Anti-Zionism is not a crime

Jackie Walker, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, Glyn Secker, and British Palestinian lawyer Salma Karmi-Ayyoub at Free Speech on Israel fringe meeting at Labour Party Conference

While most  attention has been, quite rightly, focused on opposing the smears and witch-hunts against Jackie Walker and other targets for supposed antisemitism, Israel’s supporters and apologists have been preparing another assault unnoticed, and have now dramatically raised the stakes.

In a report (issued at 3am on a Sunday morning!) on Antisemitism in the UK, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in effect calls for the enactment into English law of the discredited “European Union Monitoring Commission  working document”, and for the criminalisation of anti-Zionism. If put into practice, the consequences could be that those facing similar false accusations  in the future could suffer not merely expulsion from the Labour Party, but fines and even potentially imprisonment.

The committee had a large majority of Tory MPs. Former committee chair Keith Vaz stood down after recent allegations about his private life, while Naz Shah took no part in the committee following unfounded attacks on her earlier this year. So it is little surprise that, while the committee found that 75% of antisemitic attacks originated from the far right, the bulk of the report is devoted to attacking the Labour Party, and in particular Jeremy Corbyn and Shami Chakrabarti.

In this, they were aided by the shameful efforts of Chuka Umuna, who together with Vaz turned Corbyn’s appearance before the committee into a sickening display of spleen and contempt. The other Labour member of the Committee is David Winnick, who led an attack on Corbyn after last year’s May elections – so certainly no friend of the Labour leader. Once again, in an attempt to embarrass and wrong-foot Corbyn the right in the Labour Party has aided the Tories and the gutter press in their relentless attack on the party as a whole, and they have reinforced the Zionist propaganda war against supporters of Palestinian rights and proponents of BDS.

In its praise of Israel’s supposed “democratic values”, the committee refers to “the many citizens of Israel who are amongst its strongest critics, including human rights organisations in that country”. This would come as news to Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, a citizen of Israel, who has been in custody for the past year[1] facing trial for the content of her poems; to the members of the Joint Arab List in Israel’s parliament under investigation[2] for fabricated allegations of financial malpractice or traduced[3] for refusing to mourn the death of war criminal Shimon Peres; to human rights organisation B’Tselem, reported to the police[4] by an Israeli Labour Party member for treason, after criticising Israeli settlement policy at a UN forum; and to the countless other victims of the kind of “freedom of expression” which these MPs hold up as a model for Britain.

Chakrabarti criticised

The report repeatedly refers to “the unique nature of antisemitism”, and is very critical of Shami Chakrabarti for her decision to investigate antisemitism as one aspect of a racist society. In adopting this almost essentialist understanding of antisemitism, the committee is in danger of reinforcing the antisemitic myth that there is some essential element of “Jewishness” which can be located and attacked. This does no service to the struggle against racism. Chakrabarti herself, along with Jeremy Corbyn and NUS President Malia Bouattia, is harshly criticised in the report.

In its conclusions, the committee recommends that the government and law enforcement agencies should formally adopt what it refers to as “the IHRA definition” of antisemitism. The IHRA, an informal association of governments, agreed in May 2016 to endorse the discredited “EUMC working definition”[5] and includes in its list of antisemitic examples “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”. Such a definition, if acted on by police as recommended, would instantly criminalise almost all Palestine solidarity activity. This definition has been dismissed[6]by many leading Jewish scholars of antisemitism, including Brian Klug, Antony Lerman, and David Feldman.

The committee explicitly recommended that use of the term Zionism “in an accusatory manner” be considered as antisemitic, and dealt with accordingly. This could lead to legal steps being taken against anti-Zionists, and even those who criticise Zionist practice, as noted[7] by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. We could see a situation similar to that in France, where people have faced criminal charges and been heavily fined for advocating a boycott of Israeli goods. Anti-Zionist Jews, in particular, could be targeted by Israel’s apologists in an attempt to silence those who expose as hollow their claims to represent “the Jewish community.

BDS success

This is a major gain for Israel’s propagandists, who have for many years attempted to redefine the term “antisemitism” to include opposition to Zionism and the state of Israel, which they present as the modern “collective Jew”. And this, in turn, reflects the increasing inability of these apologists for war crimes and ethnic cleansing to offer any plausible defence of the behaviour of the Israeli state. The growing treatment of Israel as a pariah state, the refusal to engage with representatives of the state, and the increasing success of the Palestinian BDS campaign have obliged the Israeli state to respond by attempting to discredit and delegitimise its opponents.

Israeli PM Netanyahu recently transferred responsibility for countering BDS to the new Strategic Affairs Ministry headed by Gilad Erdan, who is also Minister of Public Security and of Information. Erdan has threatened[8] to “act at the individual level” against BDS activists, and warned that “soon any activist who uses their influence to delegitimize the only Jewish state in the world will know they will pay a price for it”.  Meanwhile, in April Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, adapting Israel’s euphemistic term for its campaign of assassination of Palestinian leaders, called for[9] the “targeted civil elimination” of BDS activists.

