Tory lies, anti-Semitism, the Labour Party, Israel, and Palestine

There are two general things happening through this election.

One of them is that the Conservatives keep getting caught doing very public, very stupidly bad, disinformation actions.

During the BBC Question Time leaders special, the CCQH Twitter account – which is a blue-tick verified account and therefore is not allowed to change its display name without informing Twitter – changed its display name/header image to appear at first glance to be a fact-checking account and proceded to tweet support of Boris Johnson.

On the day the Labour manifesto launched, the Conservative Party bought a webaddress purporting to be for the Labour Manifesto, and paid Google to promote their website, which consisted of attacks on Corbyn.

There have been other instances. What they all had in common was that they were large, public, clumsy gestures, openly and nakedly dishonest – like the claims Johnson has been making of “50,000 nurses” and “40 hospitals” which don’t even pretend to be true, but which Tory candidates (and even outgoing Ministers like Nicky Morgan) are going on live TV to defend in interviews – blatant lies.

The net effect of this is two-fold.

One, if you talk about Tory disinformation, you are very likely talking about these public gestures of massive dishonesty. You are not considering the detailed, fine, not-at-all-public campaigning that won the EU referendum campaign for Leave: the kind of under-the-counter campaigning work that Boris Johnson’s contractors to campaign for the Tories in this election are known for. Yet that is what I would be worried about, not the broadly thrusting in-your-face lies: the discreet, targeted social media ads that only swing voters in target constituencies will see.

(I am hypothesising that these social media ads exist, but the reality is that the team Boris Johnson is paying to campaign for the Conservatives do this kind of subtle work, not these big splashy blatantly dishonest gestures.)

Two, such massive public dishonesty by a major political party campaigning for a general election leads the public towards feeling that all politicians are this dishonest, they are all lying to us. The requirement for “balance” is a media standard which leads to some extreme oddities being given airtime (“We’ve got a speaker from the NHS who says free abortion on demand is a healthcare and social good? Right, for “balance” we need to find someone from SPUC who’ll explain that forced pregnancy & unwanted children are the real social good!”) But it is also a sense of fair play – if you see one major competitor cheating and lying wildly and getting away with it, your instinct is not “that one competitor should be removed from the game”, but “Probably they’re all at it”. The Conservatives lying this blatantly means the other parties are assumed to be just as dishonest. Even though they’re really not.

And this tends to put people off voting.

Which is to the benefit of the Conservatives.

Looking at the UK-wide picture in the polls, the Conservatives are going to gain a substantial majority.

But, looking at individual constituencies, it is clear that tactical voting can instead ensure the Tories lose enough seats to Labour, LibDem, and SNP candidates that there is a fair chance of a Labour minority government with either SNP or LibDem support. (Boris Johnson is defending a 5000-vote majority in Uxbridge, where they know he’s a chronic liar, having campaigned claiming he would oppose Heathrow’s third runway to the utmost. Even if the Tories got a majority, it would be glorious to see Boris Johnson lose his seat on 12th December.)

There are Tory Remainers and there are genuine One Nation Tories disturbed by Johnson’s hard-right flummery and there are Conservative women who have looked at Johnson very hard and decided “anyone but Boris”. Johnson is not popular.

Tactical voting remains a matter of individual conscience and local constituency analysis: no one should be berated or condemned either for voting tactically to keep the Tories out, or for voting their heart for the party they support.

Meantime, not that I want to worry anyone, the Tory share of the polls has been going up, and Labour’s share has not being going up as fast. Ignore individual polls: but the poll aggregation sites are currently predicting a big win for Boris Johnson, which he plans to translate immediately into re-openng Parliament with all speed and pushing his Withdrawal Agreement Bill through with minimum scrutiny. Long-term, his manifesto also proposes getting rid of the checks and balances on Crown power that we have seen operate in the last year or so: he wants as Prme Minister to have the upper hand over the Parliament and the Supreme Court, to prevent them from stopping him doing whatever he wants to. And though Boris Johnson was PM for not even six months, it was amply clear in that time that he is the last man one would trust with unchecked power.

