Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn received his longest and loudest standing ovation at his party’s conference when he called for an “end to the oppression of the Palestinian people” and Israel’s “50-year occupation and illegal settlement expansion.”
This was just one of the ways popular support for Palestinian rights was highly visible at the main UK opposition party’s annual gathering last week.
After some uncertainty last year, when Corbyn spoke at a Labour Friends of Israel reception, the Labour leader appeared to be more confident on the question of Palestine.
Corbyn’s better than expected performance in June’s general election fell just short of making him prime minister, but it did consolidate his control of the Labour Party leadership.
Left-wing magazine Red Pepper reported a new spirit of democratic debate at the conference, and clear signs that “the left has emphatically won Labour’s civil war.”
The other major arrival on the scene at this year’s conference was Jewish Voice for Labour, the new organization which opposes “attempts to widen the definition of anti-Semitism beyond its meaning of hostility towards or discrimination against Jews as Jews.”
The launch of the group was a direct challenge to the Jewish Labour Movement, a pro-Israel organization which has played a key role in a witch hunt aiming to misrepresent the Labour Party as “institutionally anti-Semitic.”
While the Israeli embassy’s allies at the conference were no doubt silently fuming, the mood among delegates was unmistakable – for Palestinian freedom and against Israeli occupation.
Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, a veteran Palestine campaigner and a leading member of Jewish Voice for Labour, also received a standing ovation.
Wimborne-Idrissi was cheered by delegates in the packed Brighton conference center when she called for an end to Israeli occupation, “as a Jew, as an anti-racist and as a dedicated member of this revived socialist, internationalist Labour Party. And comrades, I’m not an anti-Semite!”
Len McCluskey, the leader of the UK’s largest trade union Unite, told the BBC at the conference last week that he “never recognized” that Labour had “a problem with anti-Semitism.” He said the campaign was “mood music that was created by people who were trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn.”
Wimborne-Idrissi’s rapturous welcome during the debate on international policy is another indication that the party grassroots does not buy the “Labour anti-Semitism crisis” story.
In May last year, a poll of members found only five percent agreeing that anti-Semitism is a bigger problem in Labour than in other parties. The largest group – 47 percent – agreed it was a problem, but “no worse than in other parties.”
Wimborne-Idrissi had opened her speech by welcoming the reintroduction into the Labour platform of a key paragraph on Palestine from the party’s election manifesto.
The extract of the conference report restoring the language can be read at the end of this article.
Labour’s election manifesto in June had called for “an end to the [Israeli] blockade” of Gaza, and of its “occupation and settlements.” It also promised a Labour government would “immediately recognize the state of Palestine.”
Although this party line on settlements was already a watered down position compared to an earlier leaked draft, the right-wing party bureaucracy seems to have been responsible for removing it altogether.
Battle behind scenes
The report offered a general endorsement of a “two-state solution,” but eliminated criticism of Israel, including its settlements which are illegal under international law.
Some weeks later, an anonymous “senior Jewish Labour source” claimed to the Jewish Chronicle that the new wording was “better than the election manifesto and a bit of a success.”
Earlier, the Jewish Labour Movement, a pro-Israel group, took credit for watering down the language in the election manifesto.
The Jewish Labour Movement did not reply to a request for comment.
“The leader’s office won a behind-the-scenes battle” over Labour’s policy on Palestine, according to Labour Party expert Alex Nunns, writing in Red Pepper.
Corbyn “was livid at the omission” and “put his foot down,” insisting the paragraph be restored at the conference, according to Nunns.
Nunns, the author of a book about the popular movement that brought Corbyn to the leadership, told The Electronic Intifada that the National Policy Forum’s process is opaque, so it was unclear how it was drafted, and on whose initiative the paragraph was removed.
Delegates also debated a controversial rule change on anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, a compromise proposal backed by Labour’s ruling national executive.
The Jewish Labour Movement had been pushing what one national executive member called a “more draconian” rule change that would have allowed expulsion of party members “where the victim or anyone else” considered a statement to be anti-Semitic.
But at the conference, Jewish Labour Movement vice-chair Mike Katz withdrew his group’s proposed rule change in favor of the national executive’s compromise.
Katz appeared annoyed as he spoke, calling for an end to accusations “of witch hunts and weaponizing anti-Semitism” to stifle criticism of Israel.
Katz may have been rattled by the audience’s warm welcome to the delegate who spoke immediately before him – Jewish Voice for Labour’s Leah Levane.
Levane’s local party had put forward a competing rule change to the one Katz’s group was proposing. Levane said her local party had come under great pressure to withdraw its motion and was doing so to preserve unity, despite misgivings that the compromise “leaves some gaps.”
She complained that, unlike the Jewish Labour Movement, her local party was given no input on the compromise and condemned those who make the accusation of anti-Semitism “every time you criticize the despicable behavior of the state of Israel.”
Levane received a standing ovation for a speech rejecting the right of the Jewish Labour Movement to “speak for me” and “many other Jewish Labour members.”
New Jewish group
The launch of Jewish Voice for Labour was the talk of the entire conference. “It was the only meeting of the official fringe that people were talking about. There was a real buzz about it,” author Alex Nunns told The Electronic Intifada.
Jewish Voice for Labour says its launch was attended by more than 300 people, with palpable excitement among the standing room-only crowd.
The biggest welcome was for surprise guests, including award-winning director Ken Loach.
To loud cheers, Unite leader Len McCluskey and Tosh McDonald, president of the train drivers union ASLEF, both announced that their unions would affiliate to Jewish Voice for Labour.
Jewish Voice for Labour’s founding comes as a vigorous challenge to the pro-Israel Jewish Labour Movement.
But the Israeli state’s allies within Labour still appear unwilling to abandon the anti-Semitism smears, as the expulsion of Israeli anti-Zionist Moshé Machover on Tuesday shows.
It is in this context that they are embracing – and being welcomed – by a new group that takes a strong stance against anti-Jewish bigotry and defends the right to criticize Israel and its Zionist state ideology.
Has the witch hunt finally started to backfire?