Jahangir Mohammed, of the Centre for Muslim Affairs, says in the light of Jeremy Corbyn’s election defeat and the silencing of pro-Palestine voices within the Labour Party, it’s time for Muslims to rethink their membership and support for Labour.
The defeat of the Labour Party at the last General Election resulting from its Brexit position and demonisation as a “hotbed of anti-Semitism,” has raised a key question for the Labour movement as a whole. What will its future relationship be with Political Zionism, the State of Israel, its proponents/activists in the UK and the Muslim community?
All candidates for leader have signed up to 10 new pledges on “anti-Semitism,” while the party has already adopted the non-legal IHRA definition of anti-Semitism promoted by the Israel lobby. This effectively means that all but the weakest form of Palestinian activism will be banned inside Labour.
We must admit that there are undoubtedly prejudiced and stereotypical views of Jews among a segment of Labour members, just as there are of other racial and religious groups. And there are also deep-seated historical prejudices and stereotypes among segments of the Jewish community about Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims and Islam.
In fact, some Jewish individuals and groups are even active partners in the Islamophobia industry and engage in the demonisation of Muslims. Clearly there is also an underlying tension within the wider Labour movement and the Left in its position on Zionism and Israel.
Jeremy Corbyn was unique, as the first Labour Leader in its history with strong sympathies towards the Palestinian struggle.
With Corbyn, many younger people entered the party who shared his views and were not tied to Labour’s past relationship with Zionism. This led supporters of Israel inside and outside the party to fear that this would fundamentally change a pro-Israel party to one with sympathies for the Palestinian cause.
For that reason, Corbyn and his supporters have faced one of the most vicious demonisation campaigns in UK political history.
It was predicted by many that the IHRA definition would be used against members who expressed sympathy for Palestine or criticised Israel. This came to pass. And the adoption of the 10 pledges proposed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews by all party leaders will go further and lead to a culling of anyone who dissents from the narrative and views of pro-Israeli propaganda on Israel or Palestine.
Labour and Zionism
Labour’s embrace of Zionism is rooted in a shared history of workers’ movements and the emergence of socialism in the UK. This preceded even the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
Jewish immigrant workers from Eastern Europe had established many trade unions of their own which became a point of relationship with wider civil society. In the absence of a Muslim or Arab presence in Europe, the emerging Zionist movement had an easy task of persuading others of their cause and claim to Palestine.
The modern birth of the political Zionist movement started in earnest in 1896 with Theodor Herzl’s publication of Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). Leaders of the Zionist movement sought to persuade others of their goals. Many also began synthesising their secular socialist beliefs with Zionism, resulting in the emergence of groups like Paole Zion, the international Jewish Socialist Group.
The English branch of Paole Zion (the Workers of Zion) and Jewish trade unionist Moses Sclare were central to the Labour movement’s embrace of Zionism. And resolutions were moved at the Trades Union Congress in 1915 and 1916 on the civil and political rights of the Jewish people.
Then three months before the Balfour Declaration in 1917 the Labour Party published their War Aims Memorandum, which effectively adopted the Zionists’ goals in its section on Jews and Palestine.
“The British Labour Movement demands for the Jews in all countries the same elementary rights of tolerance, freedom of residence and trade, and equal citizenship that ought to be extended to all the inhabitants of every nation. It furthermore, expresses the opinion that Palestine should be set free from the harsh and oppressive government of the Turk, in order that the country may form a Free State, under international guarantee, to which such of the Jewish People as desired to do so may return, and may work out their salvation free from interference by those of alien race or religion.”
Labour Peace Aims, The Times, 11 August 1917.
So the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was a victory for the Zionists who had managed to persuade both the Labour movement and Conservatives of their ambition to create a Jewish State in Palestine.
For the Labour Movement, Zionism was seen as a secular socialist ally in the Middle East and a civilising mission against backward Turks and Arabs. Subsequent relations with the Israel and the Israeli Labour Party cemented that relationship in romantic terms with Israeli Kibbutz being seen as a socialist model to develop a collective form of economic development.
Some in Labour even spent time volunteering on such Kibbutzim.
