Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, struck the right tone in his tribute to Archbishop Desmond Tutu who died on the 26 December 2021. He described Tutu as:
‘a tower of a man and a leader of moral activism’ who ‘dedicated his life to tackling injustice and standing up for the oppressed…’His impact on the world crosses borders and echoes through generations’.
But his words ring hollow. Starmer’s encomium to the Archbishop sits ill with positions the Labour Party leader has taken on a cause close to the Archbishop’s heart: Palestine.
As is well known, Tutu was a consistent advocate for justice for Palestinians, and a critic of Israel’s repressive policies towards them. Tutu also drew parallels between Apartheid South Africa and the Israeli state. Here’s the archbishop:
‘I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces…Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.’
The Archbishop was equally explicit on the need and justification for boycotts and sanctions against Israel as non-violent means to persuade/compel Israel to change its policies in respect of Palestine/Palestinians.
‘In South Africa, we could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime’
The same issues of inequality and injustice today motivate the divestment movement trying to end Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory and the unfair and prejudicial treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government ruling over them’.
Some weeks prior to the Archbishop’s death, Starmer had addressed a meeting of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) at which he effectively endorsed, unblinkingly, standard Zionist positions. I’ll come to those further into this post, but first let’s look at Starmer’s position on BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions).
Notwithstanding Starmer’s tribute to the Archbishop – ‘a tower of a man…leader of moral activism’ – he made it clear to the LFI meeting that:
‘And let me be clear, too, the Labour party does not and will not support BDS….Its principles are wrong – targeting alone the world’s sole Jewish state.’
In the light of these remarks alone, Starmer’s tribute to Archbishop Tutu looks like so much posturing. He said the sort of thing he said in his tribute because the occasion demanded it.
The real and present concern must now be that Starmer, with the Parliamentary Labour Party, may end up backing Conservative moves to legislate against BDS. Conservative MP Robert Jenrick has said:
‘What we want to do is pass a piece of legislation…I’m confident that it will be in the next legislative program…in the spring of next year , which will outlaw BDS in the UK… There’s a question of how broad that law can be, obviously I want it to be as broad as possible, so there’s next to no avenue that BDS could continue’
Notwithstanding that a recent survey found that 61% of Labour Party members support the global BDS movement, it seems entirely possible that Starmer could support moves to take legislative measures to curtail it. Whether he does or not, it must strike any democrat as odd that a Labour Party Leader should be so stridently against a non-violent form of political expression.
The architecture of silencing
Turning now to related matters. In an earlier post I discussed the folly of the UK Government banning Hamas – that banning needs to be understood as part of a wider project to stifle Israel-critical opinion. Where one stifles free speech, and in effect promulgates certain words and ideas as heretical, and others permitted, even required, one comes perilously close to creating the conditions for witch hunts. We have reached that point.
A key component of the architecture of silencing is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, complete with what are dubbed ‘examples’, a good number of which are designed to place off-limits criticism of Israel.
A witch hunt, notwithstanding its own version of itself, has little interest in impartial, objective evidence. It seeks convictions, findings of guilt. It requires guilty verdicts because they have an effect wider than the individual conviction. The aim is to cower into silence dissenting voices. To stifle heterodox thought even before it is uttered. And if you survey the people and institutions that have been victims – academics, students, opinion formers – of the IHRA definition and its zealots, you will see just how successful they have been.
Once an atmosphere of witch hunt has been created, fantastic propositions, in the form of accusations, can be made and be unquestionably accepted. The reference points that should tether us to informed inquiry – impartiality, objectivity, innocent until proven guilty – become severed.
This can be the only rational explanation for the current pursuit by the Labour Party of at least forty Jewish members of JVL (Jewish Voice for Labour) who are under investigation, charged with antisemitism. As JVL put it in evidence to the Labour Party:
‘…a new feature is that the Labour Party is targeting those who question its interpretation of antisemitism and in particular its adoption of one particularly, contested definition of antisemitism, in effect determining as antisemitic, and worthy of expulsion, disagreement over the methods used for combating antisemitism.’
In an earlier post I discussed the IHRA definition, and so will not in detail do so again here. But it is perhaps instructive to focus on just one of the ‘examples’ (there are others) simply to see the architecture of silencing in action.
One of the ‘examples’ states: ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.’
The reference to ‘denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination’ is the intellectual equivalent of throwing sand in your eyes, the better to disorient and blind. Self-determination can take many forms, it has no necessary connection with ideas about statehood. Still less so when the price of Israeli Jewish self-determination as a state spawns the systematic, brutal and sustained denial of Palestinian self-determination. To discuss this, or point to this, is to offend against this ‘example’ and potentially stand accused of antisemitism.
