The human rights lawyer against the law

Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (BBC handout)

Ben Jamal

Tribune  /  April 9, 2022

Keir Starmer’s refusal to recognize Amnesty International’s findings about Israeli apartheid isn’t just a betrayal of Palestinians – it shows that his appreciation for human rights extends only as far as it benefits his career.

Keir Starmer’s declaration in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle that he does not believe Israel is an apartheid state was for many reasons shocking, but not surprising: shocking because of its cavalier disregard for the expressed views of Labour members, key sections of the broader Labour movement, the international human rights community, and the united voice of Palestinian civil society; unsurprising because it is of a piece with the direction of travel Starmer has established in relation to Palestine since his election as leader.

The question put to Starmer—does he agree with Amnesty International that Israel is an apartheid state—was incorrectly framed, perhaps deliberately so. It misconstrued the position of Amnesty International, whose charge, laid out over 200 pages in a comprehensive and detailed report, is that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid.

The distinction matters, because it emphasizes that the charge Amnesty is making—echoing previous reports by B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, and a subsequent one from Michael Lynk, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967—is not pejorative, but precise, forensic, and rooted in law. Apartheid, as defined under the Rome Statute, is a crime against humanity, and all of the reports make clear how and in what ways Israel is practicing this crime towards Palestinians—whether living under occupation, in exile, or as citizens of the state of Israel.

Starmer, as a human rights lawyer, knows this, and knows the reputation of all of these bodies for their scrupulousness in addressing human rights and violations of international law. To date, he has ignored all of these reports. Now, pressed upon to comment, he chooses not to examine their conclusions, as someone serious about upholding international law would, but simply dismisses them as something he doesn’t agree with, without further explanation.

Furthermore, he claims that they do not represent the Labour Party’s position. His immediate problem is that the last Labour Party conference passed a motion that noted ‘the 2021 reports by B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch that conclude unequivocally that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid as defined by the UN.’

Amnesty’s report had not yet been published at the time of Conference. That motion also made reference to motions passed by the TUC in 2021 which acknowledged Israel’s practice of apartheid. (A further motion noting the HRW and B’Tselem reports was passed by the TUC shortly before the Labour conference.)

So Starmer finds himself at odds with the views of Labour members, according to the most reliable testing of opinion, at odds with those who voted for him as leader, at odds with the consensus that has formed across international civil society and the global human rights community, and at odds with Palestinian civil society, who have made clear for decades that the one state reality Israel has established over all the land between the river and the sea is a form of apartheid.

Those resistant to the argument that Israel is practicing apartheid tend to rely on three formulations. The first seeks to exploit the overt differences between Israel’s form of apartheid and that employed by South Africa. It is a line of defence that asks, for example, how this can be apartheid if Palestinian citizens of Israel can vote, stand for election, and even be represented within Israel’s legislature. This form of reasoning misunderstands apartheid as defined under the Rome Statute, and does not withstand the detailed analysis provided by Amnesty, which makes clear that while ‘there are Palestinian citizens of Israel who serve in the Israeli parliament and other branches of government, or who are fortunate enough to access professional opportunities, this does not negate… finding that a system of oppression and domination extends to Palestinians living within Israel’s borders.’

The second line relies on a realpolitik formulation that accepts the finding of apartheid may be legitimate but is unhelpful because it stokes division and is upsetting. I saw this in action when bringing the Director of B’Tselem to meet Labour frontbenchers, one of whom stated baldly that he couldn’t disagree with the findings of the report but found them unhelpful because they would prevent dialogue with Israel, and with pro-Israel groups within the party. B’Tselem have themselves provided the best response to such lines in the conclusion to their report: as they write, ‘as painful as it may be to look reality in the eye, it is more painful to live under a boot’.

What is motivating Starmer in his resistance to accepting the apartheid narrative is the third line, which characterizes such narratives in relation to Israel as a form of antisemitism.

From the moment he stood as leader, Starmer has made clear that he regards the charge of antisemitism against Labour to be a significant barrier to the election of a Labour government. Predictably he has been pushed by pro-Israel voices inside and outside of the party to accept the conflation of antisemitism with legitimate critique of Israel’s system of oppression, even if it means throwing Palestinians under the bus. The Jewish Chronicle, in its interview with Starmer, feels empowered to make this conflation transparent when introducing the ‘apartheid question’: ‘the heart of Labour’s difficulties with Jews lies in its feelings towards Israel’.

Tellingly, Starmer makes no effort to challenge the conflation. This is of a piece with his appalling speech late last year to Labour Friends of Israel, in which he himself directly conflated anti-Zionism and antisemitism. He also condemned the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement on the absurd grounds that it singles out Israel for accountability—ignoring that it is a Palestinian-led movement. Who should Palestinians hold accountable if not their direct oppressor? Does Starmer condemn Ukrainians for asking for sanctions against Russia and not Saudi Arabia?

The speech, delivered within a broad narrative frame of why Jewish people should feel safe in returning home to Labour, went further in an effort to establish his credentials as a friend of the Israeli state. He praised Israel as a bastion of democracy and progressive values, and for its commitment to the rule of law. There was no reference to apartheid, and no reference, even, to a fifty-five-year-long illegal occupation. Worse, he drew on racist anti-Palestinian tropes about Israel having been founded in an empty land, in willful denial of the Nakba. To add insult, all of this was delivered in the presence of Tzipi Hotovely, the Israeli ambassador, with her own track record of egregious racism—including opposing Jews marrying Palestinians.

The costs of the path Starmer has chosen are immense. It undermines international law by suggesting that one can pick and choose which breaches of law and rights one condemns, and which one is happy to be complicit with. It undermines a consistent anti-racism by supposing that stated opposition to racism can sit comfortably alongside complicit support for the most egregious form of institutionalized racism, apartheid. It undermines the core principles of solidarity which ought to be at the heart of the labour movement and all progressive movements, to stand always with the oppressed, and never with the oppressor.

By failing to address the root causes of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it undermines the possibility of a just resolution. It demands that Palestinians accept apartheid in perpetuity, abandon their legitimate struggle for liberation, and accept being branded as racist if they oppose the ideology of Zionism and the policies that stem from it, which sustain their oppression.

Starmer’s calculations are that none of these things matter if the line he pursues will aid a Labour victory. In making this judgment, he is demonstrating a very low opinion of the British public, by assuming that respect for truth, rights, and international law do not matter to them—or only matter when the rights being breached are those of white Europeans.

If he continues on this trajectory, his place in history will be alongside those who in the 1980s went through similar contortions to justify continued support for South African apartheid. He must not be allowed to drag the Labour Party to this place.

Ben Jamal is the Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign