- Political upheavals
- Problems of definition and due process
- Labour MPs (and Jews): It’s time to choose your sidekicks.
As we headed towards local elections across the country (03 05 2018), turmoil and conflict within the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party risked diverting attention from the party’s political purpose in opposition: different from and in fierce, concerted opposition to the Conservative administration and its venal Austerity politics; its chaotic and irresponsible ‘Brexit’ negotiations; its brutal and racist record on legal and illegal immigration; its responsibility for the Grenfell disaster, and its shameful treatment of the Windrush generation. In considering the upsurge of concern about anti Semitism in the Labour party, there are contexts that can be seen to underpin and frame the current allegations.
A reader of an earlier draft of this commentary, asks: “What has been happening in Israel and Palestine while the anti-Semitism protests have been promoted by the right wing press? Over the last month Palestinians have been demonstrating for their Right of Return to lands occupied by Israel – a right enshrined in the UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and subsequent UNGA resolutions. The reaction from the Israeli government is to order soldiers to shoot across the border at Palestinian demonstrators in Palestine. Over 40 dead and 5,000 injured.” “Imagine”, he says, “if the UK government had taken similar action during the troubles in Northern Ireland. There would have been huge condemnation of such action in the Press. But nothing is said about the deaths associated with Right to Return in the UK press.”
However, after a google search he found the following report on 29th April 2018:
“Most of the Israeli army’s killings of Palestinians during the Gaza-border protests have resulted from snipers aiming at demonstrators’ legs, with the killings an unintentional outcome after a protester bent down, a sniper missed, a bullet ricocheted or a similar phenomenon, a senior officer in the Southern Command said. The Israeli army has killed 44 protesters since March 30 …..” The source of this information is Haaretz newspaper, published in Jerusalem since 1918. Haaretz has called for the shootings to stop.” Full text at: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israeli-officer-most-killings-during-gaza-protests-unintentional-1.6034421
A Jewish friend, on reading the above, offers a corrective note:
“An Israeli officer may have said this, but it’s not true – they are operating a deliberate shoot-to-kill-and-maim. Start here and follow the links including the interview with Zvika Fogel. It is not accidental”, see
He also recommends this link: https://www.btselem.org/press_releases/20180404_refuse_to_shoot_at_unarmed_protestors and adds: “These facts have been drowned out for the public here in a chorus about anti-Semitism, and for Guardian readers by the refusal of the letters page (unlike the news reporting) to publish anything about it until, eventually, a (good) letter appeared from former Israeli snipers – as if to say, it’s ok for Israeli Jews to notice this, but not for anyone else. In addition, something which appears to be missing below is the earlier phase (2015/16) of the “Labour anti-semitism” affair – in which it turned out that the Israeli Embassy was directly involved in stirring things up: https://electronicintifada.net/content/how-israel-lobby-manufactured-uk-labour-partys-anti-semitism-crisis/16481.
The 2015 Labour leadership election (after Ed Miliband’s hasty resignation, following the Tory general election win), when Jeremy Corbyn was resoundingly (and shockingly for some) elected as leader, is the watershed moment in this story. There are those members of the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) who have yet to recover their equilibrium. The EU referendum in June 2016, called by then Tory leader, David Cameron, was another shock to the UK political system, seemingly exposing, not just a sharply divided country, but the power and pain of grievance politics, not least when ‘harvested’ and fuelled by secret far right data analysts, Cambridge Analytica and Analogue IQ.
When Theresa May called her snap general election in 2017, hoping to exploit what was perceived as weakness and disarray in the Labour party under its new, ‘unelectable’ leader, she was expecting a resounding mandate for a Tory, hard ‘Brexit’. Instead, to widespread media and political astonishment (on all sides), her majority was wiped out, the Labour vote soared, and she decided to pay the Northern Ireland’s DUP a large sum of money to secure their electoral support in Parliament, to give her any chance of a working majority.
