which Israel came into being, of the experience of the Palestinians losing their homes in the 1948 war, is antisemitic.
There are many aspects of the attempted extermination of the Jews of Europe on which major historians of the Holocaust do not agree—for example, the precise number of Jews who were murdered; the extent to which indigenous populations in occupied Europe helped or hindered the saving of Jews; whether allied bombing of the extermination camps would have ultimately saved many Jewish lives. Without critical discussion of these and many other issues, our understanding of the Holocaust would be much diminished.
It may feel uncomfortable to hear it, but there is undoubtedly a link between the Holocaust, Israel’s creation and the fate of the Palestinians. A minority of Jews supported Zionism before the Holocaust. That changed dramatically after the horrors of the attempted ‘Final Solution’ were fully revealed. The majority of Jews then swung behind the idea of a Jewish state or at least ceased to actively oppose it. Moreover, key state powers—for various motives—backed the idea. The UN voted for partition and the ensuing war, as Israeli Jewish historians like Benny Morris have conclusively shown, led to the ethnic cleansing of up to 700,000 Palestinians.
This is a past that hasn’t passed. Neither in Israel-Palestine itself, nor in academic instititions in many countries. Ken is reflecting this reality in his remarks. There is no basis for judging this to be Holocaust denial. And there is simply no basis for taking it as read that all of this is antisemitic.
- ‘Heroes’ and ‘Villains’
There are undoubtedly many in the Party who have, in measured and determined ways, tackled antisemitism when they have encountered it. I am not a member of the Party, but in talks I have given on antisemitism at Meetings of Labour Party members I have met such activists who understand the complexities around making definitive judgements about whether a particular person is or is not antisemitic and who have sought to deal with such matters firmly and sensitively, without seeking the limelight.
Margaret Hodge and some others have taken a different approach: seek as much personal publicity as possible in order to expose antisemitism and demand draconian, summary action. But there are manifest dangers in this strategy. In July 2018 Hodge openly levelled vile insults against Jeremy Corbyn in the Commons chamber and as a result was given hero status as scourge of antisemites by most of the mainstream media. She subsequently submitted, and was given much publicity for, a dossier of 200 ‘examples of antisemitism’ to Party officials. But after investigation it was revealed that they referred to 111 reported individuals of whom only 20 were members.
In highlighting Ken’s comments about Hodge, JLM once again make assumptions that cannot be justified. He does not dismiss Hodge’s concerns, but draws attention to her unacceptable behaviour and her lack of judgement. More evidence of the latter emerged when she told Channel 4 News anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy on 5 March 2019 that ‘in her opinion it is not acceptable for Labour members to be anti-Zionist’. But anti-Zionist views are probably fairly widespread in the party, and the people who hold them do not find it in any way incompatible with their party membership. Recent JPR survey research shows that people on the left are no more likely to be antisemitic than others in British society, so there is nothing to suggest that an anti-Zionist position implies any equation of that with antisemitism. There is of course no reason why Hodge or anyone else should be obliged to be anti-Zionist, and the reality is that the Party includes Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists. But to proscribe anti-Zionism shows a very worrying anti-free speech tendency. Ken’s questioning of her position in the Party is surely not unreasonable
If you make allegations of antisemitism in the Party that prove to be exaggerated tenfold, you are damaging the fight against real antisemitism. In a rush to judgement, where the pressure to make immediate definitive judgements about whether x is or is not antisemitic—when we know that the degree of a person’s racism or antisemitism is very often a difficult to determine point on a continuum, and not an either/or—mistakes are easily made. The Party must do all it can to protect MPs and ordinary members from suffering antisemitic abuse, all the while minimising the hurt that can easily be caused by making false allegations. And the relatively high number of Jewish members who have been put in this position is surely evidence that something is going wrong, that the pressure to divide the Labour Party world into ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ is utterly counterproductive.
- Free University of Brussels
Finally we reach the almost throwaway justification of the attempt to stop the Free University of Brussels awarding Ken an honorary doctorate. JLM seem to think it sufficient to bolster their antisemitism claims about Ken simply by quoting the words of the Belgian prime minister Charles Michel. They omit to mention that the campaign against Ken was a highly orchestrated affair involving close Putin ally Moshe Kantor and the organization he heads, the European Jewish Congress, the BoD, the representative body of Belgian Jewry, the Co-ordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations of Belgium, and other bodies.
