Starmer sacked prominent left wing MP Rebecca Long-Bailey as his shadow education secretary on Thursday. The reason given was that she tweeted in praise of an article that contained a passing accusation of racism and brutality against Israel.
A spokesperson for Starmer said the article—an interview with well-known actor Maxine Peake on the Independent website—contained “an antisemitic conspiracy theory.”
Peake said US police officers had learned the technique of kneeling on a person’s neck from Israeli secret services. She was discussing the murder of George Floyd by a US cop who knelt on his neck.
Whether or not the specific accusation that Israeli security services trained cops to kneel on people’s necks is true, it’s not antisemitic to suggest it.
It has nothing to do with hatred of Jewish people for being Jewish.
Long-Bailey’s sacking is the outcome of a years-long campaign to categorise all but the mildest criticism of Israel as antisemitic. The aim is to delegitimise support for Palestine and use it to attack the left, particularly in the Labour Party.
Starmer has seized on this issue to underline that under his leadership there is a clear break from the politics of Jeremy Corbyn.
He is telling the Labour right, the bosses and the right wing media that he is a thoroughly trustworthy mainstream figure.
Tony Blair rushed to say there was now a “leader of the Labour Party that looks as if he could be prime minister”.
Starmer did not unequivocally call for the sacking of Dominic Cummings earlier this year. And he hasn’t called for the sacking of disgraced housing secretary Robert Jenrick. But he sacked Long-Bailey.
Opponents of Palestinians claim that support for Israel is an inherent part of Jewish identity—and that an attack on Israel is an attack on all Jews.
But it’s wrong to claim that Israel represents all Jews. There are all sorts of different opinions on Israel among Jewish people. Many Jews oppose Israel and stand in solidarity with Palestinians.
But in 2018—after a campaign by the right—Labour adopted a definition of antisemitism that says it’s antisemitic to call Israel a racist state.
This would rule out the right of Palestinians to describe their expulsion from Israel as ethnic cleansing, and their continued exclusion from it as racist.
The definition—the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition—also said it’s antisemitic to require of Israel “behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
It’s adoption by Labour was a victory for people who wanted to paint any criticism of Israel as automatically suspect, and the left’s support for Palestinians as motivated by antisemitism.
Those who championed the IHRA definition said it had nothing to do with silencing criticism of Israel. Long-Bailey’s sacking shows that was a lie.
Even under the terms of the IHRA definition, Peake’s accusation against Israel can’t be deemed antisemitic. Now, simply being associated with a contested accusation of violence and racism against the Israeli state is enough to be immediately disciplined by the Labour Party.
Despite tweeting a clarification—agreed by Starmer’s office—distancing herself from Peake’s accusation, Bailey was still sacked. “Impartial” journalists rushed to repeat the claim that what she had done was antisemitic, and to praise Starmer for his “leadership”.
Meanwhile shadow ministers Toby Perkins, who attacked travellers in election campaign material, and Rachel Reeves who said immigration could cause race riots, remain in post.
It’s a clear signal to left wing Labour Party members that voicing any support for Palestinians or criticism of Israel could end in their expulsion for antisemitism.
It’s also proof that repeated retreats by the left in the face of accusations of antisemitism have been disastrous.
During the leadership campaign Long-Bailey said, ““I agree with a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state ... I suppose that makes me a Zionist because I agree with Israel’s right to exist and right to self-determine.”
That grim retreat has not saved her.
Left wing Labour Party members increasingly face a witch hunt. Even more importantly, the right to campaign in solidarity with Palestine—whether you’re in Labour or not—is under attack.
There’s no more room for retreat. It’s time to say unequivocally that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic—and solidarity with Palestine is not a crime.
This latest episode should underline that the right place for socialists is outside the Labour Party.