Is Zionist a rude word?

Jonathan Rosenhead of FSOI responds to Mary Davis’s Open Democracy article Contestation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism

Reprinted from Open Democracy

Words trail meanings beyond their formal definitions. Raymond Williams in his Key Words leads us through the dizzying journeys that words we thought we knew well have taken over their history. For example, who nowadays brings to mind what ‘Protestants’ were protesting about? Or take ‘fascism’. This theory and practice of authoritarian politics is now so entangled with its delivery of the holocaust that outside academia it is used as a swear word plain and simple.

Words are deployed as moves in a strategic battle. This comes out in the titanic struggle between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty says “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean”, but is challenged on this by Alice. ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

To Mary Davis (“Contestation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism”, openDemocracy, 27 July 2016) words are quite straight forward, Humpty-Dumpty-style. Contested words are deployed in unitary meanings of her choice. The result is of course a coherent story – of Zionism, the stages of development of Jewish settlement, the possible ways forward from the current impasse. However by failing to engage with the other competing versions of this story we get an account remarkable in its lack of nuance. News flash: Mary Davis wrestles with a straw person, and wins!

Antisemitism has in recent months become an active concept in British politics for the first time in most living memories. Many, indeed most, of the allegations of antisemitism that have been made are about statements (not actions), and they are statements about Israel and about Zionism. I will turn to those allegations later, but first need to do some house cleaning around the subject of Zionism.

Zionism in theory

The main thrust of Davis’ argument is that Zionism is not a monolithic movement; historically it has had its internal divisions, its left and right flanks. Back in the day it was Mapai to the right of Mapam (though she gets these the wrong way round). Further to the right still was Herut, the offspring of the arch revisionist Jabotinsky, and the progenitor of Netanyahu’s Likud. She seems to enlist the fact that Yitzhak Rabin, though a Zionist Prime Minister of Israel, was assassinated by Yigal Amir, also a Zionist, in support of this thesis of multi-strand Zionism.

Zionism, she seems to say, was and still is fractured: therefore, by implication, criticism of Zionism as a whole should be off limits. But surely the existence of different tendencies within any significant movement almost doesn’t need saying. This is just politics, the struggle between different interests and interpretations, and it is found pretty well everywhere. It certainly doesn’t constitute a veto against making rather general observations about the movement as a whole. Otherwise it would be illegitimate, for example, to interpret, or even make evaluative comments on, those many non-monolithic movements that continue to shape our world: capitalism, liberalism, racism come to mind. Also nationalism – in which Davis herself roots the late nineteenth century origins of Zionism.

The distinctive difference of Zionism from other manifestations of nationalism is this – that it could realise its ambition of national self-determination in a defined territory only by taking someone else’s. One can appreciate the driving need felt by many (by no means all) Jews for a safe haven from antisemitism, but at the same time see the whole future tragedy in embryo in that crucial contradiction.

What sort of ‘ism’ is Zionism?

Growing up in a committedly Zionist household, I celebrated the 1948 ‘War of Independence’, and all the subsequent triumphs of Israeli arms. I was repeatedly surprised when Israel didn’t then make a favourable peace with its neighbours, but instead grew progressively more bullish and bully-boy as it grew stronger.  At the time I put it down to short-sightedness by politicians of limited vision. But after 50, 100 years a more systemic explanation is surely required. The short-hand version of this is that Zionism in practice is an idiosyncratic late version of colonialism (another ‘ism’) – transposed from the nineteenth century and still attempting to survive in the very different environment of the twenty-first.

The uncommon though not unique feature of this colonial project is that there is and has been almost no desire to exploit the labour power of the indigenous population. On the contrary. When land was bought for settlement the Palestinians on it were evicted. The Hagganah, which became the IDF, was formed to keep Arabs off the land that had been cleared in this way. Aggressive propaganda, intimidation and violence was used to pressure Jewish-owned enterprises to use Jewish rather than Arab workers. This forceful eviction of Arab workers was one of the precipitating causes of the Arab Revolt in 1936. The key figure in this campaign for ‘Jewish Labour’ was David Ben Gurion, later first Prime Minister of Israel.

This identification of Zionism as a form of colonialism is not just post hoc rationalisation, but was quite evident to Zionism’s founders. In 1917 Ber Borochov, the relatively progressive Zionist cited by Davis, wrote about the time “when the waste lands are prepared for colonization”. Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, wrote in The Iron Wall that “’My readers have a general idea of the history of colonisation in other countries.  I suggest that they consider all the precedents with which they are acquainted, and see whether there is one solitary instance of any colonisation being carried on with the consent of the native population. There is no such precedent.”

Zionism was ‘sold’ as a project of “a land without people for a people without a land”. This was not a statement of fact but of intention. (The late nineteenth century founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, confided to his diary that if Palestine was to be successfully settled the local population would have to be removed.) Zionism sought to get the land, but with as few of the indigenous people as possible. Never letting an opportunity go to waste, in the confusion of the 1948 war out of which Israel was born 80% of the Palestinian population was ejected, by force or the deliberately fostered fear of force. Prime Minister Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and its subsequent sealing off in a still ongoing 10-year siege is a way of ‘containing’ 1.5 million Palestinians on the smallest imaginable patch of ground. Israel’s most intractable problem results from the obverse of this coin. Israel’s 1967 conquest of Jerusalem and the West Bank gave them control of 3 million Palestinians they really don’t want. The Wall is being built to filch as much extra land as possible, and forget the Palestinians on the other side.

This thrust is not seriously contested within the mainstream Israeli political system. Isaac Herzog of the Labour Party (now merged into the Zionist Union) is leader of the Israeli opposition. His policies include maintenance of the occupation, and the completion of a barrier cutting off Jerusalem from the Palestinian villages around it. See Gideon Levy’s recent article in Ha’aretz, (August 31, 2016):

“There is no radical left in Israel. Such a left is anarchist and sometimes even terrorist, as in Europe and Latin America. In Israel, where even Isaac Herzog is seen as “left” and Yair Lapid as “center” – when they’re both moderate right – what counts as radical left is the only left that exists here, and that is moderate left. All the rest are 50 shades of right wing, with an alarming, herd-like consensus and too little real difference of opinion.

