Centrist politicians and commentators generally scorn the right wing for the polarisation of society, the coarsening of political discourse and the tribalism tearing communities apart. At the root of many if not all of these divisions are "alternative facts" that challenge the orthodox view. The phenomenon went viral during the administration of former US President Donald Trump. The mainstream media would often mock and jeer at the likes of Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, for example, using alternative facts to defend Trump's policies and views on any given issue that were wildly at odds with reality.
The criticism of the right wing's normalisation of "alternative facts" is not wrong. If we are living in a "post truth" world, as is often claimed, the threat posed by alternative facts to social and political stability cannot be overestimated. The political right has arguably been guilty of this the most because it has lost faith in traditional institutions which for decades have served as a guide to truth. The disastrous war in Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis and the general cynicism and perceived double-standards of centrist politicians have all undermined the glue keeping society together.
People are entitled to their opinions, but not to their own facts; this saying reflects timeless truth. No nation can sustain itself if every fact is disputed and contested. Moreover, not all opinions should be held in the same regard. Even in democracies where everyone is encouraged to have views, there is a filtering process which, in theory at least, should allow the most-reasoned opinion to win out. In a healthy democracy, opinions rooted in facts and supported by evidence gathered by experts and institutions trusted to offer their views on any given subject are what members of society tend to trust and believe. Assuming, as many often do, that the opinion of a person in a position of responsibility carries more weight than that of someone actually qualified to pass judgment on any given issue, is as clear an indication as any that we are living in a post-truth world; even worse, that we are sliding towards autocracy.
This came to mind when watching a video of Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer rail against Amnesty International's report on Israeli apartheid. Ever since the release of the report, so called liberal commentators and politicians have been struggling to square the values they claim to hold with their support for the occupation state. Watching someone like Starmer explain his position, there is a sense of the extent to which alternative facts have become an accepted form of communication. We also get an idea of the depth to which the communication techniques used by autocrats and populists on the right wing have penetrated the political bloodstream.
Starmer is a self-declared Zionist "without qualification". He made his remarks about Amnesty's report in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle last week. The Labour leader was asked if he believes "Israel is an apartheid state" and whether he "agrees" with those in his party who back the Amnesty report.
"That is not the Labour Party position," he insisted, dismissing the report and members of his party who agree with Amnesty's findings. Starmer pointed to his speech about the position of his party on Israel-Palestine which he outlined in November at a meeting of Labour Friends of Israel where the 59 year old spoke alongside Israel's far-right ambassador in London, Tzipi Hotovely.
Starmer gave no reasons to the Jewish Chronicle to explain why he disagreed with Amnesty International's findings. He said simply that he does not agree that Israel is an apartheid state.
We could give Starmer the benefit of the doubt and argue that his response was determined by the way in which the question posed to him was framed, as Amnesty itself suggested in comments about his interview. "Sir Keir Starmer is responding to very dubious framing by the Jewish Chronicle," Amnesty International's UK campaign manager, Kristyan Benedict, is reported as saying in the New Arab. "At no point in our report do we say, 'Israel is an apartheid state'."
He explained that Amnesty's report refers to a "system of apartheid" that Israel maintains against Palestinians. "Our research and legal analysis sets out in detail how Israel's horrendous treatment of Palestinians meets the definition of apartheid," making a meaningful difference between the findings of the Amnesty report and the claim that Israel is an apartheid state. "Apartheid is a crime against humanity, but 'apartheid state' is a slogan and not something we have used, despite what the Jewish Chronicle says."
This distinction matters because it emphasises that the Amnesty report is rooted in international law and is echoing previous reports such as that of the Israeli rights group B'Tselem and Human Rights Watch, along with many others including the most recent by UN Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk.
"Apartheid is not, sadly, a phenomenon confined to the history books on southern Africa," Lynk said in his report to the Human Rights Council. "The 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court came into law after the collapse of the old South Africa. It is a forward-looking legal instrument which prohibits apartheid as a crime against humanity today and into the future, wherever it may exist."
What matters is whether Israeli policies and practices are prohibited by the Apartheid Convention and the Rome Statute and not whether Israel is an apartheid state in the same way that South Africa was under white-minority rule. The first is a very precise legal question whose answer is no longer in doubt following the near universal consensus amongst human rights groups. The second is a vague term which is not rooted within the international legal framework and has little significance on the question about the nature of the apartheid regime imposed by Israel on non-Jews in historic Palestine.
As Amnesty International says, "The Palestinians have been subjected to inhuman and inhumane acts prohibited by the Apartheid Convention and the Rome Statute, in Israel and OPT [the Occupied Palestinian Territories]. These serious human rights violations have been committed with the intention of creating and maintaining an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination over the Palestinian people by the Israeli State."
Perhaps Starmer was simply being economical with the truth. As a human rights lawyer, he knows of the much-praised and valued reputation of all of the rights groups that have reached the same conclusion about Israel's practice of apartheid, and the existential threat that they face from authoritarian regimes. Russia, for example, closed the offices of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recently. This was just the latest attack on human rights groups by an autocrat who, it appears, would rather deal with "alternative facts" instead of addressing the reality of his actions.
Choosing to ignore the "Israeli apartheid" reports as Starmer has done, or to misrepresent the actual findings, may not be the same as Vladimir Putin's action against Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, but it is certainly another attack on the institutions that we trust to monitor crimes against humanity. Needless to say, such disregard only serves to further embolden people like the Russian president and give them some degree of justification for targeting human rights groups.
So-called centrists like Starmer and liberals in general have for far too long opted to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to Israel's human rights violations in Palestine. Their claim to defend human rights has always come second to their political commitment to the colonial-occupation state. Their refusal to budge, even when confronted by multiple reports from major international institutions, including the UN, exposing Israel's practice of apartheid, is as clear indication as any that the political right is not alone in fuelling our current political crises marked by division and "alternative facts". When it comes to Israel, Sir Keir Starmer, centrist politicians and our mainstream media trade in alternative facts as much as Trump and their political foes on the right.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.