Joyce McMillan: Neither side is right in Labour antisemitism row

Labours anti-Semitism row is seen by some as being more about infighting over Jeremy Corbyns leadership. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Labours anti-Semitism row is seen by some as being more about infighting over Jeremy Corbyns leadership. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
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BOTH sides of the debate on ‘Labour antisemitism’ have a point, but too much hot air masks the truth, writes Joyce McMillan

It was back in 2004 that I first heard the name of the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh. The playwright David Greig – who this week announced his first programme as new artistic director of the Lyceum Theatre – had made a stage adaptation of Shehadeh’s beautiful short book When The Bulbul Stopped Singing, a fine meditative diary of his experience during 2002, when Israeli tanks rolled into his hometown of Ramallah, in the West Bank, in response to the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada.

READ MORE: Dani Garavelli: Growing antisemitism in Scotland

And through that play, I first began to learn about Shehadeh, as a man whose life embodies the same kind of complexity and surprise that we find in any individual story, truly told. He is a Palestinian but not a Muslim, since his family were Christians; he is a passionate opponent of the Israeli occupation who is also an internationally recognised peace activist, an expert in human rights law, and a strong critic of the Palestinian authority’s record both on human rights, and on the mythologising of violence. He lives in Ramallah, but studied law in London, and has close links to Edinburgh; he believes in an absolute boycott of any organisation or individual supported by the Israeli state. And his great, unexpected passion is for the land and physical environment of his beautiful, war-shattered homeland; his book Palestinian Walks: Notes From A Vanishing Landscape, published in 2007, provides a powerful insight into that aspect of his life and thought.

And I often think of Raja Shehadeh, and his story, whenever I encounter the extraordinary, strident certainties with which many people in the west approach the Middle East conflict, and which have characterised this week’s row over alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party. To judge by some headlines this week, the case against the Labour Party is an open-and-shut one; during the post-war period, runs the argument, the left – in sympathising ever more strongly with the Palestinian cause – has clambered into bed with organisations which preach hatred and violence not only against the Israeli government but against Jews as Jews, while recycling the vilest kind of antisemitic propaganda.

On the other side, meanwhile, the situation is perceived as equally simple. Labour, the left argues, has less of a problem with anti-Semitism and racism than any other major party; but is being subjected to a barrage of negative propaganda, in the week before important elections, by disgruntled Blairites in the parliamentary party who would stop at very little to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s position as Labour leader. In this world-view, those who equate opposition to Israeli policy with anti-Semitism are indulging in distraction tactics at best, or – at worst – trying to silence justified criticism of a state in massive breach of international law.

And the problem with these two positions is that almost everything said on both sides is to some extent true. Given their primary interest in economic disadvantage, many on the left have indeed long since given up even thinking of Jewish people in Britain as a group that need support, defence, or efforts at inclusion; an omission that is both dangerous and sloppy, in its assumption that old prejudices cannot revive, and seriously blight lives.

On the other hand, it is absolutely clear that those on the right of British politics have no record of opposition to racism and prejudice, in all its forms, that remotely matches that of the Labour movement; so that today, the vast majority of Labour supporters still have no truck with the overtones of racism in the Tories’ London mayoral campaign, or in Boris Johnson’s breathtakingly arrogant remarks, last week, about Barack Obama’s supposed “ancestral dislike” of Britain.

In trying to respond to this debate without inflicting hurt or adopting false certainties, responsible British citizens who are not Jewish, or Muslim, or closely linked to the Middle East, can therefore only try to follow a few hard-won rules, hammered out by history. The first is surely that racism and bigotry are indivisible, and must be opposed across the board. The left are without moral authority as campaigners against racism if they fail to stand up to anti-Jewish hate speech, wherever it arises. And Blairites in the Labour Party would certainly be much more credible as opponents of anti-Semitism if they expended as much indignation on the ignorant Islamophobia that has become part of the common coin of European politics, during the present refugee crisis. As it is, in using this vital issue as a pawn in their ongoing campaign against the Corbyn leadership, they risk strengthening the hand of those extremists who claim that anti-Semitism is nothing but a myth, rolled out by right-wingers as and when it suits them.

Secondly, it is clear that in the end – in the resolution of any conflict – communities have to deal with their own extremists, or with extremists who claim to represent them; solutions imposed from outside have little authority, and no staying-power. If Israel’s savage oppression of the Palestinian territories is ever to end in peace, it will have to be ended by Israelis, who understand in their own hearts and histories the pressures that have led Israel to this place, and who want to embark on a different path. If the scourge of violence unleashed by groups like so-called Islamic State is to be defeated, it will be defeated by other Muslims; not by westerners lecturing the Muslim world on how to run its affairs, or seeking to bomb their way to a solution.

In the short to medium term, the West therefore needs to do three things: it needs to talk less, listen more, and radically reduce its own vested interest in selling ever more devastating armaments to the wealthiest powers in the region. If we do that, we will be improving greatly on our recent abysmal performance in promoting peace in the world’s most bitter and resonant conflict. Or as Raja Shehadeh says in When The Bulbul Stopped Singing, of his feelings back in 2002: “My situation, I thought, was representative of Palestinian politics in general. Everyone felt they knew what was good for me; but no-one ever thought of asking.”