Everyone agrees on all the wars, everyone enlists together against all international criticism and meanwhile the occupation arouses no active resistance. And wonder of wonders, in this sticky, unified mess the negligible minority that thinks otherwise, the extinct species, manages to arouse rage and hatred to such an extent that you’d think it was a majority. Such rage can only attest to one thing: the majority’s uncertainty about the rightness of its way.

The litmus test isn’t whether you identify with the left or right, but whether you identify with Zionism, that deceptive, undefined, anachronistic, expired value that distinguishes between legitimate Israelis and the rest. Are you on our side or the enemy’s? Say “Zionist” and you’re not radical. Good, you’re saved. Say “not Zionist” and you’re out. A pity, you’re extinct. When Zionism is a religion, heresy is treason. Anyone who dares to undermine Zionism’s validity, as the majority sees it, is radical left, illegitimate, and lately even criminal….”

Zionism in practice

The consequences of this over-late colonial project have been and remain dire for the Palestinians.

The illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and the repudiation by Israel of the Geneva conventions-attested rights of affected populations has split the Palestinians into 3 components – those living in pre-1967 Israel, those in the occupied territories, and the diaspora of displaced Palestinians in Middle East refugee camps scattered around the world. Their ability to communicate is deliberately restricted by Israeli policies. The ‘matrix of control’[1] over all aspects of Palestinian life has been extended over the years by the most modern technology, drastically restricting not only their daily activities but also the functioning of their culture and community. Palestinian national identity and institutions are under continuous siege by Israel, in what has been described by Kimmerling as ‘politicide’[2]. The Palestinian nation has not died, but many thousands of Palestinians have. I will deny myself the opportunity of providing here a list of inhumanities perpetrated on them – I guess that readers know where to find that information.

The illegal occupation of Palestinian territories is also a running sore for Israel itself. Once it was admired by progressives for its social, even socialist, innovations. But around the world, except in elite circles, its frequent resorts to repression are close to pushing it into pariah status.  The BBC routinely polls respondents in 24 countries on which countries are seen as having positive or negative influence in the world. Since 2007 Israel has been down at the bottom with only Iran, Pakistan and North Korea below them – and sometimes not all of those.

Jews also are by no means exempt from this disenchantment with Israel. A survey carried out for the British liberal Zionist group Yachad in 2015 found that 31% of those surveyed self-identified as ‘No, not a Zionist’. Among the under 30’s the proportion who would support sanctions against Israel if they thought it would encourage the Israeli government to engage in the peace process rose to 41 percent. A report (in Hebrew) published in February found that Jewish American students also have an increasingly negative image of Israel:

  • only 42% believe Israel wants peace.
  • only 38% believe “Israel is civilized and Western”.
  • only 31% believe Israel is a democracy.
  • no less than 21% believe The US should side with the Palestinians.

It is in this environment that the Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, including academic boycott, has been going from strength to strength world-wide. This whole BDS movement, according to Davis, is teetering on the edge of antisemitism, and its academic strand “can definitely be construed as anti-semitic”. That’s a claim worth deconstructing, before then moving on to the jackpot question – how are we to understand the amazing increase in rhetoric about antisemitism, quite divorced from any actually discernible increase in antisemitism itself?

Singling out Israel

It was in 2005 that a consortium of 170 Palestinian organisations issued the call to world civil society for a campaign of general boycott divestment and sanctions against Israel. In fact the academic and cultural boycotts had been launched a year earlier, by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Since Davis regards the academic boycott as her slam dunk case, I will take it on.

She says that academic boycott by not focusing purely on the Israeli state, and instead “boycotting only Jewish academics”, demonstrates its antisemitism. It is remarkable how many people who feel qualified to hold forth on this topic seem not to have carried out their due diligence. Israeli universities have Jewish, Christian and Moslem academics, and no doubt other religions besides. For that matter, they also have academics not only from Israel but from around the world. Jewish academics are not singled out for boycott. Nor are Israeli academics – because none of them are boycotted! The boycott does not target academics, or seek to interfere in any way with their work. Mary Davis only has to go to the PACBI website to find this out.

The academic boycott targets university institutions. As a supporter of this boycott I will not attend conferences held at Israeli universities, or get involved with their appointments or promotion processes. I will not teach on any programme based at the university, and I will not engage in joint research if the support funding is based there. But I have no trouble working with or receiving at my university any Israeli academic; and there is no impediment to their participating in international conferences or publishing in international journals on a level playing field with everyone else.

How should one understand Mary Davis’ statement that the boycott targets Jewish academics? That she hadn’t done her homework before writing her article? Or that she did know that there was no individual component to the boycott, but thought she would use the argument anyway? A tough call.

There is another argument that she might have made, as many people do: that singling out Israel for this treatment when other states have committed far worse crimes is surely evidence of antisemitism. [To grapple with the logic of this claim is a bit more complex. There are two factors in the answer, both to do with the reason why boycott is deployed at all.]

The explanation is that boycott is not a moral imperative, a way of demonstrating ones’ abhorrence of a certain regime (though it may offer that release also). It is, rather, a practical tactic to change the cost-benefit calculation for the actors in the conflict. Boycott enables the individually weak, by combining non-violently, to gain some purchase on an otherwise intractable situation. There is no point in mobilising support for a boycott if powerful state actors (e.g. our own governments) are already on the right side of history. And equally a boycott would be a waste of all the participants’ efforts if there was in effect, no significant trade or interchange with the target country.

Think North Korea. An execrable regime, but neither a commercial nor an academic boycott would find much purchase on the situation. It would be hard to mobilise a boycott campaign to do, effectively, nothing.

Israel, like South Africa before it, is a state built on discrimination. As Desmond Tutu says “this, in my book, is apartheid”. There are other parallels. Israel now, as South Africa previously, is both supported to the hilt by the USA and UK governments and most of Europe, and an integral part of the same economic, intellectual and cultural community as us. Boycott becomes a viable and appropriate policy.

Davis says that Israel is repeatedly “singled out for special treatment”. It is indeed singled out among those countries that systematically violate human rights. Its receives special treatment to the tune of $3bn annually from the US (the highest gained by any country), plus a cast iron diplomatic shield at the United Nations. Other transgressor countries have suffered serious economic sanctions, but Israel is rewarded.

