The claims revolve primarily around the Israel-Palestine conflict. Is there a constructive way forward?
A number of comment pieces appeared in the media, in the wake of the Labour Party’s conference of September 2017 – alleging that antisemitic incidents had occurred during the event; and that it represented the continuation of a wider problem within the party. It is not the first time that this has happened.
Most Labour Party members, even including many MPs previously hostile to Jeremy Corbyn, have responded to the party’s revival during the general election campaign by setting aside divisive talk and looking forward to a more unified future. Not all however.
For Jeremy Newmark, chair of the pro-Israel Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), writing in the Jewish News, “the immediate agenda” is to re-investigate and expel Ken Livingstone, pursue outstanding cases such as Jackie Walker’s, “revisit” those Chakrabarti and Royall report recommendations “that fell short of expectations,” get the NEC to table the JLM’s rule change proposals at Labour Party conference and, “redouble our efforts to massively expand our training and education program at all levels across the party.”
The JLM’s rule change proposals, like their partisan training sessions, are based on the same principles as the “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition” which attempts to redefine the term “antisemitism” in order to include criticism of the State of Israel. The impact of this goes way beyond the Labour Party. John Mann MP, one of a number of ardent, right-wing non-Jewish Zionists in the Labour Party, has proposed an Early Day Motion in Parliament calling for its adoption by all public bodies in the UK.
It is significant that the Jewish Chronicle reacted angrily to Jeremy Corbyn’s race and faith manifesto issued during the election, complaining that “the manifesto only uses the section of the definition which makes reference to hatred of Jews. The rest of the definition – which refers to Israel – has been cut.” In other words, for the JC, the part of the IHRA document that seeks to define antisemitism as what it really is, is unacceptable unless widened to include examples which talk not about Jews but about the state of Israel.
Proponents of the IHRA document claim that it poses no threat to free speech because it permits criticism of the current government of Israel and allows opposition to settlement building in the Palestinian West Bank. It is perfectly acceptable, they say, to subject Israel to criticism similar to that which is made of other states.
They fail to take into account the many ways in which Israel is entirely different from other states. The IHRA document explicitly rules out, as potentially antisemitic, types of criticism that Palestinians and their supporters are entitled to make in order to highlight their specific history of dispossession and racist discrimination. The document is already being used in the UK to censor campaigns which call for an end to injustices Palestinians have faced since Zionist colonisation and settlement of their land began a century ago.
The recent European Parliament debate on this subject starkly demonstrated the point. Social Democrats argued that the IHRA document was nothing more than a harmless contribution to opposing racism against Jews. But they found themselves in the same camp as far-right Islamophobes who saw it as a weapon to be used in Israel’s defence and against its critics, particularly Muslims.
This is not the way to unite our diverse and fractured society. Nor is it conducive to unity within the Labour Party.
You’ve seen them, haven’t you? The vicious personal attacks, the expletives, the death wishes? If you’ve read any writing like mine – writing by a Jew who acknowledges Palestinian humanity – and taken the time to look at some of the readers’ comments, you know what I mean.
If you don’t – well, for simplicity’s sake, let’s consider only the attacks on me personally. (Gideon Levy, Amira Hass, Norman Finkelstein and my friend Jonathan Ofir, among others, have all attracted similar vituperation.) An ostensibly religious Jew has publicly called me a “deviant,” “an enemy” and “the worst kind of Jew”; he has also compared me to Nazi collaborators, concluding that since I “lack the morality of a sewer rat,” it might be appropriate for a truly religious Jew to murder me.
An exceptional case? I wish it were. One of my recent columns in this space called attention to the dehumanization of Palestinians who resist Israel’s occupation. In response, an assortment of Jewish readers described me as “vile,” “a sub-category of human,” “a disgusting human being,” “an enemy to Judaism” and a “self-aggrandizing demented buffoon” with “sick, twisted opinions.” Another of my fellow Orthodox Jews – borrowing a leaf from the Nazi pamphlet Entartete Kunst – suggested that my concern with Palestinian rights could only mean a taint in my Jewish lineage.
And so it goes.
I could ignore these comments, of course. But I prefer trying to understand them. For if we don’t understand what drives Jews to such bizarre slanders – all the while believing themselves completely above reproach – it’s obvious that we won’t be able to change their minds. And if we don’t, it isn’t only Palestinian rights that must suffer: people incapable of civilized discourse about the institutions they cherish are eo ipso incapable of keeping their civilization alive. So it’s dangerous to turn one’s back completely on the invective, however stupid and shallow – the very stupidity of the attacks is the index of the threat their authors pose to their own culture. And to mine.