There are members of the PLP whose political differences with Jeremy Corbyn are dwarfed by their personal venum towards him. This is hardly a secret. But at the last general election, to their astonishment, they saw their personal majorities soar on the back of the ‘Jeremy factor’. People were voting for change: for a Corbyn-led, anti Austerity, socialist Labour party, upholding a multicultural society. These MPs were shown to be completely out of touch with this (previously inchoate) desire. Remember Stephen Kinnock’s face, for example, as the hung parliament result was announced on the night? Labour had confounded everyone’s expectations, putting it back as a serious parliamentary contender; Kinnock’s own majority had increased; but he just didn’t look happy: more dumbstruck and uncomprehending. He was not celebrating, because he had expected to help bring the ‘unelectable’ Corbyn down after the election, and even replace him as leader.
Anti-Corbyn Labour MPs, like Kinnock, who saw their sometimes fragile majorities transformed, are now personally and professionally more secure. This has perhaps galvanised them to continue trying to undermine the Labour leader in Parliament and beyond, with no risk to their own employment status as MPs. It appears that the damage this might do to the likelihood of forming a Labour government, of allowing another Tory victory, with its promise of further and harsher Austerity politics; continued dismantling of our public services (e.g. the NHS); further privatisation of education and social care; further cuts in legal aid and criminal justice services, for example, is not a consideration, compared to the prospect of undermining Jeremy’s leadership. A friend recently shared a comment he found in an email correspondence with a former Lib Dem MP, who represented a constituency close to Jeremy Corbyn: “The right wing of your party hate JC and are quite happy to join with the Zionists to try to discredit him. I do not know a less racist, less anti-semitic person actually”.
The people who will be most damaged and disadvantaged by another Tory government do not apparently count. Nor does the further erosion of our multicultural values as a society concern them, even post Grenfell and the Windrush scandal. You would think that Tory derision and contempt for Corbyn as Labour leader, and Tory alarm in the face of his political impact so far, would be a clue to Labour’s potential electoral power. But these MPs, having perhaps internalised neoliberal, competitive individualism as a virtue, are prepared to collude with the Tories in their opposition to the possibility of a Corbyn-led government.
Problems of definition and due process.
“I have seen for myself how the need to prove the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part, as the Genocide Convention requires, can have unhappy psychological consequences. It enhances the sense of solidarity among the members of the victim group while reinforcing negative feelings towards the perpetrator group. . . . For some, to be labelled a victim of genocide becomes ‘an essential component of national identity’ without contributing to the resolution of historical disputes or making mass killings less frequent” (Philippe Sands  ‘Epilogue: To the Woods’, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity: 380). Emphasis added.
Philippe Sands’ compelling personal memoir / legal history / intellectual and political tour de force demonstrates the significance of the complexity of lived experience, social and cultural identities, and human rights law as an attempt at understanding, regulation and mediation between warring parties, as well as the achievement of social justice and human rights. The entwined stories he narrates, and his insights, are relevant beyond the book’s focus on how the (legal) categories of genocide and crimes against humanity came to occupy the place they do in contemporary societies and international governance.
Its relevance to this discussion is that the book illuminates the often fraught but powerful relations between individual identity and group identity, and the significance of the language we use to communicate with each other across our differences.
“It was no surprise that an editorial in a leading newspaper, on the occasion of the centenary of Turkish atrocities against Armenians, suggested that the word ‘genocide’ may be unhelpful, because it “stirs up national outrage rather than the sort of ruthless examination of the record the country needs”. . . . . Yet against these arguments, I am bound to accept that the sense of group identity is a fact (ibid.: 381).
In one sense, there is indisputably a Jewish community and diaspora, in that anyone identified as Jewish is at risk of anti-Semitic attack in certain social environments and societies; in the way that any woman is at risk of sexism, sexual violence and misogyny, by virtue of being born a girl in a patriarchal society; and a person of colour is at risk of racism by virtue of the colour of their skin; and a gay man or woman will be subjected to imprisonment, torture or murder in many Commonwealth countries.