Palestine, British Muslims and the rise of the new Left
But from the 1990s it became clear to many on the Left that Israel was never going to become the socialist utopia they envisioned; instead it was now a partner of the capitalist and imperialist United States, just as some Arab states were.
This also coincided in the UK with Muslim and Arab support for the Palestine cause and their engagement with Labour. Expressions of anti- Semitism at a political level appeared to be at an all-time low, but the narrative and relationship on both sides began to shift.
Pro-Israel activists/thinkers (Jewish and non-Jewish) in anticipation of this shift feared that a pro-Palestinian discourse was entering into the political mainstream, with populist politicians like George Galloway eventually playing a prominent role.
In response they began to develop the “New anti-Semitism” thesis. To de-legitimise the support for the Palestine cause as one rooted in a historical struggle against oppression and for nationhood, this polemic portrayed it as a struggle rooted in anti-Semitic hatred of Jews and Israel by Arabs and Muslims.
The thesis pins the rise of a new anti-Semitism on Muslims as allies and influencers of the Left, and at a public policy level smears them as not just anti-Semitic but also as “extremist.”
This shift stepped up and appeared in the media and literature around 2005/2006. The narrative can now be found in many official so-called counter “extremism” publications.
Where next for Labour and Muslims?
The Labour Party / Zionism / Anti-semitism rift is like a bad marriage turned toxic, which will continue for the next decade and may lead to separation.
For now an effective voice for the Palestinian cause inside the Labour Party has been silenced. And British Muslims for whom the Palestinian struggle is a religious cause cannot affect the outcome of that shift from inside the Labour Party.
There are those who say it is better to stay in the party and fight. However, this is a flawed logic – a just struggle needs a strong voice, an alternative narrative and activism, acts of resistance and disobedience, not fear of speaking out and silence.
If you are too afraid to speak out for risk of your career or being investigated for anti-Semitism, you will never change much. Moreover, you cannot influence the Palestinian cause by accepting the terms of the debate of the oppressors. No one has managed to create a support base for Palestine from inside the Labour Party, not even Jeremy Corbyn.
The Labour Party has always supported Zionism and Israel. Trying to change that from within is like trying to end apartheid in South Africa by joining a pro-apartheid Party. It is the same for Muslims on many other issues; for example the struggle to unravel and oppose Prevent has not taken place inside the Labour Party.
The fact is that the Labour Party claims to be party of justice and racial equality, yet supports a state based on settler colonialism with a political ideology of racial supremacy, discrimination and injustice.
The Muslim narrative on the state of Israel cannot be drawn from the Left or Right of politics. It must be drawn and expressed from the Quran and Islam. We cannot support oppression in Palestine – a holy land for Muslims, as it is for others.
Although secular, the Zionist movement lays an exclusive claim to Palestine based on an alleged promise by Allah to a historic Jewish community. That Allah would promise land to a racial group on the basis of race is a lie against Him, and we are duty bound to defend Him from a false claim.
Islam is also against racism and racial supremacy/oppression, and it is unIslamic for any Muslim to support it. How then can Muslims remain in a party which accepts this narrative? So it is time for Muslims to rethink their membership and support for the Labour Party.
The Muslim community can only play an effective role on the Palestine issue, and many others, by creating strong community leadership and social/political institutions outside of the political mainstream, and by developing an activism based on resistance to wrongdoing and injustice, as defined by the Quran.
As far as Palestine and Israel is concerned, we need to create a movement against injustice in wider society as effective as the anti-apartheid struggle, not restricted to the Left and Labour movement.
Supporters of Israel would not provide any platform to any Muslim or others who differ from their narrative on Israel/Palestine, and many are active partners in Israel’s political propaganda and warfare against Muslims.
So it is high time that Muslims reciprocated by refusing to share platforms or provide access to Muslim community institutions, or interfaith with, anyone who supports the “extremist” ideology and policies of political Israeli Zionism. This should include politicians.
As for the Labour Party, it must overcome its own toxic marriage to Zionism and Israel. And it may well be destroyed in the fall-out before it can re-emerge as a political force.