Antisemitism everywhere

While I have been writing there has been an elephant in the room. More and more fidgety it is now positively insisting on getting into my critique. The issue is: just why is Mary Davis writing this piece now? Why is the Chief Rabbi jumping up and down about antisemitism right now? Why did John Mann waylay Ken Livingstone about it? Why was it that Sadiq Khan ‘warned’ (Daily Express)/ ‘accuses’ (Daily Telegraph, Independent)/ ‘savaged’ (Evening Standard, Daily Mail) Jeremy Corbyn over his handling of antisemitism in the Labour Party? That’s the Daily Mail, always so delicate on questions of antisemitism, from the 1930’s through to calling out Ed Miliband’s father Ralph as ‘unpatriotic’.

On August 28 the Campaign Against Antisemitism, founded during the attack on Gaza in 2014 to defend Israel from criticism, produced some telling statistics:

Last year the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted a record 15,442 cases of hate crime, but we are only aware of a dozen prosecutions for hate crime against Jews.

Of course the CAA deduced from this that “British Jews are being denied British justice”.

The statistical rigour is rudimentary. But if it is possible to believe that prosecutions for anti-Semitic behaviour really do amount to something like 1 in 1000 of the total, a more plausible explanation is surely that this issue is dwarfed by other forms of intolerant utterance and behaviour – against gays, immigrants, Poles, Muslims…. There is virtually no evidence that there has been a sharp increase in antisemitism; there is plenty of statistical (for example from the Community Security Trust) and experiential evidence that the level has been low for years, interrupted by bulges when Israel attacks Gaza.

I am a member of Free Speech on Israel, an organisation set up in April by Jewish Labour Party supporters alarmed about antisemitism in the Labour Party. Alarmed, that is, by a moral panic that completely denies our own experience. Those in the room at the foundation meeting had something like 1000 years of lived experience of the Labour Party, and no one could recall a single instance of antisemitism. This is broadly consistent with wider experience. When the ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs was asked on Radio 4 about his own experience, his response was, from memory, “Well….actually I haven’t experienced any antisemitism myself. Which is quite odd, because most people know that the Chief Rabbi is Jewish”.

Nevertheless evidence is being dredged up, of carelessly worded tweets and Facebook postings, and leading to instant suspensions from Party membership. (This policy was excoriated in the report of the Chakrabarti Inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party.) Nearly all of the ‘evidence’ predates Corbyn’s leadership is nevertheless being blamed on him. Other evidence was simply fabricated – as in the allegations of engrained racism in the Oxford University Labour Club. Nevertheless the mainstream media continue to serve as an uncritical megaphone for the innuendo, and worse.

In this stunningly successful offensive there is every appearance of coordination between diehard supporters of Israel, and the irreconcilables in the Labour Party who cannot accept Corbyn’s leadership. Appearances can of course be deceptive. (One of history’s sadnesses is that we almost never get substantive evidence about actual conspiracies until it is too late to matter.) But since there is in any case a clear shared interest in the defenestration of Corbyn perhaps no explicit pre-communication was needed. Israel is threatened by the installation of the first major party leader in Europe with a committed record of supporting Palestinian rights. Many Labour MPs feel deeply threatened by a leader (and associated membership) who are almost as far left as Harold Wilson was.  So there is a natural affinity of purpose.

Israel, Zionism and anti-Zionism inhabit the political realm, not a religious or ethnic one. What has been called the ‘weaponisation’ of antisemitism is deeply unprincipled. Antisemitism is an ugly phenomenon, and its spores still lie scattered through all western societies and some others. By deploying the spectre of antisemitism in disreputable campaigns its currency is degraded.

Brian Klug’s influential working definition of antisemitism is that “antisemitism is a form of hostility to Jews as Jews, where Jews are perceived as something other than what they are”. Assuming, often aggressively, that all Jews support Israel and Zionism is, paradoxically, making the same simplifying assumption that anti-Semites do – namely that all Jews are in important respects the same. We are not.


[1] Jeff Halper ‘The 94 percent solution: a matrix of control’, Middle East Report 30:3, Fall 2000

[2] Politicide: The Real Legacy of Ariel Sharon, Verso 2006.

Who owns the anti-Corbyn front – us says Tory peer

Danny Finkelstein asks in the Jewish Chronicle ‘Is our Corbyn Strategy Working?’ The JC notes that Finkelstein is associate editor of the Times; it does not note that he is a Tory peer. So who is the ‘our’ in ‘our strategy’? Is it the Tory Party, is it the Zionist community, is it Tory Zionists? The article does not directly tell us so we have to infer ownership from the content.

Finkelstein gives three examples of alleged ‘antisemitism’; each one related to Israel and not British Jewry. He goes on to write:

For years, anti-Israel feeling has been growing on the left and it has slowly been changing into an antisemitic theory about Zionism as the ideology of worldwide imperialist occupation. By this means, every act of Western foreign policy has been linked to Israel and to Jews.

This starts from a valid premise: the left, but not only the left, has grown increasingly critical of the actions of the Israeli state. It is also true, but not noted, that it is becoming increasingly common for people who pay attention to Palestine/Israel to identify the criminality of the state to be organically linked to the Zionist ideology that led to the founding of the state and is used by it to justify its actions. However, Finkelstein then makes a daring leap into fantasy by not only identifying criticism of Zionism as an ‘antisemitic theory’ but claiming that Zionism is seen as the ideology of imperialism and that everything is blamed on the Jews. Because he is preaching to the gallery he sees no need to provide any evidence for this claim; fortunate for him as such evidence is scant or non-existent.

What is true is that Zionism sits easily with western imperialism. It is a settler-colonial project that is only legitimate within an imperialist view of the world. A view that any territory, anywhere can be alienated from its long term inhabitants for the benefit of militarily superior invaders. It is also true that Israel has geo-political interests in the Middle East and that they lobby the US and other Governments to take action that would advance Israel’s interests. A recent inconvertible example of this was Israel’s intensive lobbying to try to derail the deal to end Iran’s nuclear adventures.