In another sense, however, despite the protestations of the Jewish Board of Deputies, there is no such thing as ‘the Jewish community’, defined and bounded and singular: like the rest of society, there is no Jewish organisation or group that harmoniously represents all Jewish people in their social, cultural, religious and political diversity. And the power struggle between various Jewish groups, in particular the desire for dominance exhibited by the Board of Deputies, is surely an attempt at control, not just influence. And that control extends to the Labour party: together with the Jewish Leadership Council, they refused to attend a meeting called by Jeremy Corbyn to discuss anti-Semitism and the Labour party, if the (anti-zionist) Jewish Voice for Labour group were also at the table.
The language used by Jonathan Arkush and Jonathan Goldstein, for example, in reporting the meeting with Jeremy in their search for “measures to rid the party of this blight (‘Sadly we still cannot trust Jeremy Corbyn over anti-semitism’, Evening Standard, 25 04 2018), echo Sean Morrison (‘Labour anti-semitism row: What is Jewdas and why is Jeremy under fire for Jewish group meeting?’ Online 03 04 2018): “The Labour party has come under intense fire for failing to “extinguish” anti-semitism within its ranks as a years-long row continues to deepen.” Kill the blight, put out the fire: emotive, inflammatory language that does not contribute to understanding where or who is the problem, and why.
Jewdas is a self-described radical leftist Jewish group, opposed to capitalism and fascism, as well as being vociferous in its criticism of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians. Jeremy recently attended a Jewdas Seder (a celebration of Passover) with members from his local constituency. From the incendiary reactions from MPs and the media to this visit, you would have been forgiven for thinking that he had sat down to eat with known neo Nazis and anti Semites. Michael Segalow described this as “manufactured uproar” (‘Corbyn was right to attend Jewdas Seder, there’s no such thing as “good” and “bad” Jews’, 03 04 2018 online).
Referring to ‘fringe’ Jewish groups reveals a sense of hierarchy and superiority that is not helpful, as it mitigates against peer group relations, and compromises the chances of open and honest conversation and dialogue. Such determined rigidity (orthodoxy) borders on authoritarianism; and authoritarians don’t do dialogue or ‘conversation’ as such. Contrast this with Sands’ Afterword in the paperback edition, which ends with the invocation: “The power of memory and imagination is not easily cast aside”. So not one or the other, but both, working in creative and humane conjunction.
Being free to air our political differences is a democratic right in the UK, and must remain a Labour value. But acting in a way that amounts to collusion with the Tory party and rightwing media barons, constitutes social and political betrayal. In his eloquent and inspiring book, The Return of the Public (2010), Dan Hind scrutinises the social and political role of the media, and advocates “public commissioning” to counter its power. Writing before the attack on New York in 2011; before the UK EU referendum campaign and the discourse of ‘Brexit’; before the advent of the twittering Trump as US President; and before the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal, he reflects:
“Some might object that fascist or other groups would seize on public commissioning and use it to spread distorted information or outright untruths. But this objection presupposes that the existing media don’t already seek to inflame commercially useful hatreds. It is clear, for example, that the current climate of hostility towards Muslims in Britain has been driven more by mainstream journalism and politics than by avowedly fascist agitation. . . .” [And here Hind references Jonathan Githens-Mazer & Robert Lambert, ‘Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: a London Case Study’, 28 01 2010; available at http:/ / centres.exeter.ac.uk] (Hind: 167). Emphasis added.
Mainstream media silence, distortion and misrepresentation seem routine. In the UK there has been (17 04 2018) a Judicial Review of the IPSO ruling that took no action over the highly inaccurate reporting of a Palestinian Solidarity Campaign meeting in the press. (An anti-Jewish statement was made by a Rabbi in the audience; he was not permitted to speak again. The press reported his remarks as coming from people who had organised the meeting). The judge let the IPSO ruling stand on technical grounds e.g. it is not right for a third party (someone who was at the meeting) to bring the case. Full details of the case are on this website: https://www.freeexpressionforall.org/?utm_source=sendinblue&utm_campaign=Update1031onJoinmystandagainstIPSOtoincreasefreedomofexpressionApril182018&utm_medium=email
Press the button at the top of the page to read how the Judge supported the status quo rather than dispensing justice. This was the first judicial review of IPSO, fully supported by Hacked Off. The friend who drew my attention to this, commented: “You would have thought it was important enough to be reported in the mainstream press.”
