In the first in a three-part series, former LOTO staffer Phil Bevin looks at the apartheid, ‘systemic brutalisation’ and ‘culture of militarism’ of the Israeli government – and Corbyn’s ‘act of real bravery’ in refusing to apologise for stating a fact
Last Wednesday, respected Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot in the head by the Israeli Defence Force, while reporting on one of its military operations.
The outrage has been widespread, to the point that even Labour Party MPs associated with Labour Friends of Israel have felt compelled – if sometimes belatedly – to condemn her killing. Tragically, this high-profile death is one of a great many killings of Palestinian civilians regularly perpetrated by the IDF. The individual crime is an expression of a wider culture of cruelty and oppression that characterises life in the apartheid state and its occupied territories.
Mainstream politicians and media will likely present this as an individual outrage rather than the product of systemic brutalisation it really is, and Israel’s militarism will continue to be exported to other domains of the Anglo-Saxon Empire for some time yet.
The illegal military occupation of Palestine by Israel has not only blighted the lives of Palestinians for decades; the development of a security state around the occupation has built up a culture of militarism within Israel itself, which – as we have seen with regards to IDF interrogation techniques – is then exported abroad to allied states who are looking to find novel ways of imposing “law and order” on their peoples.
In the UK, for instance, the manufacture of weapons to be sold for use in the slaughter of Palestinians increases the reliance of our own economy on arms production. In certain parts of the country, the war industry is relied upon to provide employment. This, in turn, influences the priorities of politicians representing those constituencies, as well as trade unions, and incentivises the further consolidation of UK manufacturing around weapons for export. Israel is not a lone actor but an integral part of an Empire that spans the “West” and it therefore has the full support of the USA/UK global military-industrial complex, into which it is integrated and according to whose colonial practices the apartheid state is itself modelled.
The IHRA ‘definition’ and the freedom to criticise
The freedom to meaningfully criticise Israel is therefore essential to not only bring about the liberation of Palestine but also the introduction of meaningful change to the peoples of Israel and the UK as well; we are all subjects of the same empire. If follows, then, that, if socialists in the UK are to make progress and restore a measure of democracy to our nation, we must be free to criticise all actors within the Empire’s military and financial complex. To refrain from scrutinising Israel prevents us from seeing the truth about the Empire as a whole and the way it functions, impeding our ability to challenge it; we cannot defeat what we don’t properly understand. Moreover, if socialists will not even seek to win an argument when the facts support their point of view, such as the question of whether Israel is an apartheid state, they can defend nothing at all, let alone advance.
This is one reason why Labour’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and all of its clarifying examples in 2018 was such a disastrous mistake by the party’s left. It is also why Jeremy Corbyn’s decision not to retract the comments he made upon the release of the EHRC report in 2020 marked a significant line in the sand.
To be clear, the IHRA examples do inhibit criticism of Israel and this is explicit: “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” can be considered antisemitic under the IHRA definition.
The ‘capitulation’ of the ‘wider left’
During the “antisemitism crisis” of 2018, Labour socialists might have expected that their movement’s leaders, who had previously spoken out forcefully for Palestinian rights at public rallies, would hold to their long-espoused positions and steadfastly resist any move to equate antisemitism with criticism of Israel. However, the left-majority NEC capitulated to right wing pressure and decided not only to accept the IHRA definition but all of its clarifying examples.
Without the support of the NEC on this issue, Corbyn’s only recourse was to make a statement to the ruling body, which emphasised the importance of protecting people speaking up for Palestinian rights, in the hope that it would be agreed. Reportedly, this did not receive majority support and so was not pushed to a vote.
The Labour left’s failure to hold firm on this signal issue revealed that Corbyn’s left majority on the NEC was only ever theoretical. The notional unity of the left could be torn apart by the application of the smallest of pressures. Outnumbered by “allies” who did not share his internationalist politics, Corbyn would be forced into bargaining to get anything like his preferred agenda through: the left’s disunity and therefore weakness eventually extended to the question of Brexit and splits over this issue would lead to defeat in the 2019 general election.
Although the “wider left” did not support its leader at the time and has consolidated its weakness since he stepped down, Corbyn’s tenure as leader of the Labour Party resulted in some remarkable successes. One of these was to massively increase awareness of the Palestinian cause – had Jeremy Corbyn not become Labour Leader, I would probably not be writing about Palestine now. I believe that Corbyn’s promotion of the issue as a major point of public debate very likely contributed to the decision by Amnesty International to identify Israel as an apartheid state, a watershed admission from a relatively establishment-friendly organisation. Corbyn also – remarkably, given the pressures he faced – managed to get a commitment to banning UK arms sales to Israel into the 2019 manifesto, making it official Labour policy, to be implemented by a Labour Government.
These concrete victories by Jeremy Corbyn and their significance to wider political and social debate, would have been broken into pieces had he undermined his own reputation for integrity by caving under the immense pressure placed upon him and apologising for this factual statement he made upon the release of 2020 the EHRC report into Labour antisemitism:
“Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it, and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should.
One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.”
Pressure to capitulate came not just from opponents but also “allies” on the left. Some – Owen Jones and John Lansman, for example – publicly judged Corbyn’s response a mistake. Jones, for instance, criticised Corbyn for “a lack of emotional intelligence” and Jon Lansman claimed that he “wasn’t happy” with the words Jeremy used despite admitting that what Corbyn had said was factually accurate. Interestingly, this position echoes Current Deputy Leader Angela Rayner’s point of view that Corbyn’s comments were true, but nevertheless “unacceptable”.
Clarification and courage
Corbyn later issued a “clarification”, which explained that his comments regarding “exaggeration” and “overstatement” referred to the inflated impression of the numbers of cases cultivated by political opponents and the media, not the real hurt and concerns expressed by Jewish people. This point was of course clear from the original statement and some have argued that the issuing of the clarification was a climb down by Corbyn. In fact, it was the opposite. Despite the conciliatory tone, he was reemphasising his original point.
For Corbyn to stick to his guns, even to the point of risking his long-held place within the Parliamentary Labour Party and against the wishes of his allies, is an act of real bravery. It has further cemented his reputation as a man of honesty and integrity and underscored his stature as a serious politician with consistent, thoroughly reasoned views. This reputation also means that, when Corbyn talks about issues like Palestinian rights, important people at home and abroad take notice, even if they don’t agree with him or like what he says.
Speak out or shrink in stature
In remaining steadfast on this issue, Corbyn continues to give others, like myself, the confidence to speak out against the injustices perpetrated by Israel and the USA/UK Empire more widely, which has helped to extend the popular understanding of imperialism and how it undermines democracy across the world.
Corbyn stands taller as a result of the personal sacrifices he has made and risks he has taken to stay true to his principles. His influence in the real world outside of the Labour Party is expanding. He is being welcomed by other successful socialist leaders across the world and seems to be enjoying his freedom.
By contrast, the stature of those who urged him to apologise for speaking the truth, and have themselves followed the Labour party whip on issues of human rights and foreign policy in order to retain their place in the PLP, has shrunk in line with the Party’s membership, finances, tolerance of free speech, and credibility under Sir Keir Starmer.
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