[BOOK] A seditious project

Jonathan Coulter

Mondoweiss  /  September 3, 2023

Asa Winstanley’s book shows how the Israel lobby facilitated the influence of a foreign government’s interests in dictating who gets to lead the Labour Party, causing the downfall of Jeremy Corbyn.

How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn
by Asa Winstanley
310 pp. OR Books, NY/London $18

Weaponizing Antisemitism, by Asa Winstanley, explains in detail how the Israel lobby accomplished the feat of undermining one of the world’s leading liberal democracies. In the words of a previous reviewer, the lobby “cynically manufactured a fake crisis of antisemitism in the Labour Party where it didn’t exist, using fear to succeed.” They were able to do this because their interests coincided with a range of powerful UK interest groups, notably the Conservative government, the right-wing faction of the Labour Party, the media conglomerates, and elements in the security services who feared Corbyn would usher in major changes in Britain’s foreign policy and cut military spending. Former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn describes this extraordinary episode as “perhaps the only moment when agents of a foreign power cooperated with British politicians to alter the course of our history.”

You may wish to read this review in conjunction with my interview with Asa Winstanley on June 20. Below, I provide an annex with a guide to the relevant sections.

The ‘wedge’ strategy 

Since its occupation and colonization of Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and its subsequent invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israel has grown increasingly worried about losing legitimacy among the European left. Indeed, it has feared losing the bipartisan support the European governments have given it since 1948. This ultimately led the Reut Institute, an Israeli government-backed think tank, to produce a strategy for sabotaging left-leaning pro-Palestinian groups. It consisted of driving a wedge between the hard critics of Israel (called “deligitimizers”) and the soft critics who could be engaged with a pro-Israel narrative. 

This is easier than one might suppose because, as Winstanley observes on pp. 32-33, many left-liberal people have a hazy knowledge of the situation in Israel/Palestine and do not understand the ruthless nature of political Zionism. They fail to recognize that it is “not an ‘ethnicity’ or an ‘identity,’ it is a concrete political ideology– racist, inherently right-wing with a base of dedicated, fanatical followers scattered throughout Western countries.”

The strategy also involved mobilizing a network of lobby organizations consisting largely of what Winstanley describes as “cut-outs,” i.e. groups overwhelmingly dependent on determined lobbyists, the Israeli government, and wealthy donors, but presenting themselves as grass-root initiatives. Another author, Hil Aked, describes them as “astroturf groups,” i.e. like artificial grass. Such groups often claimed to speak on behalf of Jews whose “feelings are deeply hurt” by the antisemitic behavior of Corbyn and his supporters. A striking example was the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), re-founded in 2015 to resist the rise of Corbynism and able to penetrate the Party’s inner sanctum, whence it could move conference motions and propose rule changes. 

Implementing the strategy

When, in 2015, the Labour membership elected Jeremy Corbyn, a well-known advocate for the rights of Palestinians, as leader, the Israel lobby rolled out the Reut strategy in full force — working closely with the Government of Israel — and used it to politically destroy Corbyn and his supporters. Here are a few of the many instances Winstanley describes. 

  • Lobbyists generated a press scandal around the resignation of Alex Chalmers, the co-Chair of the Oxford University Labour Club. 
  • Key Corbyn supporters (notably Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker, Moshé Machover and Chris Williamson) were attacked, one by one, and forced out of the Party. 
  • The JLM manufactured the appearance of an “exodus” of Jewish members out of the Labour Party for fear of a new, supposedly racist environment under Corbyn, producing a sense of panic in the Party’s top ranks (see pp. 66-67). 

Another very telling case is how a dossier was leaked to the right-wing press, giving vent to Louise Ellman’s claim that the “far-left” members of her Liverpool constituency party opposed her on account of her “Jewish background.” The claim was dishonest, as their opposition lay in political differences. Ellman was on the Labour right (she had supported the invasion of Iraq) and strongly supported Israel, while constituency members, including some who were Jewish, were mainly on the left and supported the Palestinians. She feared deselection on account of these political differences, but instead of admitting this, she began accusing the membership of antisemitism. The Jewish Chronicle (JC) spent years putting out this story, but, eventually, the press regulator IPSO investigated its claims and found them baseless, forcing the JC to apologize and pay damages, “but by then the damage had been done” (see pp. 210-217).

The impact 

The strategy was not only successful in bringing down Corbyn and some of his closest supporters but also led to extraordinary post-Corbyn developments that have favored Israeli interests. 

Following the general election of December 2019, all the candidates to replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party meekly agreed to sign up to all the Jewish Board of Deputies’ (BoD) ten pledges. Some of these were very intrusive demands one would not expect a self-respecting British party to concede.

The Party went on to publish a new action plan on antisemitism, which, among other things, established an “advisory board” to oversee it; five members were representatives of Israel lobby groups. It invited a partisan pro-Israel group (the Jewish Labour Movement – JLM) to run compulsory “training” sessions for elected party officials on antisemitism, and it hired a former Israeli spy (Assaf Kaplan) onto its staff, to survey social media chatter about the party. Also, under the current leadership of Keir Starmer, the Party has proceeded to discipline, suspend, and purge members with Corbyn sympathies, including a disproportionate number of non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews.

