The BBC Panorama documentary on Labour and antisemitism on Wednesday was a naked attack on solidarity with Palestinians and legitimate criticism of the Israeli state.
Led by right wing hack John Ware, it repeated the smear at the heart of Labour’s antisemitism row—that opposing Israel is inherently antisemitic.
Ware spoon-fed questions to opponents of solidarity with Palestine, and to right wing former Labour staffers, to paint a picture of a party riddled with antisemites.
The problem began, so the story goes, when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader in 2015—and it’s all because of his history of solidarity with Palestinians.
For instance Mike Creighton, a former senior Labour staffer, euphemistically told Ware that Corbyn’s leadership led to “an increase in members from a particular perspective”.
“They brought with them a particular view that unfortunately allowed breathing space for antisemitism,” he said.
Another former staffer, Sam Matthews, talked about “the creation of a culture within the Labour Party which makes antisemites feel that this is their home”.
The innuendo is illustrated with footage of Corbyn at a rally leading a chant—“We are all Palestinians”.
The whole documentary rested on a very dangerous conflation of Jewish people with the state of Israel and its founding ideology, Zionism. This is the idea that Jewish people should have a state of their own in Palestine, and that in this state they should be the majority.
It justified the ethnic cleansing of some 850,000 Palestinians from their homes when Israel was created in 1948. And it justifies the racist exclusion of Palestinians from Israel today.
Many Jews oppose Zionism because of this.
But Ware glossed over all of that. He simply asserted that criticism of Zionism is “offensive to Jewish people because Zionism is the project that established Israel as a secure Jewish homeland”.
By sleight of hand he made Zionism appear as something integral to being Jewish, and therefore anti-Zionism as essentially antisemitic. The left’s opposition to Israel was presented as the root of the problem—and clamping down on it the solution.
Right wing MP Louise Ellman—vice chair of Labour Friends of Israel—complained that Labour members in her constituency “wanted to talk mostly about the Middle East”.
Former Labour staffer Ben Westerman called opposition to Israel “an obsession that just spills over all the time into antisemitism”.
Tellingly, Creighton said Corbyn could have dealt with antisemitism “with a significant speech on the issue of the Middle East, particularly saying that Israel has a right to exist”.
Yet Labour’s official response to the programme didn’t address any of this. It only tried to defend Labour’s procedures for investigating accusations of antisemitism.
Prominent Corbyn supporters have focussed on challenging accusations that Corbyn’s team interfered in disciplinary cases.
None of this deals with the issue at the heart of the right’s argument.
It’s legitimate to argue that Palestinians and Jewish people should live together with equal democratic rights in a state not based on religion or ethnicity. Many people on the left disagree with this, but it’s not antisemitic to say it.
Yet Labour’s leadership has given up on defending the right to stand in solidarity with Palestinians, or to call Israel racist. Far from defusing the argument, this response has only opened the door to increasingly vicious accusations.
By the end of the programme, Ware’s interviewees were essentially comparing Corbyn and the left to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. One said Jewish people were “frightened of what Corbyn might do because we’ve seen these behaviours before”.
“We know what happens when people don’t speak up against things that are patently wrong,” they said.
In an interview published after the programme was shown, Matthews said Corbyn was “the biggest friend antisemites have had since the Second World War”.
That’s a disgraceful and outrageous claim. But it’s only possible because Labour’s leadership has refused to defend the issue at the heart of the row—the right to criticise Israel.