At present, as Dan Hind notes, “the media indulge in stereotype and caricature more or less at will” (Hind, 2010: ibid.). An example closer to home would be the now infamous ‘hostile environment’ towards immigrants, with particular consequences for people of colour, which was / is a highly publicised Tory government policy. And unhappily, Jeremy Corbyn was, I believe, one of only six Labour MPs (the others presumably succumbing to Tory media pressure) who voted against Theresa May’s nasty immigration legislation when she was Home Secretary. To what extent is this media pressure, this political manipulation, being successfully exerted now? Giving in to that media pressure must be a hard habit to kick. Certainly, Jeremy Corbyn seems to be the target, rather than the behaviour of individual Labour members and MPs.
So how does the recent eruption of accusations of anti-Semitism within the Labour party fit within the scenario outlined here, given that the MPs talking up the problem are also those known for their hostility towards Corbyn as leader since he was elected (twice)? A number of these MPs are Jews for whom any criticism of Israel and/or sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians is considered anti-Semitic. In their eyes, this makes Jeremy Corbyn, as a long-term supporter of the Palestinian cause, an implacable political enemy.
Guardian journalist, Hadley Freeman, argues that “suggesting Jews make allegations about anti-Semitism for their political or personal benefit is, in fact, one of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes there is” (Freeman, ibid.). While this is undoubtedly true, it does not mean that such behaviour never happens. The focus of attack is Corbyn, as if he brought anti-semitism with him when elected leader. Hadley cites Ruth Smeeth’s claim that “she had really come up against anti-Semitism” (ibid). Such a general comment needs specifying if it is to become a formal complaint, subject to scrutiny, and if necessary, action taken against the perpetrator(s). Many Labour members doubt that this process has been followed properly in this case. But maybe the Labour party was insufficiently clear about its definition of anti Semitism before this storm broke.
As prominent public figures identified with Left politics and the Labour movement, film-maker, Ken Loach, and UNITE leader, Len McCluskey, both have considerable experience of being the butt of the media (Tory or otherwise). Both are well informed, articulate and fearless (you might say, principled); politically knowledgeable about how the Tory media operates in the interests of the Tory party, its funders and supporters, and how it seeks to put pressure on Labour MPs to destabilise Jeremy’s leadership. Both men are passionate about the Labour project and those it seeks to serve and benefit. I suspect this is why Loach dismissed Ruth Smeeth’s initially generalised accusations of being the object of anti-Semitism as “merely mischief”, not least because of The Daily Telegraph’s reported role at the time.
Similarly, the report by Jonathan Arkush in the Evening Standard (25 04 2018), provocatively entitled, ‘Sadly we still cannot trust Jeremy Corbyn over anti-semitism”, was framed by a large, close-up photograph of demonstrators at the anti-semitism demonstration outside Parliament. See https://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/sadly-we-still-cannot-trust-jeremy-corbyn-over-antisemitism-a3823241.html
The placard taking centre stage in the photograph reads: ‘No place for antisemites in Labour, they’re already oversubscribed’. This shocking placard was very unlikely to be the work of a Labour supporter or party member. The organisers of this event were more likely Tory supporters, because the target was so clearly the Labour party and its leader, not anti-semitism in society, or even in Parliament itself. Looking at this placard, I understand the view that has been voiced, that Labour MPs who joined this demonstration should be suspended from the party. For Labour MPs to attend such a rally, and support its virulent attack on their own party, was either naïve or malign. Maybe both.
Bringing Labour into disrepute by suggesting that the party is riddled with anti-Semitism will not help achieve a safer and fairer society for Jewish people. The stats on Tory voters and Labour voters’ attitudes to Jewish people, supplied by Edie Friedman, who runs The Jewish Council for Racial Equality, and cited by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (‘Is criticising Israel always anti-Semitic?’ email@example.com, 25 04 2018), suggest that Labour is not the main problem. Viewed objectively, Labour is the only political party in a position to contribute to that change, and for the first time it has a leader with a long track record of opposing inequality, social injustice and racism at home and abroad (and when it was not fashionable to do so). However, if there are individuals whose behaviour and language is properly identified as anti-Semitic, allegations should be specific and reported to the police and dealt with through the courts (as Labour MP Luciana Berger did).
