Monday, 4 July 2016
How israel lobby manufactured UK Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis
Former London mayor and long-time Palestinian rights campaigner Ken Livingstone is the latest victim of the UK Labour Party’s witch hunt over alleged anti-Semitism. Click to enlarge
Last year, socialist stalwart Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the UK’s Labour Party by a landslide.
Since then, there has been a steady flow of claims by Israel’s supporters that Corbyn has not done enough to combat anti-Semitism.
This has only accelerated in the lead-up to a major test for Corbyn, the UK local elections on 5 May.
Even as this story was in preparation, two more victims were claimed in the war against his leadership.
Lawmaker Naz Shah and the former mayor of London, long-time Palestine campaigner Ken Livingstone, were also suspended from the party – within hours of being accused of anti-Semitism.
But an investigation by The Electronic Intifada has found that some of the most prominent stories about anti-Semitism in the party are falsified.
The Electronic Intifada can reveal that a key player in Labour’s “anti-Semitism crisis” covered up his involvement in the Israel lobby.
Most Labour members so accused are in reality being attacked for expressing opinions in favor of Palestinian human rights and particularly for supporting the boycott of Israel.
Labour activists, many of them Jews, have told The Electronic Intifada that false accusations of anti-Semitism are being used as a weapon against Corbyn by the party’s right-wing.
Corbyn has been active in the Palestine solidarity movement for more than three decades. In an interview with The Electronic Intifada last year, he endorsed key elements of the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israel. For example, he urged an end to weapons trading with Israel.
His election represented a radical shift in Labour, a popular revolt at the grassroots membership level.
Although Labour’s membership has grown since Corbyn’s victory, he has been under constant attack from right-leaning politicians within the party. In an attempt to weaken his position, some of his critics have manufactured a “crisis” about alleged anti-Semitism.
Attacks on Corbyn have escalated in the lead-up to next week’s local elections. Poor results would be seized upon by his enemies within the party.
Charley Allan, a Jewish member of the party, and a Morning Star columnist, has described the current atmosphere in the press and Labour Party as a “witch hunt.”
It has reached such an absurd volume that any usage of the word “Zionist” is deemed to be anti-Semitic – although tellingly not when used by self-described Zionists.
Where real instances of anti-Jewish bigotry have come to light, the leadership and party machine have taken robust action.
According to The Spectator, the party’s general secretary Iain McNicol told a recent meeting of Labour lawmakers that everyone who had been reported for anti-Semitism had either been suspended or excluded.
Corbyn has responded to the media storm by repeatedly condemning anti-Semitism andsaying that anyone making an anti-Semitic remark is “auto-excluded from the party.”
John McDonnell, the shadow finance minister and a long-standing Corbyn ally, told The Independent that any party member found by an investigation to be expressing anti-Semitic views should be expelled for life. “If people express these views, full stop they’re out,” McDonnell said.
Smears of anti-Semitism against Corbyn started even before he was elected.
During his leadership campaign in the summer of 2015, the establishment media worked itself into a frenzy of anti-Corbyn hysteria, led more than any other paper by the liberalGuardian.
One of the recurring themes in this campaign was Corbyn’s long-standing support for Palestinian human rights.
Because of this, attempts were made to say outright, or to imply, that Corbyn was a secret anti-Semite, or that he associated with, or tolerated “notorious” anti-Semites.
Although these hit jobs gained some traction, they were soon debunked, and ultimately seemed to have little impact on the leadership election.
This dishonest theme is now being revisited. In February, the slow drip of anti-Semitism scare stories burst into a flood.
An “anti-Semitism scandal” erupted in the Oxford University Labour Club – an association of student supporters of the party.
In a public Facebook posting Alex Chalmers, the co-chair of the club, resigned his position over what he claimed was anti-Semitic behavior in “a large proportion” of the student Labour club “and the student left in Oxford more generally.”
But as evidence he cited the club’s decision, in a majority vote, to endorse Oxford’s Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual awareness-raising exercise by student groups which support Palestinian rights.
This connection was clearly designed to smear Palestine solidarity activists as anti-Semites – a standard tactic of the Israel lobby.
In fact, the similarity was no coincidence.
The Electronic Intifada can reveal for the first time evidence that Chalmers himself has been part of the UK’s Israel lobby.
Chalmers has worked for BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.
Funded by the billionaire Poju Zabludowicz, BICOM is a leading pro-Israel group in London.
Chalmers once listed an internship with BICOM on his LinkedIn profile, although the page was deleted some time in February.
But even were this key fact not known, Chalmers’ accusations were not credible.