Rejecting charges that he had ‘constantly undermined efforts to combat anti-Semitism in the UK’, he made his position clear: ‘Those who try to smear me in this way know that I have always fought all racism, including anti-Semitism. I doubt everyone can say the same. . . I wish to reaffirm in the strongest possible terms that the Holocaust is as real a historical event as the Second World War itself and not to be doubted.’ The allegations against him, he said, were ‘malicious and unprincipled. . . . ‘To avoid any further ambiguity, I wish to state, once and for all, that I condemn any form of Holocaust Denial or negationisme as you say in French.’
Ken is outspoken on the many social and political issues about which he cares so passionately. This is no secret. Many people will not agree with him on the matters raised by those complaining about his appointment as judge in the School Competition. But to use his political views, which are firmly part of a legitimate discourse reflecting issues to do with prejudice, discrimination and all forms of racism—the very burning issues SRtRC is engaged in tackling—as a reason to remove him from this role, flies in the face of natural justice and is surely contrary to the very values SRtRC is seeking to promote: tolerance, respect, understanding and acknowledgement of the innate worth of every individual.
Board of Deputies of British Jews letter to Ged Grebby 13 February 2020
Dear Mr Grebby
I hope this letter finds you well.
Further to your recent conversation with our Interfaith and Social Action Officer Anthony Silkoff, I am writing on behalf of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which represents the Jewish community in Britain.
As you are aware, we are very concerned about your appointment of Ken Loach as a judge for Show Racism The Red Card’s school competition. We find this particularly disappointing, given the support we have previously provided you, for example in this article that I wrote last year.
As I wrote in that piece, “it cannot be left to the black community alone to call out anti-black racism. It cannot be up to Jews alone to call out antisemitism. What is needed is solidarity.” I stand by those words, and trust that this letter will be considered by you and your trustees in that same spirit of solidarity.
Ken Loach is a poor choice of judge for an anti-racism competition. Dave Rich, Head of Policy at the Community Security Trust, has summarised some of the main concerns about Mr Loach as follows:
• In 1987 Mr Loach directed a play called Perdition that alleged Zionist/Nazi
collaboration. It was denounced as wildly inaccurate by leading historians and as
grossly antisemitic by many in the Jewish community.
As David Cesarani explains, there is no doubt about the play’s malign intentions. Its author Jim Allen said that the play “touches at the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust. Because it says quite plainly that privileged Jewish
leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to help bring
about a Zionist state, Israel, a state which is itself racist.” Cesarani explains that
antisemitic tropes go to the very heart of the play, which portrays Jews as an “all powerful” force which could have, but chose not to, resisted the Nazis, in Berlin,
Budapest or Washington. And this is reinforced throughout the play by ascriptions of
Jewish cruelty, callousness, expediency and ruthlessness, all in the pursuit of
As a result of the condemnation, the play was cancelled, and Mr Loach was furious.
Mr Loach said: “I hadn’t tangled with the Zionist lobby before… What is amazing is
the strength & organisation & power of their lobby.” They have “extraordinary
In the same interview with Newsline, the paper of the Workers Revolutionary Party,
Mr Loach complained about “the generalised sense of guilt that everyone has about
• In 2009 the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency reported an increase in antisemitism in Europe. Mr Loach said this antisemitism was “understandable” given Israel’s actions, and called the report a “red herring” designed to “distract attention” from Israel.
• Last year Mr Loach was asked whether it was unacceptable to debate whether the
Holocaust happened or not. “History is there for us all to discuss” was his answer.
In the same interview he said there is “no validity” to stories of antisemitism in Labour and when MPs raise it they are “mischief-making”. He later clarified his view: the Holocaust did happen but claims of antisemitism in Labour are “exaggerated or false”. He insisted that “We will not be intimidated”.
In addition, as we already highlighted ourselves, Mr Loach has said of Members of
Parliament who protested against antisemitism, “those are the ones we need to kick out.”
