Since I wrote my last piece on the left and claims of “anti-Semitism” against Labour students and the Left more generally, a spate of claims of anti-Semitism against various Labour politicians, two of them Muslims, have been made, resulting in the suspension from the Labour party of Ken Livingstone and the MP for Bradford West, Naseem “Naz” Shah. Also, following the election of Malia Bouattia as NUS President, a number of local student unions threatened to disaffiliate, claiming she was an anti-Semite and had refused to support a motion condemning ISIS and complaining that her election was undemocratic because it was carried out by conference delegates, not through a ballot of all students. While I agree that the remarks that got Ken Livingstone suspended were crass and historically inaccurate, I suspect they would not have resulted in suspension if said about any other minority or for that matter any other genocide. The row about Naz Shah’s remarks from 2014 fail to take into account the fact that most Muslims feel the same way, and that their stance is not a matter of racism but of being on the opposite side of a conflict.
To take Malia Bouattia first, the complainers are simply bad losers. The election of an NUS President has always been at conference, by delegates (who have to vote as instructed by their unions, which are accountable to the students — at least, those who take an interest in the union) and we did not hear them complaining when right-wing Labour careerists such as Jim Murphy were elected as President for year after year in the 1990s. When I attended as a delegate from Aberystwyth in 1996, Labour students even had people sitting with visitors in the balcony telling delegates how to vote. If they want a directly-elected President, they need to make the case for that at conference rather than disaffiliating. The Union of Jewish Students was prominent then as now, and organised a main-hall speech by a Searchlight activist who insisted that anti-Semitism was the “one abiding hatred” among neo-Nazis and that all their other hatreds were as nothing compared to the “paranoid hatred” they had for “the Jew”. He specifically named anti-Zionism as a cover for “naked anti-Semitism”, comparing it to someone saying “I’ve nothing against the Irish or the Belgians, but I don’t think they deserve a state”, ignoring the fact that Ireland and Belgium are not settler states and that they do not displace and oppress a native population.
I read the motion that Malia Bouattia refused to support, and while the motion itself does not appear Islamophobic, it also did not condemn Islamophobia or the politics of suspicion against British Muslim students; it did not even mention Islam or Muslims other than in connection with the so-called Islamic State. So, Ms Bouattia resisted a demand to condemn on cue and was smeared as a result. In addition, what does it matter if the NUS does or doesn’t condemn ISIS? It will have no difference in the field. The NUS passes an awful lot of resolutions on things that have nothing to do with students in the UK and on which they have no power, perhaps rejoicing in the glory days when union buildings were named after Nelson Mandela and students were part of the (vast) international movement that brought down Apartheid.
In the controversy over her election, the president of Birmingham University’s Jewish society, Daniel Clemens, was quoted as saying:
I think that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are two and the same thing. Zionism is the belief that Jewish people should have a homeland to live in without threat of annihilation or war. This stems from a Jewish belief. So when someone attacks Zionism they’re indirectly attacking Judaism as a religion, because the two go hand in hand.
The problem is that the “Jewish belief” is in conflict with the right of the Arabs who are the native people of Palestine to live in their country without the same threats. There is simply no defence of this position or of the status quo that does not lend itself to racism or to blaming the victims of Israeli oppression, something that in a student union context would not be tolerated of any other kind of oppression or violence. Furthermore, Muslims have been convicted of inciting racial hatred in this country for quoting hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallm) which foretold a war with Jews, and the judge dismissed his defence by saying, “words created 1,400 years ago are equally capable of containing race hate as words created today”. So, if Islam is no defence, Judaism is no defence either.
Moving on to Naz Shah, her remarks were made in 2014 and were made in the context of the Israeli bombings in Gaza, which as reported at the time, caused widespread civilian death and the destruction of homes, schools, hospitals etc. We don’t regard this as self-defence, regardless of its disproportionality compared to Hamas rocket attacks. It is murder and destruction in defence of injustice, namely the state of Israel, which as amply documented elsewhere, already oppresses the population of the West Bank through settlements, checkpoints, the wall, theft of water, arbitrary imprisonment of civilians for acts of resistance, and so on, while keeping the population of Gaza under seige (in collaboration with the dictatorship in Egypt). The fact that all this is deemed necessary to “maintain Israel’s security” (although the water theft is really to enable them to maintain a western lifestyle) is enough to demonstrate that the state of Israel is morally untenable.
Naz Shah shouldn’t have apologised. Most Muslims felt the same way she did. She should have stuck by her words rather than grovel to the Israel lobby’s smear and fake-outrage tactics. If the political classes can tolerate the Jewish community’s loyalty to a racist foreign state, it should be able to tolerate Muslims’ opposition to it and the odd intemperate remark, particularly when it is clearly aimed at the foreign power itself and not at everyone who shares their race and religion.
