An exercise in futility
For the leadership of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign it as though the last four years of ‘anti-Semitism’ smears and the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn had not happened. Tony Greenstein reports on the AGM.
One of the few highlights of the January 25 annual general meeting of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign was the excellent speech given by Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and a co-founder of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Almost alone Omar denounced the IHRA for branding BDS and solidarity with the Palestinians as anti-Semitic. Fortunately for him, he did not stay for the rest of the day!
Clearly someone had not briefed Omar properly (or maybe he ignored them), because the first thing he said was that the last time he spoke at the PSC’s AGM in 2012 the session had been chaired by none other than a certain Jeremy Corbyn! Prior to becoming leader of the Labour Party Corbyn had attended every AGM for a decade. He spoke, chaired and participated in sessions.
Omar obviously had not been made aware that Jeremy had become a non-person in the PSC ever since being elected leader - you can search the Annual Report and Plan 2019 without coming across a single mention of him. It is as if Corbyn had never existed. But for the PSC leadership this is understandable - when you need the approval of Lisa Nandy and others on the Labour right, you have to keep your distance from people like Corbyn (and even more so Chris Williamson).
The result of the general election was also not worth mentioning, it seems. The fact that the Zionists were congratulating themselves at how well their smear campaign had gone just proved that it was better to say nothing. With all the ‘logic’ of a child, the PSC executive believes that if you say nothing about something then it doesn’t exist.
When I spoke in the debate (if that is the right word) on the annual report, I remarked that the wonderful thing about PSC conference is that it operates in a parallel universe. It is like living in a bubble. However bad things are outside the conference hall, everything is going fantastically and according to plan inside.
The repeated attempts of the Board of Deputies and the Zionists to ban our meetings? It doesn’t happen. It is almost as though Zionism does not exist. You can search the executive documents and there is not a single mention of the dreaded word. It is as if what happens to the Palestinians has nothing to do with the Zionist movement, which officially does not exist. There is no logic behind the dispossession of the Palestinians.
The executive and those who control it have deliberately discouraged any form of political education. I cannot remember the PSC ever sponsoring a tour by an Israeli or Jewish anti-Zionist. There is no attempt to provide any explanation for what is happening in Palestine bar the crudest nationalist formulations. There is no analysis of our enemies or the Zionist movement in Britain. Not once has the PSC called out the Board of Deputies for what it is - a bunch of racist small businessmen, whose primary concern is support for Israel.
When I say ‘those who control it’, I am referring to the subterranean, quasi-Stalinist group, Socialist Action, and the other offshoots of the long gone International Marxist Group, such as the Communist League. SA is unique on the left in having virtually no open or public presence. It has no paper - just a website and an occasional email.
Yet despite this it managed to get involved, firstly, in Ken Livingstone’s inner circles within the Greater London Council and then into Corbyn’s. It is a group whose chief theoretician, John Ross, seriously believes that the sweatshops of Shenzin and the concentration camps for one million Uighurs are examples of socialism rather than a form of state-directed capitalism.
Although there was no mention of the defeat of Corbyn, there is little doubt that the effects of that defeat have taken their toll. The conference was without doubt more rightwing than last year. Whereas in 2019, when I stood for secretary against SA’s Ben Soffa, I obtained nearly 40% of the vote, this year I got just 22%.
Both motions on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism went down to defeat. It is crystal-clear that the executive has given up on the issue. This was summed up by Jonathan Rosenhead of Jewish Voice for Labour, who said we have to accept defeat and move on. Whilst this might make some tactical sense in terms of the 150 councils that have adopted the IHRA, that does not apply to campaigns like the PSC.
This is wholly defeatist. The IHRA is the main weapon not only of the Zionists, but of the ruling class in its attempt to outlaw free speech on Palestine and Zionism. It is about British foreign policy in the Middle East. The IHRA is being used by Trump to tar BDS with the label of ‘anti-Semitism’ in the United States and in Germany. The fact is that the Palestine solidarity movement simply cannot afford to accept defeat on the IHRA. What it means is accepting decisions such as that of the Tower Hamlets mayor, New Labour’s John Biggs, on Holocaust Memorial Day to ban a meeting by Stand Up To Racism because it included Glynn Secker, national secretary of the JVL.
Ironically the PSC executive and local activist Sybil Cock were boasting of their work in Tower Hamlets. Last year the mayor refused to allow the Altab Ali Park - named after a victim of racists - to be the rallying point for the Big Ride for Palestine. So what did the PSC demand? They asked the council not to withdraw support for the IHRA, but to add a ‘free speech’ clause! That is like asking the British National Party to undertake not to discriminate against anyone! The whole point of the IHRA is that it was intended to prevent free speech.
As I tried to stress, although the battle against the IHRA has been lost for the time being in local government, it is very much a live issue in universities. To abandon the fight against it - and I hope that Jonathan Rosenhead’s views do not represent those of the JVL - is irresponsible and nothing short of political cowardice. Some universities have adopted it and some have not. Given that the lecturers’ University and College Union is the only trade union to oppose the IHRA, there is a good basis for an alliance between students and academics. I suggested that the PSC call a demonstration on the campuses of any university which adopts the IHRA and that in the meantime it sets in train a campaign with academics and students. But for the PSC/Socialist Action the IHRA is no longer a priority.
What is clear is that all the trade union representatives on Labour’s national executive voted for the IHRA. So what this is really about is the executive not wishing to challenge the union leaders. This too is in line with Socialist Action’s ‘strategy’ of sweet-talking union bureaucrats rather than politically challenging them. Essentially the union leaders, craving respectability, sought to solve the ‘anti-Semitism crisis’ by caving in to every demand of the Zionist Board of Deputies. They supported the IHRA despite the fact that it impinges on the rights of their own members - such as Stan Keable, who was sacked by Hammersmith and Fulham council simply for speaking his mind on a demonstration. They did so despite their own pro-Palestinian policy - including support for BDS, which the IHRA deems ‘anti-Semitic’.
