Labour’s anti-Semitism controversy protecting Israel from criticism

First published by the New Arab on 7/9/2018

Labour's anti-Semitism controversy protecting Israel from criticism

Protesters lobbied Labour’s NEC members as they arrived to decide on the new definition [Getty]

The UK’s Labour party has been embroiled in a controversy over anti-Semitism, which broke soon after the socialist candidate for the party’s leadership, Jeremy Corbyn, won the contest.

There was no immediate accusation that he had ever harboured any dislike, let alone hatred for Jews. Corbyn is acknowledged to be a lifelong campaigner for human rights, who has defied his party on several occasions and voted against Tony Blair’s decision to sanction the war on Iraq in early 2003.

Corbyn has supported the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom, justice and equality for decades, leading many marches and speaking at numerous rallies, with passion, but never blaming British Jews for the actions of modern-day Israel. He also hosted many meetings in parliament, helping raise the Palestinian issue at the heart of Britain’s democracy.

He saw the comparisons between Israeli discriminatory policies and those of the Apartheid system which operated in South Africa. There too was a campaign of which he was a part until Apartheid fell, being arrested in the process in 1984. He was a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign prior to his election and has notably maintained that role.

At the heart of the current row in the party are accusations against Corbyn of not taking the issue of anti-Semitism seriously, an issue which was never raised as a major problem in the party before his election to the leadership.

The question of whether anti-Semitism was a real problem in the party or had been exaggerated for political purposes was clouded by the demand… to adopt a new definition of anti-Semitism

The accusations have been led by UK organisations which claim to represent the Jewish community, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), but which also have a record of unwavering support for Israel. In addition, two pro-Israel organisations within the Labour Party – namely Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) and the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) – have also taken up the fight against Corbyn.

The LFI was the subject of an undercover Al Jazeera investigation which showed it worked closely with the Israeli embassy in London.

The question of whether anti-Semitism was a real problem in the party or had been exaggerated for political purposes was clouded by the demand by pro-Israel organisations for public bodies, including political parties, governments and city councils to adopt a new definition of anti-Semitism, produced by the 31-member International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which launched in 2016 as a non-legally bindingworking definition of anti-Semitism:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

While experts argued over those 38 words, it was the next part of the document that caused heated arguments among both supporters of Israel and supporters of the Palestinian people.

“To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations:
 
Manifestations [of anti-Semitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

This was followed by 11 illustrative examples, seven of which made reference to Israel. Two in particular raised major concerns about their impact on freedom of expression and the freedom for Palestinians to impart facts about their continuing injustice and how they and their supporters might act to deliver justice 71 years after Israel’s creation in their homeland through violent ethnic cleansing and terror.

Palestinians identified grave dangers in the example which claimed,“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” would be anti-Semitic.

For Palestinians it is clear that Israel was created as a homeland for Jews from any part of the world to move to, while 750,000 were violently expelled to neighbouring Arab countries in 1948 and have not been allowed to return to their homes despite the UN passing resolution 194 in 1948 recognising their right to return peacefully.

They see the creation of this Israel as a racist endeavour but the application of the definition appears to be designed to label any Palestinian or supporter who wishes to impart this information to fellow citizens as an anti-Semite.

This danger was illustrated clearly by Joan Ryan, Chair of LFI, who wrote to Jeremy Corbyn in June asking him to clarify a tweet in which he said: “We must work for a real two state settlement to the Israel Palestine conflict, which ends the occupation and siege of Gaza and makes the Palestinian right to return a reality.”

Her argument was that the realisation of the Palestinian right of return “…would effectively turn Israel into a Palestinian state and destroy the Jewish people’s right to self-determination”. Palestinians claiming their legitimate right to return to their homes becomes an anti-Semitic demand, according to Ryan, based on the IHRA code.

