The speech by British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn at last week’s annual party conference included an unequivocal declaration of solidarity with the Palestinians. “Let’s give real support to end the oppression of the Palestinian people, the 50-year occupation and illegal settlement expansion and move to a genuine two-state solution,” he told delegates as they rose to their feet in applause.
To outsiders, that doubtless appeared little more than a crowd pleasing moment, easily delivered by the head of a leftwing European party. But appearances can be deceptive.
In truth, Corbyn’s declaration of support for the Palestinian cause came as sections of his party’s establishment demonstrated once again that they are determined to subvert his leadership. And the issue they have selected as his Achilles’ heel relates directly to the debate about the Palestinians’ future.
Corbyn has been battling to stamp his authority on the party establishment since he was elected leader more than two years ago with a decisive majority of Labour activists’ votes. Despite his enormous popularity among the rank and file, he has been viewed as far too leftwing – and unelectable – by the vast majority of his own MPs, sitting alongside him in the British House of Commons.
Many are ideologically wedded to the reinvention of “New Labour” – stripped of all taints of socialism – that occurred under Tony Blair’s leadership. In the search for power, Blair adopted a largely neoliberal agenda, embracing many of the core assumptions of the rival Conservative party.
Labour MPs and members of its ruling body, the National Executive Committee, have sought various ways to oust Corbyn, including forcing him to undergo a second leadership election last year. There was even a failed attempt to keep him off the ballot paper.
But in practice the attacks made him stronger: hundreds of thousands of supporters flocked to join the party to ensure his re-election, making Labour the largest political party in western Europe.
The real nasty party?
Given that they failed to be rid of Corbyn, sections of the party establishment have concentrated instead on wounding him, in the hope that the injury will eventually prove fatal.
The accusation that has gained most traction, gleefully repeated by a British media openly hostile to the Labour leader, is that, under Corbyn’s watch, anti-semitism has spread like wildfire through the party. On this view, Corbyn’s support for Palestinian rights has unleashed a dormant Jew hatred from the dark recesses of the British left. And there is a further implication: that Corbyn has turned a blind eye because he too is covertly anti-semitic.
Last week Labour leaders, including John Cryer, the chair of the parliamentary party, piled on the warnings of spiralling anti-semitism.
The right-wing Daily Mail newspaper, whose proprietor Lord Rothermere was an early enthusiast of Hitler’s Germany, branded Labour under Corbyn “the real nasty party” for its supposed indulgence of anti-semitism. The rival Telegraph accused Corbyn of “behaving like an ostrich”.
The Guardian newspaper, meanwhile, which has led many of the attacks on Corbyn from the liberal-left flank and done most to bolster a consensus that the anti-semitism allegations are well-founded, helpfully offered a “timeline of anti-semitism” in its reports of the party conference.
‘Arabs out, Jews in’
The exploitation of anti-semitism by Labour party leaders to weaken Corbyn, and to try to silence his support for the Palestinian cause, is not so surprising to anyone who has studied the Labour movement’s history.
A large section of Corbyn’s parliamentary party are dedicated to the cause of defending Israel, at all costs. They belong to a group called Labour Friends of Israel, which regularly sends Labour MPs on indoctrination trips to Israel paid for by the Israeli government.
Labour Friends of Israel is part of a long, and extremely dishonorable, tradition in the party of uncritical support for Israel. It is genuinely shocking to discover that in 1944 – four years before Israel’s creation – Labour’s National Executive Committee and the annual conference recommended that the natives of Palestine, a large majority population, be ethnically cleansed to advance the goals of European Zionists colonising their land.
In the book Publish It Not, the late Christopher Mayhew, who once served as a Labour defence minister, quoted that resolution: “Palestine surely is a case, on human grounds and to promote a stable settlement, for a transfer of population. Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out, as the Jews move in.”
Israel’s founding fathers took the advice to heart in 1948, during the Nakba, or what Palestinians call their Catastrophe. Israel expelled some 750,000 Palestinians from the Jewish state created on the ruins of the Palestinians’ homeland.