None of this remotely supports the contention that ‘every act of Western foreign policy has been linked to Israel’. It is possible that somewhere on Twitter you can find a seriously misinformed, or seriously malevolent, individual who has alleged Israeli or Zionist or Jewish involvement each time a Western state has acted badly. However, Finkelstein’s claim is not about an individual misusing their keyboard: it is a claim that the mass of those challenging Zionism believe ‘it is all the fault of the Jews’. A serious but false and unsubstantiated charge.

Finkelstein declares ‘these very same people jeer when obvious examples of antisemitism are raised’. He can only write this because he cannot accept that with very few, if any, exceptions there is no obvious antisemitism once the exaggerations, misquotations and downright deceits are exposed. The jeering is for the cynical exploitation of Jewish fears not for any victim of abuse. The groans are for yet another instance of portraying the aggressor as the victim.

So who are the owners of ‘our strategy’. It is those who fear, correctly, that a Corbyn led Labour Party will challenge inequality and exploitation in the UK as well seeking the end of British exculpation of Israel’s crimes. The strategy is for the benefit of the wealthy and privileged and for the architects of Israeli apartheid. It is deeply regrettable that so many Labour Party MPs have signed up to a strategy at such sharp variance with Labour Party ideals and of such great assistance to the enemies of the Party and those it defends.

Mike Cushman

A scurrilous and ill-informed attack on the left

Review of THE LEFT’S JEWISH PROBLEM: JEREMY CORBYN, ISRAEL & ANTI-SEMITISM

Dave Rich (2016, London Biteback Publishing)

I am writing this review as a long-standing Jewish feminist academic and activist. I am a social scientist and have been involved with research on higher education, feminism, gender and socialist politics throughout my academic life. I have written numerous personal, political and professional articles, chapters, and books – most recently Reclaiming Feminism: Challenging Everyday Misogyny (Bristol, Policy Press, 2016) and A Feminist Manifesto for Education (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2016).  Reclaiming Feminism is both a memoir and an argument for transforming the neo-liberal global academy in the direction of gender equality and socialist-feminist values. I focus especially on aspects of campus politics today. A Feminist Manifesto for Education is based upon my collaborative research, including with colleagues across the European Union (EU) (especially Ireland, Italy and Spain), to deal with gender violence and transformative politics. I was a founder member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP) and the British Shalom-Salaam Trust (BSST) a charitable organisation giving funds for projects on education, health, welfare and women in Israel and Palestine.

All of this preamble might sound incredibly defensive – perhaps it is – but I mention it as I don’t want to be attacked for my lack of knowledge or rigour. I also don’t want to be attacked for my Jewish credentials, familiar though this is as a Jewish trait. By way of further justification, I am the daughter of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and I was brought up in Zionist-socialist family, attending Habonim throughout my adolescence. In adulthood I have wavered over my Jewish socialist commitments: my children attended a Northwest London Jewish day school. I remain committed to secular Jewish socialism and, living in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency, I am supportive of his approach.

Dave Rich argues that what he hopes to have done is to transform his ‘academic research’ for his PhD (although he never tells us who supervised it and in what field it was examined) into a more popular book. This is entitled, somewhat provocatively, The Left’s Jewish Problem where, on the cover, the o is a Magen David. The sub-title is Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism. Rich’s research is about the rise of the new left, mainly but not only in the UK, and its consequences in the UK Labour party today. However this is not a dispassionate or even a so-called insider account as a Jewish academic and activist. Either one of these approaches is what I expected. Not so: it is an extremely limited account of some narrow aspects of the British new left, those whom he dubs ‘the anti-Israel left of Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and George Galloway…that now allies itself with Islamist extremists who demand Israel’s destruction’.

At first glance, the book appears quite erudite, having numerous endnotes for each chapter and a substantial index. There are 6 substantive chapters, with an additional introduction and conclusion and a brief foreword. But there the semblance of scholarship or rational argument ends. The organisation of the chapters is not particularly logical in terms of the history of socialism and its relation to nationalism and/or Zionism. Nor is there any account of the rise of the British Labour party and its association with the rise of the new left and the role of Jews and/or Zionists within this.

There is no bibliography or even list of references. Book and chapter titles and references are buried in the endnotes. Even a cursory search of the index reveals many lacunae in the scholarly international work on the rise of the new left. I searched for names of Jewish left activists normally associated with the new left: names such as Judith Butler (who gets one very cursory mention), the late Professors Hannah Arendt or Stan Cohen, Danny Cohn-Bendit, Claude Lanzmann (the French socialist who made the film Shoah in 1985), the late Professor Ralph Miliband, Professor Steven Rose, Jerry Rubin or Professor Michael Walzer (long-term editor of Dissent in the US) to name but a few.  None of them appear in the index. Yet they are part of the rise of the new left both intellectually and ideologically, and are critically important to its current formation.

The book starts off rather propitiously and I was initially drawn to the project of looking at the twists and turns in the politics of the British Labour party, with which I have an ambivalent relationship. I had hoped to get some clarity and peace of mind about the current debates about anti-semitism and anti-racism in the Labour party. These had led to the setting up and subsequent publication of the excellent Chakrabarti report, published on June 30, 2016.

Unfortunately, the book does not look at left-wing Jews and their relations with feminism, socialism and the Labour party. It is, in fact, a rather tedious journey through a particular brand of left-wing politics, with a focus on very minor political groups and individuals, cherry-picking issues such as anti-apartheid, anti-racism, anti-Zionism, Islam and Palestine.

The most important omission, however, is any reference to the key role played by Ralph Miliband in the rise of the new left, from the post-war period. Michael Newman’s brilliant biography entitled Ralph Miliband and The Politics of the New Left (The Merlin Press 2002) illustrates how Miliband ‘stood as a beacon on the international left for the way he articulated and redefined socialist politics’.

Even more curiously, there is absolutely no reference to either of his sons – David or Ed Miliband – and the role that they have played in the Labour party.  Are they also part of the Left’s Jewish Problem or are they immune from anti-semitism? Given these lacunae I lost faith with this book being at all credible: it is quite simply a scurrilous and ill-informed attack on the left.

Professor Miriam David

Richard Kuper’s review

Let’s not talk about racism

A major report was issued about endemic racism in a major British institution; few people are aware of that although the report was widely reported.

