With accusations of antisemitism hitting the headlines on a regular basis involving high-profile figures such as Ken Livingstone or Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who can be unaware that a passionate battle is being waged? What, though, is the reality behind the headlines?
Karl Sabbagh’s clinical analysis of the facts is perfectly timed. Slurs and accusations against people campaigning for Palestinian rights have, of course, been going on for decades, but the past two years have seen a massive increase in the scope and intensity of the attacks, especially against those on the Left, including Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. As the possibility of a Labour victory looms ever closer, organisations like the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), Labour against Anti-Semitism (LAAS), the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Campaign against Anti-Semitism (CAA) and others have stepped up the campaign. This book is therefore both an account of past activities and a warning of worse to come.
For those unfamiliar with the region’s history, the introductory chapter provides a clear precis, including a step by step refutation of the oft-repeated myths used to justify the original and continuing expulsion and oppression of the indigenous population of Palestine. It follows that, in the face of such incontrovertible evidence, the only recourse open to the pro-Israel lobby is to try to silence the critics.
The diverse methods used emerge from a series of personal accounts. The writer and musician Tom Suarez found that the CAA was not only calling for him to be barred as a public speaker, in Britain as well as the US; but was also campaigning for him to be refused employment anywhere as a musician.
Tony Greenstein, well known as a blogger and activist for Palestinian rights, gives a detailed account of what it is like to be hauled up in front of Labour’s National Constitutional Committee, in a long and traumatic pseudo-legal process. Hundreds of party members have been denounced in this way by teams of people trawling the internet, not so much for anti-Jewish statements as criticism of Israel. The resulting numbers enable the lobby to accuse Labour as a party of not being proactive in rooting out antisemitism “endemic” within its membership.
Jeremy Corbyn and others in the leadership of the party come in for criticism for failing to respond swiftly and robustly to the attacks. The policy of placatory gestures and protestations of innocence appear to have simply invigorated the campaign against Labour.
In his chapter focusing on the vigilante groups, Sabbagh demonstrates how they use anything from de-contextualised quotes to total fabrications, including assertions of verbal exchanges which cannot be verified. In fact, the CAA, a registered charity, specialises in discovering (often invented) antisemitic incidents and intimidating campaigning individuals and groups or venues hosting Palestinian events. Its stated aim is to “ensure ruinous consequences, be they criminal, professional, financial or reputational” for the critics of Israel. They have demanded that prosecutions for “hate speech” be instigated by the Crown Prosecution Service and that academics speaking out on Palestinian rights be sacked. As many people on the receiving end can testify, even if accusations are proven to be false, once a smear has been made the damage has been done. Published retractions (rarely made) may not be read, and most people cannot afford to seek legal redress. The message to other truth tellers is clear: speak out on Israel and this can happen to you as well. Examples of the actual criminalisation of criticism of Israel in the United States should serve as a warning to everyone in this country.
The shameful role played by the media is a recurring theme in Sabbagh’s book. The fact that the CAA’s “polls” on Jewish opinion have been exposed as wildly inaccurate, by Jewish leaders and commentators among others, has not stopped many in the mainstream media from citing them as a serious information source.
Unsubstantiated claims that, for example, one third of British Jews are contemplating emigrating are simply quoted as fact. The absurd, near hysterical reaction of Rabbi Sacks to a perfectly anodyne comment by Jeremy Corbyn is a case in point. Not a single mainstream media outlet seriously questioned his extraordinary comparison with Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech.
Sabbagh’s assessment of the mainstream media in this respect is confirmed by the recent report by the Media Reform Coalition (outlined in the Appendix). It shows that widespread, repeated inaccuracies have tended to promote the notion that the Labour Party is institutionally antisemitic.
At the heart of the book is the controversy surrounding the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism since that has emerged as the weapon of choice of the pro-Israel lobby. The definition itself is uncontroversial, but some of the purportedly “helpful” examples relating to Israel – that the lobby has fought tooth and nail to have included – are highly suspect. The openly declared aim is to conflate any criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Sabbagh demonstrates this in some detail and flags up the dangers of its adoption, citing numerous legal opinions, including that of the lawyer who actually formulated the original definition.
Other key documents provided are transcripts of the Al Jazeera documentary The Lobby, which exposes Israeli government interference in British politics. A similar more recent documentary series on the lobby in the US has been blocked from being aired, but was fortunately leaked via the internet. An account of the accusation of antisemitism made against Baroness Jenny Tonge when she chaired a meeting in parliament is also included.
The cumulative effect of all of this carefully researched and clearly presented data is profoundly chilling. The implications for freedom of speech in Britain – the very foundation of our democracy – are inescapable. Unfortunately, almost by definition, the mainstream media are highly unlikely to review a publication that reveals their own biased and slipshod approach to one of the key issues of our times. Let us hope that word-of-mouth recommendation and the power of the social media will attract the readership that this book deserves.