The leadership undermines its pro-Palestine policies, but members push back
Monday 23 December 2019
Weaponising alleged antisemitism in the Green Party
The leadership undermines its pro-Palestine policies, but members push back
Written by Les Levidow
Since 2016 a systematic campaign has been weaponizing alleged antisemitism in order to protect the racist Israeli regime from criticism, especially from the global campaign of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). This has been conflated with antisemitism through the so-called ‘IHRA definition of antisemitism’, which serves a racist agenda. The Green Party leadership has colluded with this agenda in several ways – by concealing official support for the BDS campaign, promoting the IHRA definition within the Green Party and abusing its disciplinary procedure to retaliate against a prominent critic. A pro-Palestine re-orientation will depend on members holding the leadership accountable for its collusion and pushing it instead to promote BDS as anti-racist.
Weblinks are provided for numerous sources below.
Introduction: Green Party policy undermined
The 2005 Palestinian call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has been the focus of the global movement of Palestine solidarity. Its many supporters include the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW, henceforth Green Party). It has voted for ‘active participation’ in the BDS campaign, e.g. conference motions in spring 2008 and autumn 2014. BDS was featured in the Green Party’s magazine and was promoted by its former Leader Natalie Bennett. Some members established a BDS Facebook page.
Yet the Green Party’s pro-BDS policy has nearly disappeared. It is absent from the International Policy webpage, hidden in the autumn 2014 motion on Israel’s Ground Invasion, and absent from 2019 election statements, which have been deceptive in this regard. Meanwhile the leadership has been accommodating the pro-Israel lobby, amidst its smear campaign falsely accusing Israel’s critics of antisemitism.
Since 2016 this high-profile smear campaign has been weaponizing alleged antisemitism in order to protect the Israeli regime from criticism and from BDS. The allegations have been targeting critics in the Labour Party and more recently the Green Party (the focus here). A key weapon has been the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, whose examples conflate antisemitism with criticism of Israel.
Since 2017 the Green Party leadership has been promoting the IHRA definition. Moreover, a prominent member has sponsored a complaint from a racist pro-Israel campaign group against another member who led opposition to the IHRA definition. By undermining the Green Party’s pro-Palestine policies, the leadership has provoked internal unease and revolt.
This article next explains the conflict between BDS versus the IHRA definition, as the context for the leadership’s collusion, Green Party members’ push-back and ways forward.
IHRA definition: weapon against BDS
Not coincidentally, the smear campaign escalated shortly after the Labour Party elected a new Left-wing, anti-imperialist leadership in 2015. Pro-Israel activists trawled members’ social media posts going back several years, including anti-Israel comments. Despite that intensive trawl, complaints about allegedly antisemitic comments have amounted to only 0.1% of the Labour Party membership. Just imagine how this ‘antisemitism problem’ compares with any other UK organisation, e.g. the Conservative Party. The accusers have been largely absent from opposing other forms of racism.
Weaponizing alleged antisemitism is psychological warfare protecting the UK’s alliance with the Israeli regime. This agenda generates fear that a unitary ‘Jewish community’ faces an ‘existential threat’ from pro-Palestine policies and politicians. The UK government encourages and exploits this fear to justify the UK’s pro-Israel policies as necessary for ‘social cohesion’.
Such allegations and fears invert political reality, namely: the anti-racist Palestine solidarity movement opposes Israel’s institutional racism. The 2005 call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) says: ‘The Palestinian BDS campaign… aims to pressure Israel to comply with international law and to end international support for Israel’s regime of settler colonialism and apartheid.’ This racist regime systematically violates international law, inherently denying basic human and civil rights to the Palestinian people.
Efforts to counter BDS as ‘antisemitic’ gained a weapon from a US pro-Israel lobby group, the American Jewish Committee (AJC). As a general mission, it attempts to counter ‘the one-sided treatment of Israel at the United Nations’. Since 2004 it has promoted a so-called Working Definition of Antisemitism including 11 examples, 7 about Israel, 4 of them designed to stigmatise Israel’s critics as antisemitic. To make a long story short, skipping a decade-long conflict over the definition: In 2016 the AJC’s guidance appeared on the website of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Let us examine two examples often used as political weapons.
An IHRA example of supposed antisemitism is ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour’. Such a claim is indeed meant by the epithet ‘apartheid Israel’, which thereby is supposedly antisemitic. The example is racist in at least two ways: It stereotypes global Jewry as a nation needing collective ‘self-determination’ through the Israeli state. And it denies the Palestinians’ national narrative of dispossession by a racist settler-colonial project.
