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UK Labour Event Heightens Fears of Anti-Semitism In Party’s Rank & File
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn sits on stage as delegates wave Palestinian flags during day three of the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, England. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

UK Labour Event Heightens Fears of Anti-Semitism In Party’s Rank & File

A motion approved at the party’s ‘Friends of Palestine’ event calls for a ban on UK arms to Israel and an independent investigation into Israeli actions in Gaza

Members of the UK’s Labour Party voted at a “Friends of Palestine” event in Liverpool on Tuesday to pursue a list of measures against Israel for its alleged mistreatment of Palestinians. The event was part of a four-day conference in which party members debated key components of its platform—Brexit, promoting social justice, and reforming the UK’s welfare and national health services.

During the pro-Palestinian rally, members of the left-wing party overwhelmingly approved a motion to freeze “UK Government arms sales to Israel.” It also called for an “independent, international investigation” to determine the Israeli army’s culpability in its handling of recent Palestinian protests along the Gaza-Israel border. Lastly, the motion called for “an immediate unconditional end to the illegal blockade and closure of Gaza.”

The motion was first hotly debated and then put to a vote in front of a crowd of party supporters who had gathered in a Liverpool convention hall. On the floor in front of the stage, many waved Palestinian flags and chanted, “Free, free Palestine.” Though the motions were approved during the event, they are not considered binding on the party’s leadership.

“The security of one country can never be achieved at the expense of another and Britain has historic responsibility towards the Palestinian people,” Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told the crowd. “We will continue to stand up for Palestinians. We will recognize an independent state of Palestine as soon as we take office.”

On Wednesday, Corbyn reiterated this stance in another speech during the Labour event, adding that his party is “united in condemning the shooting of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators in Gaza by Israeli forces and the passing of Israel’s discriminatory Nation-State Law.

Since Corbyn assumed the helm three years ago, the Labour party has been bogged down by allegations of rabid anti-Semitism within its rank and file.

Corbyn addressed such concerns during his speech on Wednesday. “The row over antisemitism has caused immense hurt and anxiety in the Jewish community and great dismay in the Labour Party,” Corbyn said. “We will work with Jewish communities to eradicate antisemitism, both from our party and wider society,” he added.

Nevertheless, Corbyn himself has come under heavy fire for his past comments about “Zionists” and his support for Hamas figures. In 2012, he sat on a conference panel in Doha with Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and other convicted Hamas terrorists. Hamas is widely designated a terrorist organization.

James Sorene, the chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre in London, told The Media Line that Corbyn believes in engaging with Hamas. “These are the people he is most comfortable with and there is no evidence he has sought to engage with a wider group of people on the Palestinian side,” Sorene said.

The Labour leader, he added, is “very comfortable with their violence and acts of terrorism as he believes it is just ‘resistance to occupation.’ He has a long track record of normalizing Hamas terrorism.”

Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of International Relations at Regent’s University in London, told The Media Line that there are legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government’s policies—its Nation-State Law, “occupation” of Palestinian lands, and blockade of Gaza, which are expressed by Jews and non-Jews alike.

But some members of the Labour party, Mekelberg contended, have conflated these legitimate criticisms with anti-Semitic sentiments. “Some of them, out of ignorance or sheer anti-Semitism, mix it all together,” he said.

“Had Corbyn been honest, he would have come clean and said, ‘I don’t believe in the Jewish state, and I don’t want it.’ Throughout his public life he has shown disdain for this idea—for Zionism… It’s an old fashioned way of seeing things on that part of the Left.”

When asked if there is still hope that Corbyn can address anti-Semitism allegations within his party, Mekelberg responded: “I don’t think that Corbyn at this stage of his life can really change.”

Mekelberg referenced a row in 2012 over a mural painted in East London. It depicted Jewish financiers playing a Monopoly-style board game on the backs of ethnic minorities. “Corbyn said that the mural was legitimate freedom of expression, when obviously it was incitement to racial hatred. And he wasn’t a kid when he said it. He was in his 60s; his views of the world must have formed by then.”

Leah Levane, co-chair of Jewish Voice for Labour, a British organization for Jewish members of the party, contended to The Media Line that the motion passed at the “Friends of Palestine” did not contain any anti-Semitic content.

“The criticisms are about what Israel has done. Israel exists and we deal with the state the way it is… But the fact is that states don’t have a right to exist; people have rights. States change their borders and structures, so what we are dealing with is the State of Israel as it exists and has existed, which is a state where at the very best Palestinians are second-class citizens.”

Levane, who is a party delegate and was present at the Tuesday event in Liverpool, added that “it is really important that we stop this conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

“I completely understand from the bottom of my heart and at an emotional and practical level why many people—Jewish and otherwise—would think that having a Jewish state would be the answer and response to the centuries of oppression that we as Jewish people have faced.

“But this conflation of Judaism and Zionism, and anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism needs to be uncoupled. They are not the same thing.”

She qualified that “Zionism as a political ideology has a place in the Labour movement, in the world, and has its legitimacy, but equally, as with Socialism, Communism, and Capitalism, our ideology is we have the right to criticize it in a comradely, respectful way.

“There are times when that criticism becomes anti-Semitism, but it is not an automatic thing,” Levane said.

When it comes to Hamas’ role along the Gaza-Israel border, she concluded that “to blame Hamas for the outpouring and desperation of Palestinians in Gaza, who are really desperate… is not the place to look.”

Political analysts believe Corbyn’s Labour Party could do well at the polls if Prime Minister Theresa May’s government collapses under the weight of Brexit proceedings. Britain is set to depart formally from the EU in March.

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