For all these reasons, Mr Loach is a wholly unsuitable judge of any anti-racism competition. We urge you to reconsider his appointment.
As was agreed between yourself and Anthony Silkoff, please share this letter with your trustees, and we look forward to hearing their decision by the end of February.
Accusations against Ken Loach made in the letter sent by Amanda Bowman, Vice-President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews to Ged Grebby, Director of Show Racism the Red Card
A Response by Antony Lerman 9 March 2020
The claim made by the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) that it ‘represents the Jewish community’ is factually very hard to justify. But even if we were to acknowledge that it speaks on behalf of at least a sizeable minority of Jews, I regret to say that the letter written to Ged Grebby about Ken Loach is a serious abuse of its mandate. Despite listing 8 paragraphs of so-called ‘evidence’ as to why the BoD concludes that Ken Loach is a ‘poor choice of judge for an anti-racism competition’, at no point does the letter specify precisely what the Board believes Mr Loach to be guilty of. If the trustees of Show Racism the Red Card (SRtRC) were supposed to assume from the evidence that Ken Loach is an antisemite or harbours any hatred or animosity against Jews as a group, that evidence is seriously deficient.
Mr Loach has been actively associated with SRtRC for many years, so who would be better placed to know whether he harbours hatred or animosity towards Jews than those who have worked with him. It raises serious questions about the BoD’s judgement that it could assume to have more expertise to evaluate Ken Loach’s anti-racist credentials than SRtRC itself. It defies belief that the BoD could seriously think that Mr Grebby and the trustees would appoint a ‘proven’ racist to judge an anti-racist competition for young people.
I will examine the ‘evidence’ in the letter point by point.
I have already dealt with the way the Perdition affair has been misused to prove that Mr Loach is antisemitic.[i] But I would just add one additional point. The case against him is based on quotations from a chapter in a book, written by the late and very much lamented Professor David Cesarani, published 30 years ago. I edited most of the material for that book; I wrote a chapter for it. David was a friend of mine. We were joint editors of the academic journal on racism and antisemitism, Patterns of Prejudice, and we were both privileged to be members—together with the late Sir Martin Gilbert and the Holocaust survivor Sir Ben Helfgott MBE—of the small Advisory Committee for the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum at the end of the 1990s. To use this 30-year old chapter, written when David was still a young scholar holding views I personally know he changed his mind about later in life, is highly questionable to say the least. If the BoD think it necessary to reach back 30 years for evidence against Mr Loach, it only demonstrates the weakness if its case.
The Newsline interview
The case against Ken Loach is derived substantially from an interview he gave to Newsline and published in its 11 April 1987 edition. The three short extracts from Newsline that are the only parts of the interview visible when clicking on links in footnotes 3, 4 and 5 in the BoD letter. These extracts have been ‘edited’, or perhaps more specifically tampered with, in such a way as to grossly distort Mr Loach’s views. Starting with the first quote:
‘I hadn’t tangled with the Zionist lobby before …’
the highlighted ellipsis stands in for this omitted text:
‘but Jim [the playwright] knew there would be a considerable reaction.’
The letter then alters the quote, making it look as if it follows immediately after the redacted text:
‘What is amazing is the strength & organisation & power of their lobby’
when it is actually the opening sentence of a new paragraph:
‘What is amazing’, he insists, ‘is the strength & organisation & power of their lobby.’
The letter version then follows, in the same paragraph, with:
‘They have ‘extraordinary arrogance’.
But not only does Ken Loach not use the words ‘They have’, this sentence does not follow immediately the previous sentence in the Newsline interview. In fact we know from the extract linked in footnote 4 that there are at least 2 sentences before he uses the words ‘extraordinary arrogance’. And since these sentences refer to lobbying of the BBC, it looks as if there may be quite a few more sentences between ‘power of their lobby’ and ‘extraordinary arrogance’. But we can’t judge for ourselves because there is no link to the full text of the Newsline interview.
Taken together, the effect of these textual distortions, redactions and false attributions is to make it look as if Ken Loach mounted a short, sharp, ugly attack on the Zionist lobby, which we are then to understand to be antisemitic.
