Attacks on Jeremy Corbyn are attacks on freedom of expression


By Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe

Karl Marx’s analysis of systemic socioeconomic change that accompanies capitalism in terms of the concepts ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’, enunciated by in his theory of ‘historical materialism’, still remains the most insightful view of the relationship between ‘thought and lived reality’. His concept of the base represents the people (bourgeoisie), the materials and resources involved in the production process, and superstructure refers to all other aspects of society such as culture, values, norms, identities, the education system, media, and the political structure. Marx theorised that the superstructure that effectively grows out of the base, acts to preserve the power of the ruling class through effective control and manipulation of the values of the base. One does not need to be a Marxist to note that the social and political values of the modern capitalist world provide living proof of the superstructure Marx introduced in his theory of historical materialism.

The perpetuation of the global population and power structure divided into the super-rich North and abjectly poor South relies on the constant reconfiguring of the superstructure by the ultra-rich 1% in rich countries who accounted for 82 per cent of the global wealth in 2018. They achieve such a grossly disproportionate share of global wealth through their hold on factors of production, mainly capital and labour, and by subtly imposing governments, social norms, values, beliefs, and ideology on the base in a manner that would strengthen their control. The poor are made to struggle to find their next meal, toiling within the social and ideological framework handed to them through the crumb-feeding political lackeys in poor countries including NGOs. The genesis of ‘doctored’ versions of ideals such as democracy, human rights and open government, and the economic ‘reform’ agenda of privatisation imposed on poor countries through ‘donor clubs’, IMF, the World Bank and the UN, trails back to this mould.

Organisations and individuals in the rich world who oppose the existing structures and mechanisms are hounded ruthlessly. The situation faced by the leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn is a case in point.

Since his election to Labour leadership in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn has been the subject of an incessant campaign of hate disguised as the trumped-up issue of an alleged wave of antisemitism within the Labour party, and his alleged failure to tackle antisemitism in the party under his watch. Statements critical of Israeli aggression made by Corbyn in the past — including a 2010 speech in which he compared Israel’s blockade of Gaza to Nazi Germany’s sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad during World War II — and his participation in a number of Palestinian-organised events focused on peace are being used as evidence to show that he himself is an antisemite.

Tactics of the anti-Corbyn forces have included applying ‘pressure’ by way of a flood of complaints from Jewish groups within and outside the party, denunciation of Corbyn by the Right-Wing media, leaking of internal party documents to media, and commissioning of retired party leaders to reinforce their demands. As example, a group of 70 rabbis complained about anti-Jewish feeling in Labour. In August, Israel’s Labor party suspended its ties with Jeremy Corbyn over his alleged ‘hostility to the Jewish community’ and failure to clamp down on alleged antisemitism.

Corbyn has repeatedly stated that antisemitism has no place in the party, and his and other party members’ criticism of Israeli racism and aggression is being depicted as antisemitism. Those who share Corbyn’s view have branded concerns of sections of the Jewish community within and outside Labour as ‘smears’ against their leader by pro-Israeli Jewry who are hell-bent to stop Corbyn’s steadfastly anti-Zionist position and strong advocacy of a Palestinian state.

Peter Willsman, a veteran Labour figure pointed out that Jewish ‘fanatics’ were ‘making up’ complaints. Paul Sweeney, a Jewish Labour member of parliament put on record that he has never personally encountered antisemitism in the Labour party and the accusation is being used as a ‘political weapon’ against Corbyn. Mike Cushman of the Jewish Voice for Labour said that supporters of Israel are attempting to stifle discussion about Palestine in the Labour party, or anywhere else.

Jeremy Corbyn in historical context of the Labour party

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is characterised by the tremendous support he continues to receive from grassroots activists, notwithstanding the harassment he is receiving from some Jewish interests in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Labour membership loves their leader who conforms to traditional Labour values, and not driven by personal ambitions: Corbyn lives in a narrow three-story terraced house and travels by bicycle or train, avoiding whenever possible the official car that comes with his office. He has been the member for Islington North, the inner London constituency he has represented in parliament for the past 33 years, and where such luminaries as Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Peter Sellers have lived at different times.

A poll conducted by YouGov, in the midst of the worst accusations of antisemitism against him found nearly half of the polled continuing to hold Corbyn in high regard notwithstanding the accusations, and a further six per cent attested that they think even better of Corbyn after the attacks. Only 13 per cent of Labour voters would think any less of Corbyn following the accusations.

It is no secret that the richest 1% detests Corbyn as a human being and as a political rival who threatens vested interests. Former Prime Minister, the incurably arrogant David Cameron — who was forced to resign following revelations of family involvement in the Bermuda tax scandal — for example, once asked Corbyn to ‘put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem’.

