Failing to stand up for the right to criticise Israel has consequences. If we shy away from it now, the right will make it much harder for us to do it in the future.
If you need a warning, look at what happened in Barnet council, north London, this week. Tory councillor Brian Gordon made a serious attempt to ban all supporters of the pro-Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign from using council facilities.
Even more sinister, he wanted the council to pressure landlords in the borough to do the same
His justification was that BDS is antisemitic because it falls foul of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemtism.
This often includes an example that says it is antisemitic to call Israel racist. That’s the same example that the Labour right are so desperate to force Labour to include in its own code of conduct on antisemitism.
In the end Gordon’s clampdown wasn’t discussed at the full council meeting last week. But it will crop up again at a committee in October.
What’s significant is that Gordon clearly saw this as a moment to try his hand.
As the row over antisemitism has gone on in the Labour Party, the right have increasingly used it to tarnish and discredit criticism of Israel.
When the accusations first began after Corbyn was elected leader, the claim was that his long-standing support for Palestine opened the door to antisemites. Yet the right still claimed they had no interest in silencing criticism of Israel.
Now attacks on Corbyn are increasingly linked to his own criticisms of Israel, and his refusal to accept that its antisemitic to call Israel racist.
The right always looked to this strategy to discredit the Palestinian cause, even before Corbyn became leader. After his election, it was seized on by the right as a way of undermining his leadership.
They’ve been successful because so few on Labour’s left—including among its leadership—have responded with a defence of why it’s right to call Israel racist.
That’s why it’s so disastrous that Corbyn supporters’ group Momentum—along with several allies of Corbyn—want to retreat over the issue.
A section of Corbyn’s allies want him to back down on the IHRA definition. They think that by doing this Corbyn could prove he takes antisemitism seriously, the crisis would disappear and Labour could get on with opposing the Tories.
And in the past week a slew of commentators sympathetic to Corbyn have written that the right have “weaponised” the issue against the left. But they all now agree that the cause is the “fringe” of the left that is antisemitic, and that tackling this will make the right go away.
Yet the whole point of the right’s accusations is to claim that support for Palestinians makes the left naturally open or blind to antisemitism. This doesn’t challenge that claim—it gives ground to it.
And once you give ground to that idea it will carry on being a stick for the right to beat Corbyn and the left with.
What’s more, it opens the door to further attacks on solidarity with Palestinians, justified by the smear that opposition to Israel is motivated by antisemitism.
Corbyn published an article on the Guardian website on Friday evening promising further consultation on the IHRA definition and to “root out” antisemitism in Labour.
He also wrote that it is “wrong” to describe Zionism—Israel’s founding ideology that justified the Palestinians’ dispossession—as racist.
Yet he was immediately attacked from the right. Some critics wanted him to acknowledge “his own role” in encouraging antisemitsm, by which they mean his support for Palestinians.
But most demanded “action”—which is to say, they want him to give in and accept the IHRA example that claims it is antisemitic to call Israel racist.
The best response to this is to insist that it is not antisemitic to call Israel racist—and to go on the offensive over Palestine.
Bring Palestinians back to the foreground of the argument. Talk about Israel’s racism and defy the right to call you antisemitic for it.
Talk about the Nakba and ask them to justify why the systematic expulsion of nearly a million Palestinians shouldn’t be described as ethnic cleansing.
Make them explain how Israel still won’t allow Palestinian refugees to return because it views their very presence as a threat to its own existence.
Demand to know why—even as Israel enshrines racism into its constitution—they’re so desperate to defend the racist state.