It seems a long time since UK’s Labour was accused of “purging Jews” from the party over allegations of anti-Semitism. But does the party and its leader Keir Starmer owe an apology to anti-Zionist Jewish members for the way they have been treated? Near universal concern over Israel’s metamorphosis into an anti-democratic apartheid regime suggests that an apology is long overdue.
British Jews critical of Israel have faced shocking levels of “discrimination, victimisation and harassment” according to the left-wing, pro-Palestinian group, Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL). Details of the harassment we’re outlined by JVL in a 2021 report submitted to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). It accused Starmer’s Labour of “purging Jews from the party.”
As many as 55 Jewish members are said to have been put under investigation by Labour over alleged anti-Semitism, of which 43 are said to have been sanctioned. One of the most shocking cases involves Diana Neslen, an 82-year-old Jewish South African émigré and former anti-apartheid activist, who had been investigated three times. The party dropped its case against her after she threatened to sue for discrimination.
The episode was one of the most shameful periods in the party’s history. Jewish socialists who are vocal advocates for Palestinian rights and for holding Israel to account over its breaches of international law were not given protection from abuse by other party members. Left-wing Jews, said JVL, were “both insulted as antisemites and their right to identify themselves as Jews is constantly denied.”
As far as left-wing Jews were concerned, Labour had replaced one form of anti-Semitism for another. Purging them was the party’s way of rehabilitating itself from allegations of anti-Semitism. Starmer set the tone very early on by distancing himself from his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn by declaring that he “support[s] Zionism without qualification.” Given how events in Israel have unfolded, the remark must rank as one of the most misjudged statements ever made by a Labour leader.
Would Starmer be as effusive and as categorical in his support for Zionism now as he was when first elected as Labour leader? What does unqualified support for Zionism mean? Does it require a person to defend Israel’s ongoing colonial expansion and apartheid regime? What about “pogroms” as one senior Israeli commander said describing the actions of illegal settlers rampaging through Palestinian town, Huwara? Does supporting Zionism “without qualification” not mean solidarity with those advancing that ideology?
I do believe Starmer is appalled by the “pogrom” carried out by Israeli settlers even though he has not denounced it publicly. However, given his endorsement of Zionism without qualification, it’s not unreasonable to want the Labour leader to denounce the horrific acts of Israeli settlers seeing as they are carried out in the name of a political ideology he supports. Starmer isn’t unique in this regard. Declaring undying support for Israel is considered part of the course. Such proclamations expose a gap between imaginations of Israel and the reality of its occupation. Simply put, the likes of Starmer are not as concerned in uncovering the truth about the plight of the Palestinians, let alone standing up for their rights, as much as they are in tailoring remarks about the occupation state to sections of their electorates, especially the sensibilities of some section of the UK Jewish community. To support Zionism “without qualification”, one must turn a blind eye to the brutal reality of the occupation and Israel’s practice of apartheid.
The same disconnect between reality and imagination is precisely why Labour MP Kim Johnson was forced to apologise after she referred to the Israeli government as “fascist”. It is another instance of how when it comes to Israel, UK Labour is “more catholic than the pope,” especially given that Israelis themselves are calling their leaders fascists and declaring their country to be an apartheid state. Both remarks will not only be slammed as anti-Jewish racism under the extremely controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism adopted by Labour, they will also lead to one’s expulsion from the party. Seven of the 11 examples cited in the definition conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism which further highlights the disconnect between reality and imagination.
Anti-Zionist Jews did not suffer from this disconnect. Their crime was to speak uncomfortable truths about Israel which advocates of the apartheid state did not wish to hear. Events over the past few months have vindicated JVL and other critics of Israel. Not a week goes by where Jewish leaders are seen issuing stark warnings about Israel. This week it was the turn of 138 American Jewish groups, including community leaders who admitted to having never lobbied against Israel but felt compelled to speak out and urge others to do the same.
In the UK, senior Labour leaders like Margaret Hodge, long seen as one of the main instigators of the witch-hunt against fellow Jews in the party, are no longer standing on the side-line. “We, the Jewish diaspora, cannot just stand by,” said Hodge in an article for the Guardian commenting on the current far-right Israeli government’s proposal to overhaul the judiciary. It’s more likely that Hodge and others are motivated far more by their desire for Israel’s well-being than any distress they feel over the plight of the Palestinians, but nevertheless, their concern highlights the fact that the image of Israel as a progressive democracy -curated and defended for decades – is nothing more than a figment of their imagination.
Supporters of Zionism “without qualification” are discovering that their political opponents in the Jewish community have been right all along. With Israel crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions it will not be able to escape morphing into an apartheid state ruled by an authoritarian government that is completely at odds with the values which the west claims to stand for. Anti-Zionist Jews have known this fact all along and have paid a price for pointing this out. If UK Labour cared as much about truth as British Jews “purged” from the party it would apologise and reinstate them immediately.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.