Media complicity

There is no way the Israel lobby could have achieved this without the complicity of Britain’s mainstream media. This seized upon the opportunity to defame Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, reporting events selectively and inaccurately. Both the press and broadcasters have, with minimal exceptions:

  • avoided mentioning readily available statistical evidence of the extent of antisemitism in Labour, including evidence that prejudice towards all minorities, including Jews, was higher among Conservative supporters (see here);
  • failed to review important publications challenging the dominant media narrative;
  • paid only brief attention to Al-Jazeera’s stunning revelations in its “The Lobby” series broadcast in early 2017, and; 
  • failed to report on the background and roles of a host of key complainants — people like Alex Chalmers, Michael Rubin, Alex Richardson, Ella Rose, Luciana Berger, and Ruth Smeeth, who had deep prior involvement with lobby institutions and/or the Government of Israel. 

Worse, the spurious allegations and false charges about the antisemitism in the Corbyn period have become accepted “truths” that journalists constantly repeat when reporting about those years. 

On p.263, Winstanley cites evidence that the leading offenders — ahead of the “normal suspects” among the “Tory press” — were The Guardian and the BBC. The BBC was, of course, responsible for the Panorama “Is Labour Antisemitic?” documentary, of July 2019, described by the Media Reform Coalition as “a catalogue of reporting failures” in terms of accuracy and impartiality, and the object of nearly 1,600 complaints by mid-2020. 

Corbyn’s own goals

Under constant media pressure to “do something” about antisemitism, a pattern of thought seems to have taken hold of Corbyn and those closest to him that he should compromise and appease his accusers in the expectation that the torrent of accusations would stop. Far too often, he was on the defensive, apologizing for antisemitism, promising investigations, and acquiescing to the expulsion of high-profile supporters like Ken Livingstone and Chris Williamson, who had said nothing antisemitic. At the same time, Corbyn gave privileged access to pro-Israel lobby groups and newspapers, while shunning his natural support base, including the non-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) and pro-Corbyn media outlets.

He failed to draw due attention to the Al Jazeera revelations of 2017 and to use the courts to challenge slanderous accusations against him and the Party. There was, in Winstanley’s words, “no shortage of opportunities that would have made for stupendously combative headlines.” An important landmark was Labour’s capitulation over the IHRA definition of antisemitism in September 2018. Winstanley points to John Lansman and John McDonnell’s key role in this but holds Corbyn ultimately responsible. 

Corbyn appears to have completely misunderstood the purpose of the tsunami of antisemitism complaints, which had little to do with genuine antisemitism and everything to do with preventing him from becoming Prime Minister. As Winstanley says on p. 279: “No matter how much Corbyn tried to pander, the Israel lobby always refused to take yes for an answer. Instead, they pocketed Corbyn’s concessions and demanded more, and more, and more — until they finally got what they wanted with Corbyn’s exit.”   

Asa Winstanley’s book is thoroughly researched, eminently readable, and allows one to see the wood from the trees. He tells the unvarnished truth about a sordid McCarthyistic episode in British history, without hyperbole or understatement. 

Some may think the problem is only relevant to people who identify as left-wing and voted for Jeremy Corbyn, but I consider Winstanley’s findings important to all who care about fair and accurate reporting. He correctly points to the dishonesty of our mainstream media, a feature that weakens our claims about the superiority of our “democratic” systems over quasi-dictatorial regimes that are gaining strength around the world. 

How can we rationally debate topics of national importance, be they about Israel/Palestine or our wars in the Middle East or Ukraine, if this situation persists? It brings to mind a statement by Brian Cathcart, first Director of Britain’s Hacked Off Campaign:

“Rational, evidence-based public discussion is often impossible, as if we were all guests at a dinner party where one person insisted on shouting continuously through a megaphone.”

Annex: sections of the video clip

  • From minute 1:45, Asa talks about his own background, and what drew him into journalism with Electronic Intifada.
  • From minute 4:50 to 14:30, we discuss the strategy Israel lobbyists successfully used to bring down Corbyn and his supporters.
  • From 14:30 to 18:10, we discuss the nature of the Zionist ideology that inspires Israel and its advocates.
  • From 18:10 to 19:55, Asa discusses the critical role of Jon Lansman, former Chair of Momentum.
  • From 19:55 to 24:40, we discuss Jeremy Corbyn himself, his beliefs, his public appeal, the tensions he faced, and how some of his own actions contributed to his downfall and undermined his supporters.
  • From 24:40 to 29:10, we discuss how Labour Party leadership candidates meekly complied with the Jewish Board of Deputies “ten demands”. Asa mentions the climate of fear driving many actors, and there is occasional mention of cowardice. 
  • From 29:10, we discuss the relevance of Asa’s work to the broader movement for media reform in the UK that grew out of the phone hacking scandal.

Jonathan Coulter had a career as a researcher and consultant in agricultural marketing in developing countries