Antisemitism in Political Parties

Richard Burgon

2015-present: Labour Member of Parliament for Leeds East

2016-2020: Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State

2015-2016: Shadow Economic Secretary to the Treasury

Incidents

  1. On an unknown date in 2014, addressing a public meeting discussing the war in Gaza, Richard Burgon reportedly said: “The enemy of the Palestinian people, is not the Jewish people. The enemy of the Palestinian people are Zionists, and Zionism is the enemy of peace, and the enemy of the Palestinian people. And we need to be loud, we need to be proud in support of a free Palestine. I make no apologies. I am proud to say, not only wouldn’t I be a member of Labour Friends of Israel, I’ve never been a member of Labour Friends of Israel. And I’m all for everyone’s opinions being out there and everyone having their opinion treated with respect. But, look up on the internet, because it’s there to see on the Labour Friends of Israel website which MPs are members of Labour Friends of Israel. Which Labour MPs are officers of Labour Friends of Israel. And ask them, in support of the Palestinian people, in protest of what’s happening in Gaza now, to resign from Labour Friends of Israel, to show support for all humanity.”
  1. On an unknown date in 2016, in another speech, Mr Burgon reportedly said: “False accusations fly as soon as you support the people of Palestine, and I myself in some small way was attacked, and I was accused of a false and outrageous slander by a supporter of the Israeli government, by a very well-connected supporter of the Israeli government.”

Analysis

Campaign Against Antisemitism’s analysis is that Mr Burgon’s actions and statements amount to breaches of the International Definition of Antisemitism and qualify as antisemitic discourse according to our methodology.

Zionism is an expression of national self-determination for Jews, and since the establishment of the State of Israel, of support for the maintenance of that state. However, the allegation that Zionism is an inherently far-right and racist ideology was promulgated by the Soviet Union in the post-war era until 1989, as part of a deliberate and explicitly antisemitic campaign to persecute Jewish citizens who wished to practise their religion and/or leave the Soviet Union — especially to emigrate to Israel — as well as to demonise and undermine Israel on the foreign stage for global strategic gain. A singular purpose of this propaganda was to drive a false distinction between “Jews” and “Zionists”, in which the latter is the enemy of the former, and the embodiment of many older antisemitic tropes. By stating that “The enemy of the Palestinian people, is not the Jewish people. The enemy of the Palestinian people are Zionists, and Zionism is the enemy of peace and the enemy of the Palestinian people.” [1] Mr Burgon was demonising Zionist Jews, and as such was “Making mendacious, dehumanising, demonising, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective.”

We note the words of the Labour Party’s own guidance issued on the use of the term ‘Zionism’, particularly where it states that: “…for many Jews, Zionism represents national liberation. The concepts of Israel, Zion and Jerusalem run deeply in Jewish religion, identity and culture, and…are symbolic of a homeland, refuge, or place of safety. The sensitivities around these concepts should be considered before using them.”

By stating that “false accusations fly as soon as you support the people of Palestine” [2], which will necessarily include accusations of antisemitism made by Jewish individuals or groups, Mr Burgon was deploying the so-called ‘Livingstone Formulation, by accusing Jews who cite evidence of antisemitism of lying, conspiring or having deceitful motives in doing so, when there is clear evidence that there may have been breaches of the International Definition of Antisemitism.

Outcome

On 8th August 2016, Mr Burgon’s comments in [1] were reported in the Daily Mail.

On 16th August 2016, the then Chair of Labour Friends of Israel, Joan Ryan MP, wrote to Mr Burgon in response to his reported comments: “I am sure that you will agree that any suggestion that Jewish self-determination is an ‘enemy of peace’ serves simply to demonise those who believe in the mere right of a Jewish state to exist. As such, it is highly offensive to the vast majority of British Jews. Indeed, even high-profile figures on the left who are extremely critical of Israel, such as Jon Lansman, have suggested that ‘the Left must stop talking about ‘Zionism’.”