But Corbyn has a large reserve of popular support among the working people of Britain who are fed up with the ‘market’ ruled economic world of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair that has ruined their economic lives. Corbyn’s honourable record of standing up for the poor in accordance with the hallowed traditions of the Labour party, which grew out of the workers’ movements of the industrial revolution, has earned him his current position; He was part of a small band of Labour MPs known as the ‘Campaign group,’ led by the late, great Tony Benn, who consistently opposed Labour’s direction since the 1970s, and Blair’s conspiratorial New Labour in the late nineties. Corbyn voted against the whip 428 times, to no avail, due to Labour’s large parliamentary majorities at the time.

Corbyn was equally progressive on foreign policy issues: he supported independence struggles in Ireland and South Africa and anti-American struggles in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. From 2011 until his election last year, Corbyn was the chair of the Stop the War Coalition against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Speaking at the group’s first meeting, held two weeks after the September 2011 events — together with the former Labour MPs the late Tony Benn, George Galloway and Tam Dalyell, and intellectuals Tariq Ali, Harold Pinter and others — Corbyn announced: ‘No to bombing, no to revenge. We have to look to the causes of this act. A quarter of the world’s population is in poverty. Global corporations dominating the world are not the solution.’

Corbyn plans — if Labour is reelected in the next general election, in 2020 — to allow grassroots policymaking, with plans to raise taxes on the rich, strengthen trade unions, and to renationalise Britain’s railways, and energy and housing markets. More worryingly for the vested interests, he plans to replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber and to give up nuclear weapons. University education will be provided free. This background of Corbyn shows why the British ruling elite has decided to launch a witch-hunt against Corbyn, motivated by their fears about his future plans against their agenda of reactionary social policies at home and military interventionism and war in the Middle East.

Such fears were openly declared in a piece by Anshel Pfeffer, a dual British/Israeli citizen, in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz recently under the heading, ‘Why Corbynism Is a Threat to Jews throughout the Western World.’ He makes clear that the aim of the manufactured outrage over Corbyn’s supposed antisemitism has nothing to do with defending Jews, but is aimed at silencing all criticism of Israel’s murderous policy towards the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and its recent apartheid-style Nation-State law which enshrines Jewish supremacy as the legal foundation of Israel. Pfeffer speaks for those in ruling circles who fear that Corbyn will act against the dominance of the market on peoples’ lives at home and war abroad. He warns: ‘Jeremy Corbyn is the only radical left-wing and truly socialist leader on the cusp of power in the West.

If Labour under his leadership does win the next general election, his ideology will become hugely influential, across Europe and in America as well.’

The IHRA saga

The latest controversy was sparked by Labour’s resistance against pressure from Jewish extremists to adopt a definition of antisemitism drafted by a body named the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that cites 11 specific examples of racial abuse in public, in the media, and at educational institutions, the workplace and places of worship. In July, The National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour party endorsed a code of conduct that incorporates the IHRA definition, leaving out four of the 11 controversial examples listed, in the name of preserving freedom of expression:

Accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than their home country;

Claiming that Israel’s existence as a state is a racist endeavour;

Requiring higher standards of behaviour from Israel than other nations; and

Comparing contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis.

But Corbyn’s detractors were not happy. Senior Jewish Labour backbenchers and select party veterans continued to call for the full adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Labour insisted that doing so would inhibit free speech and criticism of Israeli racism. In order to avoid the needless debate taking time at the party’s annual meeting scheduled for late September, it was decided to reconsider the IHRA definition by the new NEC to be elected on 4 September. The meeting was always going to be a barometer of the party’s grassroots support to Corbyn.

In a sign of the depth of support among the Labour membership for Jeremy Corbyn, the first eight members elected to the NEC were all members of Momentum, the campaign group founded to support his leadership; Peter Willsman, a veteran Labour figure and member of Momentum who was re-elected to the NEC, said: ‘Jeremy Corbyn will lead a Labour government that will fundamentally address the economic and social problems on a scale not seen since the post-war Attlee government. ‘This is why the rich and powerful spend so much time trying to undermine him’.

The new NEC held their first meeting on Wednesday 5 September to reconsider the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism and agreed to adopt the full definition including the four examples that were left out in July, with the caveat contained in an accompanying statement declaring: ‘this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians’ by party members.