Paeans to Judaisation
Afterwards, British Labour party officials celebrated, with dewy-eyed paeans to the “egalitarian” kibbutz farming collectives spreading across newly “Judaised” land. Labour leaders sent their children to toil on these socialist kibbutzim – communes that adhered to an ideology of Hebrew labour, intended to starve the surviving Palestinian population of economic opportunities in the new state.
In 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, most in the UK’s Labour party, including prime minister Harold Wilson, averted their gaze. The government kept quiet about the abuses of the military regime imposed on Palestinians under occupation, as well as Israel’s recruitment of fanatical Jewish settlers to drive Palestinians off the remnants of their homeland.
In fact, Wilson, who himself served as president of Labour Friends of Israel, regularly rejected any suggestion that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories. In a speech in 1972, reported by the Jewish Chronicle, and again quoted by Mayhew, Wilson added for good measure: “Israel’s reaction is natural and proper in refusing to accept the Palestinians as a nation.”
In other words, for many decades the British Labour party was a hotbed of Nakba-denial and profound anti-Arab racism, used to justify ethnic cleansing, racial segregation and brutal military occupation.
A zealous lobby
Sadly, this is not ancient history. Many in the Labour party establishment appear not yet to have entirely cast off such prejudices.
The flame of zealous support for Israel was kept burning by a lobby group, Poale Zion, that was formally incorporated into the Labour party in 1920, shortly after the Balfour Declaration committed the British government to creating a “national home” for Jews in Palestine.
Poale Zion was the sister organisation of Israel’s own Labour party, which ran the country uninterrupted until the late 1970s. Israel’s Labour Party was responsible for carrying out the mass ethnic cleansing of 1948 and launched the settlement drive after 1967.
Today Poale Zion has been rebranded as the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), but its ties to the Israeli authorities are no less intimate. The JLM’s mother body, the World Zionist Organisation, has a division that to this day finances the establishment and expansion of settlements in the West Bank, in violation of international law.
If there were any doubts about the collusion between the Israeli government and the JLM, they were put to rest by an in-depth undercover investigation by Al Jazeera earlier this year, called The Lobby. It found that the JLM was working hand in glove with the Israeli embassy in London to subvert Corbyn’s leadership over his support for the Palestinians. It did so by confecting allegations of anti-semitism against Corbyn supporters.
That collaboration is perfectly captured in the figure of Ella Rose, who was appointed director of the JLM in 2016, immediately on leaving her post at the Israeli embassy.
Shock over award
The exposure of these activities, one might assume, should have discredited the JLM and required at the very least that the Labour party formally disciplined the group’s leadership. But quite the reverse has happened.
At the Labour conference last week, the party gave the JLM the Del Singh award in recognition of its work “engaging and mobilising the Jewish community in support of Labour campaigns”.
Perhaps understandably, the family of Singh, a human rights activist who was killed in Afghanistan in 2014, were appalled at the JLM receiving an award named in his honour. They expressed their “shock and disbelief” that the award had been given to a group that “tirelessly defended the human rights abuses of the Israeli occupation, which Del spoke so passionately against, … [and] defended the illegal blockade against Gaza and the consecutive wars against the trapped population which Del categorically believed to be nothing short of collective punishment and war crimes.”
Another illustration of the monumentally blinkered approach to the JLM by many in the party was provided by Owen Jones, a prominent media commentator and hugely popular activist on the party’s left.
Shortly after the Al Jazeera expose was broadcast, Jones agreed to give a memorial lecture to the JLM, as if the underhand efforts by the group on behalf of a foreign government to undermine the elected leader of the party were of no account. The topic of the lecture was, of course, anti-semitism on the left.
In justifying his decision, after he came under fierce criticism, Jones admitted that he was a close friend of the family of the late Henry Smith, one of JLM’s leaders and the man in whose memory the lecture is named.
