(April 23, 2023 / JTA)
Britain’s Labour Party suspended senior lawmaker Diane Abbott for writing in a letter that Jews, Irish and Traveller people “experience prejudice” but “are not all their lives subject to racism.”
Abbott, 69, who has represented a London constituency in parliament since 1987, wrote a letter to the editor of the Observer, a Sunday newspaper owned by the Guardian, in response to an article by Tomiwa Owolade titled “Racism in Britain is not a black and white issue. It’s far more complicated.” The article focused on a study about rates of racism in the United Kingdom.
“It is true that many types of white people with points of difference” experience prejudice, Abbott wrote in her letter. “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.” Travellers are an Irish ethnic people not related to the Romani ethnic group, with whom they are sometimes incorrectly grouped together.
Abbott later apologized “for any anguish caused.”
“I wish to wholly and unreservedly withdraw my remarks and disassociate myself from them,” she wrote in a statement posted on social media. “Racism takes many forms, and it is completely undeniable that Jewish people have suffered its monstrous effects, as have Irish people, Travellers and many others.”
After years under a cloud of antisemitism controversy under former leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party has in recent years under new leader Keir Starmer swiftly penalized party members who have made antisemitic or controversial statements about Jews or Israel.
In February, a public watchdog ended its over two years of special monitoring of the party. The Equality and Human Rights Commission ruled that Labour had taken sufficient steps to root out the antisemitism problem that the watchdog said Corbyn allowed to persist under his leadership.
After over a decade of Conservative rule, polls show that Labour is poised to win the United Kingdom’s next general election, which could take place next year.
Owolade criticized Abbott, who was the first Black woman to be elected to British parliament, in an article in the New Statesman on Sunday.
“[S]he is plainly wrong even on her own terms. Jewish people and Irish people have most certainly been discriminated against in America: in the early twentieth century, for example, many US Ivy League universities placed quotas that restricted the number of Jewish students they could admit,” he wrote.
Courtesy of JTA Photo credit: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Diane Abbott speaks at an anti-racism protest in London, July 17, 2021.