The other example given by the IHRA which supporters of Israel will use to close down debate is one which states that “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Israel often claims that it is singled out for criticism and that this is done essentially because it is the only Jewish state in the world. This essentially relates to support for the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against it until meets legal and moral demands for an end to the occupation, equal treatment for all of its citizens and the promotion and implementation of the right of return.

It is of course difficult to find another state which has been in continuous occupation of another people for more than 51 years, which denies the refugees it expelled the right of return, which builds illegally on another people’s land and has just passed a law (the Nation State Law) which gives one part of its population a right to self-determination but denies this to any others.

While the Labour Party considered adopting the 38-word IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, it also developed a code for dealing with any accusations that might come against members, which attempted to contextualise the examples in the definition and to protect free speech.

The pro-Israel community organisations in the UK were outraged that Labour had not simply adopted the IHRA definition with all 11 illustrative examples, arguing that the definition still made it possible to criticise Israel. They exerted severe pressure on the party and led what many of Corbyn’s supporters have described as a campaign to discredit him, which moved from accusing him from failing to deal with anti-Semitism to being an anti-Semite and racist himself.

Under mounting pressure and despite consulting with both Jewish and non-Jewish organisations including Palestinian organisations, and despite an opinion given by leading barrister Geoffrey Robinson QC – in which he claimed the IHRA definition was “not fit for purpose” – the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee adopted the full definition with the illustrative examples. A party spokesperson said: “The NEC has today adopted all of the IHRA examples of antisemitism, in addition to the IHRA definition which Labour adopted in 2016, alongside a statement which ensures this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians.”

Corbyn had argued, “It cannot be considered racist to treat Israel like any other state or assess its conduct against the standards of international law. Nor should it be regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

However, there was insufficient support for this part of his longer statement and it was not put to a vote.

While this was a matter for the Labour Party, other public bodies will now be under pressure to adopt the IHRA definition under pressure from Britain’s Israel lobby. Protecting Israel from criticism and silencing Palestinian voices is at the heart of the campaign by the lobby for the adoption of the problematic definition.

In a letter to The Guardian published before the vote, Palestinians had argued that, “The fundamental right to free expression, guaranteed by article 10 of the Human Rights Act, is first and foremost the right to ‘receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority’.”

They warned “any use by public bodies of the IHRA examples on anti-Semitism that either inhibits discussion relating to our dispossession by ethnic cleansing, when Israel was established, or attempts to silence public discussions on current or past practices of settler colonialism, apartheid, racism and discrimination, and the ongoing violent military occupation, directly contravenes core rights. First, the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, who remain protected by international laws and conventions; and second, the rights of all those British citizens who stand by our side, in the solidarity of a common humanity.”

That warning still stands, as it is inevitable that the pro-Israel lobby will now move to bring accusations of anti-Semitism against Labour members, citing the IHRA definition while working to pressure all public bodies to adopt it. However, what is important for Palestinians is that their supporters, who have been deflected from their campaigning work to try and influence Labour’s NEC, now refocus the effort on campaigning for the cause, particularly as US President Donald Trump’s administration works to impose a “deal of the century” that negates their rights.

 

Debate on British Palestinians’ letter to the Guardian on their right to freedom of speech

I joined a debate on RT UK on this letter in the Guardian which I signed on 1/8/2018

Palestinians in the UK speak out for the right to freedom of speech

This letter was published in the Guardian on 31 July 2018

Leading figures, including Prof Karma Nabulsi, Prof Kamel Hawwash, and Dr Ghada Karmi, put their community’s point of view

The fundamental right to free expression, guaranteed by article 10 of the Human Rights Act, is first and foremost the right to “receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority”. We write to provide news of our existence, in the face of current attempts to negate it.

As British Palestinians, some citizens, others still stateless refugees, we remain bound by our common history, when previous generations of Palestinians were violently denied the right to self-determination by the British colonial power ruling Palestine from 1918. Deprived of our sovereign rights to our land, we were dispossessed of it by force in the establishment of the state of Israel, which the British colonial occupation oversaw through 1947 to 1948. There exist vast bodies of publicly available records, scholarly evidence and official testimonies to affirm these facts.

