Below is a subtitled version of the audio file released this evening by the Jewish Chronicle in an article that quotes Labour MP Luciana Berger making outraged comments about veteran NEC (National Executive Committee) member’s illicitly-recorded remarks at a meeting of the NEC that took place earlier this month, before calling for his suspension.
Her claims and call have been picked up and amplified by the rest of the mainstream media – and Willsman has been subjected to a torrent of abuse, including by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, whose shameful tweet raised questions from social media users about why, when he is on the NEC by virtue of his position, he is not heard on the recording objecting at the time Willsman was speaking:
The SKWAWKBOX has been unable to find an NEC member who agrees with Watson’s description.
But do those claims about Willsman’s wordsvstand up to scrutiny? Here is the audio, with subtitles added for those who need them:
Ms Berger told the Jewish Chronicle (emphases added by this blog):
Anyone listening to this recording will be appalled to hear the venom and fury directed by Mr Willsman at the British Jewish community.
That he accuses the Jewish community of falsifying social media and being “Trump fanatics” in order to deny the serious concerns of 68 rabbis beggars belief.
Mr Willsman only has to take a look at his NEC papers or the many recent press reports to see evidence of antisemitism in the Labour Party.
In the past week alone two Labour councillors have been suspended and the Party have confirmed that 252 people are being investigated for the comments they’ve made online directed at Dame Margaret Hodge MP.
Ms Berger’s paraphrase misses the mark on a number of counts. Here are the inaccurate claims next to what Willsman actually says:
Claim: “he accuses the Jewish community of falsifying social media and being “Trump fanatics””
Willsman: “And some of these people in the Jewish community support Trump. They’re Trump fanatics.”
Is Ms Berger seriously saying that there is not a single Trump supporter among the UK’s Jewish citizens? If Willsman had said ‘the Jewish community are all Trump fanatics’, he would be guilty – but saying some people among a community do something is not racist, regardless whether or not it’s accurate.
And there are reasonable grounds for Willsman’s comment that some Jewish people support Trump. When Trump was elected president, then-Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush welcomed his election, saying:
I would like to congratulate Donald Trump on his victory.
After a divisive campaign, I hope that Mr Trump will move to build bridges and ensure that America’s standing as a beacon of progress, tolerance and free-thinking remains strong.
That statement prompted hundreds of Jewish people to write to the Board in protest. But when the US president decided to move the US embassy to Jerusalem – a hugely controversial move and against international agreements – Arkush’s welcome was more emphatic:
Why is it apparently so controversial that the United States is taking the decision to recognise what we already know, that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel?
Again, his comments provoked a significant backlash from angry members of the community and even of the Board – but it was also warmly praised by other Board delegates. One, for example, responded:
We believe in my constituency – and I have consulted my constituency – that you are 100 per cent right.
Clearly there are reasonable grounds for Willsman’s opinion – which, it must again be emphasised, was that some Jewish people are Trump fans.
Claim: “That he accuses the Jewish community of falsifying social media”.
Willsman: “They can falsify social media very easily.”
The crucial thing here is that the recording does not specify who ‘they’ are. The Jewish Chronicle (JC) released only fifty-one seconds of a recording that appears to have been considerably longer. Willsman is already in full flow when it starts – yet the Chronicle’s article states only:
The leaked audio begins with Mr Willsman ending a sentence saying: ”They can falsify social media very easily.” It appears to be a suggestion that some of the antisemitism Labour members have posted online has been faked.
If there was any evidence that Willsman had been talking in any blanket sense about Jewish people when he said it, it’s absolutely certain that this would have been highlighted by the JC. Yet the JC says only that the suggestion appears to have been about ‘some’ claims by ‘Labour members’ might have been faked.
Note that Willsman does not say it has been, only that it might have been because it’s very easy to do – and who, if speaking objectively, can argue that it is not easy to do, given the technology available and the widely-acknowledged existence of paid political agents operating on social media for, for example, the Conservative party.
And there is precedent for the use of fake profiles to attempt to discredit the Labour leader. The Times of Israel reported, as did this blog, on the apology issued by the Israeli government for criticism of Jeremy Corbyn when his supposed adviser Wesley Brown made antisemitic comments.
But Wesley Brown did not exist. The account was entirely fake:
The Israeli Foreign Ministry was not the only one fooled by the ruse. Former Labour leadership hopeful Yvette Cooper also attacked supposed left-wing antisemitism because of the tweets – eighteen months after the apology issued by Israel when the fake was discovered.
Willsman’s ‘they’ might, of course, not have been at any identifiable people. It could have been a generic ‘they’, as in ‘they don’t make them like that any more’.
But if the JC is correct that he was aiming it at Labour members, many of the Labour members (or in some cases, claimed members) involved in some of the most virulent attacks on the left over alleged antisemitism are not Jewish.
Willsman made a statement of fact – and neither the Jewish Chronicle nor Luciana Berger have demonstrated that he applied it to Jewish people at all, let alone in a way that merits suspension or suspicion.
Claim: “in order to deny the serious concerns of 68 rabbis”
Willsman: “So I think we should ask the 70 rabbis: “Where is your evidence of severe and widespread antisemitism in this party?”
Nobody is denying that antisemitism exists among some Labour members. In a party of almost 600,000 members it would be miraculous if there is none.
But Willsman is not talking about isolated examples – nor is he ‘denying the concerns‘ of anyone, rabbis or not. Instead he suggests asking for evidence that there is a ‘severe and widespread’ problem.
In the current febrile and politically-charged atmosphere, it has become normal to talk of asking evidence for something as if it is some kind of disrespect or victim-blaming. But claims are not true simply because they have been made.
Willsman wanted to see evidence to substantiate a claim, not of something small and elusive but of something allegedly endemic – and suggested asking for that evidence.
No reasonable person can see that as an insult, let alone antisemitic. The existence of an accusation cannot be treated as evidence of guilt in a civilised society.
Claim: that the fact that “two Labour councillors have been suspended and the Party have confirmed that 252 people are being investigated for the comments they’ve made online directed at Dame Margaret Hodge MP” equates to evidence of a ‘severe and widespread’ issue.
Labour has some 550,000 members and thousands of councillors. Two Labour councillors have been suspended – but just in last May’s council elections Labour won 2,350 seats. In total Labour has almost 6,500 councillors – so the two suspended councillors represent 0.03%.
Ms Berger says ‘in the last week alone’ about the numbers suspended for comments to Margaret Hodge, the MP who swore at Jeremy Corbyn and called him an antisemite and racist. But the length of time is irrelevant to the issue, as those reactions were to a specific event.
252 people represent around 0.04% of Labour’s membership – not evidence of a ‘severe and widespread’ issue, even if all of them were found guilty by the investigations – which, of course, is not a given in any fair and due process.
For Ms Berger to treat those numbers as if they make it ridiculous and unreasonable for Willsman to ask for evidence of a serious and large-scale issue is disingenuous to a degree that ought to be remarkable.
The fact that it isn’t speaks volumes for the distorted and fevered atmosphere that has been created in recent months. In the current climate, even to deny the truth of an accusation – even to ask for or present evidence – can be attacked as racist or victim-blaming.
Those calling for Willsman’s suspension do not, in fact, have reasonable grounds for doing so based on the actual evidence presented by the recording. In fact, it’s entirely justifiable to say that the only breach the recording represents is a breach of faith, party rules and confidentiality by the person who made the recording – and that that person is the one who should be suspended.
Of course it would have been better if Willsman had kept his cool. But if a Labour member doesn’t want people running Labour who are angry when it is accused of being a racist party, there’s something wrong.
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