This is the meeting they tried to ban. What a beautiful sight. It is good to see so many of you here.
I am proud to share a platform tonight with Haneen and Ilan. Haneen who has fought for Palestinian rights within the Israeli Knesset and beyond - fighting from within the belly of the beast.
Ilan — someone whose writings, in particular, his Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, have changed my life. Haneen and Ilan have had the courage to speak truth to power. That is our job too. In speaking these truths — about the racist nature of the Israeli state, about Zionism, about the dispossession of the Palestinian people, we face obstacles — nothing like the daily oppression of the Palestinian people — but obstacles nonetheless — especially in the Labour Party.
We do not face the occupation, the daily assaults, curfews, arbitrary arrests, detentions, house demolitions, travel restrictions, checkpoints, irrigation systems destroyed, exclusion and discrimination as the Palestinians do — but we do face attempts to shut down meetings — including this one among many — investigations, suspensions and expulsions. As lifelong anti-racists we are labelled as antisemitic — or, if we are Jewish, as self-haters or even ’kapos’.
We face restrictions on the words we can use. Even to use the word Zionist is now under challenge. And we face a clampdown on our right to discuss historical issues.
We must be free to examine our history — Jewish history or any other — on the basis that no peoples have a monopoly of truth or right. Victims of oppression in time can become perpetrators of oppression. That is the dialectic of history, that is the inter-connectedness of all peoples. That is our internationalist response against all forms of exceptionalism, including Jewish exceptionalism.
Yes, to discuss historical events may be controversial — even to some, offensive. But party members are being disciplined for talking about history. My black, Jewish, partner, Jackie Walker, for examining the historical role of some Jews in the slave trade, Ken Livingstone for raising the Havaara Agreement reached by some Zionists in Germany and in the US which led to the breaking of the anti-Hitler economic boycott.
These are often complex issues. We don’t have to agree. But let’s have those debates — we may all learn something if we do — because to ban discussion about our histories leads to the outlawing of thought and ultimately to the burning of books — another lesson from history! Continue like this and we will end up burning the books of Ilan Pappe and so many others who tell the truth about Palestine.
But if we decide to silence our own voices on our own history – remember we are silencing other voices too – the narratives of oppression — the voices of the African slaves and their descendants, the voices of the Palestinian people today.
Where does this all come from? What is the historical context? The Labour Party has been pro-Zionist for most of its history, even before the Balfour Declaration. And this position came from both right and left of the party. Ramsay MacDonald in 1921 spoke of the “settlers building a dwelling place in the home of their fathers”. Herbert Morrison in 1935 of the Zionist settlements as “work typical of the finest of British colonisers in the history of our Empire.”
It was a policy abandoned temporarily when Labour took office in 1945 when the immediate interests of Empire took priority over the Zionist cause. But the Labour left rallied to that cause. Nye Bevan argued “A friendly Jewish state would be a safer military base than any we should find in any Arab state”. This position was supported by Michael Foot and Richard Crossman. Crossman later went so far as to say the Jews in Palestine had the “right, indeed duty, to civilise these continents by physically occupying them.” And following the 1967 war even left wing MP Eric Heffer urged Israel to hang on to their conquests.And two of the most prominent post-war Labour leaders – Wilson and Blair – were consistent Zionists.
But the blinkers have begun to come off, the Boycott movement has grown, pro-Palestinian sentiment in the party has mushroomed as we saw at last year’s conference — and in 2015, to the horror of the establishment, life-long socialist, internationalist, pro-Palestinian, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. It was a bombshell. And that is when the witch-hunt began.
Jeremy was a threat – a threat of course to the right wing of the party because he was a socialist, and — because of his pro-Palestinian credentials — a threat to supporters of the state of Israel. JC becomes leader and – all of a sudden – the party has a major problem with antisemitism.
The Labour Party is part of society – the best part of society in my opinion – but part of society nonetheless. Of course there are examples of antisemitism in the party - and one case of antisemitism is one too many — but from my experience of 50 years in the party it is under-represented in the party — just as you would expect, just as the data from General Secretary Jenny Formby’s office reveals.
What we have seen is a pincer attack with sections of the right wing joining up with pro-Israel supporters and manufacturing a crisis that is grossly exaggerated. And they do it by conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism. The argument is that those who oppose Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians - who expose the racist nature of the Israeli state - are causing offence to the Jewish community. Well, I dispute the concept of the Jewish community having a single viewpoint. Jewish people, like all people, are diverse.
