Monday, 2 May 2016

ANTI-SEMITISM AND ELECTION POLITICS: THE LABOUR 'SCANDAL'

The current conflagration over 'anti-semitism' in the Labour party has been particularly well-timed, and incredibly effective. I say well-timed because it came, as if by coincidence, just as polls revealed the great distance by which Zac Goldsmith, the Etonian candidate for mayor of London, trailed Sadiq Khan in the polls, and also just after polls showed, for the first time, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn with a higher approval rating than David Cameron. I say effective because it has transformed the debate and worked in favour of three interests: the Tories, with Cameron on the attack and Goldsmith's mayoral campaign thrown a lifeline; the anti-Corbyn New Labour faction of the Labour party; and supporters of Israel. These groups are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Goldsmith had been running a cynically racist campaign against Khan, sending out leaflets targeted to various ethnic groups with names apparently originating in the sub-continent, trying to inflame them against a Moslem candidate. Those always linked Khan with Corbyn. And Goldsmith (and his proxies in the Tory Parliamentary party) spent much time playing guilt by association with Khan and any number of Moslem figures, including one, Suliman Gani, who actually canvassed for the Conservatives against Khan in the general election! This was a classic 'Sir' Lynton Crosby campaign: full of Lee Atwater style coded appeals to fear and hatred.

Then came the Naz Shah scandal, as raised by the Tory blogger 'Guido Fawkes'. Shah had retweeted a meme 'calling for the forced transportation of Jews of of the Middle East'. Really? The meme actually says that 'an easy solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict' would be to 'relocate Israel into United States', showing a map of the US with Israel seemingly carved out of part of Nebraska and Kansas. The words 'forced transportation' never appear in the text, nor indeed does the word 'Jews'. But the word 'solution' does, which was manna to Cameron, as we shall see later. To anyone who uses the internet, the meme is obviously a comment on Israel's dependence on the United States and the US's unquestioning support for Israel. It is supposed to be a satirical political cartoon, and it was originally posted, apparently, by Norman Finkelstein, an author and prominent critic of Israel, and himself the child of Holocaust survivors. You may not agree, you might think it heavy handed, you might not find it clever, but you would have to be either myopic, idiotic, or have another agenda entirely to mis-characterise its point as being to call for the 'forced' move of an entire country to another continent to eliminate a conflict. Taking it literally is like arguing Jonathan Swift supported cannibalism as a cure for famine in Ireland.

Shah had retweeted this meme a couple of years ago. Of course it's theoretically possible she might also have been taking it literally, who knows, she doesn't show much imagination. She has also been highly critical of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, and often combative, once refusing to admit an Israeli child had indeed been killed by Palestinians throwing stones. Now that she is actually an MP, she might have been more cautious. But she issued a seemingly sincere apology to those offended by the meme, which, as we've seen, would require both a very thin skin and an impossible sense of literalness. That should have been the end of that. It might have been, but of course the point was not to embarrass Shah, the point was the agenda we referred to. It was to force all Labour party members to repudiate, disavow, condemn something that they may not have seen and something which was being deliberately misinterpreted out of all proportion. Step forward Ken Livingstone, ready to pour oil on what was still a simmering flame.

By a seeming coincidence of a sort, there was an extended piece on Goldsmith and Khan by Simon Hattenstone in Saturday's Guardian magazine. It rehashed much of the Goldsmith racism campaign noted above, but it also quoted Livingstone saying it was 'the dirtiest campaign he'd ever witnessed' and also condemning anti-semitism, albeit as practised by the Daily Mail in, uh, 1906. 'Never forget the headline in 1906: "Jews bring crime and disease to Britain"' 'Red' Ken was quoted as saying. 'And it's been selling papers, and unprincipled politicians have been using fear, throughout time immemorial'.

Between Livingstone giving the hyperbolic quote to Hattenstone and the piece appearing, the Naz Shah story had broken, and Livingstone had jumped into the fray. Not content to expose the 'anti-semitic' slurs for what they were, he upped the ante, reminding people that 'Hitler was a Zionist', because the Nazis had done deals with Zionist groups to buy Jews passage to Palestine in the early 1930s. Equating the desperate efforts to free Jews from Germany and the cynical confiscation of Jewish assets by the Nazis to making Hitler a Zionist was indeed insulting, grossly inaccurate, and incendiary. Kind of like Bibi Netanyahu claiming Hitler got the idea for cremating Jews from the Moslem Mufti of Jerusalem. Livingstone has already got into trouble evoking Nazis with Jewish people, and had he been concerned with the elections or his party you would think he'd think twice kept his mouth shut. Instead Ken gift-wrapped his quotes for neo-con Labour MP John Mann, giving the man who's called Gerald Kaufman an anti-Semite for seeking a balanced solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, another chance to posture for the cameras and cry anti-Semitism.