The more reasonable Jewish groups such as the Jewish Voice for Labour continued to argue that the adoption of the full IHRA definition would restrict freedom of speech and criticism of Israel’s actions against Palestinians. Jewish protesters against the adoption of the new definition, wrapped in Israeli flags, emphasised that the Labour party is ‘for the many, not the Jew’. Other activists urged the NEC to resist calls to adopt the IHRA definition, carrying a banner stating ‘criticism of Israel is not antisemitism’, ‘Disappointed’.

The Jewish Leadership Council criticised the free speech caveat, continuing to complain that it would allow ‘driving a coach and horses’ through the antisemitism definition. Its leader Simon Johnson referred to it as a ‘Get out of jail card’.

IHRA definition of antisemitism and freedom of speech

Israeli and pro-Israeli neocon groups in the West have always been keen to conflate the issue of antisemitism with genuine criticism of the state of Israel and its political ideology. The opposing forces have been keen to point out the obvious differences between the two phenomena: antisemitism primarily involves prejudice and hostility towards Jews as Jews, whereas the criticism of increasingly Apartheid-looking policies and the violent aggression of Israel does not represent or involve any hostility towards Jews as Jews.

The UN resolution 3379 of 1975 that equated Zionism to racism — reversed in 1991 due to vigorous US pressure and deception — did so based on a clear set of principles, including UN resolution 2106 of 1965 that defined racial discrimination as ‘any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin.’ Clearly, Israel, unlike any other country in the world, currently engages in such discrimination of the Palestinians in the West Bank, and is therefore a racist entity.

However, the fundamentally racist basis of Zionism is not the only concern of Israel’s critics. The vast majority of countries of the world see Zionism as a form of colonialism, and that particular perception is a historical fact, rather than representing a product of collective antisemitism. The current version of Zionist ideology clearly does not allow or envisage a common ‘Israeli’ ethno-religious identity, or embrace a universal form of democracy in a state where Jews and Arabs are treated as equals. Therefore the ongoing protection of freedom for fact-based criticism of Israel is vital from a much broader standpoint.

Looking at the so-called IHRA definition of antisemitism more closely, the very attempt to eliminate alleged antisemitism or any other structural form of institutional racism and discrimination out of existence through definitions is bound to end up in failure. Following the same path would require separate ‘definitions’ of racism against that is perpetrated against Blacks, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians, other East Asians and even the Irish, who daily experience much worse forms of racism than the Jews, in Britain. The same argument can be extended to the rest of Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism does not appear to seek the protection of Jews as a marginalised group but is a scheme with 12 moving parts, invested with an incredible amount of power to incriminate people who simply choose to exercise their freedom of expression, taken for granted in a democracy. Seven out of 11 examples attached to the definition primarily concern the manner people refer to the state of Israel, seeking to penalise expressing opinions about a repressive regime and its role in a geopolitical conflict.

Kenneth Stern, the original drafter of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, an avowed Zionist himself, has explained during testimony to the US House of Representative’s judiciary committee in 2017, that the definition was originally designed as a ‘working definition’ for the purpose of standardising data collection about antisemitic hate crimes in different countries, and it had never been intended to be used as a legal or regulatory device to curb academic or political free speech. He cited Manchester and Bristol universities in the UK as examples where political expression had been formally suppressed by those invoking example 7 of the definition. Those concerns go to show that full adoption of the IHRA definition without caveats — in response to the concerns of Zionists in the Labour party — will not be a tool for fighting racism, but a device designed to curb freedom of expression, the fundamental right upon which all democratic participation rests. Stern added: complaints explicitly invoking example 7 will be ‘chilling and McCarthy-like’ as regard their effect of restricting free expression and political action.

The pressure for adoption of IHRA by the Labour party has operated together with external pressure from organisations and individuals aligned with the aims of the Israeli state who display hatred against anyone holding a principled position opposed to Israel and its heinous actions against Palestinians. Such groups have yielded their considerable political influence in Western countries to gain censorship rights on topics of discussion not to their liking. While ploys to protect Israel from freedom of speech in Britain are still being launched, the debate in the US has been stifled for a long time. There is little room for any criticism of Israel in mainstream American media or academia, making US policy in the Middle East beholden only to the diktats of Israeli pressure and lobby groups.

Thankfully, a worldwide coalition of 40 Jewish groups from 15 countries including Academia4equality (Israel), Jews Against Fascism (Australia), Jews against the Occupation (Australia), has issued a joint statement condemning attempts to stifle criticism of Israel with false accusations of antisemitism, welcoming the subjecting the British Labour adoption of the IHRA definition subject to caveats that would allow continued criticism of Israel.

More Jews will have to act similarly to marginalise the extremist elements that tarnish their image as a decent, moderate community. After all, God does not choose or discriminate.

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