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LET’S start off by stating the obvious — anti-semitism, like all forms of racism, has no place in the Labour Party.
Labour has always called for a world free from prejudice and hatred. And of course socialists and Jews have a long history of standing shoulder to shoulder, whether within the trade union movement or fighting fascism on Cable Street.
So when Labour MP Louise Ellman said on Sky News last Sunday that members were “being allowed to get away with posting anti-semitic comments in their tweets and on their websites,” people took notice, especially as other party grandees had made similar claims.
The same morning, shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the BBC he wanted anti-semites “out of our party for life” and that Labour “should take the advice of the British Board of Deputies and our other Jewish friends” on how to tackle the problem.
I’m glad Labour is serious about this issue, and not just because I’m Jewish. It’s good news that members are being booted out for tweeting hurtful stereotypes about “big noses,” but the current level of obsession reminds me of last summer’s leadership election witch-hunt against ex-Greens and the far left.
In February, student Alex Chalmers stepped down as co-chair of Oxford University Labour Club over its support for Israel Apartheid Week, claiming fellow members had “some kind of problem with Jews.”
He was particularly upset over the use of the word “Zio” to refer to zionists, which may be seen as insulting, but no more so than calling someone a Trot, for example, or even a “Kipper,” because zionism — Jewish nationalism — is a political position, and activists should expect their politics to be challenged robustly, even rudely.
Then last month, Jewish socialist and anti-zionist Tony Greenstein, who has also used the term on social media, was suspended for unspecified “comments.”
Labour won’t let him see the evidence against him, even though it’s already been leaked to the Daily Telegraph — which describes his suspension as “the latest anti-semitism controversy to hit the party.”
Ellman’s claim that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has not personally done enough to challenge anti-semitism was branded “absurd” by his brother Piers, who tweeted: “All #Corbyns are committed #AntiNazi. #Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for #Palestine.”
Then after the Sun reported Jeremy as saying: “My brother has his point of view, I have mine and we actually fundamentally agree,” Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush weighed in by insisting: “Corbyn’s defence of his brother’s belittling of the problem of anti-semitism is deeply disturbing.”
But Piers wasn’t belittling anything, just pointing out that Jeremy has spent his life opposing every kind of discrimination and is doing his best to combat anti-semitism inside the party and beyond — describing it to the BBC on Thursday as “vile and wrong.”
These very public cases feed nicely into the new narrative about Labour under Corbyn, that anti-semitism is tacitly supported, which dovetails neatly with the outrage over his previous meetings with members of Hamas and Hezbollah and his solidarity with Palestine.
Corbyn is critical of Israel, therefore his supporters have a green light to be anti-semitic — thus goes the right-wing smear campaign.
Labour MP Chris Bryant laid out the line of attack a fortnight ago in The Times when he claimed: “Questioning the very existence of the state of Israel is a not-too-subtle form of anti-semitism.”
And former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks left no room for ambiguity when he wrote in Newsweek last Sunday: “Anti-zionism is the new anti-semitism.”
But is it really? Israel has made clear it will never tolerate an independent Palestine on its borders — the two-state solution — and certainly not a country with effective armed forces.
And with Palestinians enduring literally Biblical levels of oppression for decades, the status quo is simply not an option.
It is the actions of Israel that have led some to conclude that the only workable plan is a one-state solution, which would mean an end to the “democratic and Jewish” nation in its current form.
This description has always seemed oxymoronic as it’s hard to understand how any Abrahamic religion could really be compatible with democracy.
What does it mean for a country to identify so closely with a religion or race, anyway? When citizens face institutional discrimination for their beliefs or ethnicity, a country can’t claim to offer true equality under the law.
And by showing such contempt for the international community over everything from nuclear weapons to never-ending military occupation, it’s fair to say Israel can now be considered a rogue state.
Wednesday’s Evening Standard claimed that McDonnell had been “caught in his party’s growing anti-semitism storm” after it revealed that, during Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, his blog had added a link to the pro-boycott Innovative Minds website.
The Standard reported that the website had published an interview with the family of a suicide bomber in 2001 which Tory MP Eric Pickles described as a “tribute” to terrorism.
Innovative Minds told the paper it was against “all forms of racism including anti-semitism” and promoted “peaceful anti-racist, pro-justice, anti-apartheid activism.”
Ignoring the ludicrous logic that politicians should take responsibility for everything that has ever appeared on any website they link to, this looks like another case of confusing anti-zionism with anti-semitism.
Although McDonnell is correct when he says: “As soon as Jewish people start telling us there is anti-semitism in our party, we’ve got to sit up and listen,” the converse is also true — if Jews say criticism of zionism is not anti-semitic, then the party should listen to them too.
As Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu says he speaks for all Jews. Although this is clearly just as false as Isis claiming it speaks for all Muslims, he is holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s actions, leading to an unjustifiable but predictable increase in anti-semitism. His solution? For Jews to come “home” to Israel.
Because many people believe what he says I’m now convinced that, as a Jew, I have a special responsibility to call out Israeli crimes, in the same way that Muslim criticism of Islamic terror can help isolate extremists and protect communities from the intended backlash. “Not in my name” is a powerful response to all religious violence, whether Islamic, Jewish or Christian.
Of course there are anti-semites in Labour, just as there are those outside it, and of course some anti-semites use the Palestinian cause as cover for their race hatred.
But there have also been pro-zionist anti-semites since the Holocaust, and even today far-right racist politicians from Michal Kaminski in Poland to Nick Griffin in Britain are among Israel’s strongest supporters.
Describing Israel’s policy towards the Occupied Territories as apartheid should not be considered controversial — just ask Jimmy Carter.
And even Ayatollah Khomeini made an explicit distinction between zionism, which he was against, and Judaism, which is still protected by law in Iran — home to the largest number of Jews in the region apart from Israel.
Maybe I’ll be kicked out of Labour for saying all this, but if the witch-hunt continues and members become too scared to voice a political opinion on the prospects for peace in the Middle East the party will lose all credibility on the subject.
As socialists, we need to be smarter than that. Anti-zionism has nothing to do with anti-semitism, no matter how much the right wing tries to blur the line. And we should be able to rely on the Labour leadership to face down its critics and defend our right to raise this inconvenient truth.
- Chat to Charley on Twitter: @charleyallan.
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