Let’s be clear: there was then, in 1987, and is now, a Zionist lobby, and like all lobbies, it seeks to be powerful and influential. It is therefore perfectly justified to subject all such lobbies to criticism, which may well be very sharp. The insidious subtext of the BoD’s playing fast and loose with the Newsline source is to paint Loach as a Jew-hater.
But worse is to come: 11 words are lifted from the next extract (footnote 5) as if they constitute a stand-alone statement:
Mr Loach complained about ‘the generalised sense of guilt that everyone has about the Jews.’
Were it to be such, it could justifiably be read as harsh and malign. But it is not a stand-alone statement. It’s the middle part of the second sentence of a five-sentence segment from the Newsline interview. Read the entire extract and you see that the statement is part of an anti-Zionist argument that draws on the view that pro-Israel and Zionist groups politicise the Jewish experience of antisemitism, and specifically the Holocaust, to shut down criticism of Israel. You don’t have to agree to this view to know that such an argument is made by Israeli Jews every other day in publications in Israel, notably the quality daily Haaretz.
To single out this one sentence, as if to imply that Mr Loach is simply insulting and provoking Jews in general is frankly shoddy and shameful. The BoD’s assumption is that you accept, without question, the highly contentious argument that ‘anti-Zionism is antisemitism’, when many hundreds of thousands of Jews, especially the most devout, do not accept the Zionist premise that Israel is a or the Jewish state.
The 2009 FRA antisemitism report: Mr Loach said this antisemitism was ‘understandable’ given Israel’s actions
To rely on a blatantly biased website’s interpretation of comments Mr Loach made in 2009, the full text of which is no longer available online, is not acceptable. Quite simply, the argument that ‘something understandable is something excused,’ made in a post on Harry’s Place, 15 March 2009, is not validated by the definition of ‘understandable’ in the Shorter Oxford. It is no more and no less than something ‘That can be understood’. To imply that Mr Loach is ‘excusing’ antisemitism, that he thinks it’s acceptable to carry out antisemitic acts, is disgraceful. He states explicitly that ‘no-one can condone violence’, but the BoD happens to omit this from their quote.
Jewish monitoring bodies like the Community Security Trust know full well, and acknowledge, that antisemitic incidents spike when Israel carries out violent actions in the Middle East. These can have the effect of fuelling anger that can express itself as antisemitism. The point Mr Loach is making is not that Jews should continue to experience antisemitism, but that Israeli violence against Palestinians must stop.
The grave charge of ‘Holocaust denial’
This is perhaps the most egregious and wounding charge in the BoD’s letter.
The BoD start by getting the date of the alleged statement wrong: it was made in an interview with the BBC’s Jo Coburn at the Labour Party conference on 26 September 2017, not ‘last year’.
In a frenetically conducted interview, during which Mr Loach was calm and clear in what he said, he was asked about
‘a discussion about the Holocaust [at a fringe meeting the day before]—did it happen or didn’t it . . .’
Mr Loach then interrupts:
‘. . . I don’t think it was a discussion about the Holocaust’
Coburn then interrupts:
‘Well, it was reported and it was [inaudible] on the fringe . . .’
Mr Loach interrupts again:
[sceptically] ‘. . . well, reported—reported by whom?’
‘But would you say that was unacceptable?’
Mr Loach was correct. There was no ‘discussion’ about the Holocaust at the 25 September fringe meeting referred to. A speaker made an isolated remark taken by some to imply doubt that the Holocaust occurred. Afterwards, the panellist denied that he was implying any such thing.
So Mr Loach is then hurried—Coburn looked under severe pressure to speed up the interview and there was much noise and activity in the media area where it was being conducted—into commenting about a fake discussion. But he will not be hurried. He calmly says:
‘I think history is for us all to discuss, wouldn’t you?’
He certainly does not say that it is acceptable to discuss whether the Holocaust did or did not happen. Rather he is widening his answer to emphasise the principle of freedom of speech and to return to what Coburn was asking him about in the first part of the interview: antisemitism in the Labour Party:
‘History is for us all to discuss . . .even . . . what all history is [is] our common heritage to discuss and analyse—the founding of the state of Israel, for example based on ethnic cleansing is there for us all to discuss; the role of Israel is there for us to discuss, so don’t try to subvert that by false stories of antisemitism.’
