Would Sir Keir Starmer have Suspended Someone like Nelson Mandela?

JVL Introduction

In his Skye City blog, R.D. Hale argues for a grown-up conversation if we are ever to defeat racism.

Nelson Mandela, he believes, would very likely have been expelled by Labour’s current regime had he ever been a member. His criticism of Israel was so scathing, his solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians so unstinting.

Others have been disciplined for less. Can this be fair or reasonable?

The lessons he draws is that we must learn to listen to each other more, and blame less; that context is so important; that people need to be allowed to make mistakes in which an apology and clarification is sufficient without need for accusations of racism.

“We must focus on education and understanding and avoid spurious and counterproductive accusations of racism, if we are ever to defeat racism.”

This article was originally published by Skye City on Sat 18 Jul 2020. Read the original here.

Would Sir Keir Starmer have Suspended Someone like Nelson Mandela?

It has been suggested on social media that if Nelson Mandela was alive today and a member of UK Labour, his comments on Israel and Palestine would get him suspended. I would like to look at this claim, not to upset people or race bait or divide, but to explore attitudes towards racism and see if we are sometimes guilty of double standards.

Racism, whether that be the apartheid in South Africa or the monstrous antisemitism which led to the holocaust, is one of the great evils of this world. Given that we are exploring such an emotive topic, it is no wonder we sometimes get it wrong.

Recently Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked from the shadow cabinet for sharing an interview with actress Maxine Peake which allegedly contained an “antisemitic conspiracy theory”. This was the suggestion that US cops learned a neck-kneeling restraint from Israeli special forces. If Long-Bailey had made those comments directly, rather than simply sharing the article on Twitter, her punishment would likely have been more severe.

I have heard the argument Long-Bailey’s suspension was justified because Peake suggested George Floyd’s killers were taught this technique by Israel and this claim is false, therefore making it an antisemitic conspiracy theory.

But was this really the intention of either Long-Bailey or Peake? Were either thinking Jews were collectively responsible for George Floyd’s murder? Or that Jews are responsible for much of the evil in the world? Or that the Israeli special forces are representative of the Jewish people? Because when we are talking of antisemitic conspiracy theory, that is what we are implying.

Peake’s comments contained partial truths such as the fact US cops are sometimes trained by Israel. One recent article suggested images from an Israeli website showed these techniques being taught to US cops and another article reported Israel held a seminar for the Minneapolis Police Department in 2012.

While I cannot say how much influence anyone from Israel had on George Floyd’s killers, if any at all, I do not think it’s reasonable to call someone antisemitic for joining up the dots and making an admittedly clumsy comment. It was the type of mistake in which an apology and clarification is sufficient without need for accusations of racism.

There have been many reported cases in which Labour MPs, councillors and ordinary members have been accused of antisemitism and removed from the party for similar mistakes. The term “antisemitic conspiracy theory” is a justification often used.

This got me thinking of Nelson Mandela’s scathing criticisms of Israel and whether any would have led to his suspension from the Labour Party. In all honesty, I believe an ordinary Labour member repeating these words would likely face disciplinary action and possibly expulsion. Would this be reasonable action or an unreasonable attack on freedom of speech? Let’s take a closer look:

Mandela suggested Israel was a terrorist state slaughtering defenceless people and that Israel is treated differently by the international community because its inhabitants are white.

“If one has to refer to any of the parties as a terrorist state, one might refer to the Israeli government, because they are the people who are slaughtering defenceless and innocent Arabs in the occupied territories, and we don’t regard that as acceptable.”

“What we know is that Israel has weapons of mass destruction. Nobody talks about that. Why should there be one standard for one country, especially because it is black, and another one for another country, Israel, that is white.”

Mandela suggested the USA should confiscate Israel’s weapons of mass destruction and expressed solidarity with the PLO. Would such comments be considered support for terrorism?

“Why are they [the USA] not seeking to confiscate weapons of mass destruction from their ally Israel?”

“We identify with the PLO because just like ourselves they are fighting for the right of self-determination.”

“Arafat is a comrade in arms, and we treat him as such.”

Mandela  suggested the fight against South African apartheid is part of the same struggle the Palestinians are facing. Suggesting Israel is an apartheid state is considered somewhat taboo and could possibly land you in hot water.

“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

And Mandela expressed support for violence against oppressors but only as a last resort. Imagine a Labour MP making such comments in defence of the Palestinians.