Comparisons with apartheid
Corbyn’s leadership raised hopes for the first time among ordinary party members that they might be able to supplant Labour’s Zionist orthodoxy with support for the Palestinian cause. Given the failure of western governments to pressure Israel to end the occupation, many activists are keen for the party to assert a more progressive stance, emphasising Palestinian oppression.
Some support grassroots initiatives – including Israel Apartheid Week, and BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – premised on the idea that there is a clear similarity between Israel and apartheid South Africa. The Israeli government has effectively declared war on both initiatives, as has the JLM.
The JLM’s task has been to discredit pro-Palestinian voices inside Labour and isolate Corbyn so that there is no challenge to the party’s traditional Zionist stance. The JLM, quietly supported by the Israeli embassy, has recruited the media, crudely sowing concerns that there has been an explosion of anti-semitism under Corbyn’s leadership.
This has forced the Labour leader on to the back foot on the Palestinian issue. It had also made it risky for him to defend any of those accused, in case he himself becomes the focus of yet more dirty tricks from within his own party.
Trouble at Oxford University
The first blow was struck early last year at the elite Oxford University, where many Labour party leaders have been educated. The decision by one student, Alex Chalmers, to quit the Labour club, claiming he had been made uncomfortable by anti-semitic comments, made headlines. He argued, without providing any substantive evidence, that many Labour activists “have some sort of problem with Jews.”
Almost a year later, and largely unnoticed, a Labour inquiry cleared fellow students of Chalmer’s anti-semitism accusations. But Labour peer Baroness Royall was among those dissatisfied with the outcome. She said: “I am deeply disappointed by the outcome and fear it will further harm relations between the Jewish community and our party by confirming a widely held view that we do not take anti-semitism seriously.”
Contrary to his portrayal in the media, Chalmers was far from a disinterested observer of Labour party politics. An investigation by the Electronic Intifada discovered that he had previously worked for BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, another wing of Britain’s Israel lobby.
None of that slowed the spread of accusations by the JLM and Labour Friends of Israel of rampant anti-semitism in Labour’s ranks. Two things were overlooked in the furor, however. Despite a concerted effort by the Israel lobby to sniff out examples of supposed anti-semitism under Corbyn – usually by trawling through activists’ social media accounts, often highlighting posts published years earlier – only a tiny number of examples were actually supplied. And of those two dozen or so cases, few withstood scrutiny. In fact, many of the targets of what rapidly turned into an anti-semitism witch hunt were themselves Jewish.
A striking example was Jackie Walker, who is Jewish and black, and was the vice-chair of the Corbyn-supporting Momentum organisation. She was suspended, reinstated and then suspended again during 2016 over tendentious claims of anti-semitism, and removed from her role at Momentum.
Her second suspension occurred after a JLM official secretly taped her at a private “anti-semitism training” workshop run by the JLM at last year’s party conference. She and others who attended argued that the definitions promoted by the JLM intentionally conflated anti-semitism with criticism of Israel. She also suggested that Holocaust Day ought to be more inclusive in remembering other atrocities, such as the slave trade, which she has called an “African holocaust”. The recording was leaked to the Telegraph newspaper.
Paradoxically, as a result, Walker was bombarded on social media with anti-black racist taunts and accusations that she was not really Jewish. The JLM apparently did not consider her abuse anti-semitism.
But a far bigger and more useful scalp arrived soon afterwards in the form of Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a long-time political ally of Corbyn’s. Livingstone too had been outspoken among the senior levels of the party in supporting Palestinian rights.
The Nazi taboo
Livingstone got himself into deep trouble as he came to the defence of Naz Shah, one of Labour’s few Asian MPs, who had been targeted in the “anti-semitism purge”.
Defending her in a radio interview, Livingstone strayed on to a taboo topic. He referred to the documented fact that, years before the Holocaust, Nazi leaders and elements within the Zionist movement shared enough common ground to hold negotiations about transferring Jews to Palestine. His clumsy exposition in a brief and hostile radio exchange provided enough ammunition for JLM and others to seize on this as proof of Livingstone’s anti-semitism.
