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Labour leader's knee jerk reaction to knee-on-the-neck tweet is spineless

Keir Starmer, Leader of the Labour Party, 14 April 2020
Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, 14 April 2020

Britain’s Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer sacked his shadow education secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, today after she tweeted praise for an interview in which the actor Maxine Peake described the US police tactic of kneeling on a suspect’s neck as being a method taught by the Israeli secret service. Frankly, I’m confused by Starmer’s reaction.

For a start, as I write this I’m looking at a variety of images showing Israeli soldiers and police officers using the very same knee-on-the-neck restraining technique which killed George Floyd in Minneapolis last month. Many such images are available online and were taken routinely as Israeli occupation forces pinned down Palestinians.

I’m also wondering why the Board of Deputies of British Jews condemned Long-Bailey’s tweet and demanded that she delete the offending post and apologise immediately. Why do people at the Board think that her tweet was anti-Semitic even though it is exactly and clearly what happens to Palestinians on an almost daily basis in the occupied territories? While Black lives matter to most reasonable people, are we witnessing an overt “…but Palestinian lives don’t” moment? Some clarification from the Board of Deputies would help.

Instead of standing up to these bullies, though, Rebecca Long-Bailey issued a second tweet saying that her praise was not “intended to be an endorsement of all aspects of the article” she had retweeted. However, why would she apologise for something about which the highly respected human rights organisation Amnesty issued a report in August 2016?

READ: UK Labour leader sacks MP who highlighted Israel training of US police force

In the run up to his leadership bid Starmer received £50,000 for his campaign from Trevor Chinn, a member of the executive committee of the pro-Israel lobby group the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). After today’s rapid reaction by Starmer to censure a member of his front bench team in such a way, BICOM must think that this was money well spent. Starmer reacted within an hour of being told that the Board of Deputies labelled his leadership rival’s retweet as anti-Semitic.

As someone who calls out anti-Semitism whenever and wherever I see it, frankly I am perplexed. A Labour Party spokesman explained Long-Bailey’s sacking thus: “The article Rebecca shared earlier today contained an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. As leader of the Labour Party, Keir has been clear that restoring trust with the Jewish community is a number one priority. Anti-Semitism takes many different forms and it is important that we all are vigilant against it.”

It later emerged that Long-Bailey had been instructed by the party to delete her original tweet and the update. “I could not do this in good conscience without the issuing of a press statement of clarification,” she explained. “I had asked to discuss these matters with Keir before agreeing what further action to take, but sadly he had already made his decision. I am clear that I shall continue to support the Labour Party in parliament under Keir Starmer’s leadership.”

Palestinian demonstrators take part in a demonstration against police brutality and in support of US protesters over the death George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a white policeman knelt on his neck during an arrest in the US, in the centre of the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on June 8, 2020 [ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images]

Palestinian demonstrators take part in a demonstration against police brutality and in support of US protesters over the death George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a white policeman knelt on his neck during an arrest in the US, in the centre of the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on June 8, 2020 [ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images]

Predictably, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Labour Movement applauded the decision to sack Long-Bailey. However, the party could face a backlash. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell pointed out that, “Throughout discussion of anti-Semitism it’s always been said [that] criticism of practices of [the] Israeli state is not anti-Semitic. I don’t believe therefore that this article is or ⁦⁦@RLong_Bailey⁩ should’ve been sacked. I stand in solidarity with her.”

Just for the record, Amnesty International’s blog on 25 August 2016 begins with this observation: “When the US Department of Justice published a report [on] 10 August that documented ‘widespread constitutional violations, discriminatory enforcement, and culture of retaliation’ within the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), there was rightly a general reaction of outrage. But what hasn’t received as much attention is where Baltimore police received training on crowd control, use of force and surveillance: Israel’s national police, military and intelligence services.”

No one from the pro-Israel lobby has, as far as I know, demanded that Amnesty should withdraw its blog, which makes it clear that training by Israel is not something that only the Baltimore police department has been involved in. Hundreds of other police officers from Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, North Caroline, Georgia and Washington have all headed to Israel for training, while thousands more have received training from Israeli officials in America.

Many of these trips are funded by the US taxpayer. Since 2002, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs have paid for police chiefs, assistant chiefs and captains to train in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

To be fair, when the Black Lives Matter movement went global, the Israeli police attempted to distance themselves from any perceived similarities, issuing statements denouncing what happened to Floyd in Minneapolis and stating that its officers are not trained to use knee-to-neck restraining techniques. This sounded very impressive and worthy, until photographs emerged showing Israeli police and other security forces doing precisely that, using knees, boots and fists to subdue Palestinian civilians. The most recent incident happened just yards from Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. When all else fails, of course, the Israelis simply shoot first and — possibly — ask questions later. That’s another similarity with too many police officers in the US, especially when the victims are Black Americans.

READ: Pro-Palestine group wins legal battle against MailOnline over false anti-Semitism claim

I’m not sure who devised the knee-on-the-neck method and frankly I do not care if it was exported to America by Israel or the other way around. The question we should be asking is not who trained who in this barbarism, but why is this brutal, potentially lethal practice being deployed on anyone in the 21st century in America, occupied Palestine or anywhere else?

Amnesty isn’t the only human rights group to express concern about the tactics used against the Palestinians, including women and children, by Israel’s security forces. There are dozens of human rights group, including Israeli NGOs, and global media which have provided documentary evidence of Israel’s regular and systematic abuse of the people of occupied Palestine. We wait in vain for the Board of Deputies of British Jews to challenge Israel when this happens: Palestinian lives clearly don’t matter.

Knee-on-the-neck brutality will never be outlawed as long as spineless politicians like Sir Keir Starmer react in such a knee-jerk way to censor his colleagues’ exposure of the reality of police brutality in the US and Israel. Actions like the Labour leader’s serve only to protect those who pay lip service to campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter but condone by their silence Israel’s almost casual brutality against Palestinian men, women and children.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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