On 28th March 2018, when interviewed on the BBC’s Daily Politics show, Mr Burgon was repeatedly asked by presenter Andrew Neil to confirm whether or not he had said “Zionism is the enemy of peace”, and he repeatedly denied both making the comments, or that they reflected his view. When presented with the evidence, and Ms Ryan’s comments, he stated: “I didn’t say that”…“It’s not my view”…“No (I didn’t say that) and it’s not my view”…“Well, I didn’t make those comments”…“and it’s not my view, so if it’s not my view, I wouldn’t have made those comments”. Furthermore, in the course of that interview, it was reported that Mr Burgon had replied to Ms Ryan’s letter, but in doing so apparently failed to deny that he had made the comments. However, when the presenter said: “When you replied to her you didn’t deny that you made those comments”, Mr Burgon responded by saying: “Well I would not have said that because it’s not my view.”

On 16th April 2019, the investigative journalist Iggy Ostanin exposed the original footage of Mr Burgon’s 2014 speech [1], saying: “Richard Burgon repeatedly lied to Andrew Neil when he denied saying ‘Zionism is the enemy of peace’.”

Also on 16th April 2019, the Jewish Labour Movement wrote to Mr Burgon and the Chief Whip, asking for clarification and an apology, on behalf of his members. The JLM also made a public statement: “The vast majority of British Jews identify as Zionists – irrespective of their views on Israel’s current government and policies. Insulting a core part of their identity, and then dissembling about it, is shameful behaviour from a senior frontbencher for our Party, let alone someone who aspires to administer our justice system. You can’t play at being Lord Chancellor-in-waiting whilst making dog-whistle attacks on British Jews and their right, through Zionism, for national self-determination.”

Following this criticism, Mr Burgon released a statement expressing regret and explaining why he had denied making the comments when the issue was first raised with him in August 2016: “When it was put to me…that I had made these remarks I did not recall doing so and therefore asked for the full quotes to be provided to me, and asked when and where I had said it. I received no reply, so I believed it was inaccurate to have claimed that I had used that phrase. It is now clear that I did and I regret doing so. As I have subsequently said on numerous occasions when asked about this, I do not agree with that phrase. I recognise that such a phrase fails to distinguish between those seeking a peaceful solution in line with international law, and those, such as the current Israeli government, which is undermining efforts towards peace. The terminology has different meanings to different people and the simplistic language used does not reflect how I now think about this complex issue and I would not use it again today.” He went on to highlight the fact that the remarks had reportedly been made in 2014, before he had been elected as an MP, and insisted that he had been criticising Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its “aggressive expansionist policies”, not speaking about Jewish people.

On May 9th 2019, however, he was questioned by journalist Emma Barnett on BBC’s Newsnight who further pointed out that in the course of his BBC interview with Andrew Neil on 28th March, he stated that he not only denied saying the words recorded on the film, but that he did not believe it. “You said, not only ‘I didn’t say that’, you said ‘I don’t believe that’. Why on earth should we believe anything you have to say when you outright lied?”

On 21st July 2019, when interviewed by the journalist Sophy Ridge, Mr Burgon expressed unequivocal support for Councillor Ali Milani, the Labour candidate challenging Boris Johnson in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, whose antisemitic statements on social media, made between 2012 and 2013, had been the subject of a complaint to the Labour Party the previous year.

We do not know whether disciplinary action has been taken by the Labour Party against Mr Burgon, and at the time of writing, on 2nd December 2019, we have no record of any. However, the circumstances and outcomes of any such action would remain unknown, owing to the conditions of secrecy imposed by Baroness Chakrabarti’s report on antisemitism in the Labour Party.

In November 2019, Campaign Against Antisemitism put this matter to Mr Burgon, but did not receive a response.

Rating

Campaign Against Antisemitism has rated the Party’s handling of this matter as “bad”. Our rating system is explained in our methodology. This case was last updated on 13th May 2020.

Justice, justice, you shall pursue - צדק צדק תרדף
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