Leading rabbi and former councillor Avrohom Pinter has spoken out about what he says is a “toxic atmosphere” inside the local Labour party – claiming some members are “unable to voice different opinions” at meetings for fear of being accused of “creating a witch-hunt”.
Hackney Labour says it is “very sorry” to hear that Rabbi Pinter feels this way, describing him as a “valued member”, and offered to meet with him to discuss his concerns.
But the party maintains it “has always been a place of free and open democratic discussion and fair treatment of all members”.
Pinter was one of 68 rabbis who signed an open letter to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in July, urging him to include the full definition of antisemitism drafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in the party’s code of conduct.
Jewish leaders and some Labour MPs say the party’s current code leaves out IHRA’s examples of how criticism of Israel can be antisemitic.
Critics of the definition argue it restricts free speech about Israel.
Hackney Council earlier this year voted unanimously to adopt IHRA’s full wording and examples – with the backing of all local Labour councillors.
But Rabbi Pinter says he is still unhappy that two instances of antisemitism he claims to have suffered at the hands of one party member at local meetings have gone unpunished.
The first, reported by the Citizen in May 2016, came when a motion was put forward at a branch meeting of Cazenove and Springfield wards, declaring that opposition to the Jewish state is not the same as antisemitism.
The proposer of the motion is said to have then drawn a comparison between Zionism and Nazism, and was accused of conflating the two.
The same person, at a meeting in November last year, spoke in favour of reinstating anti-Israel activist Moshe Machover as a party member and, in remarks Rabbi Pinter believes were aimed at him, complained of a “conspiracy” that was “designed to silence Israel’s critics and that the trail could be traced ‘to the door of the Israeli embassy’”.
The instances are detailed in a letter written by Rabbi Pinter to Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby, after she asked him to contribute to the party’s ongoing review of its code of conduct.
Despite deciding against making a formal complaint on either occasion, Rabbi Pinter says he has been prompted to speak out now after hearing secretly-taped audio of Peter Willsman, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, demanding the 68 rabbis who wrote the open letter provide evidence of antisemitism in the party.
Pinter told the Citizen: “I was offended by the suggestion that we were making it up. How dare he? He challenged us to put up or shut up.
“Well, I’m putting up, so he should shut up.”
Pinter’s letter to Formby says the examples of antisemitism he gave have gone “unchallenged” by Hackney Labour, but he clarified: “I was actually quite happy that the matter had been put to bed after the May 2016 meeting. We agreed to disagree, and I thought we had moved on.
“But to hear the same member effectively accusing me of being in the pay of the Israeli embassy just over a year later, it shows the problem was not properly addressed.”
Pinter then went further, telling the Citizen he still feels uncomfortable going to local Labour meetings.
“Not once since the incident in November has someone come to me and asked ‘What can we do to make you feel comfortable?’
“It’s a sad situation.”
He describes the atmosphere at meetings as “toxic”, and claims it is not limited to talk of antisemitism.
“Go to a meeting in Hackney North,” he says. “There are huge Charedi, Muslim and Caribbean populations there. But apart from the odd person, those groups are not really represented.”
When asked if he knew anyone else who shares his concerns, Pinter said he can only speak for himself, but added that the lack of representation of minority groups at meetings is itself, in his opinion, evidence of an “unwelcoming environment”.
He added: “The local party has created an exclusive environment, not an inclusive one. Most of the people at these meetings are middle-class, white and middle-aged. It is unacceptable.”
On the antisemitism he says he has been subjected to, Pinter said: “It is very disturbing that I can’t talk up about these terrible experiences because anyone who complains is accused of creating a witch-hunt.
“The victims are becoming the perpetrators, and all I want is to see is this environment change.
“Perhaps it is too much to ask for it to be friendly, but no groups – women, Jews, anyone – should be made to feel unwelcome or unable to speak up.
“This is not necessarily about antisemitism – people should just not wilfully offend others. But anyone who voices a different opinion to the majority is demonised.”
Pinter says he still has no plans to make a formal complaint.
A spokesperson for Hackney Labour said: “Rabbi Avrohom Pinter is a valued member of the Labour Party and was an excellent councillor.
“We are very sorry that he feels this way, and happy to meet with him to discuss the issues he outlines.
“We have internal party procedures in place when there is a dispute between individual members, which are fair to all parties concerned.
“Hackney Labour Party has always been a place of free and open democratic discussion and fair treatment of all members.
“We are proud to have representation from all sections of the local community in our growing membership, which has tripled in the last two years, indicating the huge popularity of what we are saying, what we do and how we do it.
“It is up to members as to whether they choose to attend meetings or not. We are always open to new ideas about how to improve meetings and make them more accessible.”
The spokesperson added that the party “takes all complaints of antisemitism extremely seriously” and is “committed to challenging and campaigning against it in all its forms”.
They added: “Hackney Labour’s group of councillors backed a motion at a recent council meeting supporting the full IHRA definition of anti-semitism, which received a unanimous vote with all-party support.”
Rabbi Pinter is the principal of Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School, which was downgraded to ‘Inadequate’ by Ofsted earlier this year, with inspectors criticising its practice of redacting textbooks.
The school hit back at the education watchdog, accusing it of “using its unfettered powers to try to force faith schools to comply with its agenda or fail”.