The other thing that I see going on is the steady drumbeat that Labour is anti-Semitic, that Corbyn is anti-Semitic, that Labour has the anti-Semitism problem.

On Monday 25th November, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Ephraim Mirvis, wrote an article in The Times (paywalled) declaring Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude to anti-Semitism unBritish and intolerable.

The UK Labour Party is the largest political party by membership in Europe, and UK society is riddled with anti-Semitism. It would be startling if there were not cases of anti-Semitic speech found in the Labbour Party membership. The current ratio is something like 94 cases in 485,000 members. Jeremy Corbyn said he was pleased the EHRC were investigating the Labour Party, presumably because he trusts them to make an honest report.

The Conservatives don’t have any systematic means of reporting, investigating, or expelling from membership Conservatives who say anti-Semitic things. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House under Boris Johnson, called two Jewish MPs members of the Iluminati, a venerable anti-Semitic smear, and nothing whatsoever was done to or about him. That particular instance of anti-Semitism was public and recorded in Hansard: we have no notion what Conservative Party members and candidates may say or do behind closed doors, because the Conservative Party doesn’t care.

Nonetheless, the presumed institutional anti-Semitism of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party continues to be pushed as if it were a genuine and serious problem that ought to cause people opposed to anti-Semitism to vote so that Boris Johnson should become Prime Minister – Boris Johnson, who has made so many racist remarks, writtn so many bigoted articles, that when challenged about it on the Question Time leaders debate he wasn’t even sure what he was supposed to answer for.

Forgive me if this seems presumptuous, but as I understand it, the genuine part of (some) Jewish opposition to Labour began with Ed Miliband. Following the attack on the Gaza Strip by the Israel Government, in the summer of 2014, in which 570 Palestinian children were killed by the IDF between 8th July and 26th August – 181 of those children were five or under – Ed Miliband attacked David Cameron for not doing more to condemn this senseless slaughter. Ed Miliband is a non-practicing Jew and was not attacked for being anti-Semitic, but he was attacked for no longer supporting Israel and told he should “know better”.

Since 1967, the state of Israel has owned and controlled the Occupied Territories, known as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. (Also the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.)

Considering Israel to include the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as is practically the case in everything but a trifle of international law about occupied territories, 8.4M people live in pre-1967 Israel, which was conceived even before its founding in 1948 as a lifeboat for the world’s Jews – if another country went Nazi. The population of pre-1967 Israel is just under three-quarters Jewish, or about 6.4M. Israel is the only country in the world where Judaism is the majority faith, where being ethnically or religiously Jewish gives you citizenship privileges that Muslims and Christians don’t have, and where being ethnically Jewish or planning to convert to Judaism gives you special immigration privileges that non-Jews don’t have.

The population of the Gaza Strip is estimated as just over 1.8M as of 2018 and is 99% Muslim, with a tiny proportion of Christians. All Jewish settlers were forced by the Israeli government to leave the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The population of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is 2.8M – which includes about 600,000 Jewish settlers who are, according to international law on occupied territories, illegally occupying the land. The settlers’ occupation of the land is backed up by the IDF and by the Israel government, who build settler-only roads which can’t be used by the Muslim and Christian majority and which can be crossed only at specified check-points guarded by IDF soldiers. Water and arable land are constantly under threat, and while settlers readily get to build on their illegally-occupied land, any Palestinian building can be demolished at will by the Israeli goverment: B’Tselem stats show that From 2006 until 31 October 2019, the Israeli government destroyed 1,489 Palestinian homes in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, which made 6,508 people – including at least 3,264 minor children – homeless.

Jeremy Corbyn has consistently spoken out against this, and met with Palestinian representives working for peace, including the mayor of the largest Arab town in Israel, near the West Bank border – he’s the man who’s been traduced by the Israeli government, years after he met with Jeremy Corbyn at a peace conference at Westminster, as having committed blood libel. (The Arab-Israel mayor was convicted in 2014 of words allegedly spoken in 2007 – the peace conference took place in 2011, & a Border Agency investigation in 2012 conceded the evidence against the mayor was conflicting and ambiguous.)

