How not to fight antisemitism

Not all Jews think the Board of Deputies speaks for them

On March 30 2018 Israel accelerated its practice of deliberate cold-blooded murder of Palestinian civilians demonstrating peacefully in their own land, writes Ariel Pardess. But you might not know this from the British media, which has unanimously decided that the main story this week has been the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn as an antisemite. In the midst of this media frenzy, it is all too easy to forget that the principal victims of the conflict are not British Jews, but the Palestinian people. A salutary corrective to this was provided by British Palestinian activist Chris Khamis, who wrote that “As a British Palestinian Arab and member of the Labour Party I am beginning to feel there is a minority who do not want the Party to welcome people like me. And they sure don’t want to make the Labour Party a safe place for me.”

The latest round of the confected antisemitism crisis, conveniently timed to attract maximum publicity just before the start of the local election campaign, has once again brought together the usual ragbag of Israel propagandists, Tory supporters, and irreconcilable Blairites hostile to Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Among the reactionary know-nothings who turned up to support the Board of Deputies “Enough is Enough” anti-Corbyn rally on 26 March were DUP bigots Ian Paisley (who patronisingly tweeted his support for “our Jewish people”) and Sammy Wilson (who has even been criticised by his own party for racism). They were joined by Tory luminaries such as Norman Tebbitt (notorious for his “cricket test” racist remarks) and Zac Goldsmith (who ran against Sadiq Kahn as mayor of London on a noxious anti-Muslim platform). The demonstration was also graced by the presence of several Labour MPs, including John Mann (who was interviewed by the police after his anti-Roma views caused the collapse of a planned Parliamentary seminar on racism against Gypsies and Travellers) and Stella Creasy (who has recently shared grossly offensive racist and pornographic material on social media).

What unites these people is not opposition to racism, nor even love of Jews; it is uncritical support for the state of Israel and its ongoing war of dispossession against the Palestinian people. Many of them were extremely hostile to the 200 or so counter-demonstrators mobilised by Jewish Voice for Labour, threatening them with violence, making Nazi salutes, and showering them with abuse such as “kapo”, “traitor”, terrorist”, and even (most damning in their eyes) “You’re not even real Jews”.

The 26 March demonstration was not, despite its protestations, an expression of Jewish community concern about antisemitism; it was a Tory-led challenge to the Labour party and its elected leader. This was the British establishment smearing and denouncing a committed socialist and anti-racist activist, whose appeal to the public challenges their authority and their comfortable lives. The Labour Party members who took part, and in particular the several MPs, should be taken to task for this public disloyalty and attempted sabotage of Labour’s election campaign.

Following the demonstration, Corbyn wrote to the BoD, offering to meet them to discuss their concerns. The Board replied with an uncompromising letter setting out their preconditions for any meeting. These included demands that all Labour party members be instructed not to share a platform with people suspended for alleged antisemitic activity – anyone doing so should themselves be suspended from the party; that the party should adopt the flawed IHRA definition of antisemitism plus the list of examples, most of which refer to anti-Israel activity rather than to antisemitism; that the party should not engage with “fringe groups” (eg Jewish Voice for Labour); and that use of the word “Zionist” in contexts of which they disapproved should be a disciplinary offence. They also demanded the appointment of an ombudsman to oversee party discipline, answerable both to the LP and the BoD. These are clearly demands which Corbyn cannot meet, and posing them is intended to make such a meeting impossible, while implying that it is Corbyn who is responsible for this.

As with most previous allegations of antisemitism, the latest examples result from intensive trawling of old social media postings, which are then selectively and misleadingly quoted. For instance, the claim that Corbyn defended an antisemitic mural is based on one brief Facebook posting from 2012, at a time when neither the Jewish Chronicle nor rabidly pro-Israel blog Harry’s Place was convinced that the painting was antisemitic. This issue was reported widely at the time, and also in 2015; it really beggars belief that Luciana Berger, with her close links to Jewish community bodies, was not aware of this until just before the local elections as she claimed on the Today programme; and it is also not obvious, since this happened six years ago, why any complaint could not have waited a further six weeks until the polls closed.

In another case, leading Momentum activist Christine Shawcroft was obliged to resign as head of the NEC Disputes Panel, and then from the NEC itself, after she was accused of “defending a Holocaust denier”. Alan Bull, a Labour council candidate in Peterborough was accused of circulating a video claiming that the Holocaust was “a hoax”. He claimed that the Facebook screenshot had been doctored in order to remove his explanation of why he was sharing it. Shawcroft’s initial response was to oppose Bull’s removal as a candidate, and to insist on due process and a hearing before any disciplinary steps were taken. This led to a media firestorm, as a result of which she was forced to resign from the NEC, vacating her seat for Blairite comedian Eddie Izzard.

Once again, we see a process of “sentence first, verdict afterwards” – and trial, and evidence nowhere at all. On the face of it, Bull appears to be naive and foolish rather than an evil Holocaust denier. This might disqualify him as a Labour candidate, and be grounds for some education; but it should surely not be a heinous offence, requiring the end of a political career, to insist that he, like all other targets of the witch-hunt, is entitled to a fair and transparent disciplinary process, with the evidence properly presented and a full opportunity to present his own case.

Further on the question of education around antisemitism, this is also a hotly contested matter. The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), who have promoted the IHRA definition and define their membership on the basis of support for Israel, claim the right to speak for all Jews in the Labour Party – and to be the ‘experts’ who should get the franchise to carry out antisemitism training. Such a course was not at all that proposed by the Chakrabarti report, which neither accorded such status to the JLM nor indeed, after much reflection, supported the idea that antiracist training per se was what was needed.