No one specific was named in his Facebook posting. He claimed that shortening the word Zionist to “Zio” and expressing support for the Palestinian political party and resistance organization Hamas were enough to prove anti-Semitism.
Chalmers did not reply to an emailed request for comment. He set his Twitter profile to private the day after the email was sent by The Electronic Intifada.
One of his tweets from 2014 sought to smear The Electronic Intifada with “Islamism.”
Chalmers has also been accused of disseminating a false allegation that a left-wing Labour student at Oxford had organized people into a group to follow a Jewish student around campus calling her a “filthy Zionist,” and that he had been disciplined as a result.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the accused student said that he had reason to believe Chalmers may have been behind the dissemination of this smear.
Paul Di Felice, the current acting principal of the Oxford college in question, confirmed to The Electronic Intifada the authenticity of a statement from its late principal denying all the allegations. “I have found no evidence of any allegations being made to the college about” the student “involving anti-Semitism, or indeed anything else, during his time at the college,” the statement read.
The Electronic Intifada put all this to Alex Chalmers in an email, but he failed to reply.
The Oxford University Labour Club responded with a statement saying it was “horrified” at the accusations and would fully cooperate with an investigation launched by the party organization Labour Students.
It did not take long, however, for someone to leak names to the right-wing press.
Citing an anonymous “source at the club,” The Telegraph named two left-wingers at Oxford who were supposedly “being investigated over alleged anti-Semitism at Oxford University.”
Again, there were no further details. Chalmers’ dubious and obviously politicized accusations were raised in general terms.
One of the two, James Elliott, was a vocal advocate at Oxford University of BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, and was photographed in the Telegraph article sitting next to Corbyn.
But in an email to a Daily Mail journalist, seen by The Electronic Intifada, Chalmers privately admitted that Elliott wasn’t involved. “I haven’t heard any allegations relating to him,” Chalmers wrote.
Both activists named by The Telegraph are part of Momentum, the grouping founded by Labour left-wingers in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election victory to support his leadership.
The Electronic Intifada has seen evidence of a whispering campaign against the activists at Oxford. A dossier of allegations against the student Labour club is said to have been filed with the union’s Jewish society.
That society has posted a summary of the dossier on Facebook.
Asked in an email if he had been behind the dossier or the press leaks, Chalmers did not reply.
Alex Chalmers’ Facebook post resigning from the Oxford University Labour Club was seized on by anti-Corbyn forces aiming to influence key internal elections to the Labour Party’s youth wing, in which the Momentum pair were both candidates.
On 19 February, the Guardian reported that Momentum candidates had swept the board in Young Labour’s elections, conducted by online ballot.
The Telegraph published its highly dubious hit piece four days later.
At the Young Labour conference the following weekend, several other positions remained to be elected. Elliott stood for the youth representative on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC).
After the smear campaign against him, Momentum candidate Elliott lost to right-wing Labour First candidate Jasmin Beckett – by only a tenth of a percentage point.
But Beckett was caught carrying out a dirty tricks campaign against Elliott.
As a result, a formal complaint has been submitted calling for her to be disqualified from the NEC.
The smear campaign drew on right-wing media insinuations against the Momentum pair at Oxford.
Beckett did not reply to an emailed request for comment.
As first revealed by Morning Star, Beckett urged supporters to “get a few people tweeting” allegations against Elliott.
But because such negative campaigning is against Labour rules, Beckett cautioned supporters to distance themselves from her. She asked her supporters to remove “twibbons” – promotional badges for her election campaign – from their social media accounts before making allegations against Elliott.
One supporter, Josh Woolas – son of former Labour MP Phil Woolas – cautioned it “needs to look like a genuine complaint about racism and not a smear campaign!”
In a Facebook group chat titled #TeamJB (viewable in full on the Labour blog Left Futures, edited by the chair of Momentum), Beckett encouraged other young Labour members to share unsubstantiated hit pieces on Elliott from right-wing media.
She asked “do you actually want an anti-Semite as NEC rep?” She suggested her friends “get a few people tweeting saying ‘shocked my union GMB are supporting James Elliott who is anti-Semitic’ or something.”
“Let’s just get it out there,” agreed Labour activist Tom Jennings. “We’ve got a huge opportunity … thus shaving off votes for him at [the Young Labour] conference.”
The complaint against Beckett was subsequently rolled into another investigation into Chalmers’ allegations of anti-Semitism at Oxford, one ultimately taken over by Janet Royall, the Labour leader in the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber of the UK parliament.
Labour Students conducted a hasty investigation into the Oxford allegations. But, Labour activists told The Electronic Intifada, it was so obviously botched that it was not credible.