Similarly, the ‘example’ states that characterising ‘Israel as a racist endeavour’ is, of itself, a potential example of antisemitism. Readers will know that the Israeli human rights organisation, B’tselem, has found Israel to be an Apartheid state. Human Rights Watch has similarly come to the same conclusion. Archbishop Tutu, of course, sometime before, had compared Israel to South Africa when it was an Apartheid state. But charging Israel with Apartheid is unpermitted speech notwithstanding the evidence.
Complementary to acts of silencing, is the amplification of, and subservience to, permitted voices.
Starmer had been due to attend (virtually), in April 2021, Open Iftar, a fast-breaking event organised by the Ramadan Tent Project. But he withdrew after objection was raised by the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle. The reason? One of the event’s organisers, CEO Omar Salha, supported a boycott of Israeli dates.
Boycotting dates from Israel is a non-violent action, the sort one imagines Archbishop Tutu would support. But this was to no avail in the light of objections from the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle. Tal Ofer, deputy at the Board of Deputies, tweeted: ‘Glad to see that after I raised up this issue, Keir Starmer withdrew his participation at the event. Labour sources confirmed that Ofer’s concerns had been taken into consideration by the leader.
This is alarming on two levels. One, that the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle seem to wield a disproportionate amount of influence – the power of their voices is amplified and succumbed to. Two, Muslim voices and interests are marginalised, treated with disdain.
This is deeply disturbing, borne out in a survey of Labour Muslim members and supporters which found that some 29% directly experienced Islamophobia in the party; 44% did not believe the party takes the issue of Islamophobia seriously; 48% said they did not have confidence in Labour to deal with Islamophobia effectively.
In addition, 46% of Muslim members and supporters disagreed with the statement ‘I believe the Labour Party represents the Muslim community effectively; 59% said they did not feel ‘well represented by the leadership of the Labour Party’; 56% told the Labour Muslim Network they did not feel that ‘the shadow cabinet team’ put together by Keir Starmer ‘represents the Muslim community effectively’.
The concern about the direction of travel by Labour under Starmer has been echoed in a letter signed by over 25 Palestinian Labour members:
‘Some of us have been members of the party for decades under different leaders and never have we experienced a party environment so hostile and unwelcoming to us as it has been since you took over its leadership,” the statement reads. “Not even during the dark days of the illegal war on Iraq.
“Our community of traditional Labour voters is therefore deeply concerned and alarmed, and we fear that without your immediate action, their growing alienation from the Party will become a permanent rift.”
Malleable and subservient
The question arises, how is it that Starmer can pay such (overly) sensitive heed to concerns about antisemitism, be so malleable in response to particular sectional interests, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish Labour Movement to name but three, and yet be the leader of a party that appears to treat with disdain Palestinians, Israel-critical Jews and Muslim members. This against a background of 70% of Muslims reporting they had experienced religion-based prejudice in 2017-2018, whilst more than half of religiously-motivated attacks in 2017-18 (which rocketed by 40% in comparison to the prior year) were directed at Muslims.
A line crossed
There’s something deeply concerning about Starmer’s stance on Israel and Palestine. It’s not simply about policy positions he takes on the issue. It’s as much, perhaps more, about the framework of reference he deploys when addressing them.
At the LFI event, he quoted approvingly an earlier Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who had praised Israeli ‘Social democrats who made the desert flower’.
In referencing this remark, Starmer echoed, and implicitly endorsed, one of the founding myths of state Zionism: that prior to European, Jewish colonisation, Palestine – the land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River – was near-barren and essentially uncultivated by the indigenous Palestinians. The land was simply waiting for beneficent settlement by European Jews. This essentially racist trope went hand in hand with the self-serving Zionist myth that Palestine was a land without people, for a people without a land. For Palestinians, both phrases are deeply hurtful, and dismissive of their history and agency. And implicitly racist.
Starmer did not stop there but went on to effectively endorse the notion that anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism. This is to muddle two distinct concepts: anti-Zionism is a political stance that opposes the colonial, racist ideology underpinning the Israeli State. Antisemitism is the hating of Jews, because they are Jews. The effect of Starmer’s words is to add to the lexicon of heretical, impermissible speech – anti-Zionism now defined as antisemitism.
In April 2020 Starmer said ‘I support Zionism without qualification’. Without qualification?
Without noticing the militant Zionist Settlers, who daily attack Palestinians and steal their land? Without regard for non-trial administrative detention of Palestinians, adults and children for six month and more at a time? Without uttering a peep against the Israel Basic Law, one of the clauses being ‘The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people’?
The whiff of racism?
This thoroughly depressing post is not intended as an ad hominem attack on the Leader of the Labour Party. Rather, it is an attempt to highlight what are, at base, modes of thought and ideological orientations that are deeply disturbing.
If we consider the stated positions of the Labour leader on Palestine/Israel/Zionism/antisemitism as set out above, and take full account of Muslim and Palestinians (Christians and Muslim) experience of Labour under Starmer, then it is unavoidable to detect the whiff of racism – conscious or otherwise – seeping into Labour’s thought and action. If that’s correct, it is both intolerable, and shameful.