The reality of the Palestinian people’s ongoing dispossession belongs to the public space: Palestinian people have the right to impart information about these present and past injustices, as every British citizen has the right to hear this information, along with the ideas and arguments that emerge directly from it.

Accordingly, any use by public bodies of the IHRA examples on antisemitism that either inhibits discussion relating to our dispossession by ethnic cleansing, when Israel was established, or attempts to silence public discussions on current or past practices of settler colonialism, apartheid, racism and discrimination, and the ongoing violent military occupation, directly contravenes core rights. First, the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, who remain protected by international laws and conventions; and second, the rights of all those British citizens who stand by our side, in the solidarity of a common humanity.

We call on public bodies to actively protect and to promote accurate information about current and past events in the life of the Palestinian people, as part of Britain’s ongoing, and outstanding, colonial debt.

Omar Al-Qattan Chairman of the board of trustees, AM Qattan Foundation, Atallah Said Chairman, British Palestinian Policy Council, Professor Kamel Hawwash University of Birmingham, Professor Karma Nabulsi Univerity of Oxford, Nadia Hijab Author and human rights advocate, Dr Aimee Shalan Charity chief executive, Ben Jamal Director, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Mazen Masri Managing director, Edgo, philanthropist, Sawsan Asfari Philanthropist, founder educational charities, Zaher Birawi Chairman, Europal Forum, Salma Karmi-Ayyoub Barrister, Professor Suleiman Sharkh University of Southhampton, Professor Izzat Darwazeh UCL, Dr Adam Hanieh Reader in development, Soas, Dr Dina Matar Soas, Fares Abu Helal Editor-in-chief, journalist, Dr Nimer Sultany Senior lecturer in public law, Soas, Dr Ghada Karmi Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, Akram Salhab Refugee and migrant organiser, Karl Sabbagh Author and publisher

Labour, Conservatives and the quest for a Palestinian state

First published by the Middle East Eye on 5/10/2017

As the 2017 conference season in the UK comes to a close, Palestinians can only hope that a future Labour government will recognise their pursuit of justice and freedom

The annual conference season for the political parties in the UK has been in full swing. The Labour pParty held what has been widely reported as a highly successful conference last week.

In contrast to Labour’s conference, the Conservative conference has been widely reported aslacklustre. Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was the star in Brighton, where the conference was held, while Prime Minister, Theresa May, was left looking over her shoulder at possible rivals for her job.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, seen as her main rival, made a typically rousing speech in which he talked up Britain’s standing in the world and how it will succeed in going global post-Brexit. Though his subsequent comments on Libya once again brought calls for him to be dismissed.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict did not figure in his remarks.

UK foreign policy

It was left to the government’s international development decretary, Priti Patel, to criticise the Labour leader for failing to condemn the “terror his friends in Hamas have unleashed upon the Israeli people and not once did he condemn or confront his supporters who have launched a wave of anti-Semitism, bullying and abuse against anyone who does not subscribe to their extremist views”.

It sounded as if she was only addressing pro-Israel supporters in the conference hall rather than offering a way forward. May also accused Corbyn of “allowing anti-Semitism and misogyny run free in his party”. Again no mention of Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israel.

In his keynote speech, Corbyn, a long-standing campaigner for human rights, said: “We must put our values at the heart of our foreign policy. Democracy and human rights are not an optional extra to be deployed selectively.” And while he criticised Saudi Arabia and Myanmar for human rights abuses he added that: “We should stand firm for peaceful solutions to international crises.”

While such words are popular with his audience, the biggest cheer on foreign policy issues, however, came when he broke a two-year silence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by appealing to the conference “to give real support to end the oppression of the Palestinian people. The 50-year occupation and illegal settlement expansion and move to a genuine two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.”

