For John McDonnell to pretend that Rebecca Long-Bailey lost her shadow cabinet job because she criticised Israel is a piece of sophistry of which he should be ashamed.
Here is the back story. Rebecca Long-Bailey, UK Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, tweeted about an interview given by Maxine Peake, the well-known actor. Peake referred to ‘The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.’ In her tweet, Long-Bailey said that Peake was ‘an absolute diamond.’ Various people pointed out that Peake’s claim about the Israeli secret services sounded rather like very traditional prejudices against Jews as the authors of troubles all around the world. Israel said that Peake’s claim simply wasn’t true. Amnesty, whose report was supposed to be the source of the information, said they’d actually never reported on it. Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, asked Long-Bailey to delete the tweet and apologise for endorsing an antisemitic claim. Long-Bailey amended her comment to say that she wasn’t endorsing everything Peake had said, but refused to apologise. Starmer duly sacked her from her post in the shadow cabinet.
Various people on the far left of the Labour Party complained about the sacking. An especially interesting and revealing complaint was made by John McDonnell, ex-shadow chancellor, and very close colleague of the previous Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Here’s what McDonnell tweeted:
‘Throughout discussion of antisemitism it’s always been said criticism of practices of Israeli state is not antisemitic. I don’t believe therefore that this article is or @RLong Bailey should’ve been sacked. I stand in solidarity with her’
Now, McDonnell is not a stupid or ignorant man. On the contrary, he was one of the more intelligent and competent members of the Corbyn shadow cabinet. And what he’s claiming is that those people who object to what Peake said, and to Long-Bailey’s endorsement of it, are really objecting to criticism of Israel. And then he says that it’s agreed (‘always been said’) that criticism of the practices of the Israeli state is not antisemitic.
Well, first, it’s not true that criticism of the practices of the Israeli state is never antisemitic. Regularly singling out Israel for criticism way beyond that levelled at other far worse states would certainly be antisemitic, just as regularly singling out black criminals way beyond other far worse malefactors would be racist against black people. What is true is that proportionate criticism of Israel isn’t antisemitic.
Second, has it really always been said that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic? No: the widely accepted IHRA definition of antisemitism includes the following words: “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. Similar to that levelled against any other country.
Third, and by far the most important point, is that what’s primarily objectionable about Peake’s remark is not that it amounts to criticism of Israel, but rather that it’s not true. What Peake said, and Long-Bailey praised, is just false. I don’t know if Peake was unaware of the falsehood of this claim when she promulgated it, or if Long-Bailey was likewise unaware when she praised it, but the originator of the claim, whoever it was, will have known it to be false – that is, will have known it to be a lie. A derogatory and prejudicial lie, which rehearses a very old antisemitic trope about Jewish power and cruelty. Peake should perhaps have checked before she circulated it, but she’s an actor, and may have no special interest in finding out the truth about her favoured political causes. Long-Bailey should certainly have checked, since she’s a politician in a senior post in a party which has had problems with antisemitism recently, to put it mildly.
But McDonnell – clever, competent, politically experienced, supposedly principled John McDonnell – shouldn’t even have needed to check. By the time he voiced his solidarity with Long-Bailey, he should have realised that this was a toxic attempt to drag Israel, and Jews, into a dreadful event which they had nothing to do with. Telling lies about Israeli Jews training American police officers how to murder black Americans isn’t criticism of Israel, it’s red-handed antisemitism, guaranteed to discredit the Jewish state and to stir up hostility against those who support it. For McDonnell to pretend that Long-Bailey lost her shadow cabinet job because she criticised Israel is a contemptible piece of sophistry of which he should be thoroughly ashamed.