The involvement of other ministries in the campaign against BDS has ruffled feathers in Israel’s Foreign Ministry and sparked a turf war. In a remarkable act in September, the Israeli embassy in London sent a telegram[10] to the Foreign Ministry, accusing the Strategic Affairs Ministry of “operating British Jewish organisations” behind the embassy’s back, in a manner that could threaten their charitable status and potentially breach British law.

It is in this context that defending Jackie Walker, Malia Bouattia and others, and countering the smears against them, becomes so critical. It is dismaying that, following the latest concocted claims against Walker, parts of the left have responded equivocally, or even backed the false and absurd allegations.

Black women

Nor has there been much comment about the fact that many of the key targets of this assault – Jackie Walker, Malia Bouattia and Shami Chakrabarti – have something in common beyond their support for the struggle of the Palestian people – they are all black women.  This focus comes in the wake of viciously racist and sexist attacks on the appointment of Dianne Abbot as Home Secretary – no other Corbyn appointment has had the same response. You would hope that this would give people pause – but it doesn’t seem to have done.

Jackie was originally suspended from the Labour Party in May, after out-of-context extracts from comments on Facebook were submitted to the Compliance Unit and leaked to the press by the obscure Israel Advocacy Movement. Specifically, she was accused[11] of saying that Jews “caused an African Holocaust”. This is very far from her actual words. During a very nuanced discussion, with friends, about the complexities of identity, Jackie (whose white father is an Ashkenazi Jew, and her black mother is of part Sephardi Jewish origin) commented[12] that there are “no hierarchies of genocide”, and noted that “many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade which is of course why there were so many early synagogues in the Caribbean”.  This claim, relating to the role particularly of Dutch Jews in the 18th century sugar and slave trade in the Caribbean, is accepted by most historians of the subject. Jackie was not, as has been falsely alleged, parroting the antisemitic arguments of Louis Farrakhan, who falsely claims significant Jewish participation in the much bigger, and later, cotton and slave trade in North America. Even had Jackie’s comments been historically inaccurate or overblown, it is hard to see them as antisemitic, since they were a reflection on her own heritage, and how “we are victims and perpetrators to some extent through choice”.

We might ask exactly why the Israel Advocacy Movement was studying Jackie’s old Facebook posts. Were they trawling through Facebook generally, in order to find potentially embarrassing comments? Or were they (as seems more likely, since they do not appear to have made any other complaints) targeting Jackie deliberately, as a high-profile black supporter of Corbyn and Momentum?

At the time, Jackie received strong support, both from Momentum and within the Labour Party as a whole. The charges were investigated and found to be without any merit, and she was quickly reinstated to the Labour Party.

But the story refused to die, and the smears were constantly repeated. Despite the lack of any evidence, Jackie was regularly denounced as an antisemite, and other members of the Labour Party were denounced for associating with her. The decision to reinstate her was taken as evidence, not of her innocence of any reprehensible behaviour, but rather of the Labour Party’s purported antisemitism. John McDonnell was attacked for sharing a platform with Jackie at the TUC conference, while Jeremy Corbyn was attacked for appearing with her at a Momentum rally which she organised in Thanet. In a bizarre extension of this “guilt by association”, the Jewish Labour Movement (which is actually part of the Israeli Labour Party, and affiliated to the World Zionist Organisation) was then itself attacked for inviting McDonnell to speak at a meeting, because of his support for Jackie.

At Labour Party conference, there were several meetings on this issue, including two following closely after each other, organised by Momentum and by Free Speech on Israel. Jackie Walker spoke at both of these and at the Momentum meeting, she debated Jeremy Newmark, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement.

Jewish Labour Movement?

Despite its innocuous-sounding name, the JLM is not a body which represents all Jews in the Labour Party. Known until recently as Poale Zion (Workers of Zion), the JLM is in fact an affiliate of the former Israel Labour Party (now renamed “The Zionist Camp”, and is part of the World Zionist Organisation. Membership of the JLM is dependent on signing up to the WZO’s Jerusalem Programme, which sees “a Jewish, Zionist, democratic and secure State of Israel” as “the expression of the common responsibility of the Jewish people for its continuity and future” – a position rejected by many Jews. Newmark himself, it should be noted, is the person whose testimony in a recent employment tribunal was found by the judge[13] to be “false, preposterous, extraordinarily arrogant and disturbing”.

But the main attacks on Walker concern remarks that she is alleged to have made at a training session on antisemitism. In her report, Shami Chakrabarti explicitly recommended against separate antisemitism training, and indeed against any “narrow anti-racism training programmes”. She also rejected the demand of the JLM to be placed in charge of such training. Nevertheless, the JLM was invited to run such a session for the Labour Party at conference, and several Jewish radicals and dissidents attended.