“Choose peace rather than confrontation. Except in cases where we cannot get, where we cannot proceed, or we cannot move forward. Then if the only alternative is violence, we will use violence.”

After the death of Yasser Arafat on 11th November 2004, Mandela paid tribute to the Palestinian leader who he hailed as an “icon”.

“He was an icon in the proper sense of the word. He was not only concerned with the liberation of the Arab people but of all the oppressed people throughout the world – Arabs and non-Arabs – and to lose a man of that stature and thinking is a great blow to all those who are fighting against oppression.”

The point of this article is certainly not to upset people on either side and absolutely not to attack Nelson Mandela who I see as a heroic figure, but to highlight the importance of nuance, to remind people that when we are screaming “Racist!” we can be guilty of applying double standards.

I personally agree with some of Mandela’s comments and disagree with others, but I would not dare suggest the man was racist because his intentions were clearly the opposite. Also I want Jews to enjoy freedom and safety just as much as I want Palestinians to enjoy freedom and safety. Whatever criticisms I have made of Israel do not deflect from the fact I am on their side too. This may seem like a contradiction but I do not see things in binary terms.

Criticism of Israel is so often referred to as antisemitic conspiracy theory or an attack on the right of Jewish settlers to live freely and peacefully. Antisemitism is unquestionably one of the great evils of this world but so too is anti-Palestinian racism, and sometimes when Labour centrists demand zero tolerance on antisemitism, they risk going too far the other way.

The Israel/Palestine issue is a sensitive matter and one must strike a fine balance. Accusing one person of antisemitism when their intentions are to defend Palestinians is no more constructive than calling someone else racist for wanting to defend Jews. We should be on the side of Jews and Palestinians, but we should equally be free to criticise either side of this conflict without fear. And I am not even trying to offer a “both sides are to blame” argument here. I am simply defending free speech and the right to disagree.

If a person is free to criticise Hamas or Hezbollah, they should equally be free to criticise Likud or Mossad without being wrongly accused of racism. And this is important – you can be impolite or even wrong in your criticism and still not be racist. Tone policing and telling people they can only be considered not racist, if their comments are 100% accurate and meet your approval is not a constructive way to pursue dialogue.

Of course, we should strive to be sensitive when discussing issues like racism, but we should also remember people’s emotions can get in the way of their message. Do we want to understand or misunderstand?

People should always be completely unafraid to highlight crimes against humanity or historical facts. Just because you don’t like someone’s words, does not mean the person is wrong, and even if they are wrong, it does not always follow that punishment is fair or rational. Context is so important.

We must focus on education and understanding and avoid spurious and counterproductive accusations of racism, if we are ever to defeat racism.

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Comments (16)

  • Chris proffitt says:

    What an excellent well expressed article. How can anyone argue with that. .a shame Nelson Mandella is not here to give his approval.

  • RH says:

    “Antisemitism is unquestionably one of the great evils of this world but so too is anti-Palestinian racism ….The Israel/Palestine issue is a sensitive matter and one must strike a fine balance.”

    Oh dear! Far too morally equivocal in identifying the persecutor and the victim.

    “Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. ” Shakespeare : Macbeth

  • Harry Law says:

    Unfortunately the issue of mixing up criticism of ‘Israel’ and ‘Jews’ is done intentionally by supporters of Israel, The late Abba Eban an Israeli leader said “One of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between anti-Semitism and Anti Zionism is not a distinction at all”. Noam Chomsky replied “that is a convenient stand, it cuts off a mere 100% of critical comment” Quoted by Menachem Weker ‘In defence of self hating Jews’ May 2007.
    Of course, according to the IHRA working definition, failing to make that distinction is anti Semitic. Here is example 11 “Holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. There you have it, Both Abba Eban and Keir Starmer are Anti Semites.

  • DJ says:

    Just a reminder. Freedom fighters are always portrayed as terrorists by right wing politicians. In the past Mandela was called a terrorist. The same is true of Yasser Arafat and Gerry Adams. Now we have Trump using the same claim to crack down on the BLM movement in the US. The Israeli attempt to present their oppression of the Palestinians as part of the wat on terrorism is no different.

  • Ieuan Einion says:

    Let’s be fair: before John Cleese says “special subject the bleedin’ obvious,” if Marc Wadsworth was chucked out without further to do under Corbyn, Nelson Mandela would have found himself hanging from one of Labour’s poplar trees under Starmer.