Shami Chakrabarti was commissioned by the Labour Party to investigate “antisemitism and other forms of racism” in the party. Chakrabarti and her vice-chairs took their remit seriously; Zionist organisations and the British media did not.

The report raises critical issues about the treatment of members of BAME communities inside and by the party. These were obliterated by a media stampede to make the report a sideshow in the get Jeremy funfair and by a disbelief from the Zionist hierarchy that Jewish concerns were not placed centre stage.

The presentation of the findings was hidden under two confections.

Firstly, a malicious allegation that Corbyn had equated Israel and ISIS. It was clear to anyone hearing him talk or reading his words later that he had done no such thing.  He equated those who make false and racist allegations about Jews to those who make false and racist allegations about Muslims. He said: “Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.” It is vexatious to wilfully misinterpret that to Israel equals ISIS and only makes sense as part of a campaign to demonise and undermine Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Secondly an accusation that Ruth Smeeth had been subject to anti-Semitic harassment. It may only be a coincidence that she made her allegation against one of the few Black men in the room. Journalists asked a series of questions about anything but the content of the report; mainly irrelevantly about Corbyn’s future or about the disciplining of Livingstone which was ultra vires for fear of contaminating the complaints procedure underway.

One question was from a Daily Telegraph journalist about a Momentum leaflet on deselection of Labour MPs. The leaflet had been handed out by Marc Wadsworth, a Black activist and journalist.  He had refused to hand a leaflet to Ruth Smeeth who had been pointed out to him as one of the first MPs to call for Corbyn’s resignation – he had never come across her of heard of her before. Wadsworth had seen the Telegraph journalist, Kate McCann, hand her copy of the leaflet to Smeeth and the two sat together. Wadsworth accused Smeeth of collaboration with the media. Smeeth, whose Jewish heritage was totally unknown to Wadsworth chose to interpret the accusation as an antisemitic slur and departed the room. Later she claimed, despite video evidence to the contrary, to have fled the room in tears. This farrago became a major news story and was turned into an attack on Corbyn for failing to intervene in an event that had never happened. Ever since, it seems no media comment on the report fails to undermine it by referring to at least one these two imaginary events. Once an association has been promulgated it attracts a life of its own – fiction becomes historical fact.

The Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, the Community Security Trust, the Jewish Chronicle all gave major prominence to these two inventions even while giving guarded welcome to the report. The accusations were picked up by Jewish and Zionist bloggers and tweeters and broadcast globally; the content of the report and its welcome were not.

We do not assert that the Jewish and Zionist media and organisations deliberately set out to occlude the report’s findings on the racist treatment of BAME communities and its recommendations on curtailing and hopefully ending such behaviour. Such assertion is unnecessary to see an unconscious, but pervasive, disregard for the suffering of any other community than the Jewish one. An anti-racist response would be to celebrate that an investigation prompted by allegations of antisemitism, and a report wholeheartedly condemnatory of the occasional antisemitic behaviour it uncovered, was also led to reveal other and more widespread racist behaviour. Acknowledging the treatment experienced by other communities does not diminish the unacceptability of the racist treatment of Jews. There is however an unpleasant current in the Jewish community that sees the treatment of Jews as special and distinct from that suffered by others.

Chakrabarti was at pains to emphasise the distinctive nature of the Holocaust that should prevent it being used as an analogy for other historical or current events even other genocides. Each act of gross inhumanity has its own nature and needs its own consideration. It is necessary to understand the particular nature of each abuse, whether the Shoah, the Rwandan genocide, the Armenian genocide or the Atlantic slave trade – it diminishes each of them by lumping them together.

We expect people of all communities to oppose antisemitism; we equally expect members of all communities, and a fortiori their organised leadership, to oppose all forms of racism and discrimination and to use their experience to empathise with others not to compete in an abasing misery stakes.

Since the referendum street racist abuse, and violence, have escalated putting all minority communities at risk. Public racism has been become normalised in a way that we had hoped we had excised over the last four decades. So far, it seems, the abuse and assaults on Jews have not been the major problem. It is rampant Islamophobia and intolerance of anyone not speaking English that have been most prevalent.

We look to the Labour Party to defend members of all communities, it can only do that if it takes up Chakrabarti’s challenge to look at itself and embark on the long and painful process to reform itself. The report correctly commends the Party for promoting legislation over the last half-century to outlaw racism and other forms of discrimination, the Conservatives have no such record. As we all know the public actions are easier than the personal ones that challenge our own feelings and beliefs. It is much harder when petty and noisy squabbling drowns out the quiet voices of pain for short-term and factional gain.

Mike Cushman

Guardian publishes letter by 100+ Jews defending Corbyn and Chakrabarti

This letter appears in the Guardian on 9 August 2016

Shami Chakrabarti, the former director of Liberty and a lawyer with a well-deserved reputation for integrity, produced a thoughtful and important report on antisemitism and racism in the Labour party at the request of Jeremy Corbyn. It is highly regrettable that they are both now under attack because her inquiry did not find evidence to support allegations of rampant antisemitism in the party.

Such attacks say more about her detractors than they do about Chakrabarti. Their real objections concern her recommendation that the party’s disciplinary processes conform to the principles of natural justice, so that allegations of antisemitism and other forms of racism will be properly investigated, members cannot be suspended without knowing the charges against them, and people are protected against scurrilous and ill-founded allegations.

