Labour: Why it has become impossible to criticise Israel

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and current leader Keir Starmer (Reuters)

Chris Mullen

Middle East Eye  /  December 18, 2020

Like Jeremy Corbyn, any British politician who condemns Israel’s treatment of Palestinians risks being sucked into the vast, toxic sludge surrounding the issue of antisemitism. 

The day after Labour leader Keir Starmer suspended his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, from membership of the parliamentary Labour Party, the Daily Telegraph published an article headed “Keir Starmer must go further…” by freelance journalist Angela Epstein. It contained a new list of demands. “It is not enough,” wrote Epstein, “that Jeremy Corbyn… has been suspended. Or that he has had the whip removed… He needs to be ‘sacked’ as an MP. And booted out of parliament.” 

There is, of course, no legal mechanism for expelling Corbyn from parliament. He has committed no crime and was overwhelmingly re-elected by his constituents as recently as last December.

No matter; Epstein has a plan for overcoming this difficulty. She suggests that Starmer move an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, which for the moment only provides for the expulsion of sitting members sentenced to a year or more in prison. 

For good measure, she also wants the former director of the National Council for Civil Liberties (Liberty), Shami Chakrabarti, who conducted an internal inquiry into the Labour Party’s handling of alleged antisemitism, to be expelled from the House of Lords, and Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, who made a fairly mild speech critical of Israel, subject to some unspecified “censure”. 

Walking a fine line

Other lobbyists have submitted to the Labour Party’s complaints department a list of 15 Labour MPs who they want to see purged. Some appear to regard criticism of Israel as evidence of antisemitism. The line is a fine one and, given the sensitivities, should be walked with care.

Many of those shouting loudest appear not to have read the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report that triggered the recent uproar.

As Peter Oborne and Richard Sanders have pointed out in Middle East Eye, one of the report’s main criticisms of Labour’s internal processes appears to relate to the period when Corbyn’s sworn enemies were still in charge of the party machine. Oborne and Sanders even suggest that alleged interference by the leader’s office seems to refer to attempts by the leader’s office to discover why so little progress was being made.

What is Corbyn’s offence? To be sure, he has over the years been unwise in some of the platforms he has shared and some of the company he has kept, but his principal offence is that he was the first leader of any major British political party not to be an unequivocal supporter of Israel. 

Corbyn’s election as Labour leader brought more than 200,000 new members into the Labour Party. Many were young idealists attracted by his evident authenticity; others were former Labour members who had left the party over previous disappointments, not least the Blair government’s support for the US invasion of Iraq. 

The rise of Corbyn also attracted a small number of far-leftists whose views were not in tune with Labour values, and a relative handful of antisemites attracted by his record of support for the Palestinians. It is the latter who are the source of Labour’s recent woes, and Corbyn is not wrong when he says their activities have been blown out of all proportion by those who have a different agenda.  

Speaking freely

This is not difficult to illustrate. According to Jennie Formby, a former Labour Party general secretary, many of the complaints of antisemitism received on her watch were levelled against people who turned out not to be members of the party. In the most serious cases, where people were successfully prosecuted for threatening or harassing a Jewish MP, the individuals concerned came from the far right or extreme left, although reporting of such cases rarely makes this clear.

It is also apparent that Jewish Labour members who are supporters of Palestine and who dissent from the view that Corbyn is an antisemite have come under attack from other Jews. This, for example, is the experience of Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi who has suffered years of threats and abuse from fellow Jews.

She says: “As a Jew on the left who is intensely anti-racist and intensely aware of what antisemitism is, to be called an antisemite myself is about as low as it gets and it undermines the fight against real antisemitism. This is one of the most frightening things. People have been weaponsising accusations which seriously undermines and endangers our chances of dealing with real antisemitism.”

Ms Wimborne-Idrissi says that Jewish critics of Israel in the UK are denied the right to speak freely. “We are being no-platformed, we are being cancelled, we are being denied the freedom to express legitimate points of view. People who care about civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech….all these people should be up in arms about what is happening to Jeremy Corbyn and his associates in the Labour Party. So far they are silent.”

Ms Wimborne-Idrissi has recently been suspended from membership of the Labour party, apparently for supporting Corbyn’s view that allegations of antisemitism in the Labour party have been exaggerated.