If you take the Christian and Muslim numbers in Israel, the Gaza strip, and the West Bank as a whole, you get 2.1M Muslim and Christian Arabs in pre-1967 Israel, 1.8M in the Gaza Strip, 2.2M in the West Bank: that adds up to approximately 6.1M Muslim and Christian Arabs – who, if they all had full civic and human rights in the country that the Israeli government has for many years effectively claimed as Israel’s, would be uncomfortably close to the 6.4M Jewish Israeli population.

Would this be a risk to Israel being the world’s only Jewish majority state, with special privileges for Jewish immigration? Yes, quite possibly it would. Are Jewish people who believe Jeremy Corbyn, in supporting Palestinian human rights and peace in Israel, right to suppose that this risks Israel’s status as the lifeboat for the world’s Jews? Again: quite possibly.

Does this make Jeremy Corbyn anti-Semitic?

(The supposed instances apparently “proving” Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic by his behaviour tend to be firehosed out in such quantities that you are not supposed to notice they are a mess of lies and dishonest distortions and outright nonsense.)

If you argue that it is anti-Semitic not to support Israel as a Jewish-majority state, then yes.

If you disagree with that position – whether or not you yourself support the Israeli government against the Palestinians, if you believe that one can be honestly opposed to the State of Israel’s actions against Palestinians and not be anti-Semitic – then no, Corbyn is clearly not anti-Semitic.

I am not trying to raise the anti-Semitic claim of divided loyalties here. I accept that the feeling that Israel must remain majority Jewish is for many Jews a religious feeling, not a political one, and does not equate to support for the Israeli government.

I am an atheist who was brought up a Quaker. I understand most religious feeling only because friends and good writers have explained it to me. I accept that the honest feeling by a part of the Jewish communities (Judaism is no more a monolithic religion than Islam or Christianity) is real and honest and they have a right to have this feeling inform their political views.

But it is certain that many people who use “anti-Semitism” to attack Labour had no concern for anti-Semitism in the UK (or in the Labour Party) before they realised it was a useful stick to beat Corbyn with, and have no such honest feeling about Israel. Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, which Mirza used to launch his attack on Corbyn, were also happy to attack Ed Miliband for being Jewish.

(John Mann, not Jewish, former Labour MP and opponent of Jeremy Corbyn, has been elevated to the House of Lords by Boris Johnson so that he can be the anti-Semitism Tsar. He tweeted 13 times about anti-Semitism between August 2011 and April 2015: over sixty times 2015-2019: it became much more interesting to him to oppose anti-Semitism once he could claim that Corbyn, whom he opposed as Labour leader, was anti-Semitic.)

My guess is, that Ephraim Mirvis is honestly of the view that Jeremy Corbyn’s honest opposition to the State of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is anti-Semitic, because Ephraim Mirvis has conflated anti-Semitism with opposition to Israel. But I don’t think he has ever spelled it out as clearly as I have here; that in his view Israel must remain majority Jewish, and any opposition to this or concern for Palestinians is anti-Semitism.

I have taken much longer over this than I meant to, but in my view this is not a simple soundbite problem. Jeremy Corbyn is not anti-Semitic: but pro-Israeli campaigners will continue to say that it is, and that will be their honest feeling – as honest as Corbyn’s support for the Palestinians.

To be clear, I look around the UK and Europe and I see a rise in right-wing bigotry that’s deeply disturbing. I see antipathy to immigrants, racist myths about refugees, hostility to asylum seekers, growing cults surrounding fascist movements – such as, in the UK, Nigel Farage or Tommy Robinson. I see why Jewish people would want and need to know they had a lifeboat – that the State of Israel would remain as it was intended to be from before 1948, a majority-Jewish country where any Jewish immigrant or refugee would be able to find a home. If this is the motivation behind British Jews who see Jeremy Corbyn as an “existential threat”, because although he may be individually anti-racist and stand in clear opposition to the swing to the fascist right, may also feel they want that lifeboat to stay afloat because their fellow Jews might need it – though feeling safe in the UK while fascism sees Islam as the primary target.

