How Brighton became Labour's Israel-Palestine battleground
New Labour leader Keir Starmer made it a commitment of his leadership to swiftly deal with the long-running antisemitism crisis in the party by implementing the findings of an equality watchdog inquiry.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry is expected to report soon, however the commission itself is now under serious scrutiny for pro-Conservative bias, including from Middle East Eye columnist Peter Oborne.
Starmer has agreed to the demands of an “independent” advisory group, including both the pro-Israel Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to resolve outstanding issues and cases.
The Jewish Chronicle reported on Starmer’s meeting with JLM in late May, the first between the group and a Labour leader since 2014, before Jeremy Corbyn’s election.
JLM chair Mike Katz, said: "We have already been encouraged by Keir Starmer's strong condemnation of antisemitism, his apology to the Jewish community and his commitment to getting a grip on this problem. But we've always said that actions are what matter. Reforming the party's culture as well as making its management and processes fit for purpose will take time and focus."
The JC also reported that the Board of Deputies had sent Labour a briefing on 11 cases of alleged antisemitism, which they said were outstanding and were examples of where the party's disciplinary process has failed. These included suspended National Executive Committee member Pete Willsman, another NEC member, a councillor, a council candidate, a local Labour Party chair and a branch chair, as well as several ordinary members.
The information was compiled “with the assistance of the Labour Against Antisemitism group (LAAS)”. This group has targeted members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in Brighton and Hove over several years. It has worked with another group, Sussex Friends of Israel (SFI), which is known for its aggressive tactics towards activists - including a number of Labour members - who campaign against Israel’s occupation and abuses of Palestinians.
Within hours of the Starmer Zoom meeting with the BOD, two members of PSC received notification of their suspension, alongside others, such as University of Bristol professor David Miller, co-author of the recent book, Bad News for Labour. The book by five academics critically examined the media coverage of Corbyn and antisemitism.
One PSC member and former Hove Labour Party chair, Rebecca Massey, who was suspended in late May, has been expelled already, over her earlier support for expelled former Labour MP Chris Williamson.
She told MEE that her name had almost certainly been included on the list that had been given to Starmer. "It won't make any difference to my support for the Palestinian people."
Criticism of Israel denied
With Labour’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism and its 11 examples in 2018, a number of which relate to Israel, it has now circumscribed the way Israel can be criticised by party members, and made discussions of Zionism highly problematic. This was warned about at the time by many in the party, and has now come to pass.
No doubt, there have been cases of Labour members and local candidates who have used language and memes that are stereotypical and include antisemitic tropes. Some were classic examples of antisemitism. It was right that Labour dealt with these through its disciplinary process. In several cases, people involved have vehemently denied that they are antisemitic and indeed some have apologised for sharing this kind of material.
Yet the process has now been effectively put into the hands of outside groups with a clear political agenda, who can now close down debate with a single tweet or call to Labour HQ. In some cases, the disciplinary claims being brought are tenuous at best and appear to be aimed at silencing critics of Israel.
In Brighton, Nikki Brennan, a Labour councillor backed by the left-wing group Momentum, is under investigation over an image from a protest in which she is pictured carrying a banner that says "Israel is an Apartheid state". She had to step down as Labour deputy for housing and is now under investigation after she said recently she would continue to oppose “all forms of white supremacy”.
To state that Israel is an apartheid state is now commonplace - something you can read in Haaretz. How did it get to a point that opposing white supremacy - including Israeli Jewish white supremacy - especially during an uprising against institutional violence against black people, is something the Labour Party sees as racist and will purge those who do so?
Intimidation and abuse
Further, what is not being reported in the mainstream media is the level of harassment, verbal and physical threats, alongside abusive and sexist social media attacks, endured by pro-Palestine activists from a number of highly motivated pro-Israel activists.
The Hove Labour Party member who brought the successful motion to Labour’s 2019 conference supporting the Palestinian right of return to homes they had been expelled from since 1948 suffered gruesome sexist abuse on social media. She is not the only one: crude mysogyny seems to be a specialism used by pro-Israel activists against female targets.
One SFI activist and Labour member, Luke Stanger, has had a number of complaints of abuse and harassment made against him by several Labour women activists and one female councillor in Brighton and Hove.
Stanger was suspended by the party in 2019 following offensive remarks about the Roma community, but his case has not reached a conclusion more than a year after his suspension. The Labour Party declined to comment on his case to MEE.
Most people think of Brighton and Hove as a seaside resort town within easy reach of London, a one-time pleasure spa for the Prince Regent. It has the UK’s only Green Party MP, and is home to the annual Pride festival.
But there is another side to its politics. For many years, pro-Palestine activists supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign have faced off on its streets with pro-Israel activists, in a battle that eventually engulfed the Labour Party.
It is a slow-burning and bitter political clash that has split the local party and foretold what would happen to Labour following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015.
For the whole of Corbyn’s tenure until the party’s defeat in the December election, supporters of his left-wing programme who were vocal in their criticism of Israel found themselves accused of antisemitism, with dozens of members suspended and some expelled.