Awards and apologies

In August 2018, the Daily Mail devoted several pages to trying to prove that four years earlier in Tunis, Corbyn had participated in a wreath-laying ceremony on the grave of one of the organisers of the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes. 

In fact, the only act of terrorism being commemorated was the 1985 bombing by the Israeli air force of the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, in which somewhere between 50 and 70 people died, many of them Tunisians – an act of terrorism which even the then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher condemned at the time. 

The Jewish Chronicle, which has been at the forefront of the campaign against alleged antisemites in the Labour Party, has repeatedly been found by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to have published reports which were “significantly misleading”.  It has also been reprimanded by IPSO for obstructing its attempts to investigate complaints.

This past February, the paper paid substantial damages to Audrey White, a member of Liverpool Riverside Labour Party, who it had falsely claimed in four separate articles to have bullied Jewish Labour MP Louise Ellman. In September, it paid damages to a schoolteacher and Labour local councillor in Wokingham who was alleged to have launched “a vicious protest” that was “suggestive of antisemitism” against another Jewish Labour MP, Luciana Berger.

Needless to say, none of these awards and the subsequent apologies received the same publicity as the original allegations. Earlier this year, the paper went into voluntary liquidation, citing the impact of coronavirus. It has since been bought by a consortium which includes John Ware, the journalist who made a controversial BBC Panorama programme alleging widespread antisemitism in the Labour Party.

Wild exaggeration

For the avoidance of doubt, I repeat: no one is saying that there isn’t a problem – only that it has been wildly and wilfully exaggerated. Corbyn is not alone in believing this. According to an opinion poll conducted earlier this year by a company owned by a former Tory peer, Michael Ashcroft, 73 percent of Labour members believe this to be so. If party members were judged by the same criteria applied to Corbyn, then they, too, should be suspended. 

No one should be in any doubt about the damage this is doing. In a 2019 poll commissioned by Greg Philo, a Glasgow academic, for a study by himself and other academics of Labour’s antisemitism crisis, 1,000 members of the public were asked: “From what you have seen or heard, what percentage of Labour Party members do you think have had complaints of antisemitism made against them?”  The answers averaged 34 percent. The correct figure at the time was around 0.1 percent. According to Formby, one-third of the complaints made in 2019 came from a single individual. 

As it happens, I am not a Corbyn supporter. I did not vote for him in either of the Labour leadership elections. I cannot claim to know him well, but I have been acquainted with him for almost 40 years, and I believe he is a thoroughly decent human being who has led a life according to his principles and it pains me greatly to see him traduced. 

One of Corbyn’s most attractive features is that, although he has been on the receiving end of a great deal of abuse, he never responds in kind. For those who are wondering how so marginal a figure ever became the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, there is a simple answer: Iraq. This was an issue on which Corbyn’s judgment proved superior to that of his parliamentary colleagues. He was a leading member of the Stop the War campaign and, come the Labour leadership election, the organisation’s considerable social media resources were placed at his disposal. The rest is history.

‘It’s a trick’

For what it’s worth, my view of the case against Corbyn is as follows: he is a serial dissident who has spent a lifetime in opposition not only to his political enemies but to his own party. He has been on every picket line, attended every demonstration and signed just about every petition that has been put in front of him. 

His remarkable success in the 2017 general election was achieved by promising everything to everybody and suggesting that someone else would pay for it – a formula which did not work so well in 2019. To govern is to compromise, to disappoint, to balance competing interests and decide between them. Corbyn has no experience in this. Had he by any chance stumbled into government, he would rapidly have proved a disappointment to his followers. That, not his views on Israel, is the main case against him.

The question arises as to what, if anything, can any mainstream British politician say about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, without the risk of being sucked into the vast, toxic sludge that surrounds the issue of antisemitism?    

Maybe only an MP of Jewish origin can get away with criticising Israel without being denounced, and most choose not to. The late Sir Gerald Kaufman was one of a handful of exceptions, and he was denounced as a “self-hating Jew”.   

In Israel itself, critics of the government routinely use words like “apartheid” to describe what is going on. An elderly Jewish physicist, Hajo Meyer, once remarked: “An antisemite used to be a person who disliked Jews. Now it is a person who Jews dislike.” Meyer could not be denounced because he was a survivor of Auschwitz. However, most non-Jews who criticise Israel run the risk of being labelled racists.

