Witchhunters employ new tactics

Binyamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi, January 2018. Photo: India Press Information Bureau

Despite the replacement of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, the antisemitism witchhunt continues, and is even intensifying, writes Ariel Pardess. At the same time, pro-Israel propagandists are adopting new methods, while the template is being adopted by others.

If new Labour leader Keir Starmer hoped to put a stop to this by capitulation, he was woefully mistaken. In July, he decided – apparently despite  advice from lawyers that the party had a strong legal case – to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds of Labour Party members’ money to settle out of court a libel case against the Labour Party, brought by former staff members who took part in last year’s notorious Panorama programme in which they smeared and defamed the party. This decision has predictably encouraged the threat of further such actions.

Jeremy Corbyn’s strong criticism of this decision has led to the threat of a libel action against him. A defence fund has already received donations of more than £300,000. John Ware, the programme’s director (and winner of the 2005 Islamophobe of the Year Award) is also suing Jewish Voice for Labour, and two of its officers, over their criticism of the programme.

Meanwhile, some on the right are demanding the expulsion of Corbyn himself – a step that would almost certainly lead to a mass exodus of party members. Starmer has manoeuvred himself into a corner, in which whatever he does will lead to further demands and further attacks. In this, if in nothing else, he has continued the practice of the Corbyn leadership, which badly mismanaged the issue and should have opposed the witchhunt and rejected the preposterous demands from the start.

Having seen the success of the antisemitism witchhunt, supporters of the far-right RSS movement and the Modi government in India launched a similar campaign, accusing their opponents of being “anti-Hindu” racists. They are doing this in open collaboration with Israel’s supporters in Britain. During the 2019 General Election, the Hindu Council issued a statement in support of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s denunciation of the Labour Party as “antisemitic”, while a year earlier Gideon Falter, chair of the misleadingly named “Campaign Against Antisemitism”, had assured a meeting of the Hindu Forum that the CAA would support their opposition to any attempt to include caste discrimination in the scope of equality legislation.

Copying the example of their Zionist allies, a number of Indian members have resigned from the party, citing alleged “anti-Hindu racism” and the party’s support for Kashmiri rights. Most recently, a former councillor in Leicester quit, claiming that the decision to select Claudia Webbe (who he, completely without basis, accused of condoning “disgusting anti-Indian rhetoric” in her chairing of the conference debate on Kashmmir)  rather than him as parliamentary candidate was evidence of “institutional anti-Indian racism” in the Labour Party. He also objected to use of the term “Hindutva”, claiming that it was being used “in the same way Zionist is sometimes deployed in a disparaging way when referencing Jewish people.”

It is not at all outlandish to compare Hindutva with Zionism, as long been noted both by supporters and by opponents of the two racist movements. In both cases the words started as a self-description and only took on this untouchability when the movements opposing them reached a particular level of strength. And, despite the special pleading of apologists for ethnic supremacy and national dispossession, it is no more anti-Hindu to object to India’s occupation of Kashmir than it is antisemitic to object to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Nor is it only political activities that are under attack. The Board of Deputies has recently written to at least one voluntary organisation implicitly threatening their funding because they are in contact with supporters of Jewish Voice for Labour, which they falsely describe as a group “set up to deny allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party”.

As we have repeatedly noted, most of the allegations of antisemitism are patently ridiculous. It now appears that some are even more false than at first suspected. It was recently revealed that Edward Sutherland, the convenor of the Confederation of Friends of Israel in Scotland (a registered charity with a deplorable record of Islamophobic comments) had for years been using a fake Facebook profile in order to post grossly antisemitic comments. When this was discovered, his supporters claimed that this was a trap designed to encourage opponents of Israel into making “illegal comments”, while the chair of Glasgow Friends of Israel argued that Sutherland could not be antisemitic because he was “a friend of Israel – thus neatly illustrating the redefinition of the term “antisemitism” at the heart of the notorious IHRA definition. There is no indication that anyone was foolish enough to fall into this trap, but the site itself was used as evidence that Israel’s opponents were motivated by antisemitism.

Sutherland has since been implicated, together with lawyer Matthew Berlow, in a plot to fake a graffiti attack on Berlow’s home and blame Scottish PSC for the alleged attack. Berlow, who was fined £500 by the Law Society of Scotland for his role in the deception, has previously been fined £1750 and ordered to take part in diversity training for his “intemperate” Facebook attacks on a Palestinian dentist in Aberdeen.