But that seems all the more reason to me to stand up for the principle that supporting Palestinians against the brutality of the Israeli state, and Syrian refugees, and targets of racism and Islamophobia in this country, is still the right thing to do. Jeremy Corbyn will do that: Boris Johnson won’t. We know this from their past careers, not just their present actions.

But:

Most people in the UK do not think “opposition to the Israeli government” when they think anti-Semitism. They think of rudeness, discrimination, and bigotry which directly affects Jewish people, practicing or non-practicing – of carelessness in providing Kosher food, of graffiti desecrating synagogues and graveyards. Of the anti-Semitism in English literature – Charles Dickens, Dorothy L. Sayers, Georgette Heyer. Of ignorance of Jewish holidays. Of arguing that Christmas is a secular holiday relevant to all. Of insults and micro-aggressions both personal and institutional.

If you say “Labour is institutionally anti-Semitic” and mean “Far too many people and CLPs in Labour support the Palestinians and oppose the State of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians”, but never bother to explain that your objection to the Labour Party is that you want Labour campaigners and a Labour government to be firmly on the side of the State of Israel and against the Palestinians – then they are spreading disinformation. They expect people – decent, social-justice-orientated people – to think bigotry and rudeness and micro-aggressions and condemn those (and of course there are people in the vast membership of the Labour Party who have been guilty of those): they do not think of a particular stance in international politics as anti-Semitism.

And this helped by there being a genuine strand of honest feeling among some of the Jewish community that opposition to Israel, support for the Palestinians, is anti-Semitic: which is taken advantage of by people who oppose Corbyn and the Labour Party for their policies and want a means to attack Corbyn that isn’t just “How dare you want me to pay a bit more tax and improve services for all!”

There is no anger like the anger of the privileged and wealthy who believe they deserve everything good and the poor are poor because they deserve it, not because the value of their labour has been robbed from them: the anger of the comfortable against people who need to claim benefits getting enough to make them comfortable, not just a fraction above destitution. The anger of those who want good NHS hospitals easy to use, but prefer to blame immigrants and not Tory cuts, for the overcrowding and wait times. And this is the anger directed against Jeremy Corbyn: but it sounds much better to say it’s “anti-Semitism” you hate him for, not because you believe that the poor don’t deserve help and the rich deserve everything.

I also agree with David Graeber, who wrote in September this year:

“What makes Labour unique however is that for four years now, Jeremy Corbyn and his allies have been spearheading an effort to democratize the internal workings of the party. It has inspired hundreds of thousands of new members to join, and turned once rubber-stamp branches into lively forums for public debate. Momentum, a mass action group, has been created to try to turn the party back into a mass movement, which it has not really been since the 1930s. All this has been anathema to a large number of MPs on the party’s right, who, having been placed in their positions under Tony Blair as effective MPs-for-life, are by now so out of step with their Constituency Labour Parties that they would almost certainly lose their seats if anything like an American-style primary system were put in place. And many Corbyn supporters have been campaigning for exactly that.

“Still, a politician can’t very well say they’re against democratization. So over the past four years, they’ve tried throwing practically everything else they can think to throw at Corbyn and his supporters. Tolerance of antisemitism was the first to really stick. The reason is that any process of democratization, opening the floor to everyone, will necessarily mean a lot of angry people with no training are going to be placed in front of microphones. (This is the reason why few parallel scandals come out of the Tory side, despite the wider prevalence of antisemitism—not to mention other forms of racism and class hostility — no one without media training gets anywhere near a microphone. When the Tories briefly flirted with the idea of creating their own Momentum-style youth group, the project had to be quickly abandoned because participants began to call for the poor to be exterminated.) In a society as rife with anti-Jewish attitudes as Britain, opening the floor to everyone means some are, inevitably, going to say outrageous things. As I can well attest, this can be startling and appalling, but if one is actually interested in purging antisemitic views from society, one is also aware it’s not ultimately a bad thing. It’s only by bringing forms of unrecognized racism out in the open that they can be challenged and minds changed.”

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Filed under GE2019, Racism, Religion

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