That taboo on ‘apartheid Israel’ has been designed and deployed to suppress Palestine solidarity events. In December 2016 the full IHRA guidance document was adopted by the UK government. In February 2017 the Department for Education warned all universities that they must apply the IHRA criteria and that ‘antisemitic comments’ may arise during Israel Apartheid Week 2017. Accommodating the government, some universities denied or cancelled permission to student groups for pro-Palestine events.
Another IHRA example of supposed antisemitism is ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’. Indeed, such comparisons have been drawn by many Jewish groups and Holocaust survivors, e.g. under the slogan ‘Never Again for Anyone’. In particular, they have drawn comparisons with the racist 1935 Nuremberg Laws, under which German Jews lost their entitlement to German citizenship, voting rights, the right to marry a German, or to retain Government office.; this was a major official step in dehumanising German Jews. The Israeli state has likewise dehumanised Palestinians, especially non-citizens in the West Bank and Gaza. Such analogies have been published by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in English and Hebrew. Are all those voices antisemitic?
In response to false allegations around the IHRA examples, many universities have imposed bans, bureaucratic obstacles or speech restrictions on pro-Palestine events. Public venues are regularly bombarded with allegations that a forthcoming event would contravene the IHRA definition. Often administrative staff cancel the booking in panic, thus pre-empting any debate or scrutiny of the allegations. Such pressures have intensified since 2017. Activists have no recourse to any formal procedure for defending the right of free assembly and expression.
Given its weaponization role, the IHRA definition has been opposed globally by all pro-Palestine groups. The Jewish-led UK campaign, Free Speech on Israel, detailed grounds to oppose the Israel examples above (among others). According to a joint statement by Jewish pro-Palestine groups around the world, the IHRA definition ‘undermines both the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality and the global struggle against antisemitism’. Numerous BAME groups and Palestinians have denounced the IHRA definition on similar grounds.
But their voices have been marginalised by a political agenda associating all Jews with the Israeli state. This agenda further equates antisemitism with ‘offence to Jews’, i.e. pro-Israel Jews, while marginalising the many Jews who regard this equation as offensive. Politicians defer to the pro-Israel lobby, thus conveniently avoiding any responsibility to judge what is or isn’t antisemitic.
Green Party autumn 2018 conference: members revolt against pro-IHRA leadership
After the UK’s Conservative government adopted the IHRA full definition in December 2016, many politicians did likewise. Having slandered Ken Livingstone as antisemitic, John Mann MP sponsored an EDM supporting the IHRA definition; signatories included Caroline Lucas MP. When local authorities voted for motions supporting the IHRA definition, they were supported by Green Party politicians such as Caroline Russell and Sian Berry (now co-Leader).
Jewish members of the Green Party sent email messages denouncing those politicians’ actions and encouraged other members to do likewise. The politicians gave scant responses, denying any contradiction with BDS or anti-Israel criticism.
The Green Party’s internal conflict eventually erupted at the autumn 2018 conference. Prominent politicians endorsed a pro-IHRA motion. It was countered by an anti-IHRA motion, led by Shahrar Ali, who has been a Home Affairs spokesperson, Deputy Leader and frequent candidate of the Green Party. Delegates gave considerable applause to speakers on both sides, both including Jewish members. Some opponents displayed Palestinian flags to highlight the issue at stake.
The pro-IHRA leadership was unnerved by this revolt. A new procedural motion proposed to remit the original ones, apparently for fear that the pro-IHRA motion would be defeated. Conference voted to remit both.
The pro-Israel Jewish Chronicle reported the outcome as a ‘failure’, implying that the obstacle was antisemitism. It reproduced the title of my Green Left magazine article, ‘Palestine solidarity under racist attack’. My article included a cartoon (below) mocking the racist agenda of false allegations; strangely, this too was reproduced by the Jewish Chronicle.
When an anti-IHRA motion was put forward for the subsequent conference, the Standing Orders Committee ruled that the IHRA definition may come up again only if the two contrary motions were reconciled in a single motion – obviously impossible. This ruling protects the pro-IHRA leadership from further debate, defeat and embarrassment. As a substitute for political debate, the leadership has abused the disciplinary procedure, as explained next.
