The Labour Party, Israel, and antisemitism
Avi Shlaim and Gwyn Daniel 7 May 2016
The key question, given that antisemitism along with other forms of racism has
had a continuing presence in British political life, is why now? Much hangs on

Last week the Labour Party came under ferocious political and media attack for allegedly
harbouring antisemites in its midst. In the course of this, the accusers often blurred the
distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, between legitimate criticisms of the
state of Israel and hatred of Jews in general.
Two individuals were involved in the escalation of this row to new and explosive heights.
Naz Shah, in 2014, before she became Labour MP for Bradford, tweeted that Israel should
be transported to the United States as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shah
issued a dignified apology, explaining that feelings were running high during the Israeli
assault on Gaza. Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London and close ally of Jeremy
Corbyn, rushed to Shah’s defence but compounded the crisis with his bizarre claim that
Hitler supported Zionism in 1932 “before he went mad and killed six million Jews”.
Jeremy Corbyn was pilloried in much of the press for not dealing quickly enough with the
antisemitism that was said to be endemic in the left of the party. One result of this furore
has been to shift the focus of debate from any criticism of Israel to condemnation of the
critics of Israel and to bypass discussion of Palestine altogether.
Attitudes towards Israel are increasingly used as evidence of antisemitism. The argument
takes three main forms. First, while criticism of Israel’s policies is not antisemitic,
attempts to 'delegitimize' the state of Israel are; second, sharing platforms with Islamic
'terrorists'; third, singling out Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, for condemnation
betrays antisemitic prejudice.
For those of us engaged in the politics of the region this is a familiar trope of Israeli
Hasbara, a polite name for propaganda. The key question, given that antisemitism along
with other forms of racism has had a continuing presence on the right as well as the left
of British political life, is why now? And why has this storm broken around a man deeply
committed to ant-racism and social justice, elected to the party leadership with an
overwhelming majority, and about whom no-one, despite assiduous efforts, has
uncovered any evidence of antisemitism?
Before returning to the specific question of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, we need
to place the three issues – 'delegitimisation', talking to 'terrorists', and exceptionalism –
in a historical perspective.
'Delegitimisation', talking to 'terrorists' and exceptionalism
For many years the hot question was whether the best solution for the Israel-Palestine
conflict was two states or one binational state. This debate intensified after the 1993
Oslo Accord which pointed to, but failed to deliver, two states. Since Oslo, Israel has
expanded its colonies and their infrastructure on the West Bank to a point where a viable
Palestinian state is no longer feasible. By signing the Oslo Accord the PLO gave up its


claim to 78% of mandate Palestine in the expectation of eventually getting an
independent state on the remaining 22% comprising the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
But it was not to be. Israel under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, following the
assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, reneged on its side of the deal. By pursuing the
aggressive and illegal Zionist colonial project on the West Bank, Israel has all but
eliminated the two-state solution.
By pursuing the aggressive and illegal Zionist colonial project on the West Bank, Israel
has all but eliminated the two-state solution. Once this falls by the wayside, the one-state
solution comes to the fore. This re-opens the question that has been present since the
inception of the state: how is an ethnocracy with one ethnic group dominating the polity
compatible with equal rights for all its citizens?
It is stating the blindly obvious that in a one state scenario with no Jewish majority, Israel
would face an even starker choice between being an ethnocentric state or a democratic
one. Israel’s leaders know this all too well. This is why they have so far avoided formal
annexation of the West Bank, preferring to secure their control through creeping
annexation. If a one state is the only serious alternative to the status quo, it is surely not
antisemitic to interrogate its nature and substance or to argue for a secular state with
equal rights for all its citizens.
Palestinians have lived under an increasingly brutal Israeli occupation for nearly fifty
years. All people under colonial occupation will wish their oppressors to vanish from their
land but this expression of desire is not the same as practical politics. Hamas, the Islamic
Resistance Movement, is still committed by its Charter to a unitary, Islamic state over the
whole of Palestine with no national rights for the Jews. Israel regards Hamas as a terrorist
organisation and refuses to deal with it. But like many radical movements, Hamas
moderated its political programme after entering the political process. In January 2006, it
won a fair and free election, proceeded to form a government, and offered Israel a longterm ceasefire. Israel refused to negotiate. Repeated statements by Hamas leaders make
it clear that it would settle for a two-state solution along the June 1967 lines if such a
deal were to be endorsed by the Palestinian people in a referendum. Yet Israel remains
intransigent and continues to denounce anyone willing to talk with Hamas as complicit in
The argument about exceptionalism towards Israel cuts both ways. Israel's defenders
charge their critics with double-standards; of expecting the Jewish state to meet uniquely
exacting conditions that are not applied to other countries. But, thanks to America’s
unconditional support, it is Israel which can act with exceptional impunity. It abuses
Palestinian human rights, violates international law, defies countless UN resolutions,
practises state terrorism, and commits war crimes. Relying on the US veto in the Security
Council, it gets away literally with murder. The failure by the UN to sanction Israel for the
war crimes it committed during “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza in 2008-9 – war crimes
that were thoroughly documented in the Goldstone report − is only one example of this
immunity. A massive disconnect has developed between the views of UK citizens with
their sense of justice and fair play and those of their governing classes.
It is against this background that a massive disconnect has developed between the views
of UK citizens with their sense of justice and fair play and those of their governing
classes. Until Jeremy Corbyn’s election no leader of a major political party has ever stood
up for Palestinian rights. The progress of the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and
Sanctions (BDS) should also be understood in this context: actions by civil society to
compensate for the failure of western governments to hold Israel to account.
Most Palestinians see BDS as their only hope. It is a nonviolent movement led by citizens
rather than governments with two principal aims – an end to occupation and equal rights
for Palestinians living within the state of Israel. BDS is influenced by the history of
sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Israel's apartheid is considered by


