Labour antisemitism accusations: It’s legitimate to oppose Israel and pinkwashing

The cancelled rainbow plane to Tel Aviv Pride

The last few weeks has seen much discussion in the British media about the Labour Party and antisemitism. One issue which has been raised is whether it is anti-Semitic to criticise Israel. The Israeli Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, in an interview with the Washington Post last Wednesday, claimed that it was. She stated that “In the past, we saw European leaders speaking against the Jews. Now, we see them speaking against Israel. It is the same anti-Semitism…” Shaked’s claims referred in particular to the growing BDS – boycott, disinvestment and sanctions – movement against Israel, with which we in No to Pinkwashing stand in solidarity.

We reject the claim that it is inherently antisemitic to criticise Israel or support the Palestinian people. Recent news stories, less widely reported than the Labour Party controversy, support our position.

Criticism of Israel is legitimate

Last Wednesday Major General Yair Golan, the deputy head of the Israeli military, commented in a speech for Holocaust Memorial Day about Israeli society today. He stated that “if there is anything that frightens me in the remembrance of the Holocaust, it is discerning nauseating trends that took place in Europe in general, and in Germany specifically back then, 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and seeing evidence of them here among us in the year 2016.” He referred to an incident in April in which Israeli soldier Elor Azaria shot dead a Palestinian man, Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, as al-Sharif lay immobilised on his back on the ground. The incident was recorded on video, and Azaria has been charged with manslaughter.

Yair Golan
Yair Golan

The day after those charges were brought, thousands demonstrated at a Tel Aviv rally in Azaria’s support. The Jerusalem Post – a mainstream Israeli paper – reported that “the crowd was heavily right-wing” and was “singing hooligan chants calling for ‘death to the Arabs.’” The paper reported that “many of the signs also left little to the imagination, including one held aloft by a young woman that read simply ‘Kill Them All.’”

Golan later clarified that he was not making a comparison between present-day Israel and Nazi Germany. In fact, if you consider other parts of his speech, he wasn’t making such a suggestion. Instead, he was asking his audience to consider how the Zionist project – the construction of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East – can be morally justified. As he put it, Israelis must “ask ourselves what is the purpose of our return to our land, what is appropriate to sanctify and what is not, what is proper to praise and what is not.”

We don’t accept Golan’s assertion that Israel is “our land” or that the Israeli military typically behaves in an acceptable way. For example, a recent report highlights the fact that Israel prosecutes over 500 Palestinian children in military courts every year: this is illegal in international law, and Israel is the only country that uses its military like this. The Israeli military is part and parcel of the denial of Palestinian human rights and the confiscation of their land and resources. None the less, if even the deputy head of the Israeli military is alarmed by developments in Israeli society, and believes that it’s legitimate to discuss the ideas at the very core of the state of Israel, then it must be legitimate for us and other campaigners to do so.

Criticism of pinkwashing is legitimate

In mid-April a row erupted about Tel Aviv Pride. Israeli LGBT groups objected to government plans to spend over £2 million promoting the event – the proposals included an international competition, winners of which would be flown to Israel in a plane painted in rainbow colours. They pointed out that government spending on Israeli LGBTQ groups is much less, at less than £300,000 a year.

We have referred before to statements by LGBTQ Israelis, who assert that government claims that Israel is a “liberal paradise” are a “myth for overseas consumption.” The gap between that myth and reality has been particularly stark this last year. A marcher was murdered at Jerusalem Pride, an Israeli MP has referred to Jerusalem Pride as an “abomination parade” and the Israeli parliament has voted down no fewer than six pro-LGBTQ bills. It’s in that context that Israeli LGBTQ activist Netanel Azulay demanded that the LGBTQ community doesn’t “allow the government to use it and lie to everyone that LGBTQ people have it good here.”

This has a lot in common with the central argument we make against pinkwashing – that it’s a cynical PR strategy which seeks to legitimise the Israeli government through making false claims about its record on LGBTQ issues. But we have never shared the viewpoint of the many LGBTQ Israelis who oppose homophobia and transphobia while doing nothing to oppose racism in Israeli society or to support the struggle of the Palestinians. When Imri Kalman, co-Chair of the Agudah, the Israel National LGBT Task Force, stated regarding the Tel Aviv Pride row that “Israel is lagging behind other Western countries in terms of gay rights” we feel it reflects exactly that position. For all that Kalman is in Israeli terms a liberal, his identification of Israel as a “Western country” despite its location in the Middle East suggests an essentially colonial viewpoint.