Leadership retaliates against Shahrar Ali, members again push back
In retaliating against Shahrar Ali, the leadership instrumentalised the so-called Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), which has been promoting a racist Islamophobic, anti-Palestinian agenda. It has made false allegations of antisemitism against many of Israel’s critics, especially Labour Party members, including many Muslims and Jews. Indeed, it throws such allegations at Jewish pro-Palestine groups who criticise pro-Israel groups for weaponising alleged antisemitism (as in this article). One Jewish target of its false allegations, Tony Greenstein, led a petition asking the Charities Commission to deregister the CAA as a Right-wing lobby group with no charitable aims.
The CAA also promotes Islamophobic stereotypes, featuring a scary dehumanised image of ‘antisemitic Muslim males’ (2016 report, page 8). They ‘are more likely to sympathise with terrorism, violence and extremism’; those terms are left undefined. In the UK political context, so-called ‘extremism’ encompasses anyone opposing the racist Prevent programme or supporting resistance to the Israeli regime.
Eventually the CAA launched false allegations against a prominent Green Party member, Shahrar Ali (see above). They cited his denunciation of Israel’s attack on Gaza at a 2009 rally outside the BBC, as well as his speech opposing the Party’s adoption of the IHRA definition at the 2018 Autumn conference. Under pressure from pro-Palestine members, the Green Party Regional Council (GPRC) refuted the false allegations, followed by a similar 2018 press release.
In 2019 the CAA escalated the attack by sending the Green Party a formal complaint about allegedly antisemitic comments by Shahrar Ali. The complaint was sponsored by a prominent Green Party member who has chosen to remain anonymous. As a plausible motive for this collusion, it was retaliating against him for have led the pro-IHRA motion at the 2018 conference. The Disciplinary Committee could have simply rejected the complaint on numerous grounds, especially its racist agenda. Instead it initiated an investigation, asking Shahrar Ali for a response to the allegations.
In October 2019 his supporters launched a petition which quickly gained over a hundred signatories from Green Party members including many elected officers, local candidates and Councillors. It said, ‘To take up this complaint would be to collude in an anti-Palestinian agenda that would also discredit the Green Party. It is astonishing that the Party could fall for such a tactic, unwittingly or through lack of political courage.’ The petition concluded with these demands:
We call upon the Green Party to withdraw this politically motivated and internally damaging complaint and to work alongside Shahrar Ali to respond, as appropriate, to politically motivated attacks in the best tradition of the Green Party.
The Green Party must also, as a matter of urgency, instead investigate the hostile environment which misuse and abuse of process risks engendering internally.
Some members of the Green Party Executive Committee (GPEx) received, circulated or signed the petition. Some proposed that its next meeting discuss the conflict, possibly to suspend the disciplinary procedure against Shahrar Ali. But the meeting declined to add such an agenda item, on the spurious grounds that GPEx does not consider individual cases. The leadership evaded the generic issue of the racist accuser and its false allegations, thus colluding with them.
The Disciplinary Committee decided instead to take up a subsequent complaint that Shahrar Ali allegedly brought the Green Party into disrepute for publicly sharing the petition supporting him; again the complainant chose to remain anonymous. Thus the disciplinary procedure escalated the leadership’s retaliation for Shahrar Ali’s prominent role against the IHRA definition. The complaint inverts reality, namely: that the leadership has been discrediting the Green Party by colluding with a racist agenda and then bureaucratically persecuting an anti-racist critic, while evading political debate over its shameful role.
General Election 2019: Green Party leadership promotes IHRA definition, while members again push back
In the 2019 General Election, the Green Party’s pro-Palestine policy was again softened and concealed. The Manifesto’s section on global justice says: ‘Seek resolution in line with international law and the principles of self-determination to long running conflicts, illegal occupations and human rights violations.’ Indeed, that has been a key aim of the Green Party supporting ‘active participation’ in the BDS campaign –absent from the manifesto.
The leadership further colluded with the Board of Deputies of British Jews and its racist agenda. As political background, the Board has consistently supported Israel’s attacks on Palestinians, especially its Gaza massacres in 2008-09 and 2014. After Israel killed numerous civilians at the Gaza border in 2018, the Board’s statement blamed Hamas; in response, hundreds of Jews denounced the Board for placing no responsibility on Israel.
Jeremy Corbyn criticised Britain’s failure to call for an independent investigation as ‘morally indefensible’. In response, the Board pleaded self-defence by Israel, as grounds to denounce his modest demand for an investigation. The Board also has led false allegations of antisemitism. This consistently racist pro-Israel agenda indicates its political aims when intervening in the 2019 general election.
