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Parsing the UK’s Anti-Semitism Debate

Britain: The Anti-Semitism debate

Dispatches From The Edge

Sept. 17, 2018

 

 

Does the British Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, have an “anti-Semitism problem,” or has the Party’s left wing been targeted by the Israeli government for its support of the growing boycott and divestment movement that challenges Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land? A group of Israeli lawyers and social activists would like to know the answer to that question and have filed a Freedom of Information action in an effort to find out.

 

Spearheaded by Israeli human rights activist Eitay Mack, the request targets Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “verify that these play no part in the de-legitimization waged in recent years on the UK Labour Party and Mr. Corbyn.”

 

The Labour leader has been called an “anti-Semite and a racist” by one of the Party’s members of Parliament, and in a recent tweet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Corbyn of honoring Palestinians who took part in the attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics.

 

Corbyn has long been a leader in the fight against racism and played a key role in helping to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa. He has also made it no secret that he makes common cause with the Palestinians and supports the Boycott and Divestment Sanctions (BDS) aimed at forcing Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories.

 

In 2014, the Labour Party went through a sea change politically, moving away from the centrist programs of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and embracing left social democratic positions that Labour had not advocated for more than two decades. Corbyn resisted the endless austerity and privatization program of the Conservatives—many of which Labour had gone along with—and called for a robust program of re-nationalizing transport and energy, pumping money into health and education, and raising taxes on the wealthy.

 

The platform re-energized Labour’s grassroots, and hundreds of thousands of young people joined up. At 600,000 members, the UK Labour Party is now the largest party on the European continent. In the 2015 election, Labour picked up 33 seats in the Parliament and turned the Tories into a minority government.

 

Almost as soon as Corbyn took over the Party, the attacks that he was anti-Semitic—or at least tolerated anti-Semitism—started up. He was accused of comparing Israel to the Nazis. He was charged with honoring the Black September Palestinian group, whose 1972 attack in Munich resulted in the death of 11 Israeli athletes. He was denounced for backing a London street mural that had clear anti-Semitic images.

 

Finally, the three leading Jewish newspapers in the UK jointly declared that there was a “crisis of anti-Semitism” in the British Labour Party and that Corbyn was “an existential threat to Jewish life in the UK.”

 

But once one begins to unpack the charges it is hard to find much evidence for a “crisis.” Polls show the Labour Party is considerably less anti-Semitic than the Conservative Party, and it appears that anti-Semitism has declined since Corbyn took over. A number of the things Corbyn is accused of have been either distorted or fabricated.

 

Corbyn did not compare Israel to the Nazis. It was Holocaust survivor Hajo Meyer who did so in a 2010 panel discussion that the Labour Party leader took part. Meyer was upset with the 2009 Israeli bombing of Gaza—Operation Drop Lead—that killed 1391 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians. He was referring to the fact that Gaza’s residents could not leave the strip and compared it to Jews unable to flee the Warsaw Ghetto.

 

Corbyn did not place a wreath to honor the Black September group. The event was to commemorate a 1985 attack on the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Tunisia by Israeli warplanes that killed 47 people and wounded 65 more. The attack was officially condemned by the UN Security Council with the assent of the U.S. The Black September members killed in Munich are buried in Libya, not Tunesia, although one of the group’s leaders, Salah Khalaf, is interned near where the memorial took place.

 

On the basis of free speech, the Labour leader initially did defend a mural with anti-Semitic elements. But when he looked at the painting closely, he apologized and said that free speech should never be used to mask anti-Semitism.

 

Lastly, Corbyn’s wing of the Labour Party is accused of resisting adopting an 11-point definition of anti-Semitism created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016. Corbyn did resist parts of the definition because many Labour activists fear that the list conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Even the architect of the document, Kenneth Stern, said it was meant to be a “working definition,” not a way to curb academic research and free speech. “Yet that is how it has come to be used.”

 

There is evidence that the Netanyahu government is trying to do exactly that by “de-legitimizing” Israel the growing boycott movement constitutes anti-Semitism, thus equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

 

A study by historian David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Birkbeck College, found that the overwhelming majority of charges against Labour Party members concerned statements about Israel, not Jews.

 

Stephen Oryszcuk, foreign affairs editor of the leading Jewish newspaper, Jewish News, said that criticizing Israel “was not anti-Semitism,” and that the charges against Corbyn were “repulsive,” adding “This is a dedicated anti-racist we are trashing.”

