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With near consensus over Israeli apartheid, will UK Labour move to the right side of history?

February 11, 2022 at 1:30 pm

Delegates hold up Palestinian flags during a debate on the third day of the Labour party conference in Liverpool, north west England on 25 September 2018. [OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images]

The near unanimous consensus amongst leading human rights groups over Israel’s practice of apartheid has thrust the UK Labour Party into an awkward and somewhat bewildering dilemma. The cognitive dissonance which for decades has enabled Labour, along with every major political party, group and institution, to maintain support for Israel while claiming to oppose racism and stand for equality, human rights and international law, is no longer a sustainable position.

With its 280 page report, Amnesty International joined Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, Yesh Din and many others to declare Israel an apartheid state. In concluding that the occupation state has imposed a “cruel system of domination” and is committing “crimes against humanity”, Amnesty not only exposed the brutal reality of the apartheid system under which Palestinians live, it also shattered the myth which for long has enabled so called liberals and defenders of human rights and justice to maintain support for Israel regardless of the contradictions of their position.

It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to separate Israel from its occupation. The system of ethnic domination and control was never intended as a temporary arrangement, as supporters of Israel claim. What we see is the logical conclusion of Zionism. How could it not be so? The historical project of creating a “homeland” for European Jews in Palestine was always going to lead to the displacement of the indigenous people who, at the turn of the 20th century, comprised some 95 per cent of the population. Such a venture could not have been possible, nor would it have been sustained without a system of oppression and racism.

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Comments made by Labour MP and former Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry back in 2017 are typical of how the bifurcation between Israel and its seemingly never-ending occupation, made it possible to make remarks that are incredibly misinformed if not totally untrue. “Modern Israel,” said Thornberry, “is as a beacon of freedom equality and democracy.” Four years on, Thornberry’s remarks underscore the extent to which politicians, that ought to know better, have viewed Israel through a lens detached from any reality.

Thornberry is not alone in this regard. Since his appointment as Labour leader Keir Starmer has been a strong advocate of Israel. On several occasions Starmer powerfully illustrated the blind-spot mainstream politicians have when it comes to Israel and Palestine. “I support Zionism without qualification,” he once remarked. Starmer went further than his predecessors by suggesting that anti-Zionism is a form of racism towards Jews. “Anti-Zionist antisemitism is the antithesis of the Labour tradition,” Starmer said during a keynote speech at the annual Labour Friends of Israel event in November.

Starmer and Thornberry’s remarks highlight the extent to which the mainstream political discourse is detached from the international human rights discourse. Labour’s adoption in 2018 of the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism places the party in a difficult dilemma. Seven of the 11 examples of anti-Semitism included in the IHRA conflate criticism of Israel with racism towards Jews. Describing Israel and its founding as a “racist endeavour” for instance is a form of anti-Semitism and would get you kicked out of the party. Likewise adopting an “anti-Zionist” position would be seen as a form racism towards Jews.

The UK Labour Party votes for the motion calling Israel an apartheid state - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

The UK Labour Party votes for the motion calling Israel an apartheid state – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

As ridiculous as this sounds, under the IHRA, Amnesty International, HRW, B’Tselem and every other human rights group and organisation that have labelled Israel an apartheid are anti-Semitic. In fact, Labour itself could be described as anti-Semitic. In September last year party members voted in support of a motion to identify Israel as a state practicing the crime of apartheid, making it the first major political party in Europe to adopt such a position.

Needless to say Labour leaders were not pleased. Instead of endorsing the wishes of their members by accepting the motion as official policy and, more importantly, bringing the party in line with the universal consensus among human rights groups, Labour officials have been busy purging harsh critics of Israel from the party.

Eighty-two-year-old Diana Neslen, was amongst 46 Jewish members of Labour purged  under the current leadership and who are facing charges relating to allegations of anti-Semitism. Neslen, who regularly attends her local synagogue and keeps a kosher home, was being investigated by the party for the third time in less than three years for tweets she posted about Israel and Zionism. She has said that “the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour and I am an antiracist Jew.”

Labour finally dropped its investigation into Neslen but only after she threatened to bring a lawsuit for discrimination and harassment, where she would have insisted that anti-Zionism is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act. “I’m pleased that they dropped it because it exposes the fact that they shouldn’t have done anything in the first place,” said Neslen. “But I also feel that I would have liked the issue of protected belief to have been addressed because I believe there are a lot of people who also, like me, are anti-Zionist, believe that it’s a perfectly legitimate belief, and they have no recourse.”

The targeting of an 82-year-old Jewish women over her anti-Zionist position is not a great look for Labour. It reflects a deeper crisis within the party over Israel which will remain a fraught and polarising issue as long as senior party officials continue to ignore their members and remain at odds with the international human rights community.

READ: Is the pro-Israel lobby lining up Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon for ‘the Corbyn treatment’?

It is also not a good look for Starmer. The labour leader made his name as a human rights lawyer. He has conducted cases all over the world, including in international courts such as the International Court of Justice, which in 2004 issued a judgment declaring Israel’s “apartheid wall” illegal.  Starmer was also employed by the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Right, the Caribbean Court of Justice and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. Two books authored by Starmer are also on human rights: Police Powers and Human Rights (2001) and the Human Rights Manual and Sourcebook for Africa (2005).

The contrast between Starmer’s career as a human rights lawyer and his position on Israel as Labour leader powerfully illustrates the contradictions within the party. Yes, Labour is a political party, and like all political parties is seeking power as its number one priority. In this regard Labour is no different to the Tories or for that matter any of the other far-right, Islamophobic and racist parties across Europe. That being so, the substantive difference between parties is what ought to matter, at least to those that do not believe in power for power’s sake.

Labour is meant to be a party that stands for equality, human rights and international law. Justice and the fight against racism and discrimination are meant to be core Labour values. Why then would Labour place itself at odds with what is now near global consensus within the human rights community over Israel’s practice of apartheid?

Labour shouldn’t be in such a dilemma where it’s confused and contradictory policy on Israel sees investigations opened against elderly Jewish women just because of their “anti-Zionist” view. If it truly believes in the values it claims to stand for, Labour has no option but to align itself with Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. With an ever growing consensus over Israel’s practice of apartheid, “progressive except for Palestine” is now more indefensible than it has ever been.

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