So why do the mudslingers hate us so much? Here are few things I think I can discern behind the ranting.
1) They’ve been deceived about themselves. For decades, many Jews – particularly Israeli Jews, and those raised to identify with Israel – have been taught that they belong to a higher breed of human being, one that by nature never harms anyone needlessly. Like the citizens of Mark Twain’s Hadleyburg, they believe in their moral superiority because it’s been preached at them, incessantly, as the essence of their identity: to doubt it is to doubt themselves.
Thus the celebrated Jewish-American writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who embraced Israeli citizenship in time to assist in the torture of Palestinian prisoners and the brutal military repression that characterized the IDF’s response to the overwhelmingly nonviolent first intifada, could still kvell in print over Israel’s martial prowess and piously insist that Israeli Jews are morally superior to the Palestinians they kill.
It’s not that Goldberg is stupid or deliberately dishonest. He’s just so wedded to the fantasy of Jewish purity that he cannot acknowledge the testimony of his own eyes without imperiling his sense of identity. Like Heinrich Himmler, who boasted that SS officers, having seen “a hundred corpses lying together,” “remained decent fellows” because of the Germans’ “harmless soul” and “idealism” – qualities never found among the “alien peoples” they were forced to exterminate – Goldberg must insist, against all evidence, that Palestinians are naturally violent while “we [Israelis] don’t try to kill children.”
2) They’ve been trained in fear. Just as they’ve been taught to assume their own superiority, our critics have been taught to hate and fear those they repress. And why not? If you want to hold other people down with a clear conscience, you need to persuade yourself – or allow yourself to be persuaded – that your victims are monstrous, evil by definition. Over two years ago, I quoted in one of my columns a widely-publicized sermon in which an Orthodox rabbi advised his flock to shun all non-kosher food because “the Arabs seek nothing else but Jewish blood” – implying that Palestinians were not just murderers but vampires, longing to suck the blood from Jewish veins but thwarted when that blood is pure. (Because they aren’t, I guess.) I have yet to hear from another Orthodox Jew who found this passage grotesque; on the contrary, several denounced me for questioning it.
Conversely, such people have been taught to identify virtue exclusively with those they know. Instead of seeing loyalty, justice, compassion as qualities they share with humankind generally, their exposure to these traits in their own communities only reinforces their sense of uniqueness: if we are like that, then they cannot be. This is what Sartre had in mind when he wrote that “if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would have to invent him.” It’s also why, as Laith Saud has remarked, those Americans (and Jews) today who want to see in themselves “an unadulterated Enlightenment” must picture the Other – Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims generally – as “purely barbaric.” To those trapped in this mindset, the good we know in ourselves must be ours alone if it is to be real.
3) They’re demoralized. Behind the bravado and the hate speech, today’s Israel-Firsters are a confused, beleaguered, unhappy lot. The state they once regarded as Olympian has revealed feet of clay. The airy utopianism of Israel’s early leaders has given way to a Jim Crow society where crowds of young Jews chant racist slogans while the Justice Minister, no less, openly condones murder. Israel supporters who rightly criticize Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies, or condemn the Syrian army’s violence against civilians, are inwardly uneasy when they consider that Israel has been doing the same things for decades. They want to believe in their superiority, but facts keep getting in the way.
James Baldwin pointedly observed in the 1960s that “the absolutely prohibitive price the South has paid to keep the nigger in his place” had only “succeeded in having what is almost certainly the most bewildered, demoralized white population in the Western world.” The same is true of Israelis today, and just as true, I’m afraid, of the Jews who condemn me for repeating some of the facts about Israel’s history and its continuing occupation of Palestinian land. My sins, however these people might describe them, are venial next to the violence they’ve done to their own consciences. Jettison moral principles unless they further Jewish ethnic supremacy; throw away facts; turn your back on the human rights so painstakingly incorporated into international jurisprudence after the horrors of World War II; say no to justice and yes to apartheid; shuck off every acquaintance, every former friend who points out uncomfortable truths to you; trade your religion (if you’re religious) for a slice of stolen real estate – and what have you got to live for, except some dirt that was never yours to begin with? These Zionists are not to be envied; behind their fury, I think I can hear their pain.
So what is to be done with them? Sad to say, the obvious antidote – information to counter ignorance – is not really effective. If these people wanted the facts they would have absorbed them long ago: today, the real difficulty is keeping one’s head deep enough in the sand to avoid knowing the facts. So their ignorance is only the shell of a deeper malady.
