On 18 February 2019, Luciana Berger and six other British Members of Parliament (MPs) left the UK Labour Party. The most prominent reason provided by the departing MPs, led by Berger, is that the Party had become ‘institutionally anti-Semitic’, due mostly – or so it would appear – to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s outspoken criticisms of the Israeli government and military. As discussed in this blogpost, which draws on a longer article published on Mondoweiss, these allegations are both dangerous distortions of anti-Semitism and serve as a shameful cover for Israel’s regime of apartheid.
In the extensive reporting that followed the departure of the Labour MPs, a Spectator columnist alleged that this was the beginning of the end for Labour, while the Guardian claimed that the party faced an anti-Semitism crisis. It was hardly mentioned in any of this reporting that the seven Labour Party members who decided to leave were all closely tied with Labour Friends of Israel, an avowedly pro-Israel organisation. Berger is its former director.
A report by the Media Reform Coalition identified ‘myriad inaccuracies and distortions’ in the reporting of anti-Semitism claims against the Labour Party, which prompted a public statement by prominent journalists and scholars. Fomenting a strategy of disinformation is consistent with claims made by Jonathan Cook, a highly respected author and long-time journalist, who has established that the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs has long been actively seeking to marginalise its critics through a range of measures.
But where did the anti-Semitism claim come from?
The IHRA Definition
The contemporary ‘debate’ over anti-Semitism within the Labour Party relates to August 2018, when pro-Israel members of the party proposed the incorporation of a highly controversial definition of anti-Semitism. Called the “Working Definition of Antisemitism” and drafted in 2016 by a group called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the IHRA definition contains vague and dangerously far-reaching conflations of criticisms of Israel and references to the holocaust.
The lobby to incorporate the IHRA definition was fierce and unrelenting, largely led by Berger and others affiliated with Labour Friends of Israel. At the time of the August 2018 debate, there were even efforts to smear Hajo Meyer, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who had once spoken at a Labour Party rally where he made comparisons between the Nazi regime and his observations of Israeli policies. Meyer, an outspoken retired theoretical physicist, recorded his experiences in a moving memoir The End of Judaism: An Ethical Tradition Betrayed, published in 2012.
Steven Garside, a member of the UK Labour Party and Palestine Solidarity Campaign who strongly opposed the IHRA definition, maintained that erroneous allegations of anti-Semitism were in fact related to Corbyn’s harsh criticisms of the Israeli government and military. Ash Sarkar of the Sandberg Instituut condemned the move as a threat to free expression. Prominent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson warned that the definition would suppress legitimate criticism of Israel while failing to cover genuine cases of anti-Semitism.
But despite these criticisms and warnings, Labour ultimately decided to incorporate the definition in full.
Since then, emboldened by the wide-ranging IHRA definition, groups such as Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Chronicle, with very little substantiation, have sought to equate criticism of Israel as “Jew hate”.
For liberal supporters of Israel, adopting the IHRA definition has been a crucial strategy. However, the true aim of such vacuous, yet highly damaging allegations is to avoid a critical dialogue on Israel’s policies of apartheid against Palestinians. Unlike South Africa apartheid, which from the 1960s became increasingly reported, understood and eventually condemned, Israeli apartheid has been shamefully underreported and is far less understood.
So what does Israeli apartheid look like?
The many forms of apartheid in Israel
Israeli apartheid takes many forms, whether this be the overt racism enshrined in Israel’s 2018 “Nation-State law” that discontinued Arabic as an official language, which is now being challenged in Court, or Israel’s continued blockade and bombing of Gaza (since 2005) that is currently the subject of a preliminary examination by the International Criminal Court.
Apartheid also takes the form of literally hundreds of insidious Israeli military orders, including Order 101 that makes it impossible for Palestinians to legally protest. Israeli regulations make it virtually impossible for Palestinians to build a home. This is due to the fact that Israel’s land and zoning regulations are, according to Israel’s Basic Law, oriented around “preserving” the land for Israel’s Jewish inhabitants.
But the most insidious manifestations of Israeli apartheid are the decades-long, everyday experiences of Palestinians. Farmers have to stand in long lines to reach their sheep in the agricultural village of Qalandia (that is surrounded by a high, concrete wall). School children in Hebron cannot walk to school without being stopped daily by soldiers at a military checkpoint to check the contents of their schoolbags. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has heard numerous cases of official abuse against Palestinian women, including a seven-month pregnant woman assaulted at a checkpoint.
Given these examples, and much more, of Israel’s apartheid policies, it is exasperating that there is such a resistance to criticise Israel. And yet, this is exactly what happens. Liberal groups such as Labour Friends of Israel in the UK, Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) in the Netherlands and others repeatedly fuel the public’s outrage on anti-Semitism through disingenuous use of the IHRA definition, yet simultaneously maintain a silence that Israel’s policies amount to apartheid, not unlike the approach of like-minded liberal groups in Israel.
Apartheid cannot compete with a global social justice movement
Just as was ultimately the case in South Africa, neither Israel’s government, nor its most adamant, liberal supporters, can compete with a global social justice movement committed to ending Israel’s regime of apartheid. Rooted in equal rights claims, this movement is bolstered by growing judicial attention to Israel’s commission of war crimes and a highly successful, Palestinian-led global campaign of boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS).
The success of the BDS movement is acknowledge to have transformed the debate on Israel-Palestine. Indeed, as prominent Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has put it, BDS has been a true success story for the movement, succeeding to undermine Israel’s strongly cultivated image as a liberal democracy.
The conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that just like those who turned a blind eye for decades to apartheid in South Africa, the failure of Luciana Berger, Labour Friends of Israel, CIDI, and others to confront Israeli apartheid will place them all on the wrong side of history.
Image Credit: https://www.stopthewall.org/apartheid-wrong
About the author:
Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.