Fighting antisemitism should not mean silencing the Palestinian struggle

Fighting antisemitism should not mean silencing the Palestinian struggle
Comment: If criticising Israel is antisemitic, how are Palestinians expected to articulate their struggle? asks Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
17 Aug, 2018
Many Palestinians emphasise the right to define their oppression [Getty]
In his famous and oft-quoted book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell famously wrote, "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past".

This sentence captures the essence of much of the debate and conflict surrounding the Palestinian people and their demand for freedom and return. The questions which surround the creation of the state of Israel and its expulsions of Palestinians, must be addressed in order to achieve liberation for a people who have been denied a homeland for over 70 years.

If these claims can seem obvious, they represent what is at stake in the current furore that surrounds the adoption by the Labour Party of the examples that accompany the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

The Party has adopted the definition in its code of conduct but has declined to incorporate all of its examples, including, most controversially, those which state that it is antisemitic to describe Israel as a racist endeavour. The definition has raised many concerns.

Professor David Feldman who heads up the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, has described it as "bewilderingly imprecise", and warned that "the Home Affairs Committee advised that the definition required qualification "'To ensure that freedom of speech is maintained in the context of discourse on Israel and Palestine'. It was ignored."

Over 40 Jewish groups across the world also recently published a statement that rejected the IHRA definition on similar grounds, stating that it:

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"is worded in such a way as to equate legitimate criticisms of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights with antisemitism, as a means to suppress the former. This conflation undermines both the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality and the global struggle against antisemitism."

Many Palestinians have likewise restated their right to define their oppression, and describe the state that has enforced it as racist, without being accused of committing a hate crime against the Jewish people. A recent letter by Palestinian public figures in the UK stated:

"Any use by public bodies of the IHRA examples on antisemitism that either inhibits discussion relating to our dispossession by ethnic cleansing when Israel was established, or attempts to silence public discussions on current or past practices of settler colonialism, apartheid, racism and discrimination, and the ongoing violent military occupation, directly contravenes core rights."

Indeed, it is difficult to see how the current push to equate an understanding of Palestinian dispossession and structural oppression with racism and antisemitism, could allow Palestinians to continue to articulate their struggle for basic rights.

This debate is not new. From 1975 to 1991, even the United Nations considered Zionism as a form of 'racism and racial discrimination', under resolution 3379. This was later revoked when Israel, supported by the US, demanded it be dropped as a precondition to taking part in the international peace talks in Madrid. Orwell's quote comes to mind once more - the past, the present, the future.

It is important to remember the past and some basic facts, in order to grasp what the debate is actually about.

The Israeli state, founded in 1948, was built on the expulsion of around 700,000 Palestinians and the destruction of at least 400 villages. These refugees have since been denied the basic right - protected under international law - to return, as have their descendants. These so-called absentees were dispossessed and their lands confiscated.

Those Palestinians who remained within the new state were placed under military rule until the mid-1960s and denied the right to move freely on their lands. Palestinian citizens of Israel today continue to be subjected to over 65 discriminatory laws that target them specifically, the full list of which is available here.

In 1967, Israel militarily occupied the West Bank, Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as the Sinai desert which was later returned to Egypt. It placed Palestinians there under military rule, created another 300,000 refugees, launched a wide settlement plan that continues to this day, and unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem. Since 2007, Gaza has been under a deadly blockade.

This conflation undermines both the Palestinian struggle for freedom and the global struggle against antisemitism

All the while, over five million internationally recognised Palestinian refugees are stuck in refugee camps across the region and continue to be denied the right to return home for no other reason than their Palestinian identity. This is to say nothing of the regular and all too familiar, military assaults on Palestinians. The names of the massacres are known across the world: Deir Yassin, Khan Younis, Sabra and Shatila, Jenin, Shuja'iyya, to name a few.

How, then, can Palestinians across the UK articulate their struggle for basic rights without being allowed to describe their oppressor in accurate terms?

In fact this debate is not new. From 1975 to 1991, even the United Nations considered Zionism as a form of 'racism and racial discrimination', under resolution 3379. It was later revoked when Israel, supported by the US, demanded it be dropped as a precondition to take part in the international peace talks in Madrid. Orwell's quote comes to mind once more – the past, the present, the future.

Yet, despite the obvious merits of the principled position taken inside the Labour Party to protect the right of Palestinians to describe their oppression, while also refusing to equate Jewish people in the UK with the structural oppression meted out by the Israeli state, it appears that weeks of relentless assaults on Jeremy Corbyn are now bearing fruit.

Reports that the original decision will be reversed and that the IHRA definition will be adopted in full are multiplying, as are the sections within the Labour movement breaking rank. The GMB, UNISON, and USLAW have all called for Labour to adopt the full definition, and despite public reservation, so has Len McClusky of Unite. Jon Lansman of Momentum, a supposed close ally of Corbyn, has done the same.

As well as a very public reminder to all those from Global South communities of how easily international solidarity can be cast aside within the labour movement, this growing rupture also points towards a broader issue in the current British political landscape: The weakness of social movements and the grassroots.

While Palestinian solidarity on the one hand, and progressive politics inside Labour on the other, have made important strides forward, the inability of these movements to mobilise support the Labour leadership is a painful indictment of our collective weakness.

It is also a striking reminder to all those who wish to see a progressive Labour government, whether in the Party or not, that without building a powerful grassroots movement, electoral gains will not be enough.

If we want a labour movement that is capable of fighting racism in all its forms, that understands international solidarity as a basic and non-negotiable aspect of any serious progressive project, and that is committed to transforming the lives of the many for the better, we need to build it now.

That kind of politics can only be made a reality through campaigns, demonstrations and strikes. A progressive prime minister can help bolster them, but will be defeated without them.

It's our role, whether inside Labour or not, to build them, or see the current opportunity lost. Once more, the Palestinian people have been made our litmus test. Let us not fail them again.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff