Nothing brave about Starmer’s cave-in

Picture of Maxine Peake, a middle-aged white woman with curly fair hair, wearing a yellow and white striped T-shirt with a sticker saying "My union, our strength; proud to be a member of Equity" (the actors' union). There is a crowd of people behind her.
Maxine Peake

Today Keir Starmer, the Labour leader elected earlier this year, caved in to pressure from the Board of Deputies of British Jews to sack the shadow education secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, who had shared an interview with the British actress Maxine Peake in which the actress repeated a well-known claim that the police behaviour which led to the death of George Floyd last month was influenced by seminars delivered by the Israeli police or ‘defence’ forces. The decision was widely praised by both the party’s right wing and by right-wing figures in the media generally as a sign that Starmer is ‘finally’ taking steps to “rid the party of antisemitism”. To others, it is a thin pretext for getting rid of someone who has sided with teachers’ unions in urging a delay in reopening schools for the sake of the health of teachers, pupils and the families of both. I have seen many tweets this afternoon from people who said they intended to resign from the Labour Party and not all of them are committed Corbynites. (More: Mic Wright.)

The interview, which she discusses a number of her recent film roles and her politics, includes a widely-circulated claim that the police tactic of kneeling on someone’s neck, which was what killed George Floyd, had been “learned from seminars with Israeli secret services”, which the latter denied. Her defenders have pointed to a blog post on Amnesty International’s website from 2016, in which it is claimed that Baltimore’s police had received training on “crowd control, use of force and surveillance” from Israeli police, and a number of other cities had received Israeli training. It does not, however, say that this particular tactic was learned from those seminars. Jose Lopez, a former police chief in Durham, North Carolina, who received training from Israel, said his training was not about ‘militarization’ but rather, “it was about leadership, it was learning about terrorism and then learning about how to interact with people who are involved in mass casualty situations and how to manage mass casualty situations”.

I saw a thread on Twitter which claimed that the allegation about Israeli influence on US police forces was antisemitic because it was based on a ‘trope’ that Jews always had to be behind any disaster or other. Like a lot of the “antisemitic trope” claims that were thrown at various people in the Labour party every week or so under Corbyn’s leadership, this strikes me as straining the definition through the needle’s eye but frankly, I believe that people drew the connection, or made the assumption that if American police forces were getting training from Israel it had to be at the detriment of their human rights record not because Israelis are Jewish but because Israel’s human rights record was already atrocious and their contempt for Palestinians’ general rights, their rights to go about their business without harassment and violence, their rights to be unmolested in their homes, their rights to their own land’s water and so on are well-documented and not even concealed. This is why, if someone is wrong about Israel on such a matter, it does not constitute evidence that they are antisemitic. The same goes for an incident in which a Corbyn supporter shared a video which she claimed showed Israeli police or soldiers abusing young people somewhere in Palestine; in fact, it was shot in Guatemala. However, when similar abuses are amply documented, to believe someone who tells you this is from Palestine and share it as such when you do not speak Spanish, Arabic or Hebrew is not antisemitic. One does a serial violent criminal no great injustice by attributing to him one particular crime that he did not commit, when he committed many like it.

Starmer’s action is in my opinion cowardly — typical, in fact, of the New Labour right demonstrated again and again while they were in power: they would do the bidding of the powerful (the commercial media, in particular) by sticking the boot into the powerless. The suggestion that Jews or Jewish interests or lobby groups have undue influence over the media is commonly dismissed as an antisemitic trope, yet Starmer clearly thinks they do otherwise he would not have sacked one of his shadow cabinet for sharing an interview with a well-respected cultural figure. Despite all the flattery, it does not give the impression that Starmer is an independent leader, but rather that he gives in to pressure very easily and is easily cowed when confronted with a display of power.

Image source: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) licence v4.0, via Wikimedia

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