Although this appeal cheered the Palestinians and their sympathisers, it did not, however, go down well with the ardent supporters of Israel within the party. However, both sides must have noted that he omitted from his speech an important promise made in the now famous Labour manifesto. It committed a Labour government “to immediately recognise the state of Palestine”.

Recognising Palestine as a state is a tangible action that a Labour government can take to demonstrate its commitment to support the Palestinians and their rights, a move which the Conservatives refuse to take. Recognising Palestine also would simply be implementing a decision taken by the British Parliament in 2014 following the Israeli war on Gaza.

The Labour leader’s two-year silence on the Palestinian issue can reasonably be attributed to the vicious attack he has faced since his election at the hands of the pro-Israel lobby both within and outside the party.

The prospect, though judged unrealistic at the time of his election as leader in 2015, of a committed supporter of Palestine and equally outspoken critic of Israeli policies entering 10 Downing Street as British prime minister sent the pro-Israel lobby into panic mode.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May holds up a cough sweet after suffering a coughing fit whilst addressing the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, 4 October (Reuters)

The definition of antisemitism

Accusations of major anti-Semitism in the party were made. In response, Corbyn immediately commissioned an inquiry into anti-Semitism charges appointing respected lawyer and human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti to lead it. The inquiry concluded: “The Labour Party is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism.”

The inquiry and subsequent report were not adequate as far as the pro-Israel lobby was concerned. The lobby’s response was to conflate anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel.

new definition of anti-Semitism, that went beyond the widely understood accusation of “hatred of Jews because they are Jews” was needed to shield Israel from criticism. This came in the form of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Issues related to Israel figure prominently in the examples given by the IHRA to explain the definition, thus making it possible to accuse critics of Israeli policies of anti-Semitism.

This definition was adopted by the government, the Labour Party and a number of local authorities. It is now being used regularly to throw accusations of anti-Semitism around despite a legal opinionwhich described it as “unclear and confusing and should be used with caution”.

The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) are two organisations that work within the Labour party to influence its policy in support of Israel. LFI members were furious that the Labour leader did not address their fringe.

This year the JLM proposed a rule change that will tighten explicitly the party’s stance towards members who are anti-Semitic or use other forms of hate speech, including racism, Islamophobia, sexism and homophobia. The rule change was adopted, with the pro-Israel Jewish Chronicle reporting: “The changes mean Labour members could face expulsion and other punishments for Jew-hate.”

However, the rule change means the IHRA definition could be used to accuse individuals criticising Israel of anti-Semitism and they could then be suspended or expelled. The pro-Israel lobby becomes the gatekeeper on what is acceptable criticism and what crosses their lines.

However, the rule change did not go unchallenged.

The emergence of a new group, the Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), representing Jewish socialists who support Palestinian rights, provided some pushback against the pro-Israel lobby in the party.

Two of its members spoke against the rule change but more significantly spoke for parts of British Jewry that the JLM cannot claim to represent. The importance of the emergence of JVL cannot be overemphasised. In future, the Labour Party cannot develop policy that might impact on British Jews or policy on Israel and only speak to the JLM. This should bring a fairer representation of Jewish views than in the past.

As the 2017 conference season ends, the Conservatives continue with business as usual in supporting Israel and paying lip service to the suffering of the Palestinians, while there is hope that a Labour government would act to support the Palestinians in their quest for justice and freedom. For Palestinians that cannot come quickly enough.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).  He appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwashHe writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges his audience prior to giving his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, Britain, September 27, 2017 (Reuters)

Silencing critics will only reinforce image of Israel as a bully

First published by the Arab Weekly on 7/5/2017

In recent years Israel has been developing approaches to combat the criticism it receives, both for the lack of progress towards peace with the Palestinians and increasingly for policies it develops and implements.

This can be traced to a signifi­cant 2010 report, produced by the Reut Institute, that claimed: “Is­rael has been subjected to increas­ingly harsh criticism around the world, resulting in an erosion of its international image and exact­ing a tangible strategic price.”

