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The Israel lobby scandal and Labour’s anti-Semitism ‘crisis’ are intimately linked

Britain's opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks in Freston, near Peterborough, central England, on January 10, 2017.
Corbyn outlined the Party's plan for Brexit and its vision for Britain. / AFP PHOTO / BEN STANSALL

The latest revelations to emerge from the Al Jazeera investigation into the work of the Israeli embassy in London and pro-Israel lobby groups in Britain are a reminder of an issue that once dominated the headlines: the Labour Party’s so-called “anti-Semitism crisis”.

Like Israeli embassy official Shai Masot being caught on camera seeking to “take down” British politicians, the fact that Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) director MP Joan Ryan is shown to have misrepresented and smeared a pro-Palestinian party member is instructive, but not a shock.

For Ryan to claim that it is “anti-Semitic” to describe LFI as a well-funded, prestigious group, membership of which can be “a stepping-stone to good jobs” is instructive about just how willing Israel’s apologists are to drain the term of all meaning.

It is also a reminder of how the charge of anti-Semitism has been weaponised by both the Israeli government and the enemies of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The latter occurred during Corbyn’s leadership election bid in 2015, when papers such as the Daily Mail and Jewish Chronicle ran a series of articles attacking the veteran left-winger, including attacking him through crude efforts at guilt through (tenuous) association.

But the Labour “anti-Semitism crisis” really got going in February 2016, with the resignation of a former intern at Israel lobby group the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) from the Oxford University Labour Club in protest at its endorsement of Israeli Apartheid Week.

Labour under fire

Over the next few months, tweets by half a dozen or so Labour members were unearthed and presented as proof of an anti-Semitism “cancer” within the party (the words of present Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson), MP Naz Shah was excoriated for a satirical social media post in 2014, and former London Labour mayor Ken Livingstone was condemned for remarks about Zionism and Adolf Hitler.

There were three main elements to the story.

First, it is crucial to understand that there have been long-standing efforts to redefine anti-Semitism in order to promote Israel “as the central recipient of anti-Semitic hate”. “The semantic question has been politicised,” warned anti-Semitism expert Brian Klug in 2004.

Second, the Israeli government is engaged in a serious campaign to fight Palestine solidarity activism and, in particular, to undermine the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. This includes equating such activism with anti-Semitism but also initiatives at the legal level.

Third, the so-called “anti-Semitism crisis,” which involved a handful of individuals in a political party of more than 400 MPs and peers and around half a million members, was also used as a stick with which to beat Corbyn by his enemies both within and outside the party.

Opportunity to silence debate

Some of Israel’s supporters saw an opportunity to restrict public debate about Israel, Palestine and Zionism, and weaken a growing Palestine solidarity movement; the British government’s attacks on BDS, for example, have seen officials explicitly link Israel boycotts with anti-Semitism.

Recent events have given further evidence of the disingenuous hypocrisy of many of those who joined in the attacks on Labour and Palestine solidarity activists.

Jonathan Arkush, for example, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, echoed many when he earnestly claimed that “this is not about criticism of Israel – every country can be subject to criticism”.

One wonders, however, precisely how much or what kind of criticism Arkush sees as “acceptable,” given his record of attacking then-PM David Cameron for a mild rebuke of Israeli settlements and his recent description of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 as “amoral” and “detestable”.

Quite clearly, the target that the likes of Arkush have in their sights is not just BDS or anti-Zionism but any kind of display of solidarity with the Palestinians or attempts to hold Israel to account for its persistent and shameless violations of international law and human rights.

So while Labour’s “anti-Semitism crisis” may currently be out of the headlines, efforts to stifle Palestinian voices and those in solidarity with them are alive and well.

See, for example, the definition of anti-Semitism recently endorsed by Theresa May’s government the “danger” of which, in the words of anti-Semitism expert Professor David Feldman, is that it risks “plac[ing] the onus on Israel’s critics to demonstrate they are not anti-Semitic”.

There are positives, however. As I wrote last October, efforts to make it taboo to discuss what Zionism has meant – and continues to mean – can actually start a conversation that Israeli officials and apologists will regret starting. Moreover, these kinds of attacks on freedom of expression are as much a sign of weakness, and panic, as they are of influence.

Published first by Middle East Eye.

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