The Labour party has subscribed to the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism: “Anti-Semitism may be expressed as hatred towards Jews, but it is not behaviour that may be inferred as offensive by Jews” (Mike Silver, ‘Wadsworth expulsion: Did Labour just throw away its chance to take London?’ Vox Political – politics for the people, 29 04 2018). Behaviour or language “should not be deemed anti-Semitic because someone else took offence at it; it would have to be informed by and motivated by, hatred towards Jews” (ibid.). However, the IHRA definition, so eagerly grasped by Theresa May and the Jewish board of Deputies, for example, is highly problematic for many Labour supporters, as indicated by a letter to The Guardian (16 12 2016), signed by 63 people, in which they commend a definition from Brian King of Oxford University, that “Anti-Semitism is a form of hostility towards Jews as ‘Jews’.” It is clear, when you study the IHRA definition (which you can do online), that, as The Guardian letter states:
“The IHRA definition smuggles in anti-Zionism in the guise of anti-semitism, as a means of protecting the Israeli state and thus Western foreign policy.”
For detailed clarification and critique of the IHRA definition, see Hugh Tomlinson’s Counsel’s opinion: http://freespeechonisrael.org.uk/ihra-opinion/#sthash.fIJOtvSU.dpbs
Hugh Tomlinson, QC, concludes:
“In my view any public authority which sought to apply the IHRA Definition to decisions concerning the prohibition or sanctioning of activity which was critical of the State or Government of Israel would be acting unlawfully if it did not require such activity also to manifest or incite hatred or intolerance towards Jews. If an authority applied the IHRA Definition without such a requirement it would be in breach of Article 10 of the Convention and would, therefore, be acting unlawfully under domestic law in the United Kingdom.”
The Board of Deputies went into their meeting with Jeremy armed with a list of demands, including those related to the full IHRA definition. They then reported their disapproval of Jeremy’s refusal to be bulldozed down that road, and blamed him for a disappointing meeting, which was implicitly taken as ‘proof’ of his anti-semitism.
Hadley Freeman, cites a meeting in Bristol at which a motion was proposed that said any suggestion of anti-Semitism within the Labour party was absurd (cited, ‘If people don’t know about the Holocaust, it’s because they don’t really care’, The Guardian Weekend, 21 04 2018). The motion read:
“When people see inequality, ecological disaster and war alongside unprecedented wealth in the private hands of a few, it is reasonable they seek out explanations” (ibid.).
Maybe this is what Shami Chakrabarti meant in her report to the Labour party on anti-Semitism inside the party, when she “made recommendations to deal with ‘ignorant attitudes’ among some party members” (cited Alibhai-Brown, ibid.). You would hope that on hearing this statement, Labour members would audibly gasp in disbelief, despair and/or horror, put their hands up immediately, calling: “Objection!”. At which point, why the statement is objectionable and unacceptable would be clarified and discussed (without shouting), before its withdrawal. As Freeman comments in despair: “Yes, why are all Jews wealthy war-mongers?” (Freeman, ibid.). But she is wrong when she blames individuals for forgetting the Holocaust or just not caring about it.
In Philippe Sands’ Afterword to the paperback edition of his book, he brings together some of the considerable feedback he has received from its readers in the year following publication. From a school in England comes a request for assistance, arising out of research pupils have done ”which suggests that 80% of young people do not know what genocide is (let alone crimes against humanity) and have never heard of the genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur”. These young people have not been given the chance to care, never mind forget.
The recent BBC4 series, The Story of the Jews (last episode screened 01 05 2018), written and presented by historian Simon Schama, would provide excellent educational material for young people, as part of efforts within the school curriculum to support multicultural understanding and anti racism, and diminish ignorance and prejudice. Schama is a scholar who manages to model all the best qualities and attributes of a human being (an enquiring mind on legs): passionate about people and places, ideas and disputes; empathic and critical, in his desire to understand, as he roams the world, its histories and its crises. These qualities also make him a great teacher.