Before Corbyn was elected, it was Brighton that saw one of the first victories of the international boycott campaign against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, against Israel-based SodaStream, which had a factory in an illegal West Bank settlement.
It opened its Brighton Ecostream shop in 2012. It took two years of hard campaigning, with regular confrontations with well known pro-Israel activists in the area, before parent company SodaStream, which has since been bought by PepsiCo, decided to close the shop and abandon plans to roll the chain out across the UK.
During this time, thuggish, intimidatory behaviour by activists of the Sussex Friends of Israel group was recorded on phone camera by peaceful pickets outside Ecostream.
More recently, pro-Israel activists ran a concerted campaign against pro-Palestinian activists across the UK, including creating a map that geolocates alleged Labour antisemites in the UK and abroad, along with street addresses. Palestinian activists reported the map to the police and it was recorded as a hate incident in June 2019. No action has been taken.
SFI’s founder is Simon Cobbs, a proud attendee at anti-BDS events organised by Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, called DigiTell. The ministry is behind well funded social media campaigns to undermine critics of Israel in Europe and the US, using an army of online warriors to oppose the BDS movement.
MEE approached LAAS and SFI for comment but did not receive a reply by time of publication.
In recent years these groups, and the anti-Corbyn Campaign Against Antisemitism, have focused their activities on left-wing Labour activists known for their online criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian cause. Many have been suspended or expelled for alleged antisemitism, including several PSC activists from Brighton.
These cases point to an uncomfortable reality that some left-wing Labour members, including Jewish members, have been investigated because of their political views and support for Palestine, not because of antisemitism
It was under Jeremy Corbyn that a new fast track system for “egregious” cases of antisemitism and racism was introduced in 2018 in the context of an unprecedented political and media storm over Labour’s alleged antisemitism crisis.
Corbyn told MEE in a recent interview that the number of cases of confirmed antisemitism in the party of half a million members was “actually very small”, although he insisted that they had to be dealt with firmly and that this was his goal when leader.
That fast-track system has been used to deal with a number of the cases that were stalled within the party’s disciplinary system, as revealed by the leaked Labour report on the party’s handling of antisemitism cases from 2014-19. The report suggested that this had happened deliberately to increase damage to Corbyn by senior party staff who were hostile to his leadership.
The report also revealed casual racist and sexist language toward Labour’s black women MPs and disabled members used by some senior party figures in a WhatsApp group. Yet none of the officials implicated in those remarks has been suspended or formally investigated by the party.
If Labour is now taking antisemitism seriously, some complaints appear to be spurious, even absurd. Take the way left-wing Liverpool councillor Jo Bird, who is Jewish, was suspended last year over a comment she made on a Jewish Voice for Labour blog.
She called the expulsion of veteran black Labour activist Marc Wadsworth “unfair”, and said: "JVL is calling for disciplinary hearings to be paused until a due process has been established based on principles of natural justice. What I call Jew process.” The quip was deemed antisemitic.
According to Jewish Voice for Labour, there have been at least 25 investigations into Jewish Labour members for alleged antisemitism
After an investigation, she was reinstated. Then, earlier this year, her election campaign to the NEC in early 2020 was also interrupted by another spurious investigation, which was overturned allowing her to be elected.
These cases point to an uncomfortable reality that some left-wing Labour members, including Jewish members, have been investigated because of their political views and support for Palestine, not because of antisemitism.
The presence of these pro-Palestinian Jews gives the lie to the claim by the BOD and others that because most Jews identify with Israel, calling Israel racist - based on its own legal statutes (the Nation State law of 2018 and many others) and decades of occupation and violence towards Palestinians - is antisemitic, even when it is a Jewish person stating it.
If anyone has the right to criticise Israel, it is surely Jews and Palestinian Arabs whose own lives have been directly impacted by the policies of Israel.
According to Jewish Voice for Labour, there have been at least 25 investigations into Jewish Labour members for alleged antisemitism. Many of these complaints originate from pro-Israel activist groups. Their professed purpose was to undermine the Corbyn leadership and his support base in the party, and to oppose the BDS campaigns against Israel’s occupation.
Breaking with Corbyn
As an anti-racist party, Labour should be opposing Israeli apartheid policies and its latest annexation drive, due to be enacted by the new Netanyahu-led government. Yet by uncritically endorsing Zionism, conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism and taking direction on disciplinary cases from pro-Israel bodies, it seems that silencing those voices is the main outcome of the party’s drive to “solve” the antisemitism crisis.
Starmer, signalling a break with Corbyn, clearly wants to mend relations with the pro-Israel Jewish groups and bring back lost Jewish voters. Time will tell if he succeeds, and what impact it has on the party's Middle East policy positions.
As Brighton and Hove PSC member Ben Steele told MEE: “We see both the local situation and what’s happened in the Labour Party as battlegrounds about the voice for Palestine, and part of a systematic attempt to silence campaigning for Palestine and criticism of Israel.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.