As Jews whose views are not represented by the chief rabbi, the Board of Deputies of British Jews or the pro-Israel lobbyists of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, we dissociate ourselves from the attacks on Chakrabarti and urge Corbyn to hold firm in implementing the positive recommendations in her report.
George Abendstern
Liane Aukin
Daphna Baram
Julia Bard
Sue Bard
Hannah Basson
Sandi Beecher
Shereen Benjamin
Sarah Benton
Craig Berman
Jo Bird
Rica Bird
Carla Bloom
Jenny Bloom
Louise Bloom
Professor Haim Bresheeth
Elizabeth Carola
Linda Clair
Mike Cushman
Ivor Dembina
Dr Judit Druks
Claudio García Ehrenfeld
Nancy Elan
Mark Elf
Liz Elkind
Deborah Fink
Sylvia Finzi
Louella Frankel Jones
Kenneth Fryde
Tessa van Gelderen
Claire Glasman
Monica Gort
Tony Greenstein
Abe Hayeem
Rosamine Hayeem
Professor Susan Himmelweit
Sue Hughes
Claire Jackson
Dr Vivienne Jackson
Selma James
Riva Joffe
Ann Jungman
Michael Kalmanovitz
Roisin Kalmanovitz
Monash Kessler
Simon Korner
Richard Kuper
David Landau
Pam Laurance
Leah Levane
Rachel Lever
Les Levidow
Susanne Levin
Rosalind Levy
Vivien Lichtenstein
John Lohrenz
Ruth London
Professor Yosefa Loshitzky
Deborah Maccoby
Professor Moshé Machover
Beryl Maizels
Jenny Manson
Miriam Margolyes
Stephen Marks
Martine Miel
Professor Simon Mohun
David Mond
Professor Mica Nava
Chaim Neslen
Diana Neslen
Esther Neslen
Helen Pearson
Rina Picciotto
Frances Rifkin
Roland Rance
Michael Rosen
David Rosenberg
Professor Jonathan Rosenhead
Leon Rosselson
Maureen Rothstein
Michael Sackin
Caroline Salinger
Ben Samuel
Professor Donald Sassoon
Ian Saville
Miriam Scharf
Amanda Sebesteyn
Glyn Secker
Khalil Secker
Sam Semoff
Alexander Seymour
Professor Avi Shlaim
Ray Sirotkin
Dr David Sperlinger
Vanessa Stilwell
Alexandra Trone
Professor Clare Ungerson
Professor Philip Wadler
Margaret Wayne
Naomi Wayne
Sam Weinstein
Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi
Devra Wiseman
Naomi Woodspring
Ben Young
Dr Gillian Yudkin
Professor John S Yudkin
Professor Nira Yuval-Davis

A Right Royall Mess

In Mid-February this year the Labour party announced an inquiry into antisemitism allegations in the Oxford University Labour club, following the resignation of Alex Chalmers, a vice-chair of the club who wrote on Facebook that: “A large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews.” The resignation, and the outcry that followed, came swift on the heels of the club deciding to support Israeli Apartheid Week.

It was clear from the immediate reactions that many accepted the accusations at face value and such people found no difficulty is getting a spot in the media. John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire, for example, who, as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary group on Antisemitism has form, finds antisemitism everywhere. He called for the party to sever ties with the club. Louise Ellman, vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel was “deeply disturbed by the news that Oxford University Labour Club has decided to support Israeli Apartheid Week and by the revelations from Alex Chalmers about the troubling tone of the discourse in which this debate appears to have been conducted.” She said comparisons between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa were “a grotesque smear and the Labour party should dissociate itself from them”.

Baroness  Royall, a Labour party whip in the Lords, was appointed to investigate and produced a report in May. Curiously, only a brief summary of the report was published, in which Royall made clear that she did not believe there was institutional antisemitism within OULC, but there were issues of ensuring a safe space for Labour students to debate and campaign. No reason was given for the non-publication of the Report and it was generally but erroneously assumed that it would be released when Shami Chakrabarti published the results of her wider investigation into the topic of antisemitism, racism and the Labour party.

Two rumours circulated as to why the report did not see the light of day. The first was that it revealed so many embarrassing incidents of antisemitism, its publication would do the Labour party untold damage. The other was a simpler one: that the report itself was a shoddy and embarrassing piece of work, best left unseen.

The Report has now been leaked to the Jewish Chronicle and we are in a position to assess these conflicting interpretations. The JC, unsurprisingly, headlines its story Baroness Royall report reveals Oxford Labour students engaged in antisemitism. The full Report is available for download here.

Naomi Wayne

See also Tony Greenstein’s analysis of the report: Baroness Royall’s Flawed Report on ‘anti-Semitism’ at Oxford University Labour Club 

FSOI deplores attacks on Shami Chakrabarti

Shami Chakrabarti, a human rights lawyer with a justified high reputation for integrity, produced a thoughtful and important report on antisemitism and racism in the Labour Party at the request of leader Jeremy Corbyn.

It is highly regrettable that both she and Corbyn are now under attack from sections of the Jewish community, incensed at the prospect of her joining the House of Lords simply because her inquiry did not find evidence to support their hysterical charges of rampant antisemitism in the party.

Such cheap attacks tell us more about the character of her detractors than they do about her. Her report recommended that the Labour Party radically transform its procedures so that well-founded allegations of racism and antisemitism can be fully investigated and action taken against perpetrators, while protecting members against scurrilous and ill-founded charges.

Black People Matter – Jackie Walker responds to the Chakrabarti Inquiry Report

Via Momentum.
Jackie Walker is Vice Chair of Momentum Steering Committee.

Shami Chakrabarti’s Inquiry into Anti-Semitism and Racism in the Labour Party made big news soon as it was published – and for all the wrong reasons, just one of the ongoing consequences of the “occasionally toxic atmosphere” that is “in danger of shutting down free speech within the Party rather than facilitating it.” Chakrabarti makes it clear her intention is not to “close down debate on delicate issues around all kinds of personal and political differences within the Party” but to conduct these debates “in a more trusting and constructive environment.” My response is made with the same intent.

As a recently suspended Labour Party member, and the only person as yet (at the point of writing) exonerated, I was bound to read Chakrabarti’s report, and the coverage that followed, with more than a little interest. I write as a long time Labour Party and anti-racist activist for whom Chakrabarti’s findings are personally and politically important. My partner is Jewish, his family observant, but I comment as a woman of mixed Jewish and other heritages who identifies as, and is perceived by others as, a black person of African descent.

Much of the mainstream media response to the Inquiry focused on anti-Semitism, was superficial, poorly informed or with one intent – destabilising Labour and its present leadership. Chakrabarti’s generally well expressed ‘state of the Party’ contextualisation of race relations, and her many well thought through and sensible recommendations, were sidelined as charges of anti-Semitism yet again took centre stage, immediately undermining the Inquiry’s key findings on BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) members.