In the course of the session, one participant asked the moderator for his definition of antisemitism, and the moderator replied that the standard definition was the EUMC document. This was challenged by several of those present. Some time later, after the moderator was asked why he would not allow the only Black Jew present to speak, Jackie was allowed to contribute. She started by saying, clearly in reference to the session itself, “I came here with an open mind and I still haven’t heard a definition of antisemitism that I can work with”. This was not, as it has been maliciously presented, a denial of the existence and prevalence of antisemitism, but a genuine request for a workable definition which targets anti-Jewish racism while permitting harsh criticism of Zionism and the Israeli state.

Jackie also queried the assertion that threats to the Jewish community meant that Jewish schools were required to organise security measures, pointing out that all schools now employed such measures. Once again, her words have been wrenched out of any context in an attempt to caricature her as denying that there is any threat to Jews in Britain.

In further discussion on Holocaust Memorial Day, Jackie queried why holocausts prior to the Nazi murder of millions of Jews were not also commemorated, or were played down. This is a legitimate topic for discussion, and surely one that it is permissible to raise in an anti-racist training session.

Although this was a supposedly closed training session, the proceedings had been filmed (without the knowledge or consent of the participants), and footage of Jackie’s comments was subsequently leaked to the press, leading to a further attack on her as antisemitic, and to her suspension from the Labour Party for the second time.

Defend Jackie Walker

This should have been the time for all of the left, all anti-racists, and indeed all supporters of free speech and due process, to rally to Jackie’s support. Instead, we had the unedifying spectacle of people falling over each other in their haste to dissociate themselves from her. Particularly egregious was the comment by TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes (a longstanding supporter of the Labour left) who denounced Jackie for “abhorrent racist views”, demanded her expulsion from Momentum and the Labour Party, and threatened that if she was not removed as Momentum vice-chair within a week, TSSA would withdraw its support from Momentum.

Rather than back his deputy in the face of such attacks, Momentum chair Jon Lansman described Jackie’s views as “offensive”, and noted how upset Jeremy Newmark had been by them. A majority of the Momentum steering committee (some of them, ironically, also facing false witch-hunt allegations) agreed with this, and the committee voted by seven votes to three to remove her as vice-chair, even though they agreed that none of her remarks was antisemitic. She was backed only by FBU leader Matt Wrack, Black and Minority Ethnic delegate Cecile Wright, and Wales delegate Darren Williams. Others, some of them well-known figures on the left, voted with Lansman, thus giving credence (despite their professed disagreement) to the charges against Jackie.

Meanwhile, the perpetually offensive and aggressive John Mann has characteristically attempted to escalate the situation even further, calling for the immediate suspension not just of Jackie Walker, but of anyone who supports her, insisting that “temporary suspensions are not good enough, these people must be given permanent bans”.[14]

And of course the subsequent developments with the Home Affairs Select Committee remind us of the long standing reality that retreating in the face of assaults like this does not give you an advantage – rather it shows your weakness and often leads to a harder offensive subsequently. Whether that will lead some people to reevaluate their position – to understand the way they are being used, remains to be seen.

The situation now is in some ways very disturbing. We are facing a full-blown witch-hunt, a retreat in the face of sustained hostility by some of the left, and the threat of significant restraints on what activists are allowed to say or do.

On the other hand, this onslaught is itself a tribute to the work that we have been doing and the growing success of pro-Palestinian activity. Our response must be to redouble our efforts to support the Palestinian struggle, to continue to push for a successful boycott of Israeli goods, services and institutions and divestment from the Israeli economy, and to oppose the witch-hunt and stand solidly alongside Jackie Walker, Malia Bouattia and all the other activists victimised for their stand against injustice.


[1] http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.720418

[2] http://972mag.com/how-israel-is-turning-one-arab-party-into-a-security-threat/122047/

[3] http://www.timesofisrael.com/odeh-defends-party-members-decision-not-to-attend-peress-funeral/

[4] http://www.timesofisrael.com/labor-party-activist-said-to-file-treason-complaint-against-btselem/

[5] https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ben-white/discredited-definition-anti-semitism-no-longer-use-says-bbc

[6] http://freespeechonisrael.org.uk/eumc-not-produce-adopt-working-definition-antisemitism/

[7] https://www.palestinecampaign.org/press-release-psc-responds-home-affairs-select-committee-report/

[8] https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/eu-envoy-refuses-condemn-israeli-threats-against-bds-activists

[9] http://www.amnestyusa.org/news/press-releases/israeli-government-must-cease-intimidation-of-human-rights-defenders-protect-them-from-attacks

[10] http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.744708

[11] http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/157709/labour-suspends-momentum-supporter-who-claimed-jews-caused-african-holocaust%E2%80%99

[12] http://jfjfp.com/?p=86378

[13] http://freespeechonisrael.org.uk/preposterous-liar-jeremy-newmark-re-educates-naz-shah-mp/

[14] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/09/30/momentum-chief-jackie-walker-suspended-from-labour-over-holocaus/

 

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