And this is where the JVL comes in – by countering that narrative and providing an alternative voice for Jewish members of the Labour Party. Just imagine what it would have looked like if we had not been fighting for the last two years. I am so proud to be a member!
Let me speak personally for a moment. This witch-hunt – these false accusations of antisemitism - have broken my relationship with my family - my Jewish family.
I know what antisemitism is — and I don’t need lectures from Tom Watson to tell me about it! I will not exaggerate my experience. I did not suffer discrimination or exclusion in the way that black and Asian people still do. Or as Palestinians do in Israel. But I did face prejudice.
As a child of six was I told that Hitler should have finished the job and sent the Jews to the gas chambers — I was told that you Jews killed our Jesus and laughed at when I tried to patiently explain that Jesus was a Jewish leader. I have had to walk out of football grounds when fans of my own team were singing “I never felt more like gassing the Jews”.
My experience of antisemitism, especially when I was young, made me feel an outsider, a feeling I’ve never lost. I learned lessons from my father about fighting the fascists at Cable Street in East London in the 1930s - how the Jewish East End in alliance with the dockers and other sections of the labour movement stopped Mosley’s fascist thugs. And these experiences - and learning about the traditions of Jewish socialism - led me into anti-racist struggles, made me a socialist internationalist and, at the age of 19, I joined the Labour Party. So I know what antisemitism is. I also know what it isn’t.
We are now in a very dangerous moment. We are fighting the axis of evil — Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, Modi, Victor Orban, Putin. And in Britain the Brexit meltdown has exacerbated the rise of the far right. All this in the context of a desperate climate change crisis. The future of the world is in the balance. And in this country our best defence against these dangers – in the short run our only defence – is a Corbyn-led Labour government.
But a Corbyn Labour government will face the might of the establishment:
the state, with veiled threats by generals to overturn a democratically elected Labour government;
the media, with relentless attacks and ridicule;
the Tories now in the grip of its most right wing leadership in its history;
the undemocratic structures and rules of the Labour Party being used to suspend hundreds, if not thousands, of Corbyn supporters;
AND so many in the Parliamentary Labour Party shamefully refusing to accept the party’s overwhelming verdict, briefing against Jeremy, forcing a second leadership contest, acting as a party within a party and fearing a Corbyn government more than another Tory government.
The only possible way to fight against such powerful opposition forces was — and is — to build an anti-establishment insurgency from below. But this is not the late ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, when the working class in Britain was powerful. We have suffered decades of defeat since the miners’ strike. It is a contradiction - between the rise of the most left wing leadership in Labour’s history and the low ebb of class struggle.
And therein lies the danger of this antisemitism witch-hunt. This witch-hunt matters because:
It is used to undermine the best leader this party has ever had.
It is a diversion from the fight against the Tories.
It is used to silence criticism of the state of Israel, and advocacy for Palestinian rights, and close down discussion on key historical issues.
It separates antisemitism from all other forms of racism and obscures the racism against black and Asians which structurally excludes them from power in society and within our party.
And it hinders the fight against antisemitism itself. It is odious – the way false allegations of antisemitism are being used for factional interest. And if we do not put an end to this it will come back to haunt us.
But there is another consequence too – and that is the undermining, the dividing of the rank and file movement necessary to sustain a left wing Labour government. To concede to this witch-hunt is to abandon the radical grassroots movement to the power of the parliamentary party and to give up in advance on the chance of a lifetime of achieving a radical Labour government.
So our challenge is to learn from our comrades here tonight and fight back by having the courage to speak truth to power. Our meeting is entitled Let’s talk about Palestine. We shall do so. We shall not be silenced.
This is about our fight in the Labour Party and for a movement to sustain a Corbyn government – but it is more than that. It is about supporting the just struggle of the Palestinian people and putting right a grave historical wrong – but it is even more than that.
We are all part of an interconnected global struggle against an establishment, an elite, that axis of evil, bringing the world hurtling to destruction. We have to fight back, speak truth, challenge power. The future of our world may depend on it.
South Thanet CLP, political officer of Jewish Voice for Labour and member of the Editorial Board of Labour Briefing