In a 2002 interview with Open Democracy, Shulamit Aloni, former Israeli education minister, was asked why those who express dissent against policies of the Israeli government are labelled as antisemites.  

She replied: “Well, it’s a trick. We always use it. When from Europe somebody is criticising Israel, then we bring up the Holocaust. When in [the US] people are criticising Israel, then they are antisemitic … It’s very easy to blame people who criticise certain acts of the Israeli government as antisemitic, and to bring up the Holocaust, and the suffering of the Jewish people, [to] justify everything we do to the Palestinians.”

A pragmatic view

If it is a trick, it appears to be working. There is a pragmatic view among many British politicians that says the subject should simply be dropped – that it is just too difficult and, in any case, a distraction from more important matters closer to home. 

The Tories, who traditionally have had much more of a problem than Labour with anti-Jewish prejudice, clearly take this view. Notice how quiet they are. I was surprised to read last year that around 80 percent of Conservative MPs were members of the Conservative Friends of Israel. When I put this to a Tory MP friend, he just smiled and said that all Tory MPs were encouraged to do so. I guess it’s an insurance policy. 

Should Labour members follow the Tory example and just shut up? I beg to differ. Israel is in the process of setting up an apartheid state, and we ought to be allowed to talk about it. The West Bank is being colonised, in defiance of international law; East Jerusalem is in the process of being ethnically cleansed; Gaza is a bantustan. 

In a single day in May 2018, Israeli troops killed  60 Palestinian youths demonstrating near the fence that separates Gaza from Israel and inflicted life-changing injuries on many more. Sixty is about the same number of fatalities as those gunned down in Sharpeville by South African troops in March 1960, an incident that sent shockwaves around the world and is remembered to this day. By contrast, Israel’s killing of a similar number  in a single day in Gaza was briefly reported and then forgotten.

A recent BBC programme reported that over the last 15 years, offshore companies belonging to the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich have donated $100m to the Israeli settler group Elad, which is buying up property in East Jerusalem with a view to expelling Palestinian residents, some of whom have lived there for generations. 

Dozens of Palestinian households reportedly have eviction notices hanging over them. In one case, in July 2019, a woman and her four adult children were evicted after a 24-year legal battle. Elad, the settler group, has also been digging tunnels under Palestinian houses, ostensibly as part of an archaeology project, causing subsidence. 

Each year in May, in an event reminiscent of Loyalist marches through the Catholic enclaves of Belfast, several thousand flag-waving Israelis march through the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem, celebrating the 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem, an act recognised by no other countries except the United States and Guatemala.

Switching off

None of this causes much more than a ripple in the outside world. British Foreign Office ministers greet each new excess with bland little statements urging all sides to be nice to each other. From US governments, Democratic or Republican, comes unequivocal support. The Israeli lobby in the US is so well-organised that few in Congress dare raise the subject.

One difficulty for outsiders is that there are few heroes on either side. It was said of the late Yasser Arafat that he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The leaders of Hamas, which rules Gaza, do not appear to care about their people. They allow their militants to fire rockets into Israel. They encourage Palestinian youths to throw stones at Israeli soldiers in the certain knowledge that many of them will be gunned down.  

They do so apparently in the belief that the inevitably disproportionate retaliation will incur public sympathy abroad. They ought to have learned by now that it won’t. 

Is it any wonder that many good people switch off? As my old friend, veteran journalist Wilf Burchett, who had reported from wars and revolutions all over the world, was fond of saying: “Every morning I get up and thank God that he never made me an expert on the Middle East.” 

One doesn’t envy Starmer in having to deal with all of this. None of it is of his making. One of his first acts on becoming leader was to settle a series of outstanding libel actions brought against the party from former party officials who were featured in the Panorama documentary denouncing Corbyn and claiming to be whistleblowers.

The settlement has spared them the embarrassment of having to explain the huge tranche of leaked internal emails that reveal the extent of their hostility to the leadership of the party that employed them. Labour’s lawyers advised that, if the case had gone to court, the party stood a good chance of winning, but libel is an expensive game and the case might have dragged on for years, distracting attention from other issues.

One can’t blame Starmer for wanting to draw a line under it, but has he? Other lawsuits are said to be in the pipeline. One lawyer for several litigants has been quoted as saying: “If this bankrupts the Labour Party … so be it.”

Chris Mullin is a former Labour minister; he was a member of the House of Commons from 1987-2010