That investigation was led by Michael Rubin, Labour Students’ national chairperson – who happened to be the boyfriend of one of Beckett’s allies, Rachel Holland. Holland was part of Beckett’s dirty tricks campaign, expressing support for it in the #TeamJB group chat.
Elliott told The Electronic Intifada he could not comment until the Royall investigation is concluded.
That seems unlikely to happen until after the crucial local elections at the earliest, and probably not until the summer, the BBC says, when Beckett is due to take her seat on the NEC.
The witch hunt expanded.
In March, Huffington Post talked up a “fresh row over Labour anti-Semitism.”
The website referred to how union official Jennie Formby had allegedly pointed out at a meeting of Labour’s NEC that Royall once took part in a sponsored trip to the Middle East organized by Labour Friends of Israel, a pressure group within the party.
Formby has successfully pushed at the NEC to have private security firm G4S banned from Labour conferences, due to its supply of equipment to Israeli prisons that practice torture against Palestinians.
The Jewish Chronicle claimed Unite’s Jennie Formby was “to be moved from her role partly as a result of her anti-Israel activism.” It cited no evidence.
The paper claimed the move represented a demotion by the union, the UK’s largest.
But the report was instantly denied by Formby and her union.
Formby said she never questioned Royall’s ability to conduct the investigation.
In fact, Formby said, she was appointed to the new job long before Chalmers made his allegations on Facebook.
The Jewish Chronicle swiftly edited the online text and headline of the article to water down its claims (a copy of the original can still be found online).
In March, the witch hunt reached Tony Greenstein, a Jewish anti-Zionist well known in Palestine solidarity circles.
Despite supporting other left-wing parties in the past, Greenstein had joined the Labour Party after the election of Corbyn, hoping it would take a new, leftward direction.
But on 18 March he received a letter from the party’s Compliance Unit (also known as the Constitutional Unit) saying that his membership had been suspended pending an investigation into a possible breach of party rules.
“These allegations relate to comments you are alleged to have made,” wrote John Stolliday, head of the unit. Greenstein asked to see the allegations against him, but his request was denied.
Although the party refused to let Greenstein know what he was being accused of,further vague allegations were leaked to the right-wing press.
In April, The Telegraph published a story citing Greenstein’s admittance to the party as the “latest anti-Semitism scandal” to hit Labour.
Greenstein says he is considering legal action.
The Telegraph later added a “clarification” saying it wanted “to make clear that we had not intended to imply that Tony Greenstein is anti-Semitic.”
It would, however, be difficult to read the article as intending to do anything else.
Ironically, Greenstein has been at the forefront of moves to combat genuine cases of anti-Semitism on the fringes of the Palestine solidarity movement.
For years Greenstein has been perhaps the most vocal foe in the UK of Gilad Atzmon – an Israeli jazz musician based in London who claims to express solidarity with Palestinians, even while opposing the BDS movement and relentlessly attacking activists.
Four years ago, Atzmon was criticized by prominent members of the Palestine movement over racism and anti-Semitism in his work.
Also in 2012, a Holocaust denier was expelled from the UK’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
Greenstein has written that he is the person who had first reported the Holocaust denier to the PSC.
The Compliance Unit has also been behind the expulsion of many new Jeremy Corbyn voters accused of being “hard left” or “infiltrators.”
In February, John McDonnell, the shadow finance minister, called for the unit to be scrapped.
“I’m going to fight it of course,” Greenstein told The Electronic Intifada. He also accusedthe Compliance Unit itself of being behind the leaks – The Telegraph article cited “evidence compiled” by the unit.
Labour’s general secretary wrote to Greenstein denying this.
“Corbyn hasn’t got a grip on the [party] machine, that’s part of the problem,” said Greenstein.
One of the people at the forefront of the witch hunt has been Jeremy Newmark, now the chairperson of the Jewish Labour Movement.
The JLM is affiliated to the UK Labour Party, the Israeli Labor Party and the World Zionist Organization – according to the UN, the latter pumps millions into building in the occupied West Bank through its settlement division.
Newmark has for years been active in the Israel lobby’s anti-Palestinian campaigns in the UK.
He was previously the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, an anti-Palestinian lobbying group behind numerous attacks on BDS.
During his tenure, the group invested huge efforts in an attempt to sue the University and College Union for “anti-Semitism” after some members proposed discussing the academic boycott of Israel.
Newmark was left with egg on his face, however, when in 2013 a tribunal judge ruledagainst the case on all counts.
The judge found it was “devoid of any merit” and “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means.”
The judge criticized Newmark personally for a “disturbing” attempt to crush free speech in the union. He also found that that Newmark’s evidence to the tribunal was “preposterous” and “untrue.”