As for Ken Livingstone, his foray into being an amateur historian made him look pretty stupid. It’s a fact that early Zionists (such as Vladimir AKA Ze’ev Jabotinski) collaborated with anti-Semites who, for example, would prefer to relocate Jews to Palestine rather than tolerate them at home, or accept a wave of Jewish immigration from eastern Europe. Hitler did indeed tolerate Zionism, and did make an agreement with the German Zionist Federation, but this doesn’t prove that Hitler and his associates did not have murder in mind when they took power; the Zionists misjudged his intentions, as their leader later acknowledged (note: that link does work), much as those who stayed in Germany (or returned in the early days of his regime, attracted by the restoration of order) did, believing the surge in anti-Semitism would “all blow over”. To suggest that he only massacred the Jews because he was thwarted in his intention to deport Jews to Palestine or Madagascar rather suggests that his hand was forced, when it was a deliberate decision. The Jews of Europe did not have to be expelled or killed.
However, people calling him to be suspended or expelled from the Labour party overestimate the effect this would have on him. He probably does not care; he is 70 years old and has no intention of becoming an MP or running for mayor of London again, and it should be remembered that he has in the past beaten a Labour candidate as an independent.
What is anti-Semitism, and who gets to define it?
There have been a few stupid articles about this in the media. There are plenty of “sky is falling” articles by authors of Jewish origin: this one by Nick Cohen (complete with a shockingly ignorant remark about false rape accusations — in fact, attempts to talk about rape often are diverted onto talk of false accusations) and this one by Stephen Pollard, for example. But there are two others that make claims that I want to examine in more detail. One is by Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian last Friday, and the other is by Jonathan Freedland in last Saturday’s Guardian. They deserve closer examination because they compare the situation of Israel and related anti-Semitism or claims thereof to other tyrannies, and other minorities.
Here’s a clue, for those confused about how to champion Palestinian rights or condemn an oppressive regime without overstepping the line: just treat Israel as you would any other country guilty of human rights abuses.
There’s nothing inherently antisemitic about seeking economic sanctions against Israel, supporting an oppressed minority’s right to self determination, condemning a government, or anything else you’d do if this was Burma.
But calling for its people to be swept into the sea, or forcibly transplanted somewhere else, or in any other way denying Israel’s right to exist, is crossing a line because that simply doesn’t happen to other countries no matter how oppressive their regime. No other nation state on the planet is constantly asked to prove itself morally worthy merely of being allowed to exist.
The thing is that this isn’t Burma. Burma was until recently, and to some minds still is, a country which is ruled by an oppressive military élite which controlled the economy and ruined the country’s education system, among other things. It also persecutes some minorities, particularly the Muslim Rohingya whom no other government in the region wants to admit. It is, therefore, a straightforward tyranny in which the population as a whole are oppressed by a powerful class. We do not always support sanctions against tyrannical régimes; many people did in the case of Burma, because tourism would have benefited only the military élite which exploited the general population, not the people. Israel’s tyranny presents itself as democracy, and it is commonly justified as the “only democracy in the region”, and the army which perpetrates the abuses is drawn from the dominant population — the Jews, the vast majority of whose ancestors did not live in the country until at least the late 19th century and most of them much more recently — and there is every sign that this dominant population supports the status quo, given that it elects hardline parties and the likes of the war criminal Ariel Sharon to govern them. So, the problem with Israel is not an elite, but the population.
The comments about how it’s OK to support “an oppressed minority’s right to self-determination” reflect the usual naivety of the white liberal about this situation. Israel is not willing to tolerate self-determination because it wants to provide scope for settlement expansion, to hold onto religiously significant sites and to provide a western lifestyle for Israelis and especially those relocated from the developed world. It cannot do this by allowing the native people equal access to resources and to control over their homeland. The reason we usually do not say of a tyranny that the state and its people should be driven into the sea is because the population is the victim (sometimes of land-grabs by members of the elite, as has become common in East Africa in recent years) rather than the perpetrator. The situation is more like that of Apartheid or of American segregation, where the state was of one section of the population and the enemy of another. (Nick Cohen talks of a ‘darkness’ where the police guard synagogues and Jewish schools here while ‘fascistic reactionaries’ attack them in France; real persecution is where the police and the fascistic reactionaries are one and the same, or at least, the police look the other way, as in the case of Kristallnacht or when Muslims were attacked in Gujarat in 2002. Of course, the governor whose police looked the other way now shares a platform with the Prime Minister and is feted by MPs of both main parties.)
In her penultimate paragraph, she alleges:
We don’t argue that the civilian population of Syria, or 1930s Germany for that matter, should have been forcibly removed from their homes and their nation states obliterated because of abuses committed by governments and condoned by some if not all of their citizens.
In fact, in the 1940s, millions of Germans were deported from the former eastern territories of Germany so that Russia could keep the parts of Poland it had occupied in 1939 and compensate Poland while resettling Poles from the east to the territories vacated by the Germans. In the same decade, millions of Hindus and Muslims in northern India had to leave their homes as a result of Partition. These were not recent settlers, unlike the Jews of Israel.