The latest, extraordinary, incident in this process of demonisation and smear against the Labour leader and his supporters has been the attack on Corbyn for attending a Jewish community celebration in Islington. He accepted an invitation from the radical Jewish group Jewdas to attend a “Third Seder” to mark the Passover festival. The Seder is a ritual meal held on the first two days of the festival. It is very much a family occasion, observed by secular Jews as well as by the observant, and there is a very long tradition of a community  “Third Seder” held by political and cultural groups. In the 1920s, there are even reports of “Bolshevik Seders” being organised in Russia.

Jewdas is a group of radical diasporist young Jews, many of them religiously observant, who reject Zionism and poke fun at the hidebound institutions of the Jewish establishment. Or, if you believe the chair of the Board of Deputies, Jonathan Arkush, they are “the source of virulent antisemitism”. They were delighted when Corbyn accepted their invitation to celebrate Passover with them, and were shocked to discover, as they left for home after four hours of fun and feasting, that someone in the hall had videoed the event and sent it to the rabidly right-wing Guido Fawkes blog. This led to a media frenzy, with Labour MPs falling over each other in their rush to condemn Corbyn for meeting “the wrong kind of Jews”. Sheffield MP Angela Smith made a fool of herself by condemning Corbyn for taking part in the Jewdas “seber” (sic), thus flaunting her total ignorance of Jewish culture. Supporters of Corbyn were quick to point out that the real antisemitism in this farce  was displayed not by Jeremy Corbyn celebrating with young Jewish constituents, but by the non-Jews trying to police how Jews celebrate, and who were the “good Jews” who Corbyn was permitted to meet.

Following this, events took an even more serious turn when Labour Party Marxists secretary Stan Keable was suspended from his job as an environmental protection officer for Hammersmith & Fulham council, following complaints about comments he made at the JVL counter-demo. His comments on the Haavara agreement and the collaboration of German Zionists with the Nazis in the 30s were accurate, and better argued that Ken Livingstone’s approach to the same topic. But even had they not been, these would surely not be grounds for a threat to his job, which is entirely unrelated to his views on Zionism. Suspension and expulsion from the Labour Party, and disqualification as a candidate, is a serious enough sanction; to threaten a person’s job and livelihood is scandalous, and we stand fully in solidarity with Stan Keable.

Since the onset of this campaign of false charges of antisemitism, we have warned that this misuse of the term ran the risk of “discrediting the use of the term when appropriate, and of actually fostering racial antagonism towards Jews”. We are beginning to see this now, with some naive humanitarians swallowing Zionist propaganda which equates Jews with Zionism and Israel, and simple-mindedly condemning all Jews for Israel’s crimes. Similarly, rather than challenge the false argument that European persecution of the Jews, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust, justified the establishment of the state of Israel on the ruins of Palestine, some people accept that outrageous  logic and instead argue that the Holocaust never happened, and therefore Israel has no justification. This line of reasoning is welcomed both by Israel’s leadership, which sees a rise in antisemitism as the best way of boosting Israel’s Jewish population, and by the antisemites themselves, quick to exploit any opportunity to stigmatise all Jews with collective responsibility.

If there has been a rise in antisemitism in Britain in recent years, then this is in the context of a Brexit-fuelled little England nationalism which has seen a scandalous rise in all forms of racism, and other hate crimes. And the responsibility for this does not lie with Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, but with the people who have led and been in charge of this process, and primarily with the Tory Party.

Anti-Zionist activists have been among the first to identify and isolate the genuine racists attempting to worm their way into the solidarity movement. They have needed no lessons from the Zionists of the Jewish establishment, no encouragement from the bigots of the DUP and the fringes of the right. And they have received no support from the irreconcilable anti-Corbyn rump in the Labour Party, and particularly among Labour MPs. Those who wish to work for Palestinian rights, those who wish to oppose antisemitism in British society, could do so more effectively if they listened more to the activists of Jewish Voice for Labour, Free Speech on Israel, Jewdas and other radical Jews, and less to the likes of John Mann, Stella Creasy, Wes Streeting and Luciana Berger.

In the face of this onslaught, there are several things we can, and must, do. First among these is to continue to campaign for Palestinian rights, and to reject the lie that even the slightest deviation from the Israeli propaganda line is antisemitic. All socialists, all supporters of human rights and liberation, all anti-racists should be at the rally on 7 April in solidarity with the people of Gaza.

At the same time, we must be vigilant in countering antisemitism, whether this means opposing Nazis on the streets, or opposing the antisemites purportedly within our own ranks.

Labour Party members must continue to press for implementation of the recommendations of the Chakrabarti report. One positive note in a difficult week has been the letter sent by Labour’s new General Secretary Jennie Formby in which she says that implementing Chakrabarti, which previously seemed to have been kicked into the long grass, would be a key priority – as would be addressing all forms of prejudice within the party.

Above all, we have to recognize the purpose and context of this attack. It is being pushed by an alliance of the British establishment, terrified at the prospect of the election of a Labour government with a genuinely socialist programme, with the Israeli state, aware that it has lost the propaganda war – particularly for the hearts and minds of young Jews – and desperately pursuing its campaign of “targeted civil assassination” of key activists. And the Labour MPs going along with this are not merely misguided individuals; they are deliberate collaborators with our class enemy.

 

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