Given all this, media should treat Newmark’s claims about anti-Semitism in Corbyn’s Labour Party with caution.
Instead they’ve been buying it all.
In The Telegraph hit piece on Greenstein, Newmark claimed the affair was a sign of Corbyn being “impotent” over anti-Semitism.
He also told BBC Radio 4’s influential Today program this month that the party was not doing enough about anti-Semitism.
None of these journalists disclosed Newmark’s long-standing role in the Israel lobby, or his record of lying about anti-Semitism.
There is a large crossover between right-wing, anti-Corbyn Labour and the pro-Israel lobby within the party
pic wes steading cap: Right-wing Labour MP Wes Streeting has participated in Israeli government efforts to cast Palestine solidarity as “evil.” (The Leadership Foundation/Flickr)
One example is Labour lawmaker Wes Streeting, also an Israel lobby stalwart.
Streeting appeared on the same radio segment as Newmark. The right-wing Labour MP claimed that “we’ve now got a problem” that people think the party is “apathetic to anti-Semitism.”
Streeting has a long history in Progress, a right-wing faction within the party that continues to support former prime minister Tony Blair.
One of Progress’ leading supporters has described the group as “an unaccountable faction” dominated by the “secretive billionaire” Lord Sainsbury.
In 2009, when he was president of the National Union of Students, Streeting attended an anti-BDS working group in Jerusalem.
The visit was organized by the Israeli foreign ministry, which slandered the BDS movement as “evil.”
As an MP, Streeting has been consistently hostile to Corbyn.
Streeting and Newmark are arguing for tougher action and changes to the party’s rules.
The head of Progress proposed rule changes in the Mirror which would put “a modern understanding of anti-Semitism” into the party. “It is not acceptable to use the term ‘Zionism’ as a term of abuse,” the article stated, arguing for people who did so to be expelled.
This proposal echoes efforts pushed by Israel lobby groups, including at the University of California, to legislate that opposition to Zionism – Israel’s state ideology – is itself a form of anti-Semitism.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Labour Party staffer told The Electronic Intifada that, even were the rule change to pass, such expulsions would still have to be approved by the NEC.
The staffer emphasized that for many within the party, concerns about incidences of anti-Semitism were genuine.
But the member of staff said that for the “non-Jewish Zionists” in groups like Progress, “anti-Semitism is just a tool” in “a field of battle” to “smash up Jeremy at all costs.”
“Whatever gets agreed will not be good enough” for them, the member of staff said.
Streeting did not reply to emails requesting comment.
Labour is a mass membership organization, which now has more than 380,000 full members, according to party figures.
The staff member said that, amid all the politicized attacks in recent months, there had been about five actual cases of alleged anti-Semitism within the party.
A 2015 survey by Pew found that seven percent of the UK public held “unfavorable” views of Jews. By contrast, about a fifth held negative views of Muslims and almost two-fifths viewed Roma people unfavorably.
There’s no evidence to suggest that such views are any more prevalent in the Labour Party – and the tiny number of anti-Semitism complaints suggests they may well be less so in a movement many of whose activists have been in the frontline of anti-racist struggles.
The staff member said that in the five or so cases that had come to its attention, the party had taken swift action to expel, or suspend the membership of those alleged to have made anti-Semitic comments.
One of the most prominent of these was Vicki Kirby, a Labour Party candidate in Woking who is alleged to have tweeted that Israel is “evil.”
She also reacted to Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza by tweeting in August: “Who is the Zionist God? I am starting to think it may be Hitler. #FreePalestine.”
That assault resulted in 2,251 dead Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, 551 of whom were children, according to an independent inquiry commissioned by the UN.
Kirby’s comments led to her suspension from the Labour Party in 2014.
Speaking to the media for the first time, Kirby told The Electronic Intifada that her choice of words had been “awful” and “appalling.” It was “a reaction. I didn’t think it through. I’m not a born politician,” she said.
Later, still under the leadership of Corbyn’s predecessor, Kirby’s suspension from the party was lifted. But, after Corbyn became leader, somebody leaked a photo of Kirby posing with Corbyn to the party’s enemies in the media.
The hard-right gossip blogger known as Guido Fawkes, then proceeded to trawl through her entire Twitter backlog. He found a Tweet from 2011, a time when Kirby says she was not even in the Labour Party.
Guido Fawkes then doctored a screenshot of the tweet, making it appear as if she had tweeted “What do you know abt Jews? They’ve got big noses and support spurs lol.” The screenshot of the Tweet on Guido’s site has clearly been cropped.