Sutherland is now at risk of losing his day job as head of religious and moral education at an academy in Ayrshire, but we can be sure that he was not the only troll engaging in such behaviour. In January, Electronic Intifada reported the discovery of ten fake Twitter profiles, purportedly belonging to Palestine supporting Labour Party members but actually set up by pro-Israel propagandists, which were posting extreme antisemitic comments in an attempt to smear both Corbyn and supporters of Palestine as antisemites. Journalist Asa Winstanley had reported a similar exercise some years earlier. Other fake profiles, some using computer-generated photos and others stealing Facebook profile photos, have been set up to support Israel and harass its opponents. Reuters reported one such case in July, in which a purported Birmingham University student managed to get pro-Israel articles published by the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel and other newspapers.

Another tactic increasingly adopted against pro-Palestine activists is the threat of legal action. For several years, the Israeli lawfare organisation Shurat Hadin has been bringing actions against Palestinian bodies and organisations believed to support them. Many of these have been rejected out of hand out by US courts. In 2018, Shurat Hadin sued two New Zealand teenagers, alleging that a letter they wrote to singer Lorde led to her cancelling a concert in Israel, thus causing emotional distress to Israeli fans. The Jerusalem Magistrates Court found against the teenagers and awarded substantial damages to Israeli fans – but this ruling, of course, cannot be enforced in New Zealand.

Subsequently, seeing the limited success of these actions, Israel’s apologists switched legal tack and started to issue libel actions against supporters of Palestinian rights. In London, long regarded as the libel capital of the world, such action can be ruinous even for successful defendants. The case against the Labour Party itself was one among many such actions.

For example, media “personalities” Tracy-Ann Oberman and Rachel Riley have issued a number of libel actions, including against political blogger Mike Sivier and immigration lawyer Jane Heybroek over references (in articles or on Twitter) to an article by another blogger[1] accusing them of harassing a teenage girl with anxiety issues. Their lawyer, operating on a “no win, no fee” basis, is Mark Lewis – a far-right Zionist, one of the founders of Herut-UK, who has himself been fined by the Law Society for sending a series of “offensive and profane” tweets to critics. Oberman and Riley are also covered by “after the event insurance”, so in the event that they lose they face no financial risk. Such is not the case for the defendants, who risk bankruptcy and losing their homes, and who have been crowdfunding for their defence.

This campaign received a setback at the end of July, when Oberman and Riley withdrew their action against Heybroek, and agreed to pay her costs – estimated by her to be £80,000. Although they had originally threatened more than 70 people with action over retweets, it appears that in the end Heybroek was the only defendant they pursued – although they are still suing Sivier over his related article. Riley is also suing former Corbyn aide Laura Murray, over an unrelated issue.

This use of the draconian libel law in England, in a deliberate attempt to leave political opponents bankrupt and homeless while posing no risk to the plaintiffs even if they lose, is an integral part of the “lawfare” campaign launched by the Israeli state in response to the growing success of the international campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.  Alongside the desperate attempts to criminalise opposition to Israel’s war crimes, it is evidence that Israel’s apologists no longer have any effective political arguments. But the truth cannot be denied for ever, and this campaign is bound to fail – though before this happens it may leave several victims in its wake.

[1] In order to avoid the risk of ourselves being sued for libel, we have not included a link to Shaun Lawson’s article Beneath Contempt: How Tracy Ann Oberman and Rachel Riley harassed, dogpiled and slandered a 16-year-old child and her father.

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1 Comment on Witchhunters employ new tactics

  1. Andy Kilmister // 8th September 2020 at 5:19 pm // Reply

    As background to the comparison of Zionism with Hindutva made here the articles on India by Perry Anderson are illuminating in my view. They appeared in the London Review of Books in 2012 (in order of appearance – `Gandhi Centre Stage’ in the 5 July issue, `Why Partition?’ in the 19 July issue and `After Nehru’ in the 2 August issue) and were later collected in the book `The Indian Ideology. The third article is the most relevant one here and contains a lengthy comparison between nationalist movements in Ireland, Israel/Palestine and India. The argument is too complex to summarise in a quick post but with regard to India and Palestine has been borne out by what has happened since I think, although the Irish case has diverged somewhat.

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