We oppose all racism

Finally, as a group based in Britain we feel that No to Pinkwashing must comment on the recent claims that widespread antisemitism exists the Labour Party – a party of which some of us are members. We share the view of over eighty Jewish members and supporters of the Labour Party, who signed a letter to the Guardian which rejected the claim that antisemitism is “rife” in the party. They went on to comment that of the supposed examples cited in the media, many have been reported inaccurately, and in only a “tiny number” of cases does there seem to be a matter of actual antisemitism. Of course, these cases must be dealt with – but the issue of antisemitism, the letter’s authors asserted, was being used in a “cynical and manipulative way” as “part of a wider campaign against the Labour leadership” of Jeremy Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn

In March we made a statement condemning a tactic of supporters of Israel, that of smearing Palestine campaigners as antisemitic – even in the case of Sarah Schulman and those many other Palestine campaigners who are themselves Jewish. There can be no doubt that antisemitism exists throughout the world, and has grown in countries like Hungary, where 23 members of the antisemitic Jobbik party have seats in parliament. Opposing such antisemitism is made harder by the cynical accusations we have seen made in Britain, which seek to undermine Jeremy Corbyn, a principled supporter of Palestine, and to delegitimise any criticism of Israel.

As a group which opposes racism of any kind, we want to make one last point. One of the most shocking examples of racism in British politics in the last few weeks does not concern the Labour Party. We’re referring to the Islamophobic comments made by Conservatives against Sadiq Khan during his campaign to be elected Mayor of London. David Cameron suggested in parliament that Khan was linked to extremists. The Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith wrote a Daily Mail article which was even illustrated with a picture of the London bus bombed by terrorists in 2005. Not only does Khan, a politically moderate human rights lawyer, have no connection with such things, it’s also worth noting – since pinkwashing often draws on stereotypes of Muslims as typically homophobic – that he voted for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Britain. The Conservative campaign has, since Goldsmith’s defeat, been condemned by prominent Tories including London Assembly member Andrew Boff and former Tory co-Chair Sayeeda Warsi. But it’s striking that many of the politicians and media commentators who were so quick to repeat claims of widespread racism in Corbyn’s Labour Party have been far more muted on the issue of racism among Cameron’s Conservatives. This only reinforces our belief that the claims of antisemitism were, for the most part, not made in good faith, but were mobilised as part of a wider agenda. We remain committed to fighting pinkwashing, and the policies and practices of the Israeli government, as part of the broader, and growing, Palestinian movement.

We stand in solidarity with Palestine campaigners smeared as anti-Semites

Sarah Schulman

Supporters of Israel, and of armed intervention by Britain and the US in the Middle East, have taken to the tactic of attacking supporters of Palestine as “anti-Semitic”. We reject these baseless smears, and stand in solidarity with Palestine campaigners.

Sarah Schulman, pictured above, who spoke at a meeting we organised in the autumn of 2014, has faced such accusations from a group called the Zionist Organization of America. Today she attended a hearing at City University of New York (CUNY) where she is a professor.

She reports that “I was presented with a 14 page list of accusations…

“…they went after the student group to which I am the faculty advisor, Students for Justice in Palestine at the College of Staten Island. We systematically went through all of the accusations, ALL of which were fabricated or absurd. For example, SJP was accused of drawing swastikas on the walls of our college. However there is no record of such an incident ever taking place. There is no incident report of anyone ever doing such a thing at CSI, even the president of the college does not recall this ever happening.

“The letter was really a list of slanders against Muslim students. Over and over there were vague charges that ‘a Muslim student’ said something unpleasant to a Jewish student. But never was there any evidence that this composite Muslim student had anything to do with SJP. These students were never identified, and there were no details like dates.”

Sarah continues: “I detailed for the Task Force how the Zionists of America have been harassing me on twitter, sending 10-40 tweets a day to my publisher, reviewers, friends and colleagues calling me a “Terrorist”, how they sabotaged my Wikipedia page inserting a false claim that I went to Gaza as a ‘guest of Hamas’ (I have never been to Gaza and I have no contact with Hamas) and that they have been using the media to harass me because we hold different values.”

Bill Mullen
Bill Mullen

Professor Bill Mullen of Purdue University, an organiser with the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, has faced similar baseless allegations. No to Pinkwashing has agreed to sign the organisation’s statement in solidarity with him.

Similar accusations are being made in Britain. On Saturday, for example, Nick Cohen wrote an article in the Guardian claiming that “the Labour party is in danger of becoming as tainted as Ukip by the racists it attracts.” Jonathan Freedland, also in the Guardian, has written that “Labour and the left have an anti-Semitism problem”. A series of letters from Jewish readers published on Monday challenges this claim. It seems clear that Cohen, Freedland et al are concerned to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party because they disagree both with his support for Palestine and his politics in general.

No to Pinkwashing condemns all racism, including anti-Semitism. But we are clear that condemnation of Israel and anti-Semitism are two quite different things. Indeed it’s because of our opposition to racism that we continue to oppose the apartheid of the Israeli state, and its attempts to cover up that apartheid through pinkwashing.

The current Israeli government – a track record of homophobia

The Israeli election in March led to the formation of a coalition government, which is the norm in Israeli politics. Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party now governs with others even further right, including Jewish Home (in Hebrew, Habayit Hayehudi) and Shas. It was a Shas member, mayor of Beit Shemesh, who announced two years ago that there were no LGBT people in his city. A recent article in the Israeli press sums up the record of Jewish Home and Shas on LGBT issues (see Haaretz, registration required). None of these people seem to have heard of the tolerant, LGBT-friendly Israel fans of pinkwashing tell us about.