He is by no means the only person to feel that ‘stories of antisemitism’ in Labour have ‘no validity’ and were ‘mischief-making’. But he did not say ‘Members of Parliament who protested against antisemitism, “are the ones we need to kick out”.’ He was referring specifically to those who attended the Parliament Square demonstration on 26 March 2018. Many other Labour MPs protested against antisemitism but did not participate in the rally. And as we know, some of the leading MPs attending that rally voluntarily left the party early in 2019 to set up a rival political grouping.
He was attacked by Howard Jacobson, in a New York Times article of 7-8 October 2017 headed ‘Now Labour is the enemy of the Jews’, and replied in a letter to the editor on 13 October:
‘Howard Jacobson alleges that I defended questioning the Holocaust. I did not and do not. In a confused BBC interview, where question and answer overlapped, my words were twisted to give a meaning contrary to that intended. The Holocaust is as real a historical event as World War II itself and not to be challenged. In Primo Levi’s words: “Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.”’
It is quite appalling that the BoD should give credence to accusations that Ken Loach denies the Holocaust. But it is also bizarre and utterly contradictory in respect of what the BoD is protesting about in its opening accusation regarding Perdition. The play he directed in 1987 was not in any sense a denial that the Holocaust took place. That it occurred is the fundamental fact in the play: what Allen questions is the degree to which Jewish leaders, in particular those involved with the Zionist movement, betrayed their fellow Jews by prioritising saving Jews for Zionist objectives rather than saving Jews simply for the sake of keeping them alive wherever they could be found shelter. In my previous submission to the trustees of SRtRC, I commented in detail on the context and controversy over the play Perdition and the role of some Zionist leaders in Hungary during the Holocaust. As I noted, “There is … no reason to see Ken’s directing and supporting of this play as unacceptably going beyond the bitter arguments and disagreements about Kastner that prevailed among Jews themselves.”[ii]
It does not take long to distort words written more than 30 years ago, or 10 years ago or just a few years ago in order to malign the views and character of an individual. It takes much longer to bring to light these distortions and explain them to people who are not familiar with the details. The insinuations in the BoD letter are shoddy and show the organisation in a very bad light.
It goes against all norms of natural justice to base any argument that Ken Loach is not a suitable person to judge the anti-racist School Competition for SRtRC on what this letter contains. That most of it relies on ‘evidence’ from 33 years ago is a sure sign that the BoD is desperate to ascribe guilt to Ken Loach come what may.
Would it not have been far more productive to let those at SRtRC who have had long engagement with Ken Loach in their anti-racist work, including Holocaust education, be the judges as to who would be suitable to judge the competition rather than create a political incident which helps no one?
9 March 2020
[i] See ‘Submission in support of Ken Loach’. Letter to trustees of Show Racism the Red Card in response to submission from the Jewish Labour Movement, 18 February 2020.
[ii] ‘Submission in support of Ken Loach’, 18 February 2020.
This biographical note was included in both submissions:
I am a Senior Fellow at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna and Honorary Fellow at the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, Southampton University. I was founding Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR, 1996-1999, 2006-2009), the leading Jewish think tank and research body undertaking high level study and analysis of contemporary antisemitism, a programme of work that I initiated. I was founding Editor of Antisemitism World Report (1992-1999), and former Editor and now Associate Editor of the international academic journal on racism Patterns of Prejudice. I was Chair of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE) in the late 1980s, a member of the Advisory Committee for the Holocaust Exhibition of the Imperial War Museum and founding Chief Executive of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe (1999-2006), a grant-making body supporting Jewish life in Europe. I was President of Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Hania, Crete, from 2009-13 and am now its vice-president. I am co-author of Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief (2019) and I have written on racism, antisemitism, multiculturalism, the Middle East conflict and religious issues for, among other periodicals, the Guardian, Independent, London Review of Books, Prospect, New York Times, The Nation, Haaretz, Jewish Chronicle, openDemocracy and tachles.