Livingstone and anti-Semitism: it is defending Palestine that is under attack

By Robin Jackson

Israel has suffered some serious reverses in international opinion as a result of its wars on Gaza in 2008/9 and 2014, illegal settlements in the West Bank, displacement of Palestinians in Jerusalem, apartheid-style internal discrimination and Netanyahu’s refusal to compromise or entertain meaningful negotiations. Its supporters are attempting to launch a counteroffensive. At the centre of this has been the attempt to silence expression of support for Palestine by conflating criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Semitism.

While Israel retains robust backing from its principal imperialist sponsor – the US – elsewhere support has been weakening. Global opinion has increasingly turned against Israel, making it one of the world’s most negatively viewed countries. For example the BBC World Service’s Country Ratings Poll (that samples opinion across 24 nations) consistently places Israel near the bottom of its survey. In 2014 50 per cent of respondents had mainly negative views and 24 per cent mainly positive about Israel. (2013: 52 per cent negative to 21 per cent positive, 2012: 50 per cent negative to 21 per cent positive).

In November 2012, against the opposition of Israel and the US, the United Nations General Assembly recognised a ‘non-member observer state of Palestine’ based on the pre-1967 ceasefire borders with Israel, reaffirming the illegality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. This was also an important symbolic advance, permitting the Palestinian Authority to participate in General Assembly debates and potentially join UN agencies.

The representative of the UK’s Tory/Lib Dem coalition government abstained in this UN vote. However Labour, under Ed Miliband’s leadership, supported this enhanced recognition, and as a result was condemned by supporters of Israel. Since 2012 a determined effort has been mounted to reverse this pro-Palestinian shift in Labour policy, which was dramatically stepped up when Jeremy Corbyn became Labour Leader.

Extending the definition of anti-Semitism to include anti-Zionism

The key content of this campaign has been to accuse outspoken opponents of Zionism and the state of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians of being ‘anti-Semitic’. At the most extreme its supporters have sought to extend the definition of anti-Semitism to the degree that strongly critical views on Israel can be categorised as expressions of ‘hate-speech’ towards Jews and akin to ‘holocaust denial’, both of which are not only to be morally and politically condemned but are correctly illegal.

Anti-Semitism is hatred, hostility and discrimination directed at Jewish people purely because they are Jewish. Like all forms of racism, anti-Semitism is a deeply reactionary ideology, and in an extreme barbaric form was the underpinning of the Nazis’ political campaign against Jews that led directly to the Holocaust. Wherever anti-Semitism rears its head it must be rooted out and opposed.

However, attempting to use the abhorrence of anti-Semitism among all progressive people to rule out opposition to the state of Israel or the politics of Zionism is not only an attack on free speech, but confuses and undermines the fight against anti-Semitism.

In 2004 a European Union agency, the Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), put forward a ‘Working Definition’ of anti-Semitism, which precisely proposed extending the meaning of anti-Semitism beyond hostility to Jewish people to cover negative views about Israel. This proposal was highly controversial, met strong opposition and the EUMC itself never adopted it. Following the EUMC being folded up in 2007 and replaced by the Agency for Fundamental Rights, this discarded ‘Working Definition’ did not appear on that organisation’s website.

However, in May 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) put forward some similar wording to the EUMC’s abandoned ‘Working Definition’, including various critical views of Israel as examples of what was covered by its definition. Despite the fact that previous British governments had not accepted the similar EUMC definition, the May-led Tory government adopted the IHRA definition in December 2016 and it was soon reported that Labour had also agreed to this controversial definition.

The offensive within Labour

From the minute of Jeremy Corbyn’s entry into the Labour leadership ballot in the summer of 2015 a propaganda offensive was launched by the right, supported by strident Zionists, that attempted to link Corbyn’s personal politics to anti-Semitism. Corbyn had spent years actively campaigning for Palestinian human rights and engaged with the movements that resist Israeli aggression and occupation. Once Corbyn was elected this campaign was extended to the claim that a series of individual party members, the leadership, the left, and the whole Labour Party were conceding to anti-Semitism. At each point this campaign was echoed by the Tories.

