Starmer’s Peake performance: lame not brave.

Posted on June 27, 2020

starmer takes a knee

Sir Kier takes a knee.

Here’s one I hear often: ‘Why are you people (that’s the term usually used) so insistent on holding Israel to higher account than other regimes?’ The ‘you people’ are left-wing activists and I include myself in their number. It might even be a half-decent argument, but it suffers from one significant deficiency. It’s not true.

A great many people work tirelessly to bring injustices around the world to the attention of those who may not be aware of them. Many of them are in the Labour Party or a plethora of left-leaning or charitable groups. Some operate in faith-based circles and many cross-fertilise their activities with the big issues of climate change and anti-racism. The most cursory of researches on social media will reveal campaigns calling out atrocity and inequality from Kashmir to the Rohingyas in Myanmar to the Uighurs in China. Support – real, practical support – for refugees from oppressive regimes is central to the outlook of practically all ‘these people’. For the avoidance of doubt, none that I have met have held any illusions about communist Russia or China for at least the last forty years.

And now I’ll try to be as clear and careful as possible. There is no Zionist Conspiracy. Jewish bankers do not run the world. There are, though, many Jewish people exercising a degree of influence in large parts of public life from the arts to politics to business in the UK and many of them – but, crucially, by no means all – feel affronted by criticism of Israel and its actions. I’ll surprise you: I know how they feel.

Followers of this blog will have heard most of this before and so can skip on if they wish. In many ways I, too, have become weary of having to trot out this defensive rejoinder, but needs must…..

….I was brought up in a household that sported a collecting tin for the State of Israel on the kitchen shelf. My grandparents had escaped the Russian pogroms at the start of last century and my father escaped the Nazis in Vienna by the skin of his teeth. I went to a Jewish primary school in Balsall Heath in Birmingham where it was not unknown to trade punches with the yid-haters from Hope Street School on the way home. As one of a handful of Jewish boys in a large grammar school I learnt quickly to stand my ground verbally and physically. I know what antisemitism looks like, thanks.

Coming from such a background, it was inevitable that I was proud of Israel and all that it accomplished in the face of adversity and historical injustice. An insult to the country was an insult to Jews. Simple.

And then I got interested in politics. A school project. Readers of a certain age will remember them. As a seasoned teacher, I think of them as the FOFO method – the second FO standing for ‘find out’. Go away and get interested in current affairs. For reasons I can’t recall, I chose apartheid and I haven’t looked back since. I was incensed, as only a self-regarding 14-year-old can be, by such injustice and inhumanity. During the half century of finding out that followed, my reading, study and activism revealed that imperialism, oppression and the subjugation of people in their homelands were stitched into the fabric of the abuse of power throughout the world. To my anger and disappointment, I realised that the Israeli state was up there with some of the major culprits.

Even making such a comment has become provocatively beyond the pale. We have reached the point in our political discourse about Israel’s actions where critical comment can be shut down by the instant accusation of anti-Semitic intent. Quite why this happens is dealt with in this article written prior to the general election and this slightly older piece which has been read over 15,000 times. If you can’t be bothered to follow the links, here’s the very potted version: faced with the prospect of a left-leaning government sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the Tories and the right-wing of the Labour Party found the effective, if  volatile, instrument of rash accusations of racism and antisemitism to be flung at their political foes. Argument closed; debate stifled.

All of which brings us to this week’s ugly chest-thumping from the leader of the Labour Party. A leading actress and high-profile Labour supporter is interviewed by a newspaper and suggests, incorrectly, that the technique used to execute George Floyd was learnt by the US police from the Israeli security forces. Just to be clear, the knee restraint is a technique used by these forces, as it is by their counterparts around the world. Nevertheless, the accusation that it was specifically learnt from Israel is untrue. The newspaper made that immediately clear in a prominent footnote and the actress herself apologised for her error. In the meantime, a shadow-cabinet member takes to Twitter (heaven help us all) to utter some gushing praise for the committed, if slightly careless, actress.

Her summary sacking elicits praise from every quarter. In a week when the Tories and their chums show that they still think it’s OK to tickle each other’s business prospects under the dinner table, this, we are told, is what decisive leadership looks like. What’s that you say? The individual concerned has impeccable credentials as a campaigner for social justice and is a committed anti-racist? I think you’ll find that it’s unwise for any new leader, desperate to make his mark, to pass up the opportunity of such a grand, masterful gesture.

Starmer’s actions have the intent, and possibly the effect, of closing down any discussion about the actions of the State of Israel within the Labour Party. In a telling current development, the Party is working vigorously to oppose the government’s ill-judged intention to shut down the Department for International Development. At its best, the Labour Party looks to address injustice, inequality and oppression throughout the world. It is a party with its roots (albeit forgotten by some) in collective action and representation. These traditions dictate that it should refuse to be silent in the face of injustice and inequality. Why hold anyone to lower, or higher, account?


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