 

As the two-state solution disintegrates under the relentless expansion of Jewish settlements—one recent plan calls for reaching a goal of one million settlers by the end of this year—and the controversial move to favor Jewish Israelis over other citizens, Israel may indeed be more vulnerable to a boycott movement. It is hardly surprising then that the Netanyahu government would try to nip the BDS in the bud.

 

Israeli lawyer Mack is looking for evidence that the campaign against Corbyn is encouraged and supported by the Foreign Affairs and Strategic ministries and is suspicious that a “crisis” exists in the Labour Party. “Israel is strengthening its relationships in Eastern Europe, with countries like Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, where they have problems with anti-Semitism. On the other hand you see the Israeli government making their political struggle with Jeremy Corbyn a main issue.”

 

That suspicion is supported by a 2017 sting operation by Al Jezeera that uncovered a direct liaison between diplomat Shai Masot of London’s Israeli embassy and organizations like Labour Friends of Israel that are leading critics of Corbyn. Masot works for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. And more than encouragement was exchanged. According to Al Jezeera, up to 1 million pounds ($1.3 million) were made available to fuel the campaign.

 

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a cable from Israel’s London embassy complaining that Strategic Affairs was breaking British law by encouraging political activities by Jewish charity groups.

 

In addition to the Jewish establishment newspapers, virtually every tabloid in the British Isles has joined the hue and cry. The publication ColdType counted more than 500 articles on the subject from July to August of this year. Nominally liberal publications like the Guardian have led the campaign. Most newspapers in the UK are more conservative than their continental—or American—counterparts, and, in the Guardian’s case, the publication is carrying water for the Labour Party’s rightwing.

 

In short, Corbyn is up against a powerful alliance of the mainstream media, the Conservative Party, and “Blairites” in the Labour Party, with Israel in the wings. And Corbyn’s response to apologize—what for is not exactly clear—and to drum dissidents out of the Party has not quelled the fires, but added fuel to them. Labour finally adopted the 11 definitions of anti-Semitism.

 

What about the effect of all this is on the electorate?

 

According to You/Gov, many of the stories that “obsess the Westminster media” don’t resonate much with the wider public. In spite of non-stop and widespread coverage, only 6 percent of the public say they are following it closely, 20 percent fairly closely and 54 percent are either not following it or are unaware the story exists. The poll concludes that while the “affair may entrench existing negative views of Corbyn among those who already held them, it seem unlikely to do much to reduce his support.”

 

Labour leads in the polls, but its margin is thin, drawing between 38 and 40 percent support to the Conservatives 37 to 38 percent. The Liberal Democrats are polling around 10 percent, and the racist United Kingdom Independence Party 5 percent.

 

However, British polling has been notoriously wrong-headed in the past. Polls predicted Brexit would fail. It passed. The polls predicted the Conservatives would trounce Labour in the 2017 elections. The outcome was vise-a-versa.

 

Labour did well in this year’s local council elections, although the media made it seem like a failure by puffing up the numbers the Party was projected to win. Labour picked up 79council seats while the Conservatives lost 35. The Liberal Democrats secured 77 seats, but that was largely a rebound from the disastrous showing in 2014 local elections that saw the Party lose 300 seats.

 

According to a BBC analysis, if the local election results were replicated in a general election Labour would be the majority party in the Parliament with 283 seats to the Tories 280. While the Conservatives were down 3 percent of the vote over the 2017 local elections, Labour was up 8 percentage points.

 

“People thought the general election was a fluke,” said John McDonnell, the Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, “we’ve demonstrated it wasn’t. We’ve consolidated that and we’ve moved it forward in terms of percentage share of the vote.”

 

Polls do show that anti-Semitic charges may have had an impact on the Jewish community, but those polls require perspective: the Jewish community in Britain tends to be conservative, and many were opposed to Labour in general. In 2017, some 63 percent of British Jews voted Conservative, while 26 percent voted Labour.

 

Which doesn’t mean the controversy may not have an effect, especially if rightwing Labour supporters bolt and create a new party. That would drain some of Labour’s support and divide the vote in the next general election. Such a split would probably keep the Tories in power. There are some in Labour’s camp who would rather lose an election than have Corbyn and the left wing of the Party in power.

 

And there is a danger that worries Mack: “Israel is claiming that Corbyn and the Labour Party are putting British Jews at risk. But the bottom line is that the Netanyahu government itself is actually enlarging the risk for the Jewish people around the world, because they are not dealing with real problems, just the artificial problems. They are not concerned with real anti-Semitism, they only want to fulfill their political agenda of taking the issue of the Palestinian people off the world stage.”

