Labour: Why Keir Starmer is vilifying those who stand up for Palestinian rights

British Labour leader Keir Starmer (AFP)

Malia Bouattia

Middle East Eye  /  April 27, 2021

We must refuse to be silenced by the attacks waged against Palestine solidarity because our silence will not protect us.

The news that Labour leader Keir Starmer cancelled his attendance to an Open Iftar event due to the organiser’s support for the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement, was yet another demonstration to many of us – if further proof was needed – that Muslims and their political views matter very little to the party – and that Palestinians matter even less.

The invitation was extended to Starmer by the Ramadan Tent Project (RTP), which provides free iftar meals to all those who attend, every single night of the holy month. Starmer first accepted then later rejected the invite, following backlash from pro-Israel groups.

The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle flagged up a retweet from Omar Salha, the RTP founder, which called for the boycotting of Israeli dates during Ramadan. Concerns were also raised over his previous support on social media for the advocacy group, Cage, which campaigns for justice for the victims of the “war on terror”.

This attack on the Open Iftar is being framed as a continuation of the so-called fight against antisemitism. This fight, however, is much more interested in stifling solidarity with the Palestinian people than taking on the alarming rise in racism and fascism in the country.

This tendency has particularly accelerated following the Labour party’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, implemented by the party in 2018, which aims to depict criticism of Israel and solidarity with the Palestinian people as a form of antisemitic hate.

Why we are here

Years of onslaught from pro-Israel groups – as well as from their allies across every mainstream political party and institutions which stand to benefit politically and economically from the occupation of Palestine – targeted at public figures and political movements who support Palestine have gotten us to this point.

Any hint – past or present – of support towards the Palestinian struggle for liberation will be used to delegitimise people, projects, and organisations. Boycotting dates, grown on stolen land, used to enrich the state which dispossesses and colonises Palestinians, is not an extreme form of hatred directed at Jewish people. It is a basic form of solidarity with the oppressed.

It is difficult to believe that such a weak link as a retweet is now enough to brand someone as beyond the pale. That said, if anyone needed more convincing over just how many concessions are being made by Starmer’s Labour to the pro-Israel lobby groups this decision is a powerful illustration.

Following the iftar cancellation, the deputy at the Board of Deputies, Tal Ofer, tweeted: “Glad to see that after I raised up this issue, Keir Starmer withdrew his participation at the event. That’s the correct decision!” The influence of Ofer’s objection was also corroborated from Labour sources.

Also last week, MEE reported that Starmer failed to respond to a letter sent to him last month by more than 25 British-Palestinian Labour members in which they raised concerns about internal treatment. The letter accuses the party of creating a “hostile environment” for Palestinians under Starmer. 


Silencing Palestine activism

“Date-gate” is only one of the many confirmations that the assaults on Corbyn, Labour Party members, and the left, under the banner of fighting antisemitism were always about silencing Palestine activism rather than fighting antisemitism.

This was also illustrated in the recent disclosure by the Labour Party about their continued use of the same code of conduct that was used under Corbyn’s leadership. The former leader received relentless attacks over the 16-point policy that was being used for antisemitism investigations internally within the party.

The Board of Deputies, amongst others, pointed to this as evidence of “institutional antisemitism” within Labour. Yet, the discovery that this was still in use under Starmer’s leadership has not raised the levels of outrage afforded to his predecessor. In fact, the silence from the same accusers that vilified Corbyn on the issue is deafening.

The goal of this vilification campaign is to make it extremely hard to discuss the oppression faced by the Palestinian people, who continue to live under an apartheid regime. In many ways, by equating anti-Zionism and solidarity with the Palestinian people with antisemitism, the IHRA definition, as well as the more general onslaught against Palestine solidarity movements of which it is a part, are creating an official policy of silencing not only the historical record but also the current violence meted out against Palestinians by the Israeli state.

For example, over the last few weeks, the district of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem has been under growing assault by Israeli settlers, supported by the state, who aim to ethnically cleanse the neighbourhood. Hundreds of Palestinians face evictions from their homes in order to be replaced with Israeli settlers.

At the same time, hundreds of Israelis also marched chanting “death to the Arabs” and “Arabs get out” outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Palestinians who attempted to defend themselves were met with police violence, and over 100 were left injured.

No consequences are forthcoming from the international community or the British state. In fact, the Johnson government has criticised the ICC for investigating the Palestinian Authority’s charges against Israel for war crimes. In such a time, one might expect the opposition Labour party to raise the alarm and call upon the government to – at the very least – support the implementation of international law. Especially when the leader of said opposition is a human rights lawyer. Instead, Starmer is vilifying those who stand up for Palestinian rights.

This is also exactly why we must refuse to be silenced by the attacks waged against Palestine solidarity while also re-centring – loudly – the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

For too long, what has been encouraged from groups and individuals who find themselves in the eye of public denunciation storms for their pro-Palestine activities or views, is to apologise and defend their anti-racist record. While it is understandable that organisations like RTP engage on such a basis, it will not shelter them from future attacks. Worse still, it serves to undermine the general resistance to these practices.

Turning the tide

It has not been easy for Muslims who are faced with the rise of Islamophobia and the curtailing of civil liberties under the cover of the war on terror – the former serving as the justification for the latter – to maintain their place in the public eye. This is particularly the case for the most progressive within the community. It has led to a growing silence, especially from official community organisations, and the avoidance of any political expression whatsoever.

But if the last few years of seeing Corbyn, pro-Palestine activists, and anti-Islamophobia organisations being dragged through the dirt for their opposition to injustice and oppression demonstrates anything, it is that our silence will not protect us. Only collective, strong, principled and uncompromising defence of our principles can start turning the tide.

This struggle concerns us all. It is a struggle to defend our basic political freedoms, including our right to resist illegal occupations and colonial land grabs through such methods as boycotts. The truth is that anybody that has any regard for the suffering of the Palestinian people should, at the very least, be boycotting Israeli dates, which are grown in the occupied West Bank.

In 2020 Israel was the largest exporter of dates, raking in profits of over $230m on the basis of this illegal trade. Muslims should absolutely avoid being complicit with Israeli crimes during the holy month – as should everyone, the whole year round. With or without the Labour Party, we must continue to speak up against Israel’s colonial stranglehold over Palestine and its people. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, the former president of the National Union of Students, co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network and presenter/panellist on British Muslim TV’s Women Like Us