After days of ‘saddening’ outcry and condemnation across campus, Sheffield Labour Students has been told to “respect Jewish students”, having u-turned on its controversial invite to MP Chris Williamson amid a police probe into alleged antisemitism within the Labour Party.
SLS decided to “indefinitely postpone” inviting the divisive MP for Derby North on Friday, after its co-chair resigned in protest and Sheffield Jewish Society (JSoc) described it as “a betrayal of Jewish students in Sheffield”.
But now, reflecting on a week of controversy, JSoc has exclusively told Forge Press it is “a shame” that SLS decided cancel the entire event, rather going ahead without Williamson, and their hopes that this was an “exceptional case”.
“It is impossible to say what the lasting impact [of the fallout from the event] will be but we hope that all societies and organisations on campus will consider and respect the concerns of Jewish students on campus,” they added.
In a public statement last week about the November 8 event, JSoc accused Mr Williamson of having “repeatedly defended, and shared platforms with, anti-Semites expelled from the Labour Party.”
Mr Williamson was due to speak at a panel event on campus, organised by SLS and Stop the War group, on how the war in Yemen can be stopped.
JSoc added: “While we are glad that Chris Williamson isn’t coming onto campus, we are saddened that there was a need to make a public statement.
“As a committee we never wanted it to reach that point.”
‘A lot of good people’
Minutes from the most recent SLS committee meeting claim that University Security screened the panel event as it was set to take place in a university building, and concluded that there was no risk to staff or students.
SLS initially voted by six to three to proceed with the event, despite the “strong condemnation” of JSoc, leading SLS Events Officer Caelan Reid to resign in protest.
Speaking exclusively to Forge Press, Mr Reid described it as “a shame all this controversy has happened when it was easily avoidable,” and added that although there “are a lot of good people” on SLS, he won’t be standing for a role for some time.
“I think we all just need to take a step back, reflect and make sure to learn from this for the future,” he added.
Journalists at LBC Radio handed a leaked dossier to the Metropolitan Police with a reported 45 cases of alleged antisemitism by Labour members, leading the Met to begin a criminal investigation last week.
Chris Williamson. You are an absolute disgrace to our party. https://t.co/TE70zDwJCi
— Jewish Labour Movement (@JewishLabour) October 27, 2018
SLS said on Friday, November 2 that “although Chris Williamson MP is not personally implicated by these allegations”, in the current context of the investigation “we do not feel that the event should take place at this moment in time.”
“I think we all just need to take a step back, reflect and make sure to learn from this for the future” – Caelan reid
There remains the possibility that the event could take place in the near future, as SLS say they will conduct another vote when the investigation is concluded.
“If it does happen again in future JSoc will act accordingly in the interests of Jewish students, however we would emphasise that this instance was an exceptional case and we hope it stays that way,” JSoc co-chair Gabe Milne said.
Resignation after resignation
Minutes of the SLS committee meeting on October 30, seen by Forge Press, show members describing Williamson as “part of our movement”, labelling it “unfair to rescind an invitation based on no evidence” of anti-semitism on internationally agreed guidelines.
The co-chair of SLS also resigned following the meeting, and JSoc’s Mr Milne left the Labour Party in protest damning the decision not to rescind the invite as “the final straw”.
All in all, this invitation of Williamson onto my campus is the final straw for me. I can't in good conscience remain in the Labour Party and be able to look the people I represent in the eye.
I have informed my CLP that I will be resigning my membership of the party. I'm sorry.
— Gabe (@gabemilne96) November 1, 2018
The Sheffield Labour Students I knew would stand up for Jewish students on campus, not ignore and endanger them. I'm really disappointed that this Chris Williamson event is going ahead. https://t.co/x2aQjaeyeq
— Kieran Maxwell (@kieranpmaxwell) November 1, 2018
At the time, former Sheffield Students’ Union president Kieran Maxwell commented: “The Sheffield Labour Students I knew would stand up for Jewish students on campus, not ignore and endanger them.”
In his resignation statement last week, Events Officer Mr Reid said he was placed “in the untenable position of ignoring the concerns of a minority group” and having hoped the committee would respect the concerns of a minority group, “some of those present behaved in an uncomradely manner.”
After the recent Pittsburgh massacre, leaving 11 Jewish people dead, JSoc alleged that Mr Williamson “tweeted an attack piece against a Jewish community organisation”, the Board of Deputies.
“He only retweeted condolences from Jeremy Corbyn hours later after outrage against him. He has called antisemitism allegations in the Labour Party ‘proxy wars and bullshit’,” they added.
In April, Mr Williamson tweeted in defence of former Labour Party member Scott Nelson, expelled from the party for tweeting about the “Jewish blood” and “Jewish ancestors” of British companies “exploiting” workers abroad.
When another user raised the comments, Williamson tweeted: “He repeatedly apologised for those comments. […] Please give him a chance.”
JSoc added: “We just want to emphasise that racism in any form, including antisemitism, should never be tolerated anywhere. This also goes for those who encourage an antisemitic culture.”