 

And there are growing numbers of “real anti-Semites” in Europe and the U.S. who may not be a threat to Netanyahu, but most certainly are to Jews living outside of Israel.

 

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Why Europe’s Center-Left Keeps Losing Elections

Italy, Germany & the EU’s Future

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 19, 2018

 

More than a quarter of a century ago, much of the European center-left made a course change, edging away from its working class base, accommodating itself to the globalization of capital, and handing over the post World War II social contract to private industry. Whether it was the “New Labour” of Tony Blair in Britain or Gerhard Schroder’s “Agenda 2010” in Germany, social democracy came to terms with its traditional foe, capitalism.

 

Today, that compact is shattered, the once powerful center-left a shadow of its former self, and the European Union—the largest trading bloc on the planet—is in profound trouble.

 

In election after election over the past year, social democratic parties went down to defeat, although center-right parties also lost voters. Last year’s election in the Netherlands saw the Labor Party decimated, though its conservative coalition partner also took a hit. In France, both the Socialist Party and the traditional conservative parties didn’t even make the runoffs. September’s elections in Germany saw the Social Democrats (GPD) take a pounding, along with their conservative alliance partners, the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union. And Italy’s center-left Democratic Party was decisively voted out of power.

 

It would be easy to see this as a shift to the right. The neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfG) has 92 seats in the Bundestag. The Dutch anti-Muslim Party for Freedom picked up five seats. The extreme rightist National Front made the runoffs in France. The racist, anti-immigrant Northern League took 17.5 percent of the Italian vote and is in the running to form a government.

 

But the fall of the center-left has more to do with the 1990s course change than with any rightward shift by the continent. As the center-left accommodated itself to capital, it eroded its trade union base. In the case of New Labour, Blair explicitly distanced the Party from the unions that had been its backbone since it was founded in 1906.

 

In Germany, the Social Democrats began rolling back the safety net, cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and undermining labor codes that had guaranteed workers steady jobs at decent wages.

 

The European Union—originally touted as a way to end the years of conflict that had embroiled the continent in two world wars— became a vehicle for enforcing economic discipline on its 27 members. Rigid fiscal rules favored countries like Germany, Britain, Austria and the Netherlands, while straitjacketing countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, particularly in times of economic crisis.

 

Center-left parties all over Europe bailed out banks and financial speculators, while inflicting ruinous austerity measures on their own populations to pay for it. It became difficult for most people to distinguish between the policies of the center-right and the center-left.

 

Both backed austerity as a strategy for the debt crisis. Both weakened trade unions through “reforms” that gave employers greater power. Short-term contracts—so-called “mini jobs”—with lower wages and benefits replaced long-term job security, a strategy that fell especially hard on young people.

 

The recent Italian elections are a case in point. While the center-left Democratic Party (DP) bailed out several regional banks, its Labor Minister recommended that young Italians emigrate to find jobs. It was the Five Star Movement that called for a guaranteed income for poor Italians and sharply criticized the economics of austerity.

 

In contrast, the DP called for “fiscal responsibility” and support for the EU, hardly a program that addressed inequality, economic malaise, and youth unemployment. Euro-skeptic parties took 55 percent of the vote, while the Democrats tumbled from 41 percent four years ago to 19 percent.

 

In the German elections, the SPD did raise the issue of economic justice, but since the Party had been part of the governing coalition, voters plainly did not believe it. The Party’s leader Martin Schulz, , called for a “united states of Europe,” not exactly a barnburner phrase when the EU is increasingly unpopular.

 

Breaking a pre-election promise to go into opposition, the SPD has re-joined Merkel’s “Grand Coalition.” While the SPD landed some important cabinet posts, history suggests the Party will pay for that decision. It also allows the neo-Nazi AfG to be the official opposition in the Bundestag, handing it a bully pulpit.

 

The unwillingness of Europe’s social democrats to break from the policies of accommodation has opened an economic flank for the right to attack, and the center-left’s unwillingness to come to grips with immigration makes them vulnerable to racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Both the Italian and German center-left avoided the issue during their elections, ceding the issue to the right.

 

Europe does have an immigration problem, but it is not the right’s specter of “job-stealing, Muslim rapists” overrunning the continent. EU members—most of all Italy—have a shrinking and increasingly aged population. If the continent does not turn those demographics around—and rein in “mini jobs” that discourage young workers from having children—it is in serious long-term trouble. There simply will not be enough workers to support the current level of pensions and health care.

