Saturday, 18 July 2020

Would Sir Keir Starmer have Suspended Someone like Nelson Mandela?

It has been suggested on social media that if Nelson Mandela were alive today and a member of UK Labour, his comments on Israel and Palestine would get him suspended. I would like to look at this claim, not to upset people or race bait or divide, but to explore attitudes towards racism and see if we are sometimes guilty of double standards.

Racism, whether that be the apartheid in South Africa or the monstrous antisemitism which led to the holocaust, is one of the great evils of this world. Given that we are exploring such an emotive topic, it is no wonder we sometimes get it wrong.

Recently Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked from the shadow cabinet for sharing an interview with actress Maxine Peake which allegedly contained an "antisemitic conspiracy theory". This was the suggestion that US cops learned a neck-kneeling restraint from Israeli special forces. If Long-Bailey had made those comments directly, rather than simply sharing the article on Twitter, her punishment would likely have been more severe.

I have heard the argument Long-Bailey's suspension was justified because Peake suggested George Floyd's killers were taught this technique by Israel and this claim is false, therefore making it an antisemitic conspiracy theory.

But was this really the intention of either Long-Bailey or Peake? Were either thinking Jews were collectively responsible for George Floyd's murder? Or that Jews are responsible for much of the evil in the world? Or that the Israeli special forces are representative of the Jewish people? Because when we are talking of antisemitic conspiracy theory, that is what we are implying.

Peake's comments contained partial truths such as the fact US cops are sometimes trained by Israel. One recent article suggested images from an Israeli website showed these techniques being taught to US cops and another article reported Israel held a seminar for the Minneapolis Police Department in 2012.

While I cannot say how much influence anyone from Israel had on George Floyd's killers, if any at all, I do not think it's reasonable to call someone antisemitic for joining up the dots and making an admittedly clumsy comment. It was the type of mistake in which an apology and clarification is sufficient without need for accusations of racism.

There have been many reported cases in which Labour MPs, councillors and ordinary members have been accused of antisemitism and removed from the party for similar mistakes. The term "antisemitic conspiracy theory" is a justification often used.

This got me thinking of Nelson Mandela's scathing criticisms of Israel and whether any would have led to his suspension from the Labour Party. In all honesty, I believe an ordinary Labour member repeating these words would likely face disciplinary action and possibly expulsion. Would this be reasonable action or an unreasonable attack on freedom of speech? Let's take a closer look:

Mandela suggested Israel was a terrorist state slaughtering defenceless people and that Israel is treated differently by the international community because its inhabitants are white.

“If one has to refer to any of the parties as a terrorist state, one might refer to the Israeli government, because they are the people who are slaughtering defenceless and innocent Arabs in the occupied territories, and we don’t regard that as acceptable.”

"What we know is that Israel has weapons of mass destruction. Nobody talks about that. Why should there be one standard for one country, especially because it is black, and another one for another country, Israel, that is white."

Mandela suggested the USA should confiscate Israel's weapons of mass destruction and expressed solidarity with the PLO. Would such comments be considered support for terrorism?

"Why are they [the USA] not seeking to confiscate weapons of mass destruction from their ally Israel?"

"We identify with the PLO because just like ourselves they are fighting for the right of self-determination."

"Arafat is a comrade in arms, and we treat him as such."

Mandela suggested the fight against South African apartheid is part of the same struggle the Palestinians are facing. Suggesting Israel is an apartheid state is considered somewhat taboo and could possibly land you in hot water.

"We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians."

And Mandela expressed support for violence against oppressors but only as a last resort. Imagine a Labour MP making such comments in defence of the Palestinians.

"Choose peace rather than confrontation. Except in cases where we cannot get, where we cannot proceed, or we cannot move forward. Then if the only alternative is violence, we will use violence."

After the death of Yasser Arafat on 11th November 2004, Mandela paid tribute to the Palestinian leader who he hailed as an "icon".

"He was an icon in the proper sense of the word. He was not only concerned with the liberation of the Arab people but of all the oppressed people throughout the world - Arabs and non-Arabs - and to lose a man of that stature and thinking is a great blow to all those who are fighting against oppression."

The point of this article is certainly not to upset people on either side and absolutely not to attack Nelson Mandela who I see as a heroic figure, but to highlight the importance of nuance, to remind people that when we are screaming "Racist!" we can be guilty of applying double standards.

I personally agree with some of Mandela's comments and disagree with others, but I would not dare suggest the man was racist because his intentions were clearly the opposite. Also I want Jews to enjoy freedom and safety just as much as I want Palestinians to enjoy freedom and safety. Whatever criticisms I have made of Israel do not deflect from the fact I am on their side too. This may seem like a contradiction but I do not see things in binary terms.

Criticism of Israel is so often referred to as antisemitic conspiracy theory or an attack on the right of Jewish settlers to live freely and peacefully. Antisemitism is unquestionably one of the great evils of this world but so too is anti-Palestinian racism, and sometimes when Labour centrists demand zero tolerance on antisemitism, they risk going too far the other way.

The Israel/Palestine issue is a sensitive matter and one must strike a fine balance. Accusing one person of antisemitism when their intentions are to defend Palestinians is no more constructive than calling someone else racist for wanting to defend Jews. We should be on the side of Jews and Palestinians, but we should equally be free to criticise either side of this conflict without fear. And I am not even trying to offer a "both sides are to blame" argument here. I am simply defending free speech and the right to disagree.

If a person is free to criticise Hamas or Hezbollah, they should equally be free to criticise Likud or Mossad without being wrongly accused of racism. And this is important - you can be impolite or even wrong in your criticism and still not be racist. Tone policing and telling people they can only be considered not racist, if their comments are 100% accurate and meet your approval is not a constructive way to pursue dialogue.

Of course, we should strive to be sensitive when discussing issues like racism, but we should also remember people's emotions can get in the way of their message. Do we want to understand or misunderstand?

People should always be completely unafraid to highlight crimes against humanity or historical facts. Just because you don't like someone's words, does not mean the person is wrong, and even if they are wrong, it does not always follow that punishment is fair or rational. Context is so important.

We must focus on education and understanding and avoid spurious and counterproductive accusations of racism, if we are ever to defeat racism.

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