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Labour and anti-Semitism: a view from the bench

Former Appeal Court judge Stephen Sedley has his doubts over charge levelled at party – and asks why it is being lodged now

10 May, 2018 — By John Gulliver

Former Appeal Court judge Stephen Sedley, a former long-time resident of Kentish Town

THE headlines declare it, the stories below flow with the theme: Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism.

Yet, one of our most incisive legal minds, the retired eminent Appeal Court judge Stephen Sedley, clearly has his doubts.

He makes his opinion clear in the current edition of the London Review of Books in an article dealing with anti-Semitism, something he, as a Jew, makes clear he is well aware of.

Sedley, a former long-time resident of Kentish Town, who moved away not so long ago, dismisses the charge that the Labour Party is “institutionally” or “culturally” anti-Semitic and asks why it is being lodged now?

And here he comes to the nub of his thoughts as he wonders why as the Israeli armed forces have been firing live rounds at unarmed protesters on the Gaza borders – killing 38 of them – and thus committing a “major crime” has this been pushed off the front pages?

“One reason is that an undeclared war is going on inside the party, with pro-Israeli groups such as the Jewish Labour Movement seeking to drive out pro-Palestinian groups like the Jewish Voice for Labour by stigmatising them, and Corbyn with them, as anti-Semitic,” he writes.

But the “proxy war” doesn’t stop there, he believes. Outside bodies like the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council – “neither noted for balanced criticism of Israel” – weigh in, aided by “generous media coverage”.

Contentious though the subject is, Sedley, who has written extensively on anti-Semitism before, doesn’t hesitate to argue that to support Palestinian rights is “ineluctably to oppose Israeli behaviour…”.

But, equally, he emphasises that no logic dictates that opposition to Israeli’s policies means – or should mean – opposition to Israeli’s existence. The Israeli state is not only a “fact on the ground” but a sovereign political and legal entity, with “an entitlement” to defend itself.

But this does not extend to “enlarging its territory by stealth or force…or using live rounds to shoot unarmed protestors beyond its boundaries”.

A jurist with interests well beyond the law, Stephen Sedley has written extensively on jazz and folk music as well as the 17th-century English Civil War or, as he prefers to call it, the English Revolution.

A collection of his articles and lectures, Law and the whirligig of Time, has just been published by Hart Publishing.

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