Labour’s New Leadership Must Not Abandon Palestine

by Ben Jamal

30 September 2020

Palestinian flags at labour party conference
Craig Jevon Smith

Two years ago, I was moved to tears at the Labour party conference. In the conference hall in Liverpool, delegate Colin Monehen brought a motion on Palestine amidst a sea of Palestinian flags: “We see that you wish to push the Palestinian people and the truth of their tragedy into the dark …  I want us to say with one voice: we will not let the tragedies of the Palestinian people go quietly into the night.”

The motion, which received overwhelming support, was both a reassertion of the party’s commitment to the Palestinian struggle, one felt deeply at Labour’s grassroots, and an act of resistance to efforts being made to marginalise it. Sadly, these efforts have gained such momentum in the past two years that two weeks ago, myself and a number of British Palestinians felt compelled to sign an open letter to Labour demanding that the party restates its solidarity with Palestine.

The conference at which Monehen spoke took place at the end of a summer dominated by arguments over the party’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, with all eleven of its attached examples. In the course of this bitter and protracted debate, those raising significant concerns about the definition’s conflation of antisemitism with legitimate criticism of Israel were marginalised, and Palestinian voices near silenced.

Since then, the political project to present the IHRA as unquestionable and universal has continued apace; the sixth of the ten pledges to which the board of deputies of British Jews asked Labour leadership candidates to commit earlier this year was “Adopt the international definition of antisemitism without qualification”. The IHRA must, said the board, become “the basis for considering antisemitism disciplinary cases”. Newly-elected Labour leader Keir Starmer, understandably keen to detoxify the antisemitism issue, plans to keep the ten pledges, this one in particular; Labour CLPs have been told that discussion of Labour’s adoption of the extended IHRA is off-limits.

Such arguments degrade political discourse and undermine antiracism. In her analysis of the IHRA, Liz Fekete of the Institute for Race Relations argues that the definition exemplifies a “bifurcated” approach to racial equality, focusing on identifying individual racism while ignoring the racism practised by states. She also suggested that this bifurcation undermines the internationalism that should be at the heart of any antiracist struggle. A true antiracist politics means tackling the ethnonationalism that is on the rise globally and manifested in a Zionism that contends that between the river and the sea, there are two peoples, one of which has the right to dominate the other. “The Palestinian diaspora in the UK is being dispossessed of the right to interpret their experience of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands,” writes Fekete. In practice, the IHRA examples have been interpreted in a way that renders antisemitic any attempt to address Israel’s racist laws, policies or practices, to describe Israel as an apartheid state, to recognise the Palestinian right of return or to call for any form of sanctions.

Meanwhile, there is growing pressure on Labour’s leadership to accept the false premise that a commitment to tackling antisemitism in the party means reneging on its commitment to Palestine. Lisa Nandy found herself subject to such narratives when she signed the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s pledges during her leadership campaign and, more recently, called for annexation to be met with a ban on goods from Israel’s illegal settlements.

Under Corbyn, the conflation of activism for Palestine with antisemitism became a weapon in factional wars. Yet this conflation is also part of wider efforts by Israel and its allies to delegitimise the Palestinian cause, in particular the Palestinian-led movement for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Israel tasked an entire ministry with coordinating such efforts globally, including the introduction of laws to proscribing BDS. Here in the UK, the government has announced its intention to legally prohibit public bodies from supporting boycotts, divestment and sanctions against countries upon which the government itself has not employed such measures. The proposed law and its framing by the prime minister represents a furthering of Israel’s campaign to reframe the Palestinian struggle for justice as inherently antisemitic.

The letter we wrote last week was addressed to the Labour party in part because it has become a key battleground in the fight for Palestinian rights, but also because the signatories share a belief that the Labour movement has, as we wrote, “a special responsibility to redress the ongoing injustices against the Palestinian people” – not least because the Conservatives have conclusively demonstrated that they never will. This responsibility was accepted by the TUC in recent weeks when, in the face of heavy lobbying, the congress passed a motion that reaffirmed both its solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and for the first time, the fact that Israel is practising apartheid.

As Labour rebrands itself under new management, it needs to hold firm to these internationalist principles. Two years ago, at the height of the IHRA debacle, Palestinian civil society called to the Labour party and trade union movement for solidarity: “We expect social justice-oriented political parties, like Labour, and progressive trade unions to effectively contribute to ending British complicity in Israel’s system of oppression that denies us our rights, to protect the right to freedom of expression, and to stand on the right side of history.” With annexation threatening to cement Israel’s colonisation of  Palestine, that solidarity is needed now more than ever. Labour’s leadership needs to reject any narrative that conflates antisemitism with support for the rights of Palestinians – not because it is the easy thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do.

Ben Jamal is the Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a member of the British Palestinian Policy Council.


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