Momentum debates anti-semitism

Submitted by AWL on 29 June, 2016 - 3:31 Author: Sacha Ismail

There were 65 people at the Lewisham Momentum debate on anti-semitism, Israel-Palestine and the left on 20 June, including a fair smattering from outside Lewisham. I think the most positive thing about the meeting was that it took place.

Despite the world pushing this question on us quite dramatically, there is a distinct lack of genuine discussion about it. There have been relatively few meetings organised about it, and very few indeed – if any – which involve speakers from different points of view.

In the run up to the 20 June event, a number of people on opposite sides of the debate (mainly from outside Lewisham) gave the impression of being quite outraged that it was happening and did various things to undermine it. So in going ahead and making it a success we contributed in a small way to changing the sectarian, anti-discussion culture of the left. Hopefully it provides a model other Momentum, Labour Party and labour movement organisations can learn from.

The three speakers, Marlene Ellis (Momentum Black ConneXions), Rhea Wolfson (left candidate for the Labour Party NEC) and Jon Lansman (Momentum steering committee), were recorded and their speeches should be put online soon, so I won’t report what they said blow for blow. In fact, I won’t really report the meeting so much as comment on some particular things in the discussion that struck me.

Speaker after speaker talked about the right to criticise Israel as if this is seriously in doubt. I don’t think it is. Some Labour Party members have been suspended for comments in connection to Israel, but not many, and the evidence so far (eg. the reinstatement of Jackie Walker) suggests they will mostly be reinstated (the exceptions being people guilty of really quite blatant anti-semitism, like Vicki Kirby in Woking).

That is in contrast to the much larger number of people expelled basically for being an active socialist, many of those cases being so far quite intractable. Israel In any case, what many speakers at the meeting just refused to deal with was the fact that everyone there was sharply critical of Israel.

The debate is, or should be, about what criticisms of Israel are useful and productive, rather than damaging, from a left-wing or socialist point of view. What those of us who support the Palestinians but reject demonisation of Israel said was largely ignored.

That was particularly true in the case of Rhea Wolfson — who spoke about why she isn’t a Zionist but why Israel has at least in the past been an important part of her identity, as it is for many Jewish people of different views.

The reason Rhea was ignored is that she doesn’t fit the dominant “left” narrative – this woman is obviously left-wing, supports the Palestinians and doesn’t call herself a Zionist; how can it be she disagrees with me about some of the issues here...? There is a strange contrast with how Jeremy Corbyn is treated. He argues substantially similar positions to Rhea (and to the AWL) on the issues in dispute – for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, against a general boycott of Israeli goods, or an academic boycott, etc. Yet he is lauded, including at the Lewisham meeting, as a great anti-Zionist (ditto Jo Cox — so much for the idea that criticism of Israel is suppressed in the Labour Party), while others with similar views are denounced as Zionist or ignored. Incoherence or opportunism? Probably both.

At least two speakers argued that it is wrong to talk about anti-semitism in connection with Israel, because the Palestinians, as Arabs, are themselves “semites”. This is both staggeringly irrational and bad politically. It is a shame to hear these kind of arguments being made!

Another speaker objected to a comrade saying that anti-semitism is disproportionately strong among Muslims in Britain, claiming that to say this is Islamophobic. Others supported that claim. This rejected a strong trend of being in denial about reality, as well as not listening.

In fact there is nothing anti-Muslim about recognising facts. It is borne out by plausible opinion polling and widely commented on by liberal and left-wing Muslim writers, for instance the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan. Yet some are willing to say that all “Zionists” are racist just by the fact of self-defining as Zionist (or in some cases, not even self-defining) while refusing to even consider difficult issues about anti-semitism.

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