Name one leader of a party of government, in any western country in the past 25 years, with any record of speaking out for Palestinian rights. Give up? Well, one name does spring to mind: Jeremy Corbyn, who led Britain's Labour Party in the General Election of 2017 to its highest vote share for over half a century. A Labour Government would "recognise a Palestinian state as soon as we take office", he promised last year.
Corbyn's parliamentary ranks are depleted, however, with nine Labour members having recently resigned the party whip. Eight have joined a newly-formed, cross-party gathering, The Independent Group (TIG). Several cited "antisemitism" in the party as their reason for leaving. Could these developments, by any chance, be connected?
There is no doubt that Labour members have said and done anti-Semitic things. Some have revealed a dangerous degree of naïveté, such as local election candidate Alan Bull, who linked from his Facebook page to a holocaust denialist site to "invite discussion and debate." The party's response has sometimes been bumbling and amateurish, as in this case, where the officer in charge of investigations (who therefore had a quasi-judicial role) publicly pronounced herself convinced of Bull's innocence – before anyone told her about the offending post. Matters have improved, with nearly 700 members having been investigated, and a handful expelled, over the past year. A Labour spokesperson said: "These figures relate to about 0.1 per cent of our membership, but one antisemite in our party is one too many. We are committed to tackling antisemitism and rooting it out of our party once and for all."
Jewish MP Luciana Berger joined the TIGgers after falling out with her local constituency party over her opposition to Corbyn's leadership. She was subjected to an avalanche of online vitriol – though how much, if any, came from members is unclear. One of Corbyn's chief critics, the veteran MP, Margaret Hodge, handed a dossier to party officials detailing 200 instances of antisemitism, involving 111 individuals – of whom only 20, it turned out, actually belonged to Labour. The latest cause célèbre is another MP, Chris Williamson, who has been suspended for telling supporters that Labour had "given too much ground and been too apologetic" to its critics, having done "more to address the scourge of antisemitism" than any other party.
The affair has left rank and file members angry and frustrated. On rare occasions when one of them has a chance to speak in public, it is usually to say that they have never personally encountered any hint of antisemitism in the party. A swarm of right-wing reporters and bloggers is hovering, waiting to pounce on any new case, and portray it as emblematic of a wider trend – when in fact it may be isolated and untypical. These witch-hunters have not generally shown any previous interest in antisemitism, or indeed any other form of racism. Many contribute to the same newspapers that attacked and ridiculed the valuable anti-racism work done by Labour councils in the 1980s. For them, as for some of Corbyn's Labour critics, the issue is purely a convenient stick to beat him with.
So – a rum do, all round. It invites one to ask what lies behind it, and of course, cui bono? Who could stand to gain from toxifying the issue of Palestinian rights, by associating it with anti-Jewish racism? And that brings us neatly on to the targeting of Labour under Corbyn by elements of the Israeli security establishment. Oh yes – there is, or at least was a conspiracy to infiltrate UK Labour, and Israel is/was up to its neck in it. It was exposed by an undercover reporter for Al Jazeera's series, The Lobby, screened in early 2017. Headlines were made when Shai Masot, who described himself as a senior political officer at the Israeli embassy in London, was secretly filmed vowing to "take down" MPs who criticised Israel's illegal settlements on Palestinian territory, including the Deputy Foreign Minister in Britain's Conservative government, Alan Duncan.
Masot also escorted a group to the Labour conference, where AJ's hidden camera captured an exchange at the Labour Friends of Israel stall. In this, a party member, Jean Fitzpatrick, challenged Joan Ryan MP over the settlements, and the influence exerted by LFI, instanced by a "good job at Oxford University" obtained by the son of a friend of hers, "on the basis of having worked for Labour Friends of Israel". In response, Ryan accused her of invoking "anti-Semitic tropes" by suggesting that Jewish connections could deliver jobs in "banking" – which Fitzpatrick herself had not mentioned. Later in the documentary, Ryan and other pro-Israel Labour figures are seen discussing whether Fitzpatrick's remarks genuinely were anti-Semitic. "I don't know where the line is," one says. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, who viewed the recording, told AJ: "It's [clear] in the discussion that you have filmed that the woman was not anti-Semitic. They know it… She was a typical pro-Palestinian person who was worried about the violations of human… and civil rights."
Ryan reported Fitzpatrick to party officials, who eventually cleared her, but only after she was interrogated and kept under suspicion, which – by her own account – took its toll on her "health and equilibrium." (Having been twice falsely and cynically accused of antisemitism myself, and twice exonerated, I sympathise). The MP's local constituency party responded by passing a motion of no confidence in her, declaring that she had "acted against decency, fairness and natural justice" in making the complaint. So, when Ryan became the eighth Labour MP to join The Independent Group, it came as no surprise.
A focal point for attacks on the party was the definition of antisemitism promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. At first, Labour's ruling National Executive Committee adopted this definition, but not its accompanying "examples". Over the summer parliamentary recess of 2018 – a period when an Opposition generally has the chance to set the political agenda, for a few precious weeks, with its own policies – the NEC was browbeaten, by a relentless media-driven campaign, into accepting them, too. One stipulates that "claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour" could itself be racist.
Why does this matter? In 1948, the State of Israel was founded on a massive act of racist violence. Thousands of Palestinians were driven out of their communities, because they were people of the wrong race. Their homes were earmarked for people of a different race. Fast-forward 70 years and the racist character of the Zionist political project is made clear in Israel's new "nation-state law", which spells out the second-class status of all non-Jews. Ha'aretz columnist Gideon Levy commented: "The nation-state law makes it plain. Israel is for Jews only, on the books… it puts an end to Israel's vague nationalism and presents Zionism as it is".
To be able to critique the Zionist notion of a State of Israel, of and for Jews above all others, as racist, is crucial. People who leave their homes must not be prevented from going back to them, or they lose freedom of movement, which is a universal human right. In this case, violation of that right is compounded by its racist nature. The racism can only be expunged by legislating equal rights for all Israeli citizens; reversing the occupation of 1967, including control over Gaza's airspace and seaboard, and facilitating the Palestinian right of return to their homes: the demands of the global campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
With exquisite timing, at the very moment when disaffected Labour backbenchers were jumping into their escape pod, the party was re-admitting a pantomime villain of yore: Derek Hatton, Deputy Leader of Liverpool City Council in the 1980s, a fierce critic of the then Thatcher government, and public, shiny-scrubbed face of the entryist Militant Tendency. His renewed membership was only two days old, however, when it was suspended, over – you guessed it – an "anti-Semitic" tweet. This came during the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2012, the week-long "Operation Pillar of Defence", which killed 174 Palestinians. Hatton's tweet read: