Labour members should be free to criticise Israel

KEN LIVINGSTONE explains why his Labour membership should be restored this week.

TODAY, the Labour Party is considering whether to expel me or not, having suspended my membership 11 months ago in April 2016.

I have been charged with breaking the rules of the Labour Party, because I stand up and defend supporters of Palestinian human rights when they are smeared by their opponents.

Supporters of Israel’s policies, in particular, are calling on the Labour Party to expel me. They want to silence my, and others’, criticisms of the Israeli government’s violence against the Palestinians.

Prior to the May 2016 elections in Britain there were a number of damaging allegations made against the Labour Party and its leader.

The party was falsely accused of not tackling a serious problem of antisemitism. I vigorously defended my party and of course I respected its rules.

I implacably oppose anti-semitism. At this week’s Labour Party hearing I am not actually accused of that vile ideology, but that prejudice is what my opponents imply. They are smearing me because I stand up for the Palestinians and support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of my party.

Throughout my entire political career I have fought against racism and anti-semitism. I firmly believe that an ideology that starts by declaring one human being inferior to another is the slope whose end is at Auschwitz. I totally reject such views of Jews, Muslims, black people or any other group.

The contribution of Jewish people to human civilisation and culture parallels that of people from the world’s other great religions, and is extraordinary.

It includes such giants such as Einstein, Freud and Marx. Human civilisation would be unrecognisably diminished without these achievements.

As leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1980s and as London mayor in the 2000s, I ensured that London’s government resourced the fight against racism and anti-semitism.

When I was leader of the GLC, it funded a number of Jewish community organisations and as London mayor, I hosted and promoted events to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, hosted the Anne Frank exhibition and also the lighting of the Menorah ceremonies for the Hanukkah festival. I organised, in partnership with Jewish cultural organisations, a Jewish festival — the Simcha on the Square.

Now, I have been falsely accused of claiming that Hitler was a zionist — something I have never said, as it is evidently a ridiculous idea.

What my detractors and I really differ on is not anti-semitism, which I totally condemn, but the policies of successive Israeli governments.

Several thousand Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed by Israel’s military assaults on Gaza in 2008-9 and 2014, in attacks widely regarded as criminal. The brutality of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory continues to this day.

Making forceful criticisms of the policies of Israel is not at all the same thing as anti-semitism.

I believe that the Holocaust was the greatest racist crime of the 20th century. Applying the same universal human values to the Middle East today requires condemnation of the policies of successive Israeli governments — not on the absurd grounds that they are nazi or equivalent to the Holocaust, but because discrimination and terror are immoral.

Nazism and zionism are not at all equivalent. Zionism or the policies of Israeli governments are not analogous to nazism. Israeli governments have never had the aim of the systematic extermination of the Palestinian people, in the way nazism sought the annihilation of the Jews.

There is a gigantic difference between Israel’s ethnic cleansing and the nazis’ extermination policies.

Israel’s violent and expanding occupation has caused it to lose significant international support. So it wants supporters of the Palestinians to be silenced.

The Tories have come to Israel’s assistance and arranged for the British government to adopt an official “definition” of anti-semitism, the purpose of which is to restrict free speech on issues of Palestine and Israel.

Particular ways of criticising Israel and zionism, under this definition, it is suggested are anti-semitic, even if no hostility whatsoever is expressed towards Jews nor any hostile intention to Jews.

Supporters of human rights, including the Labour Party, ought to oppose such restrictions on freedom of expression. Huge struggles have taken place to win such freedom, so they should not just be given up, particularly when the purpose is to acquiesce to Israel’s predations.

The Labour Party needs to clearly distinguish between prejudice against Jews, which is totally unacceptable, and criticisms of Israeli aggression, on which freedom of expression should be respected.

For any definition of anti-semitism to be useful, it should at a minimum help Jewish people combat hostility to Jews. Professor David Feldman, the director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism, who was a vice-chair of Labour’s Chakrabarti Inquiry, has expressed scepticism that the Tories’ definition will help Jewish people. Hopefully the Labour Party will take on board his views.

The Tories, and other opponents of the Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn, falsely depict supporters of Palestinian rights as being anti-semitic.

I oppose these malicious attempts to discredit genuine opponents of anti-semitism. It damages the Labour Party when serious false allegations against it are not rebutted.

I have broken no Labour Party rule — as it is not against any rule to defend my party from malicious accusations.

In five weeks’ time there are important local elections in England, Scotland and Wales. The Labour Party’s apparatus should be entirely focused on winning seats on local councils.

Instead the right wing wants to generate headlines about antisemitism again this year.

If this week’s hearing of Labour’s National Constitutional Committee is fair-minded, and not rigged, it will simply dismiss the charge against me. A witch-hunt of supporters of Palestine is a damaging diversion, which sabotages Labour building up its electoral support.

The party needs to face outwards and promote its policy agenda that will make people better off.

That, not expelling party members, is how to win the election of a Labour government.

First published in the Morning Star