 

In any case, many of the “immigrants” are EU members—Poles, Bulgarians, Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese and Romanians—looking for work in England and Germany because their own austerity-burdened economies can’t offer them a decent living.

 

The center-left did not buy into the right’s racism, but neither did it make the point that immigrants are in the long-term interests of Europe. Nor did it do much to challenge the foreign policy of the EU and NATO that actively aids or abets wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Syria, wars that fuel millions of those immigrants.

 

One of the most telling critiques that Five Star aimed at the DP was that the Party supported the overthrow of the Libyan government and the consequent collapse of Libya as a functioning nation. Most the immigrants headed for Italy come from, or through, Libya.

 

When center-left parties embraced socially progressive policies, voters supported them. In Portugal two left parties formed a coalition with the Social Democrats to get the economy back on track, lower the jobless rate, and roll back many of the austerity measures enforced on the country by the EU. In recent local elections, voters gave them a ringing endorsement.

 

Jeremy Corbyn took the British Labour Party to the left with a program to re-nationalize railroads, water, energy and the postal service, and Labour is now running neck and neck with the Conservatives. Polls also indicate that voters like Labour’s program of green energy, improving health care, and funding education and public works.

 

The examples of Portugal and Britain argue that voters are not turning away from left policies, but from the direction that the center left has taken over the past quarter century.

 

The formulas of the right—xenophobia and nationalism—will do little to alleviate the growing economic inequality in Europe, nor will they address some very real existential problems like climate change. The real threat to the Dutch doesn’t comes from Muslims, but the melting of the Greenland ice cap and the West Antarctic ice sheet, which, sometime in the next few decades, will send the North Sea over the Netherland’s dikes.

 

When Europe emerged from the last world war, the left played an essential role in establishing a social contract that guaranteed decent housing, health care and employment for the continent’s people. There was still inequality, exploitation, and greed—it is, after all, capitalism—but there was also a compact that did its best to keep the playing field level. In the words of Mette Frederiksen, a leading Danish social democrat, “to save capitalism from itself.”

 

The Thatcher government in Britain and the Reagan government in Washington broke that compact. Taxes were shifted from corporations and the wealthy to the working class and poor. Public services were privatized, education defunded, and the safety net shredded.

 

If the center-left is to make a comeback, it will have to re-discover its roots and lure voters away from xenophobia and narrow nationalism with a program that improves peoples’ lives and begins the difficult task of facing up to what capitalism has wrought on the planet.

 

—30—

 

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middlempireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

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Brexit and A Brave New World

Brexit & A Brave New World

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 31, 2017

 

As the clock ticks down on Britain’s exit from the European Union, one could not go far wrong casting British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as the hopeful Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest: ”How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t.” And Conservative Party Prime Minister Theresa May as Lady Macbeth: “Out damned spot, out, I say!”

 

With the French sharpening their knives, the Tories in disarray, the Irish demanding answers, and a scant 17 months to go before Brexit kicks in, the whole matter is making for some pretty good theater. The difficulty is distinguishing between tragedy and farce.

 

The Conservative’s Party’s Oct. 1-4 conference in Manchester was certainly low comedy. The meeting hall was half empty, and May’s signature address was torpedoed by a coughing fit and a prankster who handed her a layoff notice. Then the Tories’ vapid slogan “Building a country that works for everyone” fell on to the stage. And several of May’s cabinet members were openly jockeying to replace her.

 

In contrast, the Labour Party’s conference at Brighton a week earlier was jam packed with young activists busily writing position papers, and Corbyn gave a rousing speech that called for rolling back austerity measures, raising taxes on the wealthy and investing in education, health care and technology.

 

Looming over all of this is March 2019, the date by which the complex issues involving Britain’s divorce from the EU need to be resolved. The actual timeline is even shorter, since it will take at least six months for the European parliament and the EU’s 28 members to ratify any agreement.

 

Keeping all those ducks in a row is going to take considerable skill, something May and the Conservatives have shown not a whit of.

 

The key questions to be resolved revolve around people and money, of which the first is the stickiest.

 

Members of the EU have the right to travel and work anywhere within the countries that make up the trade alliance. They also have access to health and welfare benefits, although there are some restrictions on these. Millions of non-British, EU citizens currently reside in the United Kingdom. What happens to those people when Brexit kicks in? And what about the two million British that live in other EU countries?