I propose a different approach. Instead of educating our critics with facts, I suggest we first demonstrate to them the force of our own moral convictions. We do this not by answering insults with insults, but by addressing them as human beings – just as we address Palestinians. Without flagging for a moment in our pursuit of justice, we can calmly, sadly, insistently challenge our enemies to justify themselves. Do they support the occupation? Jewish settlements that violate the Geneva Convention? Why? Can they justify apartheid? Do they believe they can square Jewish ethics with robbery and violence? If so, how?
Such questions make more sense to me than apologetics. After all, it is our critics, not we, who ought to be apologizing; they, not we, who owe an explanation and a self-defense. And they need to see that we know that, and that we won’t stop affirming it, whatever happens. This may not stop the personal attacks. But I think it can shift the focus of the discourse.
By the way, I do not expect my enemies to be mollified by my attempt to understand their motives. They do not want to be understood; at bottom, they are terrified of understanding themselves.
I make the effort because justice for Palestine cannot be sought in a vacuum. Edward Said was fond of quoting a beautiful line from the poet Aimee Cesaire: “There is room for all at the rendezvous of victory.” The great things we strive for are meant for everyone. And the words we share about those goals must take everyone into consideration, too – even those who hate us.
GOVERNMENT MUST NOT COVER UP ISRAELI INTERFERENCE IN UK POLITICS
Israeli Embassy collusion with pro-Israeli lobbyists must be fully investigated
All antisemitism charges against Labour Party members must now be reviewed
London, 18 January – Film evidence that Labour and Conservative pro-Israel lobbyists worked with the Israeli Embassy to undermine political opponents has implications for democratic processes in the UK that must be fully investigated, campaigners say.
“There must be no cover-up of what appears to have been a concerted campaign to discredit supporters of Palestine, Conservative as well as Labour, and to use concocted allegations of antisemitism to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and his support base,” said Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, speaking for Free Speech on Israel (FSOI).
Theresa May has rejected a call from Corbyn for a government inquiry into the Embassy’s “improper interference in this country’s democratic process.” But a number of Jewish groups that work for Palestinian human rights are supporting the Labour leader’s call and urging Labour to set up its own inquiry into the activities of politicians and lobbyists implicated by Al-Jazeera’s four-part documentary The Lobby.
The documentary showed an Israeli Embassy staffer discussing with a Conservative ministerial aide how to “take down” deputy foreign secretary Alan Duncan. It also revealed extensive collaboration between the embassy, Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) and Labour Party affiliate the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM). Both organisations have consistently alleged antisemitism against supporters of Palestinian rights who criticise Israel. Many of these have been suspended and subjected to disciplinary procedures that lack transparency and take no account of natural justice.
FSOI calls upon Labour’s National Executive Committee to institute a full review of all outstanding disciplinary proceedings and to investigate the activities of both JLM and LFI.
Notes for Editors
Al Jazeera Investigative Unit’s series “The Lobby” was screened between Wednesday Jan 11 and Saturday Jan 15. It can be viewed online
2. Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to Prime Minister Theresa May called for an inquiry into “attempts to undermine the integrity of our democracy.”
3. Here is the full text of the statement from Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP), Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) and Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-BIG):
We note with concern the very serious allegations of Israeli Embassy interference in the United Kingdom’s democratic processes revealed in the Al Jazeera series “The Lobby”. We support Jeremy Corbyn’s call on the Government to hold an enquiry into this attempt to subvert both the government itself and the Opposition. It is imperative that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee should summon those Israelis and British politicians and lobbyists shown to have been implicated. We also call on the Labour party to conduct an immediate investigation into the involvement of its own members in the activities documented by Al-Jazeera.
4. Free Speech on Israel (FSOI) was founded as a predominantly Jewish campaign group in Spring 2016 to counter the manufactured moral panic over a supposed epidemic of antisemitism in the UK. Its earlier statement on the Al-Jazeera investigation can be read here.
5. Avi Shlaim, emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University, analyses the relevance of the Al-Jazeera revelations, examining how anti-Zionism is deliberately conflated with antisemitism to suppress legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies.
a) Black Jewish activist Jackie Walker, former vice-chair of Momentum, is currently fighting her second bout of suspension from the party. She intends to make a formal complaint against Jewish Labour Movement director Ella Rose, seen threatening and abusing Walker in the second episode of the film.
b) The films show Labour Friends of Israel chair Joan Ryan MP discussing at length with fellow lobbyists how to frame a complaint of antisemitism against a Labour Party member, a woman who was suspended as a result and later reinstated on appeal.
c) Separately, activists in a party branch in the Liverpool constituency of former LFI chair, Louise Ellman MP, are fighting baseless allegations of antisemitism which have been used as an excuse to investigate the entire branch.