In declaring their support for Zionism, the three contenders for Corbyn’s crown are offering only the cynical politics of old
Middle East Eye – 21 February 2020
In recent years the British Labour party has grown rapidly to become one of the largest political movements in Europe, numbering more than half a million members, many of them young people who had previously turned their backs on national politics.
The reason was simple: a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had shown that it was possible to rise to the top of a major party without being forced to sacrifice one’s principles along the way and become just another machine politician.
But as Corbyn prepares to step down after a devastating election defeat, statements by the three contenders for his crown – Lisa Nandy, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer – suggest that his efforts to reinvent Labour as a mass, grassroots movement are quickly unravelling.
Politics of cynicism
A politics of cynicism – dressed only loosely in progressive garb – has returned to replace Corbyn’s popular democratic socialism. Leadership candidates are once again carefully cultivating their image and opinions – along with their hairstyles, clothes and accents – to satisfy the orthodoxies they fear will be rigidly enforced by a billionaire-owned media and party bureaucrats.
Labour’s lengthy voting procedure for a new leader begins this weekend, with the winner announced in early April. But whoever takes over the party reins, the most likely outcome will be a revival of deep disillusionment on the left with British politics.
The low-point of the candidates’ campaigning, and their betrayal of the movement that propelled Corbyn on to the national stage, came last week at a “hustings” jointly organised by the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel. These two party organisations are cheerleaders for Israel, even as it prepares to annex much of the West Bank, supported by the Trump administration, in an attempt to crush any hope of a Palestinian state ever being established.
Asked if they were Zionists, two of the candidates – Nandy, the climate change secretary, and Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary, who is widely touted as representing “continuity Corbynism” – declared they indeed were. The third candidate – Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, and the man favoured by the party machine – stated only slightly less emphatically that he supported Zionism.
Nandy’s response was particularly baffling. She is the current chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, while the other two are supporters of the group. It is exceedingly difficult to find a Palestinian Zionist. And yet the Palestinian cause is now officially represented in the Labour parliamentary party by someone who has declared herself a Zionist.
This is no small matter. For good reason, Zionism is rarely defined beyond the vaguest sentiment about creating a safe haven for Jews following the Nazi genocide committed in Europe. Zionism’s political implications are little understood or analysed, even by many who subscribe to it. By the standards of modern politics, it is an extremist ideology.
For decades western states have preferred to promote an inclusive, civic nationalism that embraces people for where they live, not who they are. Zionism, by contrast, is diametrically opposed to the civic nationalism that is the basis of modern liberal democracies.
Rather, it is an ethnic nationalism that confers rights on people based on their blood ties or tribal identity. Such nationalisms were at the root of a divisive European racial politics in the first half of the last century that led to two cataclysmic world wars and the Holocaust.
In the Middle East, Zionism has fuelled a racial politics that was once familiar across Europe. It has rationalised the mass dispossession of the Palestinians of their homeland through ethnic cleansing and illegal settlement-building. It has also conferred superior rights on Jews, turning Palestinians into an ethnic underclass – segregated from Jews – both inside Israel and in the occupied territories.
‘Clash of civilisations’
Progressive post-war politics of the kind one might assume the Labour party should uphold has sought to rid the West of the menace of ethnic nationalism. It is true that race politics is reviving at the moment in the US and parts of Europe, under figures such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. But ethnic nationalism is – and always has been – the preserve of right-wing, authoritarian politicians.
It should be an abhorrence to the left, which subscribes to universal rights, opposes racism and promotes principles of equality. But Labour politicians have long made an exception of Israel and Zionism.
Originally, that blind spot was fuelled by a mix of Holocaust guilt and a starry-eyed excitement over Israel’s brief experiments with socialist-inspired – though exclusively Jewish – collectivist agricultural communities like the kibbutz, built on stolen Palestinian land.
Then, as Labour fully abandoned socialism, culminating in its reinvention as New Labour under Tony Blair in the 1990s, the party began to champion Israel for additional, even more cynical reasons. Labour leaders dressed up colonial ideas – of projecting western power into the oil-rich Middle East – in modern attire, as a supposed Judeo-Christian “clash of civilisations” against Islam in which Israel was on “our” side.
Pilloried by media
Corbyn never accepted the exception made for Israel. Consistent with his universalist principles, he long championed the Palestinian cause as an enduring colonial injustice, instituted by the British government more than a century ago with the Balfour Declaration.
It is worth recalling, after years of being pilloried by a hostile media, the wider reasons why Corbyn was unexpectedly and twice elected by an overwhelming majority of Labour members – and why that provoked such a backlash. Decades on the backbenches, choosing to represent the concerns of ordinary people, had made it clear Corbyn would not pander to establishment interests.
His track record on offering the right answers to the great questions of the day spoke for itself, from decrying South African apartheid in the early 1980s to opposing Britain’s leading role in the 2003 war of aggression against Iraq.
He refused to bow to neoliberal orthodoxies, including the “too big to fail” rationalisations for the bank bailouts of 2008, that nearly bankrupted the global economy. He had long campaigned a more equitable society, and one accountable to working people rather than inherited wealth and a self-serving corporate elite.
