Sun, 01 Aug 2021

Are Israel's Militant Tendency Conspiring against the Left?

(Op-ed) Chris Friel
15 Dec 2019, 19:06 GMT+10

Last Easter an antisemitism crisis erupted in the UK setting the Jewish Community against the Labour Party, or more precisely the leader Jeremy Corbyn. Along with those who quickly suspected a conspiracy I have argued that the row was coordinated as a pre-emptive smokescreen - one week later a massacre took place at the Gaza fence in the Great March of Return. This is a very controversial narrative, one that may itself appear a smokescreen, an antisemitic one at that.

What happened was that a six-year-old comment was dredged up in which Corbyn had defended the existence of an allegedly antisemitic mural. Shocked and surprised, a prominent Jewish MP of the Labour Right complained, established Jewry demonstrated, and the House of Commons held a debate. All this was reported by the press with interminable indignation. I have explained elsewhere why the evidence points to a conspiracy, but here I will just recall that the Jewish Chronicle argued there could be no such thing since the MP in question (Luciana Berger, who at the time of writing has just defected from the Party) had only come across Corbyn's comment that weekend. Because this "myth of the last straw" collapses under journalistic scrutiny, however, the "conspiracy theory" cannot ipso facto be dismissed, or for that matter condemned as antisemitic.

But it will be objected that, while it may not be antisemitic to claim that this or that politician plotted to undermine an opponent, to charge the community as a whole with skulduggery is. It's tantamount to labelling the whole group with bad faith. Hence the plea of David Hirsh writing in Open Democracy: Stop accusing the Jewish Community of conspiring against the Left.

Yet a mountain was made of a molehill. Corbyn's comment recalling Rockefeller's destruction of a mural in 1933 can hardly be the real reason for the outrage even the editor of the Chronicle had defended the mural's existence four days after Corbyn had done. And unsurprisingly, perhaps, Berger seems to have tacitly forgotten all about her last straw since her defection. The key factor, I believe, is time for the molehill had the power to move mountains. And what a mountain. As was particularly clear in the Times, the coverage of the Gaza killings was quite eclipsed by the "scandal."

To explain these facts we need to understand Israel's troll army, what I call the "grass roots Zionist hawks." While these groups may have a degree of autonomy from the State of Israel, they are committed to defending its legitimacy and warding off the threat of boycotts. They are very noticeable in social media, the Twitter handle @GnasherJew being a prime example. They have all the uniformity of an army, and with their extreme rhetoric they engender a shrill paranoia.

Their weapon of choice is the accusation of antisemitism, and a close study of the circumstances behind "MuralGate" clearly reveals their hand. To take another illustration of the very same strategy (of ambiguous remarks rehashed and served up to orchestrated howls of rage), two years before his surprise election Corbyn had mildly criticised hawks associated with Richard Millett for lacking irony despite living in Britain all their life. When Millett brought this to light five years later, Britain's most revered Rabbi, in an intervention invoking the rhetoric of "rivers of blood," put the "murder of British Jews" and "Jeremy Corbyn" together in the same sentence.

How did the hawks so "ginger up" the community? Polarised and polarising, they adopt the philosophy in which the concept of the political reduces to friends versus enemies in the context of existential threat. Pace Hirsh, a failure to understand how the hawks have exerted their leverage only invites antisemitism for the agenda of the Jewish community is not ineluctably militant.

Let's consider in turn how the hawks gingered up the Jewish leadership, politicians on the Labour Right, and the press.

As a demographic British Jews tend to Conservatism with the Zionist majority being opposed to BDS. From the outset, intelligent Conservatives voiced their alarm at the Labour leader: with his history of pro-Palestine activism Corbyn posed a threat to the legitimacy of Israel, increasing the chance of BDS making the mainstream. Writing on the day of his election, the political editor of the Chronicle was prescient: should violence flare up in Gaza Corbyn would be in his element, especially on the streets. It was not that the establishment had an extreme agenda, for example, it had criticised the hawkish CAA for seeking the prosecution of a Hezbollah flag waver marching in London. But when that group made clear its intention to demonstrate three days after Corbyn's comment was "discovered" the establishment must have felt pressured to make a statement.

Again, neither Gaza nor BDS were the prime concern of the Labour Right. But Corbyn, whose power- base lay in the grass roots of the Party rather than the Parliamentarians, had surprisingly gone from strength to strength since his shock election. So the Right of his own Party had little alternative but to undermine the popularity of their own leader in the way they did, manifesting exaggerated outrage at the hawks' kompromat when they had never done so before.

Finally, the right wing media were eager to use the material on offer, even suggesting it had only come to light since Corbyn's election. But close analysis demonstrates that the "files" were put together long before 2015 and so could only be the work of the hawks. So uncritical were the mainstream of their sources, however, that the nature and operation of the extremists went unchallenged, for example, the manner in which Millett had unrepentantly Nazified BDS. Throughout the summer, almost, it was as though the Guardian had made Millett editor.

As I claimed, this narrative finds support in a mass of detail. But it is a hard saying, too hard, in fact, for the audience who have participated in a pantomime more obfuscating than a pile of tyres in Palestine.

Yet a hard saying may yet be a true saying, as the prophetic tradition attests. The book of Amos is critical of the nations, Gaza, for example, and Edom-"because he pursued his brother with the sword." But the real indictment is for Israel. With utter pathos, and writing "two years before the earthquake" the prophet compares Israel to a "basket of summer fruit." Amos attacks the leaders: kings, priests, and upper classes. But the judgement affects the whole people. A judgement of justice; a prophetic word against idolatry.

It is the "small number of antizionist Jews" that Hirsh dismisses who are the heirs to this tradition. Only they speak out against the idols. Wasn't the defence minister making an idol of sovereignty when he warned unarmed protesters gathering at the fence, "Harm our sovereignty and you will be harmed"? Hirsh rebukes those speaking "as a Jew," but to my mind they speak as a modern day Amos. We must listen to their prophetic word and their judgement against the hawks as if it was the Word of God.

But the first step is to ask in all seriousness, what is going on?

(The writer Doctor Chris Friel taught maths for many years before undertaking, first, a masters in Philosophy, and second, doctoral research on value and credibility in the thought of Bernard Lonergan. In 2018 he investigated at length the "purposely timed hysteria" of the pro-Israel hawks in the UK amidst the antisemitism crisis, and in 2019 has devoted an equally lengthy exploration of the Pell case and its context).

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