Labour’s troubling shift on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the wrong move for the party

Rachel Shabi

The Independent  /  December 19, 2021

It is paramount that Labour’s fight against antisemitism runs in tandem with the international struggle for Palestinian rights.

Last month, party leader Keir Starmer delivered a speech to the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) annual lunch. In it, Starmer quoted a previous leader, Harold Wilson, who during the 1960s had said that Israeli social democrats had “made the desert flower”. It was an arresting statement.

The phrase is a classic colonial myth depicting longtime Palestinian inhabitants of the region as backward and incapable of tilling their own land. (Jaffa oranges, anyone?)

Alongside other troubling elements of Starmer’s speech, this set off criticisms and alarm bells among Palestine solidarity and peace advocates, including Jewish campaigners, who now wonder where Labour’s policy over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is heading.

To put this in context, it is fair to say that “Where is this heading?” is a recurring question over Starmer’s policy steer in a number of areas, both domestic and international.

Amongst the left of his own party, the question arises over the Labour leadership gutting out a redistributive economic agenda as well as stripping out a morally driven, human rights-based international policy platform. So, when it comes to his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you could say that Starmer is stumbling along a well-worn path.

But there is an added dimension to this particular policy area: Starmer is justifiably trying to address the antisemitism crisis that plagued the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. And yet, even if we generously attribute the leader’s position to a bungled over-steering in this arena, it is still plainly wrong – not just in terms of Israeli politics and the Palestinian struggle, but also because of what it is doing to the fight against antisemitism.

The warning signs are all over the Labour leader’s speech to Labour Friends of Israel, and it wasn’t just the blooming desert flowers.

Jewish campaigners have told me they were horrified to hear Starmer dedicate so much of this speech to Labour antisemitism – a valid and necessary theme, to be sure, but at such length better suited to a synagogue audience or to the party affiliate Jewish Labour Movement. In directing so much of this content to LFI, Starmer risks conflating the British Jewish community with Israel.

The speech also included several references to “anti-Zionist antisemitism” – a flashing red light, since not all criticism of Zionism is by definition antisemitic. Without a necessary clarifier to this phrasing, Starmer risks denying Palestinians a means to describe their own experience of oppression under Israeli military occupation.

Meanwhile, collapsing all anti-Zionism into antisemitism is a terrible approach for anyone interested in battling pernicious anti-Jewish racism. Progressive Jewish campaigners have spent long decades explaining that it is entirely possible to legitimately oppose Israeli policies without using antisemitic terminology – important, painstaking work which no Labour leader should wish to undo.

The mislabeling was also in view in Labour’s response to the heckling of Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely as she left a speaking event at the London School of Economics last month.

A former politician, Hotovely is from Israel’s religious ultra-right and holds incendiary ultra-right views: she has dismissed the Palestinian Naqba as an “Arab lie” and does not believe in a two-state solution to the conflict, having said while Israel’s deputy foreign minister: “This land is ours. All of it is ours.”

For the party leadership to come down on those lawfully protesting outside her LSE event, and while the Conservative government is legislating to criminalize protests, is bad enough. But to label such protests as antisemitic, as the then-shadow home secretary did, is shockingly wrong.

It beggars belief that Labour leadership cannot tell the difference between opposing political beliefs that might be held by a Jewish person, and actual antisemitism. If the party is serious about taking on antisemitism, then it must do so with unwavering integrity, including over progressive political positions and a human rights-based critique of the Israeli occupation and violations of international law.

Labour is naturally working closely with Jewish communal bodies in tackling antisemitism inside the party, but the leadership must grasp that those same organizations might take issue with some of the party’s policy platforms – and that this is OK.

After all, former party leader Ed Miliband, the son of Holocaust refugees, found himself at odds with the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council when he spoke out against Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza and urged his party to back a motion to recognize a Palestinian state, which overwhelmingly passed in parliament. This did not foreclose Miliband’s engagement with the Jewish community over a range of issues, including in the fight against antisemitism.

Just as it has in other policy areas, Labour is in danger of taking a regressive approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict precisely at a time when realities on the ground are growing worse and when progressive voices around the world are growing more vocal.

In January this year, Israel’s largest human rights organization B’Tselem reported that “the bar for defining the Israeli regime as an apartheid regime has been met”. Human Rights Watch concurred, with its own report released in April – and campaigners say the wider human rights community may follow suit.

In part inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, a young generation is drawing parallels in systems of oppression and supporting Palestinian rights to freedom and equality. In the US, a generation of American Jews is challenging the nation’s bipartisan pro-Israel consensus.

Campaigners tell me that the Labour leadership is helping to make the Palestinian cause politically invisible. That’s a damning appraisal in its own right. It is paramount that Labour’s fight against antisemitism runs in tandem with the international struggle for Palestinian rights. These two issues should never be set against each other, least of all by a British left-wing party.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist, author and talker