But Kirby says this was one of a series of tweets of quotes from the 2010 comedy film The Infidel.
Kirby provided The Electronic Intifada with evidence – a portion of a spreadsheet of herTwitter archive – showing that the original tweet concluded with the hashtag #TheInfidel.
The writer of the film David Baddiel confirmed this on Twitter at the time, even tweeting this to a Guido Fawkes blogger.
The wider press then ran with the story and started to use Kirby as a stick to beat Corbyn.
Kirby says she has received “death threats” to her and “hate email” from around the world, including the wish that “your children get cancer and die.” She says she even had to take legal actions against a constant barrage of journalists door-stepping her and harassing her family.
Despite swift party action to suspend Kirby once again, the incident was still weaponized by the right.
“Jeremy Corbyn needs to answer some serious questions,” Streeting told the Mirror.
Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, Momentum founder Jon Lansman – a key Corbyn ally – said that “my Jewish identity and anti-Semitism are at the core of my left Labour politics and so I welcome an investigation into anti-Semitism at Oxford University.”
But Lansman cautioned that “within the Labour Party, some people have factional reasons for stoking the flames.”
He acknowledged that “racism, including anti-Semitism” had historically been part of the Labour movement. “It was not until the 1980s that the efforts to eradicate it became serious, and that was thanks in part to Ken Livingstone as leader of the Greater London Council,” Lansman added.
During that period, Livingstone, and what the right derided as the “looney left” in local government, became the prime targets of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But with her party unable to defeat Livingstone at the ballot box, she simply abolished London’s city-wide government altogether.
It wasn’t until the Blair years that the capital once again had a London-wide government and Livingstone was elected mayor. It would now seem that with his suspension, the Thatcherite campaign against Livingstone has resumed, but this time from within the Labour Party.
Ian Saville, who started the group Jews For Jeremy and then later joined the party, told The Electronic Intifada that “some in the Labour Party, who do not have an understanding of the complexities of the situation, take [the accusations of prejudice] at face value, and quite understandably wish to oppose anti-Semitism.”
He said that “unfortunately, this ‘opposition’ to anti-Semitism has support of Israel and Zionism bundled in with it, so it fulfills the double purpose of isolating the left and supporting Israel uncritically.”
Greenstein wrote that “false allegations of anti-Semitism are akin to the boy who cried wolf. They immunize people against the real thing. As a Jewish anti-Zionist my main experience of anti-Semitism is from Zionists … I have even been told that it was a pity I didn’t die in Auschwitz.”
In the Tony Blair years, the Labour Party took a major rightward shift.
Blair notoriously led the UK into a war of aggression against Iraq in 2003 – which even he later admitted was a major factor in the emergence of Islamic State.
Blair is also staunchly pro-Israel.
The 2006 Israeli war against Lebanon killed 1,191 Lebanese, “the overwhelming majority of them civilians” according to Amnesty International. But Blair stood strongly behind Israel in that war. He later admitted in his memoir this caused him political damage. “I suffered accordingly,” he wrote.
For career-minded, rising Labour MPs, joining Labour Friends of Israel was long seen as the place to be. That has been slowly changing.
Under Blair, Jeremy Corbyn was a backbench MP, and a gadfly of the big business and war-friendly clique that had captured Labour’s leadership. He voted against Blair’s party line hundreds of times.
The scale of Corbyn’s victory – almost 60 percent of 422,664 voters – last summer put the right on the back foot.
So now they are resorting to ever more desperate tactics, blaming alleged anti-Semitism in the party on Corbyn’s leadership.
Michael Levy, a Labour member of the House of Lords who was a key fundraiser for the party during the Tony Blair years, is a strong supporter of Israel. He has made a number of media appearances in recent weeks denouncing Corbyn for supposedly not doing enough against anti-Semitism.
Left-wing Jewish activists say that anti-Semitism has become the “weapon of choice” against the left.
Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, a local Labour Party activist and founder of Jews For Boycotting Israeli Goods, told The Electronic Intifada that it has become a “really pernicious … pincer movement” by the Israel lobby and the Labour right.
“Maybe the’ve overstepped themselves” this time, she said, before cautioning that what happens would depend on how well activists fought back and educated people on the true nature of anti-Semitism and Zionism.
For the moment, the manufactured anti-Semitism crisis shows no sign of abating.
The same day Ken Livingstone was suspended from the party, BICOM appealed to the mob, posting a tweet with the words: “save your pitch fork for Corbyn.”
It appears the witch hunt will not stop until it is either victorious or is defeated.
Editor’s note: This article initially stated that Jenny Formby is a Unison official. In fact, she works for Unite. This has now been corrected.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist and associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.
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