The cancelled rainbow plane to Tel Aviv Pride

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

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.