The Board sent political parties ‘10 commitments for GE2019’, especially to ‘Adopt, promote and implement the full IHRA Definition of Antisemitism’. An honest response from the Green Party might have read as follows: ‘Our autumn 2018 conference debated the IHRA definition, ultimately voting to remit both the pro-IHRA and anti-IHRA definitions for future consideration’. Instead its response said, ‘The Green Party is likely to consider adopting the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism at a policymaking session of its party conference in the future’.
The questionnaire also asked political parties to ‘Promote peace projects that unite communities and resist boycotts that divide communities’. The Green Party weakly responded, ‘Non-violent protest actions, such as boycotts against specific policies (for example, against Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories) are a legitimate tool for bringing about change.’ This response concealed the Green Party’s official support for BDS.
The Green Party’s response was circulated to Parliamentary candidates as guidance with this encouragement: ‘Candidates who sign the [IHRA] definition are welcome to promote this on social media, as some already have.’ By anticipating its future adoption and omitting BDS, the guidance misled candidates about the Green Party’s policies and debates. Some candidates expressed unease to other members, thus alerting them to the deception.
Soon dissenters consulted numerous members. Together they drafted more honest responses to several questions from the Board of Deputies. This alternative version deleted the prediction that a future conference would consider the IHRA definition; and it added a link to the Green Party’s policies strongly criticising Israel. But the leadership’s response was unsatisfactory.
Its strong support for the IHRA definition facilitated yet more ‘antisemitism’ allegations. In November 2019 the Campaign Against Antisemitism announced the results of trawling social media posts. The CAA denounced several Parliamentary candidates of the Green Party (and again Shahrar Ali) for statements contravening the IHRA’s Israel examples, as grounds to demand their expulsion. As reported in the Jewish Chronicle, several candidates had drawn analogies between Nazi Germany and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, or they suggested that ‘complaints of antisemitism were being used to defend Israel’. Anyone making such statements would be in the good anti-racist company of Israel’s Jewish critics, among others (see earlier section).
A Green Left statement countered the false allegations against Green Party candidates. It reiterated previous criticism of the IHRA’s Israel examples as an invalid basis for identifying real antisemitism. By contrast, the Green Party leadership may have difficulty in defending its candidates while supporting the IHRA definition.
In parallel the Palestine Solidarity Campaign had sent all Parliamentary candidates a questionnaire. Of 290 candidate responses across all parties, 138 of them were from the GPEW. This had the highest response rate, giving pro-Palestine answers to nearly all the questions. The questionnaire was not mentioned in the Green Party’s email briefings to candidates.
Conclusion: hold the leadership accountable
As this article has shown, since 2017 the Green Party’s leadership has been undermining its pro-Palestine policy. It has been concealing support for BDS and promoting the IHRA definition, a key weapon against BDS. The leadership has colluded with a wider racist agenda, especially from the Board of Deputies and so-called Campaign Against Antisemitism, against the Palestine solidarity movement.
In such ways, the leadership has been discrediting the Green Party -- yet pursues such an allegation against a prominent critic. A formal collective complaint would be warranted against members sponsoring or making such false accusations, but they choose to remain anonymous. These bureaucratic manoeuvres evade political debate. Many members have revolted against the leadership’s approach.
Now the stakes are being raised by efforts to ban BDS. The US Federal government and many state governments have legislated for financial penalties against any academic institution giving a platform to BDS. US president Donald Trump signed an executive order effectively defining Judaism as a nationality, thus equating the Israeli state with Jewish national self-determination (as in an IHRA example). This will further stigmatise pro-Palestine activities as antisemitic.
The UK government has a similar plan to counter the BDS campaign. A new law will prohibit public bodies from working with anyone involved in BDS. In particular, it will ban local authorities from any boycott against foreign countries, e.g. against companies violating international law there. The government’s arguments again smear the BDS campaign as antisemitic by equating Jews with Israel, as in the IHRA definition.
Given these higher stakes for the BDS campaign, how will the Green Party leadership respond? By further colluding with a racist agenda and retaliating against anti-racist critics? Or else by defending its pro-Palestine policies? A pro-Palestine re-orientation will depend on members holding the leadership accountable for its collusion and pushing it instead to promote the Green Party’s BDS policy as anti-racist.
Les Levidow is a Member of Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW), Camden branch and Member of Steering Group, Jewish Network for Palestine (JNP). He is a member of Camden Green party and a Green Left supporter.