Notes From the Margins…

Labour’s Zionism Problem

  • April 08, 2016
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The idea that opposition to Israeli settler-colonialism or the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people is anti-Semitic is a well-established propaganda weapon, which Israel and its supporters have wielded to great effect for many years.  In recent weeks a number of Labour MPs and Labour supporters have picked it up once again to argue that the Labour Party is riddled with anti-Semitism and that Jeremy Corbyn is tacitly supporting or turning a  blind eye to it.

The incident which triggered the latest outburst seems to have stemmed from a decision last month by the Oxford University Labour Club to support Israeli Apartheid Week, in order to demonstrate its opposition to what it called Israel’s ‘ongoing settler-colonial project and apartheid policies over the Palestinian people’.    In response, OULC’s co-chairman Alex Chalmers resigned, claiming that many of its members had ‘some kind of problem with Jews.’

Chalmers did not make clear what that problem was, beyond condemning his club’s decision ‘ to    endorse a movement with a history of targeting and harassing Jewish students and inviting antisemitic speakers to campuses, despite the concerns of Jewish students.’

As scandals go, this is pretty thin gruel, yet a number of Labour MPs reacted as though OULC members had been handing out copies of the Elders of Zion in the Cornmarket, and called on Jeremy Corbyn to carry out an investigation into Chalmers’s allegations.

No one will be surprised that this chorus of outrage included MPs like Louise Ellman, a member of the Labour Friends of Israel, who accused Corbyn of not doing enough to stop the spread of anti-Semitism   Or John Mann, an MP who loathes Corbyn and has been trying to undermine him in various ways ever since he won the Labour leadership contest last summer.

By the end of the month, such accusations had transformed OULC’s ‘Jewish problem’ into a ‘Labour Party problem’, or more specifically ‘Corbyn’s Labour Party problem. ‘  Thus Blair’s former bagman Lord Levy joined  in,  threatening  to leave the party if Corbyn didn’t get to grips with the problem of anti-Semitism within the party.  Levy declared himself ‘ horrified and disgusted’ by the comments of two Labour Party members who had been excluded and suspended even before he made his threat.

The fact that these two members had been excluded and suspended might suggest that the Labour Party was not as passive as Levy suggested, but the ‘Corbyn tolerates anti-Semitism’ singalong was only just getting started.  Naturally there was a classic  smear piece  by the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, suggesting that Corbyn was not anti-Semtic but….

Then there was  Tom Harris, another Corbyn critic and member of Labour Friends of Israel, writing in that well-known Labour outlet  the Telegraph  that ‘  hatred of Israel real, blind, vicious, hatred is felt most keenly and most loudly by those on the extreme Left, many of them Trotskyites.’

Shock horror indeed.   Then Ellman threw another ingredient into the mix, claiming that Labour Party members and supporters ‘are being allowed to get away with posting anti-Semitic comments in their tweets and on their website.’   And  now Sadiq Khan, a hollow careerist politician who will say whatever he thinks he needs to say to get himself elected,  has declared himself ‘ embarrassed, I’m sorrowful about anti-Semitism in my party’ and claimed that Jeremy Corbyn needs to be ‘trained about what anti-Semtism is.’

Not from a miserable jerk like Khan he doesn’t.  .And I hope Corbyn won’t take any lessons from  Jonathan Arkush, president of the Jewish Board of Deputies who has denounced  ‘  a stream of clear cut cases of antisemitism in the Labour  party, which can”t just be fobbed off as differences over Israel’ and claimed that ‘  Most of the Jewish community, numerous Labour MPs, Labour peers, and Labour”s London mayoral candidate are crying out for the leader to take action on antisemitism.’

Arkush is particularly concerned by Corbyn’s response to the following tweet from his brother, Piers Corbyn on Louise Ellman’s accusations:

[stextbox id=”alert”]”All #Corbyns are committed #AntiNazi. #Zionists cant cope with anyone supporting rights for #Palestine”[/stextbox]

Jeremy Corbyn said his brother was “not wrong” and that “My brother has his point of view, I have mine and we actually fundamentally agree we are a family that were brought up fighting racism from the day we were born.’  Personally,  I don’t anything wrong with either the tweet or Corbyn’s response, nevertheless Arkush insists that ‘Jeremy Corbyn”s defence of his brother”s belittling of the problem of antisemitism is deeply disturbing.’

Not half as disturbing as the vicious racism that is openly coursing through Israeli society nowadays.    Like justice minister Ayelet Shaked’s Facebook  call for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to ‘little snakes.’  Or  Habayit Hayehudi MK  Bezalel Smotrich.tweets on his pregnant wife’s reluctance to share a  hospital with Arabs on the grounds that:

[stextbox id=”alert”]My wife isn”t a racist, but after giving birth, she wanted rest, not the mass haflot that are common among the families of Arab women who give birth[/stextbox]


[stextbox id=”alert”]It”s natural that my wife wouldn”t want to lie next to someone who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder her baby in another 20 years”[/stextbox]

A recent poll by an Israeli tv station found that more than half of Israelis supported the soldier who shot dead a wounded Palestinian in Hebron last month who had tried and failed to carry out a knife attack.    Haaretz’s Gideon Levy, one of the most courageous voices in Israel, lamented his country’s transformation  into a ‘  monster – and no one is going to stop it.’

As Levy observed:

‘There are toxic seeds which, once planted, cannot be stopped from sprouting. There are plagues that cannot be stopped from spreading. We are there. When the execution of a wounded Palestinian becomes a value, all other values and hopes disappear. A new people has been created, between the ultranationalist and religious right on one side and the apathetic majority on the other.’

Too right. But the likes of Levy, Mann, and Ellman aren’t interested in any of this, and if they are disturbed by these developments, they haven’t said.    Are there anti-Semites within the Labour Party? Certainly, and when they raise their heads above the parapet they need to be rooted out.   But these are marginal figures, compared with the far more powerful historic influence of Zionism within the party.

Some of those who have attacked Corbyn in recent weeks belong to this tradition.  For these Labour friends of Israel, ‘friendship’ requires uncritically following every propaganda talking point laid down by the Israeli state in response to the increasing success of the BDS movement.

Others are clearly combining this agenda with their opposition to Corbynism, and are willing to say and do anything  to undermine and discredit Corbyn. Smearing him with spurious accusations of tolerating anti-Semitism is just one more tool in the toolbox.  There are also those, like Tom Harris, who combine support for Israel and anti-Cobynism with opposition to the left in general.

Such hostility undoubtedly explains why a lifelong anti-racist, socialist and anti-Zionist like Tony Greenstein has been suspended from the party for supposedly anti-Semitic comments – a grotesque suggestion to anyone familiar with Greenstein’s principled activism.

Last but not least, there is Sadiq Khan, who just wants to be mayor of London and perhaps something even more than that in the future.

So there is really nothing very noble or decent or well-meaning about this at all, and whatever problem the Labour Party may have with  anti-Semitism, it is nothing compared to Labour’s Zionism problem, which has too often led Israel’s ‘friends’ within the PLP to remain silent about the ongoing oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians, and  Israel’s own headlong descent into the racist vortex.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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