Freedland compares the left’s attitude to Israel to committed anti-racists hating a hypothetical country that is the only Black-ruled state in the world. In fact, one African country has a history much like that of Israel, namely Liberia, a country ‘founded’ by resettled freed slaves from the USA, who for a century dominated the country’s politics despite making up only 2.5% of the population. According to Wikipedia (which cites the US State Department for this):
The Americo-Liberian settlers did not identify with the indigenous peoples they encountered, especially those in communities of the more isolated “bush.” They knew nothing of their cultures, languages or animist religion. Encounters with tribal Africans in the bush often developed as violent confrontations. The colonial settlements were raided by the Kru and Grebo people from their inland chiefdoms. Because of feeling set apart and superior by their culture and education to the indigenous peoples, the Americo-Liberians developed as a small elite that held on to political power. It excluded the indigenous tribesmen from birthright citizenship in their own lands until 1904, in a repetition of the United States’ treatment of Native Americans. Because of the cultural gap between the groups and assumption of superiority of western culture, the Americo-Liberians envisioned creating a western-style state to which the tribesmen should assimilate. They encouraged religious organizations to set up missions and schools to educate the indigenous peoples … Their passage of the 1865 Ports of Entry Act prohibited foreign commerce with the inland tribes, ostensibly to “encourage the growth of civilized values” before such trade was allowed.
I should add that, although many Black-ruled countries nowadays exist, there is no state for Black British or African-Americans specifically, despite the many decades of racism and discrimination they have suffered. There are many minorities, with or without an acknowledged land of their own, who do not have a state. Nobody is suggesting they get one at another people’s expense. Nor is anyone suggesting, even those who would open the doors to all the refugees from Syria, that there should be a bit of England that is forever Syria.
He concludes by demanding that Jews be allowed to define what constitutes anti-Semitism, much as other minorites are ‘usually’ allowed to, without being told “they’re wrong, that they are exaggerating or lying or using it as a decoy tactic [and then treated] to a long lecture on what anti-Jewish racism really is”. But racism against every other minority is normally directed at them, not at a group of people of the same religion who are the dominant class in another country. And most minorities are not White, powerful and prosperous, and cannot kick up a storm in the media (or rely on others to do so) any time a politician makes a disparaging remark about them, or their friends abroad. It’s dangerous to allow such a minority a free rein to allege racism for things that bear no relation to the racism or discrimination other minorities suffer, and be indulged; they will use it to silence or smear critics, as they are already doing. Additionally, spurious accusations of ‘mansplaining’ to mean a man telling a woman something she doesn’t want to hear are pretty common in my observation, and even some feminists warn that it can be used as a simple ad hominem attack.
I do believe that this scandal has been orchestrated so as to damage the Labour party’s prospects in the coming local elections, perhaps because the Tories feared that the now-forgotten smears against Sadiq Khan had failed to do so. There is a group of embittered Blairites who really would rather the Tories won than even a moderate mayoral candidate, so as to give them a pretext to remove Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership. That doesn’t excuse Livingstone’s crass remarks about Hitler, but the truth is that this “anti-Semitism” controversy started with a witch hunt against prominent Muslims, starting with Malia Bouattia, moving on to Sadiq Khan and finally Naz Shah, and that over something she posted before she became an MP. In the Guardian last week Iman Amrani noted that Muslims come under special scrutiny when running for public office; they are judged not only everything they have ever said but also everyone they have ever come into contact with, as we have seen also with Sadiq Khan.
It will be galling to many Muslims that their support for Palestinians’ rights to their own land, control of their lives and freedom from harassment and oppression is branded anti-Semitic by a privileged minority and their media friends here at the same time as an openly Islamophobic campaign is being run in support of a Tory mayoral candidate named Goldsmith. Muslims will know that however integrated they are, and whatever compromises they make to appear integrated, they will still be held under suspicion because of whom they know or (as in Sadiq Khan’s case) simply for doing their job. We also know that the reason “the Left” is considered tainted with anti-Semitism is not because of Ken Livingstone but because of us. Whether they like it or not, the Labour Party depends in large parts of London not on Jewish votes but on non-white ethnic votes, including Muslims’, and demonising Muslims over spurious claims of anti-Semitism will lose them votes — whole seats in places like east London and Bradford. Labour has to accommodate both, and should not let itself be dictated to by a group that can make a lot of noise but is much smaller in number, heavily concentrated in a few areas, for socio-economic reasons less likely to vote Labour anyway and does not even represent much of the ethnic group it claims to speak for.
Possibly Related Posts:
- Otto Frank and the editing of Anne Frank’s diary
- How Labour’s researchers passed up a chance to expose Tory racism
- Following in Grandpa Phil’s footsteps
- On British Muslims and US racial politics
- Labour, anti-Zionism and the past