Conspiracy theorists might see Livingstone as a Laurence Wainwright type character from A Very British Coup, but the reality seems to be he's halfway down the slope to becoming George Galloway, following a personal agenda increasingly deluded and bent on the self-destruction of all around him. 

Hattenstone's piece was prophetic in describing Lynton Crosby's classic technique called 'the dead cat', whereby the dead cat thrown on the dinner table distracts the guests and becomes all anyone at the table discusses. Crosby borrowed this from Roger Ailes, advisor to Nixon, Reagan, and the bushes and mastermind of 'fair and balanced' Fox News. Sure enough, Labour's 'anti-semitism' led all the papers and bulletins, none of whom bothered to 'walk back the cat and analyse the original cartoon' itself. The result was that after all the anti-Semite smoke and mirrors, the nastiest Tory slur yet against Sadiq Khan attracted no negative attention at all. Of course, as Hattenstone's piece made ironically clear, Crosby has nothing to do with Goldsmith's campaign, which is being run by Mark Fullbrook, the 'F' in the political consultants CTF Partners. That's CTF where the 'C' stands for, um, Crosby.

Even more tellingly, this brilliant political riposte bore the classic hallmarks of another Atwater disciple: Karl Rove, who ran the Bush campaigns. Rove's signature ploy was to turn his opponent's strength, and his candidate's weakness, against him. Shrub Bush is an elitist preppie eased through the Ivy League and business by family connections? Call him 'Dubya' like a good ol boy and make Al Gore a 'liar'. Bush dodged the draft and went AWOL on his cushy National Guard gig? John Kerry's a decorated war hero who turned against the Vietnam War? 'Swift Boat' Kerry, make him a 'liar', question his 'patriotism'.

So consider: you've got a campaign based on coded racism, trying to stir up racial fear and hatred. You're accusing your Moslem opponent of at least supporting terrorists. You're fading fast in the polls.  Jeremy Hunt's lust to privatise the NHS and Dave Cameron's spinelessness over Europe are killing you. What do you do? You follow Karl Rove's precepts and make the entire Labour party anti-semitic villains, using something you can twist out of context to make it appear indefensible. . Make the Labour Party the story, accuse THEM of racism, of antisemitism, the most heinous racism of the past century, turn the attention to them. Which three-quarters of the media will do with glee, because they make no pretense of balance, and the other quarter will do because Labour, unlike the Tories in power, are powerless to affect them, they make a pretense of balance, and they fear more than anything being branded fellow-travellers.

Here's a moment from Prime Minister's question time: 'The Prime Minister told the Commons: "Anti-Semitism is racism and we should call it out and fight it wherever we see it. The fact that we have got a Labour Member of Parliament with the Labour whip who made remarks about the transportation of people from Israel to America and talked about a 'solution' is quite extraordinary." ' No one will ever claim Cameron's duff at following a script.

Beyond the utter ruthlessness of the Tory party and its press, there's another bonus in this strategy: you can conflate any criticism of Israel or Zionism with anti-Semitism, a conflation which becomes more pronounced as Israel's policies become harsher and harsher in the occupied territories. Indeed, even the leader of the opposition in the Knesset has just supported the building of more walls around illegal settlements. We've seen that referring to the walling off of Palestinians as part of an 'apartheid' state has got Jimmy Carter called an anti-semite. In the midst of the US presidential primaries, where walls are also an issue,  Hillary Clinton used coded language to accuse Bernie Sanders, a Jew, of anti-Semitism, because he won't join her whole-hearted doubling-down in backing Netanyahu. And no one in America, while castigating Donald Trump's Mexican wall, has dared to compare it or even mention the one in Israel.

It's here a perfect storm meets, the neo-cons and neo-libs looking to support Israel and marginalize the left get both wishes in one package. But there is a real danger here in using antisemitism to try and remove issues from debate. One leading neo-lib columnist attacked the BBC for left-wing politically correct bias for calling ISIS 'so-called Islamic state'. He conveniently forgot how that it was David Cameron himself who complained about BBC's calling ISIS 'Islamic State' on the grounds it gave them 'credibility'. It was on his command to jump, not some secret left-wing strategy, that the BBC rebranded ISIS 'so-called Islamic state'.

Extremism in the defense of Israel knows no limits. Using the anti-semitic slur with reckless abandon cheapens it, dilutes it, and renders it harder to deal with real anti-semitism, and with other forms of real racism. Another internet meme went around last week, quoting Dr. Hajo Meyer, a physicist and Holocaust survivor who died in 2014, around the time Naz Shah was retweeting that now-notorious meme. He said 'an anti-Semite used to be a person who disliked Jews. Now it is a person who Jews dislike'. In this context, Dr. Meyer doesn't seem to have imagined the British right.

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