These accusations mainly relied upon making an elision between anti-Semitism and any strongly expressed opposition to Zionism or the policies of the state of Israel. Although there were one or two cases where the individuals concerned had clearly expressed anti-Semitic views, the accusations were overwhelmingly directed against Labour members expressing negative views about Israel and Zionism, not about Jewish people. At its core the campaign sought the suspension or exclusion from Labour membership of people who were exercising their right to free expression on Israel and Zionism.

It is this fight that Ken Livingstone and others have been unwittingly dragged into.

In April 2016, in the run-up to the local elections, the Bradford MP, Naz Shah was suspended from the Labour Party after it was suggested that social media postings she had made in 2014 – at the time of Israel’s invasion of Gaza – were ‘anti-Semitic’. In this context, Livingstone took part in media interviews with the aim of defending Naz Shah, the Labour Party and its leadership against these charges of anti-Semitism. In response to a query from one interviewer about a reference to Hitler that Naz Shah had made in one of her 2014 posts, Livingstone made an observation about a 1930s agreement between some German Zionists and the Nazi government to allow some German Jews to migrate to Palestine. The agreement also helped the Nazi government undermine the international boycott of German goods. For raising this matter and defending Naz Shah’s social media posts Livingstone was promptly suspended from the Labour Party.

Livingstone has a very long record of fighting racism, discrimination and exclusion, dating back to the ground-breaking positions he took as leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s, in promoting policies and campaigns against racism and anti-Semitism, for women’s, lesbian and gay rights, for dialogue with Sinn Fein and the IRA and in taking a stand on international issues when ‘bipartisanship’ between Labour and the Tories was the rule on foreign policy issues. The latter included outspoken opposition to the 1982 Israeli war against Lebanon and particularly the massacres of Palestinian refugees living in the Sabra and Shatila camps under the control of the Israeli army. He pursued similar policies as Mayor of London between 2000 and 2008. Despite being an opponent of anti-Semitism, and working to end such hatred and discrimination throughout his political life, his strong support for the Palestinians and criticism of Israel and Zionism has made him a well-known and frequent target for uncritical supporters of Israel.

Approximately a year after he was suspended, again coinciding with the opening of a local election campaign, a Labour Party disciplinary body finally heard the case against Livingstone. The disciplinary panel, dominated by Labour’s right-wing, found Livingstone had brought the party into disrepute, but because it had proved very difficult to find a legal ground on which to make this stick, the panel was forced to back off from expelling him – which the right and ultra-Zionists were demanding – and instead sentenced him to a further year of suspension.

In the final analysis the most that the majority of the three-member panel could agree on was that Livingstone had offended some people by what he said and that causing such upset breaches a Labour Party rule. It goes without saying that if everyone who said anything that caused offence was suspended from the party this would have to include very many right-wing politicians. But they are not even charged, let alone suspended; such charges are exclusively used against the left.

However, the right wing was not satisfied with the outcome of the attack on Livingstone; a further suspension did not strike a hard enough blow at the left nor clearly rule out strong criticism of Zionism or Israel. So the party’s right wing immediately launched a campaign for Livingstone to face yet further charges.

The battle that Livingstone – and others – is caught up in is not about an individual. Some, who are against constraining free speech on such contentious issues as Israel or Zionism, may nonetheless not particularly like the way Livingstone phrased what he said or may think it was not the right issue to raise in the context or that he should be more emollient to those who didn’t like what he said. But the issue is not about Livingstone, but about the right to freedom of expression on Palestine, Israel and Zionism, including the right to have uncomfortable discussions about their histories.

At issue is whether supporters of the Palestinians have the same rights of free expression as everyone else. Specifically, whether the holding and expressing anti-Zionist, anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian views remains compatible with membership of the Labour Party.