many to be much worse. Israel for its part is devoting a massive effort to combatting BDS
especially as it has already had some major successes. Government ministers have
threatened “targeted civil eliminations” of Palestinian BDS leaders. In the UK the
government is trying to make it illegal for local authorities to divest. BDS itself is
frequently said to be antisemitic, with two US states voting to ban it.
So why the furore over antisemitism in the Labour Party now? Could it be part of a
broader campaign both against Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-Palestinian stance and against the
emergent success of the BDS movement? Many people express the view privately that
the charges of Jew-hatred are being deliberately manipulated to serve a pro-Zionist
agenda but not one leading politician has dared to say so openly. Why? Because anyone
who says so risks being tainted by further antisemitic tropes, for example, the suggestion
of “undue Jewish influence” or “control of the media”. It only takes one crass (and, yes,
antisemitic) utterance by the likes of Livingstone to silence those who would speak truth
to power in a way that is ethical, historically informed, and resolute.
Let us be clear about what is at stake here. As anyone who has recently visited Palestine
will know, conditions are going from bad to worse. Settler violence, soldier brutality and
casual killings, child arrests and imprisonment, land appropriation, and house demolitions
are all increasing at an alarming rate. Racism is rife. The worse Israel behaves, the more
strenuous are efforts to disqualify and discredit anyone who holds the country to account.
The Israeli ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, was predictably quick to seize the
opportunity to pronounce that criticism of Israel is nothing to do with its actions but
results from a visceral hatred of the Jewish state itself. The debate about antisemitism in
the Labour Party is a microcosm of what is happening in this wider sphere.
The debate about antisemitism in the Labour Party is a microcosm of what is happening
in this wider sphere. Use of language which accurately describes what is going on –
settler-colonialism, racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing − is turned back on those who use
it, seizing upon the odd remark by otherwise thoroughly decent people like Naz Shah in
order to silence anyone who dares raise their voice to protest against Israel’s oppression
of the Palestinians. Rather than being about a few inveterate antisemites on the “hard
left” or a sudden extremist Momentum horde invading the Labour Party, it is the
expression of public outrage that the UK government supports and indeed lauds a
country that commits such abuses.
To deal with the immediate crisis, Jeremy Corbyn has suspended Shah and Livingstone
and instituted an independent inquiry into antisemitism within the Labour Party. The
inquiry is intended to produce robust rules for drumming anti-Semites out of the party.
But we have to hope that the Labour leadership will not be bullied into including in a
“new definition” of antisemitism any of the following: supporting a one state solution,
naming Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories as apartheid and ethnic cleansing,
talking to Hamas, or advocating BDS. And once the manufactured crisis over
antisemitism subsides, the embattled Labour leader should muster the courage to
resume his principled stand in support of justice for the Palestinian people.