boy in front of soldier and separation wall Israel's apartheid wall. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As Israel enshrines apartheid into law and Jeremy Corbyn is labelled an antisemite, Shabbir Lakha assesses the situation 

The ongoing ‘antisemitism row’ in the Labour Party has finally boiled down to where some people have always wanted this debate to go – stifling criticism of Israel. The campaign to smear Jeremy Corbyn as an antisemite was about attacking Corbyn and the Palestine solidarity movement from the start. All the disingenuous claims made until now, the suspensions and expulsions of pro-Palestine Labour Party members, and the accompanying media barrage have come to the crux of the matter – forcing Labour to accept a definition of antisemitism that will stifle criticism of Israel.

In the last week, Margaret Hodge has called Jeremy Corbyn “a f****** antisemite and racist” (and repeatedly stood by her offensive remarks), Labour right MPs met soon after to vote indicatively for the NEC to adopt the full set of examples of the IHRA definition, and three pro-Israel Jewish newspapers in Britain ran a joint editorial claiming that a Corbyn government would pose an “existential threat” to Jewish life in the UK.

At the same time as this furore over here, the Israeli Knesset have passed a law explicitly stating that only Jewish people have the right to self-determination in Israel – a law straight out of apartheid South Africa. It’s also noteworthy that while Labour Right MPs over here were jumping on the airwaves to condemn the NEC and Jeremy Corbyn for this egregious transgression, Israel was bombarding the Gaza strip, killing at least 4 Palestinians.

Israel is a racist state

Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians marched in Israel against the new racist nation-state law. Even the Board of Deputies was forced to criticise the law. In light of this, it’s especially ridiculous that there are claims that Jeremy Corbyn is antisemitic for refusing to codify that calling Israel racist is antisemitic.

I say “especially” because this new law is a clear act of denying Palestinians their right to self determination and a blatant act of claiming racial superiority in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – but Israel didn’t start practising apartheid last week.

There are over 50 active laws in Israel, some being put into law as early as 1948, which discriminate between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis. Laws that refuse the right to return of Palestinians born there, that stop Jews and Arabs from marrying and limit the citizenship rights of Arab Israelis. When you add in the 3 million Palestinians living in Bantustans in the occupied West Bank where illegal settlers have full citizenship rights and Palestinians have none, locked in by an illegal wall and separated by “Jewish-only” roads and thousands of checkpoints; and the 2 million Palestinians living under a brutal siege in the Gaza strip where over 90% of the water is unfit for human consumption, you have undeniable apartheid.

It’s not just about comparisons to South Africa. Apartheid is defined in international law as a crime against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”. Israel fits the bill.

The fightback

It is the growing discourse of the apartheid nature of Israel that formed the basis of the BDS strategy. The boycott South Africa movement played a significant role in changing the international balance of political forces and ultimately in the end of the apartheid regime.

The Israeli government has pumped millions into hindering and stopping the growing BDS movement internationally and its main weapon of choice is branding any BDS activity as antisemitic. And that’s where the IHRA definition comes in. If apartheid is a racism, and calling Israel racist is antisemitic, then calling Israel an apartheid state is antisemitic, and engaging in BDS is antisemitic.

Indeed, the definition has already been cited in a number of situations as a reason for not divesting from companies supporting facilitating the oppression of Palestinians. In Britain, supporters of Israel have used the definition, which the government adopted, to lobby for the banning of Israeli Apartheid Week and to stop councils from divesting.

According to an article on Israel National News (Channel 7):

Using the IHRA definition it becomes clear that BDS activities are anti-Semitic as they are only applied against Israel. The same is true for various European Union labeling rules concerning the disputed ‘West Bank’ and the occupied Golan which are also only applied against Israel.

But genuine pro-Palestine activists have always called out antisemitism for the racism it is. This racism hinders the struggle for a democratic secular state in Palestine where Jews, Palestinians and others can find peace.

There is no doubt that if the NEC is forced into accepting the IHRA definition, Labour Party members will effectively be banned from speaking out against the crimes of the Israeli state or participating in the BDS movement and protests or face being suspended or expelled.

For the Labour right, this is a win-win situation, because even if the definition is not accepted, they plan to drag Corbyn through the mud for as long as possible, and potentially launch another coup off the back of it. In the meantime, the Tories can deflect from their growing crisis and their racist policies.

The left has got to do better in taking on this argument. It is a discredit to the actual fight against antisemitism, to the fight for freedom for Palestine and to removing this Tory government from office. And for too long, sections of the left, including those around the Labour leadership, have been defensive and treated this smear campaign as if there is legitimacy to the claims. There isn’t and it needs to be called out for what it is. We risk everything we’ve gained with the Corbyn project and all the achievements of the Palestine solidarity movement in the last two decades if we don’t.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.