He was genuinely anti-racist, but not in the usual lip-service way. He cared about all oppressed people whatever their skin colour and wherever they lived on the planet, not just those that might vote for him or his party in a UK election. For that reason he was also fiercely against the legacy of western colonialism and its endless resource wars against the global south. He had long been a prominent figure in the Stop the War movement.
But equally, though it did not fit the narrative that was being crafted against him and so was ignored, he had been a committed supporter of Jewish causes and his Jewish constituents throughout his career on the backbenches.
Campaign of smears
In declaring their support for Zionism – or worse, saying they were Zionists – Long-Bailey, Nandy and Starmer betrayed the left.
They did so at a time when the foundations of the explicit racism of the resurgent right needs confronting and challenging, not accommodating. After all, the white supremacists who are the key to this resurgence are also among the biggest supporters of Israel and Zonism.
Everyone understands why the three candidates signed up enthusiastically as Zionists at the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel’s hustings. They have watched Corbyn slowly destroyed by a four-year campaign of smears promoted by these two groups – and echoed by the corporate media – claiming the party has become “institutionally antisemitic” on his watch.
Each candidate has faced demands that they distance themselves from Corbyn. That culminated last month in an ultimatum from the Board of Deputies of British Jews that they sign “10 pledges” or face the same onslaught Corbyn was subjected to.
The 10 commitments are designed to ensure that successful moves made in the Labour Party by the board and the Jewish Labour Movement to redefine antisemitism will become irreversible. That is because the pledges also make these two Israel advocacy groups judge and jury in Labour’s antisemitism cases.
They have already foisted on the party a retrograde and ahistorical definition of antisemitism – formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – that is specifically designed to ring-fence Zionism from any debate about what it means as an ideology.
It shifts the focus of antisemitism from a hatred of Jews to strong criticism of Israel. Seven of the IHRA’s 11 examples of antisemitism refer to Israel, including this one: “Claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.
And yet the Zionist movement designed Israel to be a racist state – one that privileged Jewish immigrants to Palestine over the native Palestinian population. And if that wasn’t clear from its founding as an ethnic nationalist “Jewish state” on the Palestinians’ homeland, it was made explicit two years ago when those founding principles were set out in a Basic Law.
That law defines Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” – that is, all Jews around the world, rather than the people who live in its territory, including a fifth of the population who are Palestinian by heritage.
The three leadership candidates all hurried to back the Board of Deputies’ pledges. But these 10 commitments do more than just make serious criticism of Israel off-limits. They create a self-rationalising system that stretches the idea of antisemitism well beyond what should be its breaking point.
Under these new terms, anyone can be automatically denounced as an antisemite if they try to challenge the changed definition of antisemitism to include criticism of Israel, or if they acknowledge that a pro-Israel lobby exists. In fact, this was exactly why Chris Williamson, an MP close to Corbyn, was expelled from the party last year.
How McCarthyite this has become was again illustrated this week when a candidate for Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) elections, Graham Durham, was suspended for antisemitism over comments in which he accused Long-Bailey of “cuddling up to the Jewish Labour Movement and the chief rabbi, a well-known Tory.”
As explained here, Durham’s “antisemitic” comment was barely more than a statement of fact. It included an additional reference to the efforts of Britain’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, a public supporter of Boris Johnson, to damage Corbyn’s chances in the run-up to December’s general election by accusing the Labour leader of being an antisemite.
The decision by Long-Bailey and the other two candidates to back the Board’s pledges has effectively turned the pro-Israel lobby into an executioner-in-waiting. It empowers these groups to destroy any of one of them who becomes leader and tries to promote a Corbyn-style progressive platform.
Two parties of capital
Neither the Board nor the JLM could have imposed these demands on Labour in a vacuum. It would not have been possible without the support both of a corporate media that wishes Labour cowed and of the Labour bureaucracy, which wants the status quo-embracing, Blairite wing of the party back in charge, even if that means alienating a large section of the new membership.
For all three – the Israel lobby, the media and the party machine – the goal is to have a Labour leader once again entirely beholden to the current western economic and imperialist order. A candidate who will once again commit to business as usual and ensure voters are offered a choice limited to two parties of capital.
And the simplest and most double-dealing way to achieve that end is by holding the antisemitism sword over their heads. Corbyn could not be tamed so he had to be destroyed. His successors have already demonstrated how ready they are to be brought to heel as the price for being allowed near power.
At another hustings, this time staged by the BBC, all three candidates agreed that their top priority, were they to become party leader, would be to tackle Labour’s supposed “antisemitism crisis”. That’s right – the top priority. Not changing the public discourse on austerity, or exposing the Tory government’s incompetence and its catastrophic version of a hard Brexit, or raising consciousness about an impending climate catastrophe.
Or tackling the rising tide of racism in British society, most obviously targeting Muslims, that is being fomented by the right.
No, the priority for all three is enforcing a so-called “zero tolerance” policy on antisemitism. In practice, that would mean a presumption of guilt and a fast-track expulsion of members accused of antisemitism – as recently redefined to include anything but softball criticism of Israel.