  • Maxine Peak`s statement did not contain “partial truths” but whole truths. Look into JINSA, Jewish Insitute for National security of America, where there are mentions of American law enforcement being trained in Israel. Also Krav Maga, an Israeli counter-terrorism technique taught to American forces. Both these sources lead on to others which also corroborate that Israeli training of Americans was a fairly accepted practice. Micky Rosenfeld, a prominent figure in Israeli security states that Americans come to Israel for instruction. Although he denied that “knee on neck” was on of the restraints used.
    Yet Krav Maga IS an Israeli combat training, many videos of “knee on neck” performed by Israelis are available. Most relevantly Jonathon Fader, a “leading Krav Maga trainer has a video demonstrating the correct usage of “knee on neck” this was posted after George Floyd`s death. Presumably to show the difference between what Chauvin did and what he should have done!!
    Please research ANY of these sources and you will be in no doubt that all statements from Maxine Peak are factually accurate. Or, like Keir Starmer are you too unable to access the internet??

  • Janet Watson says:

    Thank you, JVL, for being the voice of calm reason. Excellent article.

  • Ruth Appleton says:

    Well written! Funnily enough I made just this point about Mandela when our EC of our CLP questionned the credentials of the speakers we invited to our Windrush event as they wanted to control the content and language in case it was anti-zionist. I accused them of probably asking for credentials if they had been faced with Nelson Mandela. They were very angry but they didnt expel me! They know they’re wrong.

  • Jock Orkin says:

    RThis article is like the curate’s egg .To talk of Arafat and Mandela in the same breath is a bit rich .Mandela was a man of outstanding integrity and decency who never believed in revenge .His reaching out to the Afrikaners avoided a blood bath.Arafat ,on the other hand,was corrupt and revelled in bloodshed .He couldn’t make the difficult step from terrorism to statesmanship.His wife is living a luxurious life in Paris on money stolen from the impoverished Palestinians .Indeed his legacy of corruption and inept governance paved the way for Hamas to take over Gaza.And compared to the latter Arafat is a Tzaddick ( a righteous man )
    PS I was a member of the ill fated Rhodesian Olympic Games team in Munich in 1972 .One of my friends Yosef Romano was the first Israeli athletes murdered by Arafat’s terrorists. I was with him the day before he died.

  • John Spencer says:

    I can’t help but recall that Israel supplied apartheid South Africa with the means to make nuclear weapons.

  • RH says:

    I didn’t vote for Starmer. Nor any other leadership candidate, in fact – for the simple reason that I couldn’t endorse anyone who cowered in the face of the Israel lobby.

    But I did genuinely suspend ultimate judgment and was willing to be persuaded by action.

    It looks now that this was a vain hoped-for possibility, and the man is, indeed, a moral vacuum who shames the principles that lie behind the Labour Party, which now forms no ideological opposition to a corrupt and truly awful government intent on abrogating basic civil and medical rights.

    The self-serving belly-crawling involved in withdrawing from the case against the Panorama documentary is close to the last straw – at the opposite pole to Mandela.

  • Stephen Mitchell says:

    What is happening today is intended to prevent Labour Party members from speaking out on Israels treatment of the Palestinians. Ordinary members are to be silenced. I voted for Starmer but I am now very worried about our future.

  • Claude Coopersmith says:

    I don’t recall Mandela ever being ” scathing ” in his critism of Israel. Scathing criticism was not his style or character . After his release he had a warm friendship with many in the SA Jewish Community and this included those who were active or involved in SA Zionist organisations. No finger wagging, no scathing comments and no vitriol It was not his style. He also was very clear that Israel had the right to exist within agreed and secure borders.
    When SA opens to visitors again I would recommend a visit to Lilislief Farm
    Where he spent time in hiding with others who went on to be imprisoned with him. Also the Gallery and Museum at the Constitutional Court. His private Diaries, letters and notes can be seen. Scathing comments, this is man who took tea with Bettsy Verwoed!

  • Doug says:

    Until we prosecute vexatious claims of anti semitism and punish Israel for interfering in our democracy , throw in BDS and War Crimes
    It’s called leverage and in the right hands could resolve all of these issues

  • Elizabeth Ruane says:

    My grandmother was Jewish and I was brought up to be proud of that connection. I watched the rise of the kibbutz movement with pride. The present Israeli government is a different kettle of fish. I find myself a critic of the way the Palestinians are treated and the way that Israel is expanding at the expense of those who have no defence disgusting. My heritage is undermined and I am sad.

  • jeremy godden says:

    If Nye Bevan was alive today would there be pressure to deselect him, because he was an enthusiastic Zionist.

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