  • Israeli lawmaker organised an anti-gay parade called the “March of the Beasts”
    With barely five months under his belt in the Knesset, Betzalel Smotrich, a member of Habayit Hayehudi, holds the dubious distinction of being the most openly homophobic lawmaker in Israel. Long before launching his parliamentary career, Smotrich famously organized an anti-gay parade known as the “March of the Beasts.” He has since voiced regrets, but, at a debate before the last election, Smotrich still referred to members of the LGBT community as “abnormal.” “Every person has the right to be abnormal at home,” he said, “but he can’t ask of me as a state to see the idea as normal.” A day after the stabbings at last week’s Pride parade in Jerusalem, Smotrich had no qualms about referring to the event as the “abomination march.” In a Facebook post, he wrote: “So here I say it again fearlessly: I object vehemently to violence, and promise to object no less vehemently to the recognition of same-sex couples in the Jewish state. I promise to fight violence, and no less than that, I will fight any attempt to besmirch traditional Jewish family values.”
  • “Don’t let homosexuals join the army”
    Three years ago, MK Uri Ariel, who represents Habayit Hayehudi and now serves as agriculture minister, urged the Israel Defense Forces not to recruit homosexuals. “If I were the decision maker, I wouldn’t enlist homosexuals into the IDF, because some things interfere with the military’s ability to fight,” he told the Knesset Channel. “We must conduct ourselves in accordance with Jewish law. The Torah forbids homosexuality and demands that those who behave in such a manner be punished,” he added.
  • Stop earthquakes by preventing sodomy
    Shlomo Benizri, a former government minister and member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, once drew a link between earthquakes and homosexuality. During a Knesset debate on earthquake preparedness back in 2008, he said: “I suggest that the Knesset inquire into how it can prevent sodomy and thus save us a lot of earthquakes.”

Jerusalem Pride: the reality behind pinkwashing PR

The attack on Jerusalem Gay Pride on Thursday was horrifying enough in itself. Six people were stabbed and two of them seriously injured. Marchers spoke about continuing the event walking on a road stained with blood and littered with medical equipment.

But the incident also shines a spotlight on Israeli society. Several hours after the attack, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated that “In Israel, everyone has the right to live in peace.” And yet, only hours after that, Jewish settlers on the West Bank attacked the homes of two Palestinian families in the village of Duma. Saad and Reham Dawabsha were taken to hospital with their son Ahmad, aged 4, while their eighteen-month-old son Ali Saad Dawabsha burned to death.

Settlements are Israeli cities, towns and villages built in territory Israel seized in the 1967 war. They are illegal in international law. Their purpose is to colonise these areas so that they become a permanent part of Israel. Netanyahu talks of peace, but on Wednesday 29 July he authorised the building of 300 more settlement buildings. On Thursday 30 July, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely pledged that the Israeli government would support the building of more illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and stated that “the enemy is anyone who wants to uproot Jewish settlement.”

The population of the settlements is now over 750,000 people: they occupy about 50% of the land of the West Bank as well as part of East Jerusalem. They are joined by roads for use by Jewish Israelis only and use a disproportionate amount of scarce water. Israeli settlers have carried out at least 120 attacks on Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank since the start of 2015. They are the sharp end of Israel’s strategy in the region, and they make the racist and colonial nature of that strategy clear – as former Prime Minister Ehud Barack did when he called Israel “a villa in the jungle.”

The violence associated with the settlements is also linked to the attack on Jerusalem Pride. Yishai Schlissel, believed to have carried out the attack, is a settler. He comes from Modi’in Illit, a city now of over 50,000 people, first established in 1994 on land taken from five destroyed Palestinian villages. Remarkably, this is not the first homophobic attack he has carried out. In 2005 he stabbed three people at Jerusalem Pride and was imprisoned for 12 years. He was released 3 weeks ago – and has not been stopped from carrying out a repeat attack.

The attack on the Pride clearly exposes the lies at the basis of “pinkwashing” – the Israeli government’s claim that it heads a modern, democratic state exemplified by acceptance of LGBT people. Millions of dollars have been spent advertising Tel Aviv as a tourist destination, adverts aimed in particular at affluent gay men. But photos of good-looking men on the beach can’t divert everyone’s attention from the reality – such as Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer, which killed over 2,000 people, over 500 of them children. In fact, Israel is founded on violence and dispossession of Palestinians – including LGBT Palestinians – a process which continues today with the Israeli government’s endorsement of the settlements. The colonial nature of Israel means that it is not a “safe haven” for anyone – not indeed for Jews, including, as we saw on Thursday, LGBT Jews.

We hope that the events of the last few days will lead people to find out more about the conflict in Palestine, and to their becoming involved in the struggle for justice for the Palestinian people. These events show that a cynical public relations ploy like pinkwashing has nothing to contribute to that struggle.