At the PSC trade union conference last October, I was asked to leave, because I was handing out leaflets on the IHRA, because PSC director Ben Jamal had written to Brighton and Hove PSC stating that the IHRA could not be included as part of the agenda.
On a positive note, an emergency motion was passed, committing the PSC to resist the new Tory government’s proposals to make BDS illegal in the public and statutory sector. That was made clear when it was announced that the PSC had already taken part in a meeting of 35 unnamed organisations because of the threat to freedom of speech. But my fear is that, given the leadership’s attitude, any campaign the PSC is involved in is destined to fail.
I made the point that the main thrust of our opposition should not be on the grounds of free speech, but on the threat to international solidarity. Under such proposals not only would the boycott of apartheid South Africa have been illegal, but so too would the Jewish boycott of Nazi Germany - this is the best answer to the Zionist charge of ‘anti-Semitism’, by the way.
In 1933 all over the world Jews and others began a massive boycott campaign against Germany. Without doubt it made the Nazis worried, as Germany had an export-driven economy and the boycott was hitting it hard. However, the Zionists refused to support it and instead negotiated a trade agreement - Ha’avara - with the Nazis, whose purpose was to destroy the boycott (in which it succeeded). This is the basis of the - quite correct - allegation that Zionism collaborated with the Nazis. Ben Soffa’s fatuous point that the boycott of Nazi Germany was not about council investment is wrong. In the 30s the demand was that everyone, including public institutions, should refrain from buying German goods. The parallels with Israel could not be more exact.
There was one surprise in the elections. The long-standing (but otherwise unknown) campaigns officer, Steve Bell, was ousted by activist Adie Mormech. I suspect that Adie will either be incorporated into the overall culture or left stranded.
As for the motions, the one on opposition to Zionism proposed by Maoists was not taken because the mover was not present - which is a pity, since it would have made for an interesting debate! But the most absurd motion on the agenda, which was in the end remitted to the executive, came from Camden PSC and Sabby Sagall. It seriously proposed adopting the definition of anti-Semitism from the Zionist thug group otherwise known as the Community Security Trust.
I also proposed a motion on opposition to two states. It should be clear today, with Israel about to annex much of the West Bank (having been given the green light by Trump), that any ‘two-state solution’ is dead (if it was ever alive, which is doubtful). The response from the executive was that it is for the Palestinians, not us, to decide. What this means in practice is concealing the PSC’s tacit support for two states, using the Palestinians as its firewall. In reality it is absolutely clear that Palestinian opinion has swung decisively against two states. Only the Quisling administration of Mahmoud Abbas still supports it (in theory anyway).
But in any case the job of a solidarity organisation is different from that of a national liberation movement (which unfortunately the Palestinians do not possess). Our job as a solidarity organisation is to persuade people and organisations to support the Palestinians and oppose Zionism. However, the first question people ask us is, what is the ideal solution, what are we aiming for?
Given a situation where there is today one greater Israel, the goal of one state, where everyone has equal political, religious and civil rights, seems obvious. But to the PSC, which is trying to accommodate trade unions wishing to both support the Palestinians and not fall out with the Zionists, two states is critical.
The point I made in introducing the resolution is that two states is an apartheid solution. Can anyone imagine the anti-apartheid movement supporting two states - one for whites and one for blacks - 30 years ago? Yet that is effectively the position of the PSC. It is no wonder that it rejects any mention of the word, ‘Zionism’ - that might force it to conclude that the Israeli state is illegitimate. Instead support for the two-state solution means that the PSC can call Israel ‘apartheid’ without specifying what that means in terms of the replacement (if any) of the Zionist state.
It seems to me that the PSC AGM is an exercise in futility. It is pointless because there is no serious debate on the annual report and plan, which is always nodded through, and there is no mechanism for amending it. The PSC executive is the nearest thing to a self-perpetuating oligarchy. In order to keep control the leadership wants an organisation which says nothing politically and has a sterile, sloganistic political culture. PSC has been largely absent from the many debates over Palestine and Zionism in Britain over the years, because it has little or nothing to say.
The question which I asked at the AGM remains unanswered: namely what is the purpose of the PSC? Presumably not merely to educate and inform British people and win the labour movement to its side, but to translate that support into political effectiveness. Yet today there is not one MP, bar Corbyn himself, who is a patron of PSC. There are no MPs willing to support BDS openly. The one MP who was prepared to stand up and oppose Zionism was abandoned and received no support from the PSC.
When the PSC decided to abstain from the ‘anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt and to say nothing about the attacks of the Zionists on Corbyn, it demonstrated how purposeless the organisation is. Corbyn is the most pro-Palestinian leader any major political party has ever had and it was inevitable that he would be the victim of a Zionist ambush. It was the duty of PSC to speak out against the Zionist dirty tricks brigade. Instead they said nothing.
In a letter to Brighton and Hove PSC, Ben Jamal stated that it had been decided not to offer support in individual “disciplinary cases”, but the expulsions of Jackie Walker, Marc Wadsworth and myself were not “disciplinary” - they were political. The same goes for the suspension and expulsion of hundreds of others. Even when Electronic Intifada journalist Asa Winstanley was suspended by Labour for having written things considered offensive by the Jewish Labour Movement, the PSC executive and their officers said nothing - not even about the spiteful and vindictive decision to deny him a press pass to the Labour conference.
If I was in the Zionist Federation, I would go down on my hands and knees and give thanks that such a major pro-Palestine grouping is so supine and timid.