It identified what it calls “the Delegitimisation Network” and claimed that it “tarnishes Israel’s reputation, constrains its military capabilities and advances the One- State Solution.”

The Reut report diagnosed Israel’s predicament as facing “a systemic, systematic and in­creasingly effective assault on its political and economic model.” It suggested that “faced with a po­tentially existential threat, Israel must treat it as such by focusing its intelligence agencies on this challenge; allocating appropriate resources; developing new knowl­edge, designing a strategy, execut­ing it; and debriefing itself.”

The report suggested that, to combat the “delegitimisers,” Israel should adopt “relationship-based diplomacy with elites;” “engage the critics;” “isolate the delegiti­misers;” “NGOs to engage with NGOs;” “mobilise Jewish and Is­raeli diaspora communities;” “let the local pro-Israel community lead the effort and reorganisation of the foreign affairs establish­ment.”

Since the publication of the report, it would appear Israel has taken its recommendations on board. It has certainly strength­ened its relationship-based diplomacy with elite figures and institutions, most significantly perhaps in the United States and Britain.

All major US presidential candi­dates in 2016 except Bernie Sand­ers addressed the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — the main Is­rael lobby group — affirming their unequivocal support for Israel. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the Conservative Friends of Israel expressing her unshakeable commitment to the country.

Israel has attempted to draw a distinction between “legitimate criticism”’ and ”demonisation and delegitimisation” by trying to establish a line of criticism that, if crossed, moves into demonisation and criticism.

Here, too, Britain and the United States have moved to support this and indeed to accuse the United Nations and some of its agen­cies, including the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and UNESCO, as having crossed it. Britain put the UNHRC “on notice” for its focus on Israel and the United States re­cently moved to shift the focus of the UN Security Council’s security concerns in the region to Iran.

A special focus of Israel’s efforts to distinguish between “critics” and “deligitimisers” has been the Boycott, Divestment and Sanc­tions (BDS) movement. While on the one hand dismissing its effectiveness, it has identified it as an “existential threat.” It set up a task force, initially funded with $25 million, under the Strategic Affairs Ministry led by Gilad Erdan to target the BDS movement.

In February 2016, during the Global Coalition for Israel confer­ence in Jerusalem, Erdan outlined Israel’s strategies for combating the movement that has gained momentum in recent years. Erdan said he hoped that the meeting would signify a turning point in the fight against delegitimisa­tion. “BDS is spreading to more and more countries and fields” he said. His colleague Yisrael Katz, minister for transportation went further, saying: “Israel must carry out targeted civil thwarting of the leadership [of BDS].”

Erdan concluded by stating that Jewish communities around the world play a crucial role. Telling them “you are on the ground and know what is going on.” “I can’t do it alone. We are all on the front line together,” he said.

A combination of mobilising the elite and what are claimed to be “jewish community” organisa­tions, which are in fact pro-israel organisations, has seen a marked rise in the silencing or at least the attempted silencing of israel’s critics. This has targeted “centres for delegitimisation,” identified by the reut report — namely london, paris, toronto, madrid, brussels and the san francisco bay area.

Attempts to silence critics have included the conflation of anti-semitism and anti-zionism through the creation and promo­tion of a definition of the former to encompass criticism of israel and labelling bds as anti-semitic. Venues that are booked to host pro-palestinian events have been targeted and warned that they are hosting “anti-semitic” events or allowing platforms to anti-semites and “promoters of terror.”

Recently, the israeli knesset passed a law banning proponents of bds from entering israel, even if they promote a boycott of illegal settlements. If fully implemented, the law, which was heavily criti­cised even by jewish organisations in the west, would also deny entry to jews who promote boycotts.

Observers said the attempts to silence critics were not working but were reinforcing israel’s im­age of a bully that claims to be a democracy but then silences free speech, a key democratic value.