 

Controlling immigration was a major argument for those supporting an exit from the EU, though its role has been over-estimated. Many Brexit voters simply wanted to register their outrage with the mainstream parties—Labour and Tories alike—that had, to one extent or another, backed policies which favored the wealthy and increased economic inequality. In part, the EU was designed to lower labor costs in order to increase exports.

 

Indeed, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982 to 1998) pressed the EU to admit Central and Eastern Europe countries precisely because they would provide a pool of cheap labor that could be used to weaken unions throughout the trade bloc. In this he was strongly supported by the British. Union membership in Britain has declined from over 13 million in 1979 to just over six million today.

 

The Conservatives want to impede immigration, and also have full access to the trade bloc, what has been termed the “have your cake and eat it too” strategy. So far that approach has been a non-starter with the rest of the EU. Polls show that only 30 percent of EU members think that that Britain should be offered a favorable deal. This drops to 19 percent in France

 

The Conservatives themselves are split on what they want. One faction is pressing for a “hard Brexit” that rigidly controls immigration, abandons the single market and customs union, and rejects any role for the European Court of Justice.

 

Another “soft Brexit” faction would accept EU regulations and the Court of Justice, because they are afraid that bailing out of the single market will damage the British economy. Given that countries like Japan, China and the U.S. seem reluctant to cut independent trade deals with Britain, that is probably an accurate assessment.

 

While the Tories are beating up on one another, the Labour Party has distanced itself from the issue, quietly supporting a “soft” exit, but mainly talking about the issues that motivated many of the Brexit voters in the first place: the housing crisis, health care, the rising cost of education, and growing inequality. That platform worked in the June 2017 snap election that saw the Conservatives lose their parliamentary majority and Labour pick up 32 seats.

 

Divorces are not only messy, they’re expensive.

 

This past September, May offered to pay the EU 20 billion Euros to disentangle Britain from the bloc, but EU members are demanding at least 60 billion Euros—some want up to 100 billion—and refuse to talk about Britain’s access to the trade bloc until that issue is resolved. All talk of “cake” has vanished.

 

And then there is Ireland.

 

The island is hardly a major player in the EU. The Republic’s GDP is 15th in the big bloc, but it shares a border with Northern Ireland. Even though the North voted to remain in the EU, it will have to leave when Britain does. What happens with its border is no small matter, in part because it is not a natural one.

 

Those counties that were a majority Protestant in 1921 became part of Ulster, while Catholic majority counties remained in the southern Republic. During the “Troubles” from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, the border was heavily militarized and guarded by thousands of British troops. No one—north or south—wants walls and watch towers again.

 

But trade between the Republic and Ulster will have to be monitored to insure that taxes are paid, environmental laws are followed, and all of the myriad of EU rules are adhered to.

 

Other than trade there is the matter of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the fighting between Catholics and Protestants. While laying out a way to settle the differences between the two communities through power sharing, it also re-defined the nature of sovereignty. Essentially the Irish Republic and Britain agreed that neither country had a claim on Ulster, and that Northern Irish residents be accepted as “Irish, or British or both, as they may so choose”

 

Such fluid definition of sovereignty is threatened by the Brexit, and most of all by the fact that May and the Conservatives—at the price of a two billion Euro bribe— have aligned themselves with the extremely right wing and sectarian Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party, in order to pass legislation. While the pact between the two is not a formal alliance, it nonetheless undermines the notion that the British government is a “neutral and honest broker” in Northern Ireland.

 

May did not even mention the Irish border issue in her September talk, although the EU has made it clear that the subject must be resolved.

 

Talks between Britain and the EU are barely inching along, partly because the Conservatives are deeply divided, partly because the EU is not sure May can deliver or that the current government will last to the next general elections in 2022. With Labour on the ascendency, May reliant on an extremist party to stay in power, and countries like France licking their chops at poaching the financial institutions that currently work out of London, EU members are in no rush to settle things. May is playing a weak hand and Brussels knows it.

 

Eventually, the Labour Party will have to engage with Brexit more than it has, but Corbyn is probably correct in his estimate that the major specter haunting Europe today is not Britain’s exit but anger at growing inequality, increasing job insecurity, a housing crisis, and EU strictures that have turned economic strategy over to unelected bureaucrats and banks.

 

“The neoliberal agenda of the last four decades may have been good for the 1 percent,” says Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, “but not for the rest.” Those policies were bound to have “political consequences,” he says, and “that day is finally upon us.”

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

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