At the core of the debate is the way competing claims by minorities are positioned in the (at this point in time) supercharged arena of Labour Party politics. In the political arena, perhaps more than elsewhere, race is about power – who has it, who is chosen to represent the Party, who gives power to others and how that power is communicated. Two areas are highlighted in the part of the Chakrabarti Report that focuses on BAME members – that of representation and vocabulary.

Chakrabarti begins with evidence; that in 2010 the BAME community voted for Labour more than double in relation to whites. She describes an unwelcoming environment and a lack of representation at all levels, including in Parliament, but also in the administrative structures of the Party, singling out the lack of black members in the NEC for special mention. What an irony then that it is the voices of people of colour, in particular those of African descent, that were so effectively sidelined in reporting of the Inquiry.

In today’s Labour Party Chakrabarti situates anti-Semitism within a set of feelings and responses as reported in many submissions by some in the Jewish community. Stereotypes limit the ability of peoples to be treated and respected as individuals and Chakrabarti’s comments on the need for sensitivity in the language of debate, whether on issues that relate to Israel or elsewhere, are to be welcomed. But there is acknowledgement that it is power, or the lack of it, that excludes and discriminates against BAME people in the Party, as it does of course in the rest of society. Blacks do not only feel under-represented, or stereotyped in the Party. They are under-represented. They may be members and supporters, they are of course, particularly in Labour’s urban heartlands, often the foot soldiers and voters, but BAME members are effectively excluded where it matters – from power.

Given the terms Chakrabarti was given for her inquiry it is difficult to see how this could have been avoided. If anti-Semitism is set apart from ‘other forms of racism’, can we be surprised when the Inquiry fails to attract a significant number of submissions from BAME groups, or when black individuals are significant only by their absence at its launch? The reception of the Inquiry in the media and elsewhere simply underlined the powerlessness of the BAME community. The paucity of any black response, at a national level, confirms the exclusion the report attempts to redress. In this three card trick discrimination against BAME members is the card that appears, I hope only for the moment, to have been made to magically vanish.

I come now to the issue of vocabulary, in particular comments on the use of the term ‘holocaust,’ a point that concerns many people of African descent who await both recognition or recompense for past wrongs inflicted.

Chakrabarti makes plain her Inquiry is an attempt to bring people together. To stand in solidarity, as Chakrabarti suggests all minorities need to, people of African descent must see the structures that exclude them from power, and have kept them silenced for so long, being changed. This is the only way in which attempts to build an inclusive Party will succeed.

Groups that have suffered oppression need to have conditions, a level playing field, in which they can form united political fronts, working in solidarity with others, rather than having to fight for a place at the table, forever bogged down in disputes about equity, access to power, or the meaning of the past. If the Party does not succeed in this, Labour will remain entangled in the impossible task of being a moral referee as minority ethnic groups engage in a ‘competition of victimhoods’ in order to gain, build or protect recognition.

Others have argued elsewhere for dropping the use of the contested terminology of ‘holocaust’ and replacing it with ‘genocide’. Some suggest opening Holocaust Day more fully to all communities that have suffered mass murder. As Jews retain the word Shoah, so peoples of African descent refer to Maangamizi for their holocaust. Maangamizi describes the slave trade and history of enslavement when millions of Africans were killed, tortured, kidnapped and enslaved for profit but it also refers to the genocides and deprivations of colonialism and the ongoing, consequential suffering and oppressions of peoples of African descent.

I am in agreement with Chakrabarti there are, and can be, no hierarchies of suffering. The Inquiry rightly warns of dilution of effect ‘if every human rights atrocity is described as a Holocaust’. However, I cannot see the term ‘holocaust’ as something the Labour Party can, or should police, though it may provide a useful forum where terminology can be discussed. As ever, the Labour Party must recognise the right of minorities to both name themselves and choose how their history is narrated.

It is in the ability of the labour movement to listen to the experience of people of African descent and other BAME peoples where I now place my trust. It is with hope that I ask that our leaders listen to the concerns of people of colour whose voices before and during the Inquiry, and even now, remain barely heard. I look forward to the changes to come.

Chakrabarti Rocks

Jonathan Rosenhead.

In this comment I will try to sketch out

  • the background to the Chakrabarti Inquiry
  • a summary of the Report’s conclusions
  • how it has been received by those who generated the panic
  • a scorecard of what it has achieved and avoided.

Despite having been Jewish all my life I have only experienced two antisemitic incidents. Neither had anything to do with the Labour Party. And I first joined the party in 1961! This is not a uniquely charmed life. The ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, interviewed on television, rather embarrassedly confessed that he had not himself experienced a single antisemitic incident. There can be no doubt that antisemitism, an ugly deformation in any society, has a continuing underground life in Britain as elsewhere, and that we should be alert to its existence and possible increase. But its public manifestations are currently so small that it is really impossible to say whether it is actually going up or down.

How then to explain the moral panic over antisemitism, specifically in the Labour Party, that struck the UK body politic earlier this year? There is ample circumstantial evidence that it is the result of a manoeuvre, brilliantly successful, perpetrated (if that is the right word, and I think it is) as a joint enterprise by the friends of Israel and the enemies of Corbyn. These two groups, whose memberships overlap, made common cause, exploiting both their network of contacts in the media and the paid PR apparatus that boosts Israel wrong or wrong. The cause is common because the Labour Party enemies of Corbyn resent his election and are determined to take ‘their’ party back, while Israel has every reason to try to reverse the innovation of a major UK party leader who is a committed supporter of the Palestinian cause.

The Inquiry

Although quite wonderful in many ways Jeremy Corbyn is perhaps not a natural leader for a party or a movement; nor is he fleet of foot in dodging enemy bullets or turning them back on their originators. Which makes the establishment of an inquiry into Antisemitism and Other Forms of Racism in the Labour Party almost the exception that proves the rule. It was an intervention which quelled the hubbub, in particular because the chair of the Inquiry, Shami Chakrabarti, has such an unshakeable reputation for probity, and indeed a strong public affection. Her assistants, David Feldman and Janet Royall provided the necessary backup in terms, respectively, of antisemitism and the workings of the Labour Party. But they did not write or have to approve the Report. It is hers.

