The Labour Party, Israel, and Antisemitism
By Avi Shlaim and Gwyn Daniel
Last week the labour Party came under ferocious political and media attack for allegedly harbouring antisemites in its midst. In the course of this, the accusers often blurred the distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, between legitimate criticisms of the state of Israel and hatred of Jews in general.
Two individuals were involved in the escalation of this row to new and explosive heights. Naz Shah, in 2014, before she became Labour MP for Bradford, tweeted that Israel should be transported to the United States as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shah issued a dignified apology, explaining that feelings were running high during the Israeli assault on Gaza. Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London and close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, rushed to Shah’s defence but compounded the crisis with his bizarre claim that Hitler supported Zionism in 1932 “before he went mad and killed six million Jews”. Jeremy Corbyn was pilloried in much of the press for not dealing quickly enough with the antisemitism that was said to be endemic in the left of the party. One result of this furore has been to shift the focus of debate from any criticism of Israel to condemnation of the critics of Israel and to bypass discussion of Palestine altogether.
Attitudes towards Israel are increasingly used as evidence of antisemitism. The argument takes three main forms. First, while criticism of Israel’s policies is not antisemitic, attempts to “delegitimize” the state of Israel are; second, sharing platforms with “terrorists”; third, singling out Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, for condemnation betrays antisemitic prejudice.
For those of us engaged in the politics of the region this is a familiar trope of Israeli Hasbara, a polite name for propaganda. The key question, given that antisemitism along with other forms of racism has had a continuing presence on the right as well as the left of British political life, is why now? And why has this storm broken around a man deeply committed to ant-racism and social justice, elected to the party leadership with an overwhelming majority, and about whom no-one, despite assiduous efforts, has uncovered any evidence of antisemitism?
Before returning to the specific question of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party, we need to place the three issues – “delegimisation”, talking to “terrorists”, and exceptionalism – in a historical perspective.
For many years the hot question was whether the best solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict was two states or one binational state. This debate intensified after the 1993 Oslo Accord which pointed to, but failed to deliver, two states. Since Oslo Israel has expanded its colonies and their infrastructure on the West Bank to a point where a viable Palestinian state is no longer feasible. By signing the Oslo Accord the PLO gave up its claim to 78% of mandate Palestine in the expectation of eventually getting an independent state on the remaining 22% comprising the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But it was not to be. Israel under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, following the assassination of Itzhak Rabin, reneged on its side of the deal.
By pursuing the aggressive and illegal Zionist colonial project on the West Bank, Israel has all but eliminated the two-state solution. Once this falls by the wayside, the one-state solution comes to the fore. This re-opens the question that has been present since the inception of the state: how is an ethnocracy with one ethnic group dominating the polity compatible with equal rights for all its citizens?
It is stating the blindly obvious that in a one state scenario with no Jewish majority, Israel would face an even starker choice between being an ethnocentric state or a democratic one. Israel’s leaders know this all too well. This is why they have so far avoided formal annexation of the West Bank, preferring to secure their control through creeping annexation. If one state is the only prospect, it is surely not antisemitic to interrogate its nature and substance or to argue for a secular state with equal rights for all its citizens.
Palestinians have lived under an increasingly brutal Israeli occupation for nearly fifty years. All people under colonial occupation will wish their oppressors to vanish from their land but this expression of desire is not the same as practical politics. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, is still committed by its Charter to a unitary, Islamic state over the whole of Palestine with no national rights for the Jews. Israel regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation and refuses to deal with it. But like many radical movements, Hamas moderated its political programme after entering the political process. In January 2006, it won a fair and free election, proceeded to form a government, and offered Israel a long-term ceasefire. Israel refused to negotiate. Repeated statements by Hamas leaders make it clear that it would settle for a two-state solution along the June 1967 lines if such a deal were to be endorsed by the Palestinian people in a referendum. Israel remains intransigent and continues to denounce anyone willing to talk with Hamas as complicit in terrorism.
The argument about exceptionalism towards Israel cuts both ways. Israel’s defenders charge their critics with double-standards; of expecting the Jewish state to meet uniquely exacting conditions that are not applied to other countries. But, thanks to America’s unconditional support, Israel acts with quite exceptional impunity. It abuses human rights, violates international law, and defies countless UN resolutions. Relying on the US veto in the Security Council, it gets away literally with murder. The failure by the UN to sanction Israel for the war crimes it committed during “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza in 2008 – war crimes that were thoroughly documented in the Goldstone report − is only one example of this immunity.
It is against this background that a massive disconnect has developed between the views of UK citizens with their sense of justice and fair play and those of their governing classes. Until Jeremy Corbyn’s election no leader of a major political party has ever stood up for Palestinian rights. The progress of the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) should also be understood in this context: actions by civil society to compensate for the failure of Western governments to hold Israel to account.
Most Palestinians see BDS as their only hope. It is a nonviolent movement led by citizens rather than governments with two principal aims – an end to occupation and equal rights for Palestinians living within the state of Israel. BDS is influenced by the history of sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Israel’s apartheid is considered by many to be much worse. Israel for its part is devoting a massive effort to combat BDS especially as it has already had some major successes. Government ministers have threatened “targeted civil eliminations” of Palestinian BDS leaders. In the UK the government is trying to make it illegal for local authorities to divest. BDS itself is frequently said to be antisemitic, with two US states voting to ban it.
So why the furore over antisemitism in the Labour Party now? Could it be part of a broader campaign both against Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-Palestinian stance and against the emergent success of the BDS movement? Many people express this view privately but not one leading politician has dared openly to say so. Why? Because once the positions described above are framed as antisemitic, even exposing them as propaganda becomes incorporated into the same set of antisemitic tropesas, for example, “undue Jewish influence”, “control of the media” etc”. It only takes one crass (and, yes, antisemitic) utterance by the likes of Livingstone to silence those who would speak truth to power in a way that is ethical, historically informed, and resolute.
Let us be clear about what is at stake here. As anyone who has recently visited Palestine will know, conditions are going from bad to worse. Settler violence, soldier brutality and casual killings, child arrests and imprisonment, land appropriation, and house demolitions are all increasing at an alarming rate. Racism is rife. The worse Israel behaves, the more strenuous are its efforts to disqualify and discredit anyone who holds her to account. The Israeli ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, was predictably quick to seize the opportunity to pronounce that criticism of Israel is nothing to do with its actions but results from a visceral hatred of the Jewish state itself.
The debate about antisemitism in the Labour Party is a microcosm of what is happening in this wider sphere. Use of language which accurately describes what is going on – settler-colonialism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing − is turned back on those who use it, seizing upon a few people like Naz Shah in order to disqualify anyone who dares raise their voice. Rather than being about a few inveterate antisemites on the “hard left” or a sudden extremist Momentum horde invading the Labour Party, it is the expression of public outrage that the UK government supports and indeed lauds a country that commits such abuses.
To deal with the immediate crisis, Jeremy Corbyn has suspended Shah and Livingstone and instituted an independent inquiry into antisemitism within the Labour Party. The inquiry is intended to produce robust rules for drumming anti-Semites out of the party. But we have to hope that the Labour leadership will not be bullied into including in a “new definition” of antisemitism any of the following: supporting a one state solution, naming Israel’s actions in Palestine as apartheid and ethnic cleansing, talking to Hamas or advocating BDS. And once the crisis over antisemitism subsides, the embattled Labour leader should muster the courage to resume his principled stand in support of justice for the Palestinian people.
Avi Shlaim is an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University. Gwyn Daniel is a psychotherapist and member of the UK-Palestine Mental Health network.