by Jeremy Newmark, Political consultant and Vice-Chair of Elstree & Borehamwood Labour Party
I agree with Jeremy Corbyn – on one thing at least. Speaking at the JW3 hustings, the new Labour leader opposed academic boycotts of Israel. He said: “I’m not in favour of preventing academic arrangements…” (He added a caveat about arms research) but, essentially, he supported collaboration between UK and Israeli academics.
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Opposition to the academic boycott doesn’t sit naturally with Corbyn’s broader stance on Israel. A patron of the rejectionist Palestine Solidarity Campaign, he describes himself a “friend” of Hamas and Hezbollah. He defended blood libeler Raed Salah and anti-Israel vicar Stephen Sizer. He was a supporter of Deir Yassin Remembered, despite it being run by a Holocaust denier. So why this lone oasis of political common sense?
Arguably, the reason Corbyn takes this position on academic boycotts is because of a decade of hard graft and political education undertaken by activists opposed to left-wing anti-Semitism within the Labour movement. It is no coincidence that this is the single issue where a sustained campaign of political education has taken place over a long period – from the 2006 higher education unions AUT and NATFHE boycott proposals, through the trench warfare-like campaign to oppose boycotts inside the University and College Union and more recent developments inside the National Union of Students. While all is not rosy in this arena, the fact remains that not a single UK university has ever implemented a boycott. Even Corbyn accepts academic boycotts are bad news.
This particular campaign has worked. For multiple reasons, but primarily because as well as doing the shouting from the rooftops, the behind the scenes lobbying and the legal legwork – we also did the politics, won the arguments and made the alliances. Led by stalwarts such as Engage – the left-wing campaign against anti-Semitism, we built a robust political discourse, rooted in the politics of the left and deployed it in their own back yard. It required patience and focus. It didn’t solve all the problems around UCU anti-Semitism, but it did the academic boycott remained a red line.
It is this experience that should shape the attitude of Jewish Labour Party members to Corbyn’s leadership. I am not saying we can relax and celebrate Corbyn’s opposition to academic boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Corbyn was compelled to oppose academic BDS because of the political job that was done around that issue. We now need to replicate that on broader issues.
There will be those Jewish Labour members whose first reaction is to resign. I understand that. But if we walk away, Israel’s case will be lost by default. Labour is going to be a tough environment for a while. But with sustained political engagement, it will be possible to win some arguments and to maintain ‘red lines’.
For instance, while I find it shameful that any Labour MP, let alone our party leader would describe Hamas and Hezballah as “friends”, focusing on a lone quote won’t ‘win the politics’. We must take on on the next part of Corbyn’s infamous Hamas/Hezbollah remarks. We must challenge the Corbynites on why they think that those committed to genocidal murder of Jews are “dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people” and why they are “bringing about long-term peace and political justice in the region”. This kind of discourse can’t be batted away so easily by citing the need to engage with enemies. It implies ideological alignment with those enemies. But we can’t have that debate if all we do is play the ‘guilt by association’ game. We can’t have that debate from a position of influence if we all resign.
Even if Corbyn can never become PM, as some say, or if his leadership doesn’t last beyond the May 2016 local elections, there is still much to play for. While the assault upon Israel’s legitimacy is happening in civil society and trade unions, the stance of the Labour Party will matter. Its policies ultimately shape the political space that the Government has in which to operate on key issues.
This will not be a pleasant or easy struggle. We have already seen that the secretive Socialist Action-led cabal behind Corbyn’s machine prefers to denounce, attack and delegitimise critics rather than engage with the politics behind the criticism. They are the people who shaped Ken Livingstone’s responses to moments such as the Qaradawi affair and the Finegold saga. But Jewish Labour activists fought back and made new friends and allies; many of whom are still here for us today.
That is why now is not the moment to walk away. It matters that Jewish Labour members stay involved, stay engaged and play an active role in branches and constituency Labour parties, at a regional and national level.
I look forward to seeing many activists who will play a role at Labour Party Conference later this month. The fightback starts there.