The report lists 85 organisational submissions, and there was also an unknown number (probably large) of individual contributions. Judging by their names about 30 of the organisations are likely to have taken what I will for convenience call a ‘pro-Israeli’ line (stressing antisemitism as a crisis needing strong action); and some 20 came from explicitly pro-Palestinian organisations. Another 10 came from within the trade union and Labour movement, while 10 came from other religiously-identified groups, mostly Muslim. (Not all are easily classifiable in this way.) The submissions by the considerable group of Jewish organisations that mobilised against the moral panic are collected together at the Free Speech on Israel website. (For completeness, a collection of opposing submissions is also available.)

Given the copious leaks about suspensions from the Labour Party that could only have come from the Labour’s HQ bureaucracy (effectively working for dissident MPs rather than the elected party leader) unusual precautions were taken about the report launch. The aim was to avoid selective leaks with their accompanying negative spin. Only one copy of the text was produced and, so we are informed, that was passed directly from Chakrabarti to Corbyn. However….

The Report

The launch of the report, despite measured speeches by Chakrabarti and Corbyn, was effectively hijacked by a press corps which only wanted to ask the latter about his travails with disloyal MPs, and by media-oriented stunts about antisemitism of exactly the kind that provoked the Inquiry in the first place. The result is that the content of this significant report has not had the attention that it deserves.

Any summary of the report is bound to be selective. The points I would pick out are Continue reading “Chakrabarti Rocks”

Labour Jews to Chuka Umunna – Stop using antisemitism smears against Corbyn

Dear Chuka Umunna,

We write as Jews who are members of the Labour Party. Some of us are also members of Momentum. We were shocked to witness the cynical manner in which you weaponised false allegations of antisemitism to launch an attack on the leader of the Labour party and on Momentum at the session of the Home Affairs Committee on Monday July 4th. [The questioning of Corbyn by Umunna starts at 17:02:50]

Some of the comments made at the press conference launching the Chakrabarti inquiry on June 30 by Mr Wadsworth (not a representative of Momentum as you claimed) were rude and unwarranted, however there is no evidence they were motivated by antisemitism. Wadsworth was clearly angry that the Daily Telegraph journalist had shared one of his leaflets with Labour MP Ruth Smeeth. He makes no reference to Ms Smeeth’s religion and asserts he had no knowledge she was Jewish and there is no evidence that this is not true. We have searched assiduously, including scrutinising the video footage of the incident, but have found no evidence of antisemitism, as opposed to incivility, in his words or actions.

The questions about Mr Wadsworth had been asked and answered several times by the time you asked your questions. Quite evidently your questions were not designed to elicit information but to pursue an internal Labour Party vendetta in a public forum. This relentless concentration on a confection designed to damage the Labour Party inhibits proper discussion on an important report into how the Labour Party can be more effective in combatting all forms of racism including antisemitism.

In your questioning you repeatedly employed guilt by association. For instance, you made reference to David Watson’s case. This is still under investigation and, as your legal background should have informed you, the allegations against him currently remain untested and unproven. These are allegations that, had you performed due diligence before asking your questions, you would have known are based on flimsy, if not fabricated, evidence.

We have been quite unable to detect any hint of animosity towards Jews in any of Watson’s social media posts. His critique of Zionism is one that many Jews share, in particular that the political Zionism dominant in Israel today is a racist ideology, both discriminating against Palestinians and stereotyping Jews as incapable of living alongside non-Jews in diverse societies. To then suggest that anyone who shares a platform with Watson is implicitly condoning antisemitism, and further that Jeremy Corbyn is answerable for all events organised by Momentum, is absurd.

You cite the example of the Oxford University Labour Club, and claim that “time and time again in these incidents of activity” in which offence is caused “to and against Jewish people Momentum seems to pop up quite frequently”. Yet Baroness Royall found no evidence of institutional antisemitism in OULC, and reported on at least one case of serious false allegations of antisemitism which had been reported to the police.

We ask you to cease your relentless undermining of the Labour Party. It would be more appropriate for you to concentrate your considerable energy on working to unite the Party so that we can displace this destructive Tory Government as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely,

Sue
Bard
Edinburgh East & Musselburgh
Graham
Bash
Hackney North
Haim
Bresheeth
Hornsey & Wood Green
James
Cohen
Wanstead and Leyton
Sylvia
Cohen
Finchley & Golder’s Green
Ruth
Conlock
Manchester Withington
Judith
Cravitz
North Islington
Mike
Cushman
Streatham
Miriam
David
Islington North
Kenneth
Fryde
Cambridge
Alex J
Goldhill
Ealing Central & Acton
Tony
Greenstein
Brighton Kemptown
Mike
Howard
Hastings & Rye
Riva
Joffe
Holborn & St Pancras
Michael
Kalmanovitz
Hampstead & Kilburn
Shlomit
Ferguson
Enfield North
Arye
Finkle
Chipping Barnet
Abe
Hayeem
Harrow East
Rosamine
Hayeem
Harrow East
Richard
Kuper
Holborn & St Pancras.
Frank
Land
South West Devon
Stephanie
Lee
Gorton
Leah
Levane
Hastings & Rye
Rachel
Lever
Hastings & Rye
Yosefa
Loshitzky
Hornsey & Wood Green
Kay
Manasseh
Streatham
Miriam
Margolyes
Vauxhall
Stephen
Marks
Oxford
Karen
Merkel
East Ham
Diana
Neslen
Ilford South
Dr Brian
Robinson
Milton Keynes
Denise
Robson
Gateshead
Jonathan
Rosenhead
Hackney South & Shoreditch
Rina
Rosselson
Brent Central
Ian
Saville
Brent Central
Glyn
Secker
Dulwich & West Norwood
Sam
Semoff
Riverside
Roger
Silverman
West Ham
Vanessa
Stilwell
Dulwich & West Norwood
Stephen
Tiller
Hackney South & Shoreditch
Jackie
Walker
South Thanet
Sam
Weinstein
Hampstead & Kilburn
Naomi
Wimborne-Idrissi
Chingford & Woodford Green

You can watch the video of the Home Affairs Committee session here. Chuka Umunna begins questioning Jeremy Corbyn at approx. 17:04:00