Veteran Labour MP, Diane Abbott, has courted controversy after suggesting that Jews don’t experience racism, but likened it to prejudices like that experienced by ‘redheads’. Abbott, who once served as Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Home Secretary, wrote the comments in the Observer letter pages to offer her (unsolicited) views on antisemitism.
Abbott took issue with a column written in last week’s Observer newspaper headlined ‘Racism in Britain is not a black and white issue. It’s far more complicated’. This is what she wrote:
Tomiwa Owolade claims that Irish, Jewish and Traveller people all suffer from ‘racism’. They undoubtedly experience prejudice. This is similar to racism and the two words are often used as if they are interchangeable. It is true that many types of white people with points of difference, such as redheads, can experience this prejudice. But they are not all their lives subject to racism. In pre-civil rights America, Irish people, Jewish people and Travellers were not required to sit at the back of the bus. In apartheid South Africa, these groups were allowed to vote. And at the height of slavery, there were no white-seeming people manacled on the slave ships.
Abbott seems to forget that racism existed before and still exists beyond her examples of pre-civil rights America and apartheid South Africa. In saying that Jews were not forced to the back of the bus blatantly ignores the most obvious example of the worst genocide in history when Jews, deemed an ‘inferior race’, and in fact Roma Travellers also, were forced onto trains and mass-murdered. This followed systematic racial hatred and discrimination that cannot be compared in any way to simply ‘prejudice’. Racism against Jews exists today. To suggest that being Jewish is a point of difference, such as being a ‘redhead’, is an insult to victims of antisemitism in the past and present and undermines all efforts, including those claimed by Abbott’s party, to speak out against it.
As a result of her comments, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has suspended Abbott pending an investigation. Abbott has issued an apology saying she sent the wrong draft letter and completely rejects everything she wrote.
Abbott’s comments are perhaps especially ignorant, as her home borough of Hackney experienced more than two antisemitic attacks a week last year.
A number of her constituents gave comments to the Jewish Chronicle:
Ephraim, who has lived in the area for 27 years, told the JC: “I went to a secular school in the 1980s, there they called me ‘curls’ because of my simanim. One boy used to ask my permission before taking money out from the bank. Was this racism or not, even though I had the same skin colour as them? It definitely felt like racism at the time.”
Charity worker Bernard Greer, 55, called Abbott’s comments “myopic, thoughtless, and inexcusable. “I suggest she surround herself with different circles if that’s what she really thinks. I grieve for her short-sightedness. Labour did the right thing by suspending her.”
Leah, 65, who was one of several people in Stamford Hill unaware of Abbott’s latest controversy, said: “Wait until my dear parents hear that their friends in Austria, as well as six million of their brothers and sisters, were systematically murdered because of ‘prejudice’.”
Former civil servant Benny Harris, 70, said: “I thank the Right Honourable Lady for her words of wisdom, I never knew that the hatred Jews have been on the receiving end for [millennia] was just prejudice.”
Speaking at a business dinner with Jewish leaders at the weekend, the current Shadow Home Secretary Rachel Reeves said, “Let’s be in no doubt, her words were abhorrent and antisemitic. We condemn them wholeheartedly.
“Keir will never tolerate, I will never tolerate, and the Labour Party will never again tolerate that behaviour. That’s why we acted so swiftly in removing the Labour whip last Sunday.”
This year, we want to do more to bless Israel and the Jewish people.
We know that as we bless Israel this year, God will bless us, just as He promised in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Now is the time to bless Israel and the Jewish people.