Labour MPs (and Jews): It’s time to choose your political sidekicks.
Responding to local concern amongst Jews and non Jews in the Labour party, ideas for a public meeting in Liverpool are being discussed, under the banner of Merseyside Momentum’s political education programme. In the UK, general election politics is largely binary, and never more so than since the Tory-led coalition of 2010 and the general election result in 2017 in which the Tories lost their majority. So we started with the idea of focussing electoral minds by posing the rather stark question: Will the next election be a choice between an anti-Austerity, socialist Labour Party, led by an anti-Zionist, or a pro-Zionist, pro-Austerity, pro-capitalist Conservative Party?
But the terms ‘zionist’ and ‘anti-zionist’ have become ‘dog whistle’ politics, given their historical baggage and slippage over time, as well as recent, hate-filled confrontational behaviour, so we decided to reword the question, avoid shorthand, and aiming to avoid outrage, achieve a more focused, socially and politically responsible conversation between Labour members who disagree about what counts as anti-Semitism, and Labour’s position on Israel and Palestine.
So, on the one hand, we can elect an anti-Austerity, socialist Labour party, historically rooted in internationalist and multicultural values; the party with the most established track record of political action resisting racism, homophobia and misogyny; committed to raising the level of the UK’s practical commitment to combating climate change alongside, for example, our European and Commonwealth partners; recommitting to people’s health and wellbeing through publicly funded public services (NB the NHS) and a housing policy not designed for profit-making for the few, but homes for the many; a party which is also, logically and morally opposed to the aims and methods of the IDF (the Israeli Defence Force); critical of Israel’s militarisation as a society, its internal and external racism and violence against Arabs, and its refusal to abide by UN resolutions designed to reduce hostilities and injustices in the region.
Alternatively, we have the option of electing a neoliberal, pro-Austerity, turbo capitalist Conservative party, hell-bent on continuing to turn everything, including health, into a commodity (for sale and profit), with a track record of social fragmentation and privatization, mental health chaos and crisis. This is a party indifferent to escalating climate change and widespread poverty, and which approves the dominance and violence of Israel towards the Palestinians, including the destruction of the Palestinian economy and the uprooting of its olive groves.
The Tory party approves the supply of military hardware to be used against Palestinian civilians throwing stones (including the murder of a journalist and a teenager most recently), in order to secure its illegal borders. This is also a party with members in cahoots with white supremacists: “Peter Oborne, a right-wing journalist, accuses the Tories of protecting politicians with far-right sympathies” (cited Alibhai-Brown, ibid.).
How does Jewish safety, wellbeing and dignity fit in with these very different political offers? It would be useful for the Labour party to explain and discuss the congruence or incompatibility of the Israeli military project with Labour movement values.
How can we reconcile the need and right for Israel to exist (but not in its current militarised and monocultural form), with the need and right of Palestinians to live in their homeland territories, in safety and security?
Many countries and some (distinguished) individuals, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, agree that Israel is currently an apartheid state. The Balfour Agreement 100 years ago devastated Palestinian rights. (See Simon Schama [01 05 2018] on the Holocaust and the subsequent creation of the state of Israel.) And in 1948 Palestinians were thrown off their land and from their homes, in what came to be called the Nakba (catastrophe). Anniversaries can be charged and painful affairs: potentially incendiary when justice is further postponed.
The histories of enslavement, ethnic cleansing, sexual violence and extermination act as both warnings of the atrocities we humans are capable of, as well as our capacities for developing and pursuing processes of conflict prevention, conflict resolution, reconciliation and peaceful co existence. The corrupting forces of hate, anger and revenge do not nourish or sustain lives, relationships or societies. This we know. I think it was gay campaigner, Tony Kushner, who advised: “We must love one another or die”. This poignant, personal, political (even apocalyptic) ethic and aspiration must surely be the underlying driver of Labour values and politics. It never has been and never will be a Tory ‘family value’.
So, echoing the American union song, written by Florence Reece and Daryl Hotter, and made famous by singer Pete Seeger: Which side are you on?
val walsh / 29 04 2018 / 04 05 2018 / revised 21 05 2018 togetherfornow.wordpress.com