Shah, meanwhile, was reinstated as a Labour MP after publicly repenting. Following a dialogue with British Jewish leaders, she appeared to have found a new set of political priorities that accorded with the JLM’s. She described Israel as a democracy, disowned the BDS movement, and told the audience at one synagogue: “I absolutely agree that Israel has a right to defend itself.” From whom was unclear.
After a grilling by the JLM for two hours, to check her break with the past was complete, the movement’s Alex Sobel – now a Labour MP – pronounced that they were satisfied “of her support of Israel”.
Anti-semitism has proved a trump card for the Jewish Labour Movement. Not only has it been used to intimidate allies of Corbyn who support the rights of Palestinians, but it has allowed the JLM to introduce “anti-semitism awareness training” to the party, effectively giving it licence to determine what constitutes hatred of Jews. For obvious self-serving reasons, the JLM has been only too keen to conflate anti-Zionism, as well as trenchant criticism of Israel, with anti-semitism.
At last week’s party conference, when Labour members wanted to celebrate Corbyn’s success in turning around the June election from a predicted rout to a near-victory, the headlines were again dominated by the “anti-semitism crisis” narrative.
This was not unrelated to the fact that for the first time the JLM is being challenged as the sole representative of Jewish opinion in the Labour party.
A new group was established at the conference called Jewish Voice for Labour, which attracted much support from activists. It seeks to provide an umbrella for those Jews in the party who feel they have been stripped of a voice by the JLM, including anti-Zionists and those who support BDS.
Much is at stake: the JLM has cultivated for itself a position as the exclusive arbiter of anti-semitism in Labour. And it has been able to do so, based on the idea that it is the party’s Jewish membership. Now that is under threat.
Membership rules change
The struggle was exemplified in the JLM’s efforts at last week’s conference to insert a new anti-semitism clause into the membership rulebook that looked suspiciously as though it was designed to make it easier to force out those outspoken in their support for Palestinians.
The JLM clause would have justified expulsion of any member who expressed an opinion which “the victim or anyone else think … was motivated by hostility or prejudice”. In other words, if the JLM inferred that another member’s actions or views were motivated by anti-semitism, however they defined it, that would provide sufficient grounds for their expulsion. The JLM hoped to designate itself as judge and jury.
The activists behind Jewish Voice for Labour, however, offered a counter-proposal, and battled against the JLM’s new wording. They had some success.
The National Executive Committee opted for a compromise, one that watered down the JLM’s Big Brother clause but still made a significant and dangerous concession. It stripped away the rulebook’s existing protections for speech and thought. Now members can be expelled if their “holding or expression of beliefs and opinions” is “inconsistent with the party’s aims and values, agreed codes of conduct, or [involves] prejudice towards any protected characteristic.”
In short, as some delegates from Jewish Voice for Labour noted, the NEC consented to the idea that “thought crimes” can be adjudicated. And while probably no one will search for vague indications that members have “prejudicial” thoughts about Muslims or gays, there is every reason to suspect that the JLM and others will be only too ready to accuse trenchant critics of Israel of harbouring secret anti-semitic views and motives.
Future foreign policy
Much more hangs on this seemingly esoteric debate about definitions than anti-semitism, we should remember. The goal among the JLM and the UK’s wider pro-Israel lobby is not to make anti-semitism unconscionable – it is that already in the Labour party. Rather, the aim is to circumscribe debates about Israel and how to solve its “conflict” with the Palestinians in ways that will undermine Corbyn’s efforts to put the Palestinians at the heart of his future foreign policy.
The JLM’s most significant ambition, as we shall see in the second instalment of this article, is to make the case that only pro-Israel Jews are in a position to know what anti-semitism is. And therefore, only they can be fair arbiters of what constitutes a just solution to the problems faced by Israelis and Palestinians.
Read part two of this article here.