Tackle Anti-Semitism Because It Is Racism, Not to Avoid Difficult Questions About Israel and Palestine

09/05/2016 12:41 | Updated 09 May 2016

In recent weeks legitimate concerns about anti-Semitism and its relationship to the conflict in the Middle East have been used as weapons to gain party advantage ahead of the local elections, and, on both sides of the argument, to boost egos or settle old scores within my own Party. They are too important for that. So please forgive me if I try to stick to the issues instead.

Anti-Semitism, like all racism, is pernicious. Whether born of ignorance or of prejudice, it has no place in any political party or in society.

I have always believed this, but seeing two places for myself made it more real for me. One was visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Israel. Seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau with a group of sixth-form students from the West Midlands had even more impact on me. You see the railhead where over a million were brought into the death camp, to then be crammed together in sheds, waiting to be murdered on an industrial scale. Six million died in what the Nazis called 'the final solution to the Jewish question'. It's an experience that never leaves you. A lesson about where racism can lead.

I am not Jewish, I do not claim to have lived my life under the spectre of anti-Semitism. However, I have personally been the target of anti-Semitic abuse, harassment and threats in recent years. The person doing it was arrested and convicted. Somewhere along the line he had convinced himself that I was Jewish and that my advocacy for Palestinian human rights showed that I was some kind of sinister double-agent. His image was fantasy but the impact of the threats was real - not only on me but on my family and staff too.

So when Jews or any other religious or ethnic group feel they are experiencing racist attitudes in any political party, I know we must take it seriously. That is why Jeremy Corbyn has been right to set up the inquiry led by Shami Chakrabarti. But if the inquiry is going to chart how we more effectively tackle anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other racism, it is likely that it is going to have to try to define these things. That is not going to be easy.

Most people commenting on the need to fight anti-Semitism also emphasise that this should not mean stifling legitimate criticism of the actions of the state of Israel, particularly towards the Palestinians. However, there are those who use allegations of anti-Semitism as smears to do precisely that. Take a look at some of the abuse I and others get on social media and you will see what I mean.

It's dangerous territory too. Because in some cases the allegations are well founded. There really are people who try to use the Palestinian issue as a cover for peddling anti-Semitic tropes. So it is understandable that many Jews hear alarm bells ring when arguments about the conflict in the Middle East seem to move to a questions of Israel's right to exist. The threat can feel like it's about more than Israel as a state. It feels like a threat to them as Jews; a threat to their identity, to their right to self-determination and ultimately to their own survival. The collective memory of the Holocaust is real and it is raw. Whatever the arguments about how Zionism developed in the early 20th century or how Israel was created in 1948, nobody should doubt the importance to Jews of knowing there is a refuge of last resort. It's also about more than that. A Rabbi to whom I was speaking recently put it like this. She said that Israel is not only the place where you know your safety as a Jew is paramount. It is also where you know your right be yourself is secure - whatever may happen elsewhere. Durable peace in the region will not be achieved unless the depth of these beliefs is recognised by all.

There are however, also those who routinely use allegations of existential threats to Israel to silence criticism and to monopolise the parameters of debate about the future. Israel's current Prime Minister is perhaps the best known example of this.

But the difficult questions do not go away. Israel's internationally recognised borders take in around eighty per cent of historic Palestine. Since 1967 Israel has also occupied the remaining twenty per cent - directly in the case of the West Bank and through ongoing military control of access by land, sea and air in Gaza. Colonisation of the West Bank continues through the building of settlements and through a military machine to maintain control. Settlements violate one part of the Geneva Convention, meanwhile the military strategy protecting the rights of settlers above those of Palestinian West Bankers, regularly violates another part of it. The world repeatedly expresses disapproval but the occupation carries on, physically changing the nature of the West Bank in a way that will soon make the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel impossible. Some mainstream commentators say the occupation has done so already.

That is why more and more people are now asking what is left if Palestinians continue to be denied the right to separate statehood that Israel demands for itself. Permanent occupation and military rule for Palestinians living in the West Bank while settlers living there have full rights as citizens of Israel? Or is it time for a different path to peace? If the prospect of two separate states is no longer viable and if occupation based on national, racial and religious segregation is incompatible with democracy, is it time to look for another way forward? Is it time to try to find a way of sharing the land on the basis of equal rights for all rather than of two separate states? It's a question that is increasingly being asked in Israel and in Palestine. It's a valid question to be asked internationally too. Yet there are some who would try to claim that even raising these kinds of questions risks delegitimizing Israel's right to exist and must therefore be anti-Semitic. They are entitled to that view but they are not entitled to demand that others must be silenced.

For the record, I am someone who still wants the two-state solution to be saved - even at this eleventh hour and fifty ninth minute. That is why I want action, not simply words, to stop the settlement building. It is why I want to see the UK Government act on Parliament's October 2014 resolution to recognize the state of Palestine as unequivocally as we recognize the state of Israel. It's why I'll also carry on talking both to Israelis and Palestinians across the political spectrum. Sometimes I hear outlooks expressed on both sides with which I profoundly disagree. But if continuing to engage with them helps the search for a durable peace, it's worth it.

There will continue to be disagreement about all these matters - and more - both in the Labour Party and elsewhere. But there's one thing on which we can all unequivocally agree: that our rules as a Party must place an obligation on all of us to approach those disagreements in a way that is free from anti-Semitism and islamophobia. That means also not using the rules either to smear or to close down legitimate debate.