Approval of eugenics
It hardly bears repeating – so hard-set is the media narrative of an “institutionally antisemitic” Labour party – that there is a complete absence of evidence, beyond the anecdotal, to support the so-called “crisis”.
Much less than 0.1 percent of members have been found guilty of antisemitism even given the new, much-expanded definition designed to entrap anti-racists who criticise Israel or question the good faith of the pro-Israel lobby. That is far less than the prevalence of old-school antisemitism – the kind that targets Jews for being Jews – found in the wider British population or in the Conservative Party, where all types of racism are publicly indulged.
So confident is Boris Johnson’s government that it won’t suffer Corbyn’s fate, either from the media or from pro-Israel lobby groups, that this week it stood by an adviser who was revealed to have approved of eugenics and argued that black people have lower IQs. Notably, Andrew Sabisky was not sacked by the party after his views were outed. He stepped down to avoid becoming a “distraction”.
Nor were there headlines that his employment by Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, proved the Conservative Party was “institutionally racist”. In fact, Sabisky’s worldview has become increasingly mainstream in the Tory party as it lurches rightwards.
Subversion from within
Conversely, though rarely mentioned by the media, several prominent incidents of antisemitism in Labour that caused problems for Corbyn relate to Jews and Jewish party members who are staunch critics of Israel or define themselves as anti-Zionists.
There has been little attention paid to the prejudice faced by these Jews, who have set up a group inside the party called Jewish Voice for Labour to counter the disinformation. It has been maligned and ignored in almost equal measure.
These Jewish party members who support Corbyn are regularly dismissed as the “wrong kind of Jews” – paradoxically, an example of real antisemitism that those peddling the antisemitism smears against Labour have depended on to maintain the credibility of their claims.
Also unreported by the British media is the documented role of the party’s pro-Israel partisans in the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel in seeking to foment a revolt against Corbyn – filmed by an undercover reporter for Al-Jazeera – over his strong support for the Palestinian cause.
This incontrovertible evidence of efforts to subvert the party from within has been ignored by Labour Party bureaucrats too.
The assumption of some who bought into the antisemitism “crisis” was that once the Labour party was rid of Corbyn the smears would fizzle out. They would become unnecessary. But that was to misunderstand what was at stake and what role the accusations served.
The antisemitism allegations were never really about antisemitism, except presumably in the minds of some members of the Jewish community whose perceptions of events were inevitably skewed by the media coverage and the hostility from Jewish leadership organisations that have made Israel their chief cause.
Antisemitism was a tool – one for preventing Corbyn from reaching power and threatening the interests of the ruling elite. His opponents – in the media, inside his own party and among pro-Israel groups – chose antisemitism as the battlefield because it is much easier to defeat a principled opponent in a dirty war than in a fair fight.
Antisemitism served a purpose and continues to do so. In Corbyn’s case, it tarnished him and his general policies by turning reality on its head and making him out to be a racist posing as an anti-racist.
Now the same allegations can be used as a stick to tame his successor. Antisemitism can be wielded as threat to make sure none contemplates following his path into a principled, grassroots politics that champions the weak over the powerful, the poor over the fabulously wealthy.
This week the antisemitism allegations surfaced again in a leadership TV debate staged by Channel 4.
Perhaps aware of how craven they risk appearing by backing Israel and Zionism so enthusiastically, and of how many party members may conclude that the Palestinians are being thrown under the proverbial bus, all three stated that there was no contradiction between opposing antisemitism and standing up for Palestinian rights.
In theory that is true. But it is no longer true in the case of Long-Bailey, Nandy and Starmer. They have accepted the ugly, false premises of the pro-Israel lobby, which require one to make just such a choice.
The lobby requires that, like the candidates, one must declare one’s support for Zionism, and Israel as a Jewish state, or be denounced as an antisemite. This is the flipside of the mischievous conflation of anti-Zionism – opposition to a political ideology – with antisemitism – hatred of Jews.
That conflation is based on the quite obviously false assertion that Israel represents all Jews, that it speaks for all Jews and that its actions – including its war crimes against the Palestinians – are the responsibility of all Jews. The pro-Israel lobby’s intentional conflation is not only deeply problematic, it is deeply antisemitic.
A choice must be made
One cannot stand up for a Palestinian right to self-determination while also embracing a political ideology, Zionism, that over more than 70 years, and as shared by every shade of Israeli government, has worked tirelessly to deny the Palestinians that right.
The fact that so many people in the West – Jews and non-Jews alike – have for so long evaded making that choice does not alter the fact that a choice has to be made. The lobby has made its choice. And now it has forced the Labour Party’s leadership candidates – as it tried to force Corbyn himself – into making the same choice.
The next leader of the Labour Party is already a prisoner to the “institutional antisemitism” narrative. That means their hands are chained not only to support for Israel, but to the reactionary politics in which Israel as a Jewish state makes sense – a worldview that embraces its style of ethnic, chauvinist, militaristic, segregationist politics.
A world, in fact, not so unlike the one we are being driven towards by the right-wing parties of Europe and the US.