WeeklyWorker

29.10.2020
Fake campaign now has Oxfam, Amnesty International and anti-capitalism in its sights

New round of lies

With Mike Pompeo widening the circle and Jeremy Corbyn suspended, James Harvey calls for defiance

Just when you thought the weaponisation of ‘anti-Semitism’ could not get any more ridiculous, along comes the American secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to confirm that, no matter how bad you thought things were, they can always get worse.

Reports in the US media suggest that Pompeo is considering labelling prominent NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam, as ‘anti-Semitic’ and discouraging US officials and government agencies from working with them.1 It is widely suggested that this recommendation comes from the office of the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, Elan Carr, Trump’s so-called ‘anti-Semitism tsar’, and is an attempt to link these groups to the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign and criticisms of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.2 Leaks from the state department suggest that the ‘evidence’ drawn up by Carr’s office cites criticisms of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, along with concerns about human rights abuses carried out by the Israeli army and occupation authorities.3

The righteous indignation of these organisations in response to the allegations has been predictable. A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch said: “It’s shocking, confusing, offensive, troubling. I am almost speechless. This sort of smear is deeply troubling and not the sort of thing we would expect from the US government”, while Noah Gottschalk of Oxfam America called the charges “false, baseless and offensive”, adding that “Oxfam does not support BDS or call for the boycott of Israel or any country … [we] have worked on the ground for decades to promote human rights and provide lifesaving support for Israeli and Palestinian communities.”4

Whilst Pompeo’s attack and the hurt response of Oxfam America et al seem to follow what has become a wearingly familiar pattern, there are some novel features in this case. Firstly, the aggrieved parties are not the usual type of target for accusations of anti-Semitism. Campaigners for Palestinian rights, Jewish opponents of Zionism and Israel’s colonial occupation, and socialist critics of the witch-hunt by Labour’s right - it is groups like these that have been slandered as anti-Semitic over the last few years, not the safe establishment NGOs, which are currently in Pompeo’s sights.5 Whilst Amnesty and Oxfam over the years have highlighted abuses of state power internationally or drawn attention to global social and economic inequality, these are licensed critics: they are positively regarded and supported by the great and the good of liberal capitalism.6 Significantly Human Rights Watch is reported to have “a long-established relationship with the state department, the Pentagon and other government agencies ... the group works in close cooperation with administrations from both parties on some issues, providing detailed reporting on rights violations that shape US policy.”7

Secondly, the accuser has plenty of form in defending the Israeli occupation and advancing American imperialism’s agenda in the Middle East, alongside attacks on what he regards as dangerous liberal views on international human rights. In that sense Pompeo’s critique is very much of a piece with Donald Trump’s position on Israel and the overall conduct of US foreign policy: that is why he got the job in the first place and why he was expected to deliver some big foreign policy wins in time to seal Trump’s re-election.8 However, despite the US-brokered agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, and the continuing rumours of some dramatic rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, these successes have had little impact in the campaign or on Trump’s poll ratings.9

In this context Pompeo’s playing of the anti-Semitism card could be part of a last-gasp strategy to woo wavering pro-Israel voters and consolidate his base amongst evangelical Christians. Liberal human rights activists and those considered simply a trifle unsound on the state of Israel are just the types of target to appeal to those constituencies in the closing days of the election campaign. Pompeo might also be playing his own long game - speaking out on ‘anti-Semitism’ and attempting to smear both any critics of Israel and the supporters of BDS in the US, as a marker for his own future presidential ambitions.

Thirdly, could Pompeo’s attack mark ‘peak anti-Semitism’? Are we seeing the diminishing credibility of these accusations as a basis for attacks on political opponents? Whilst the impact of this intervention on the presidential election remains to be seen, Pompeo’s comments have found few echoes in the political mainstream and indeed he has come in for some criticism from even strongly pro-Israel groups, such as the American Jewish World Service and the Anti-Defamation League. They argued that Pompeo’s comments are “neither accurate nor helpful … Rather, this move [defining the NGOs as anti-Semitic] would politicise the fight against anti-Semitism” (my emphasis).10 Isn’t it just this kind of weaponising of anti-Semitism that has been going on internationally since 2015? Why should it now be a problem?

One explanation can perhaps be found in the growing divisions within the Jewish electorate and a deepening political conflict amongst them over Israel.11 As Moshé Machover has shown, the relationship between many American Jews and Israel is becoming strained. Thus the US right’s electoral focus on Israel is now less about trying to win a supposedly united ‘Jewish vote’, more about an appeal to the Christian evangelical right, which has its own theological and teleological motives for actively supporting Zionism.12 As Trump, Pompeo and co chase even harder after this vote, their pro-Zionism becomes ever more exaggerated and their claims about anti-Semitism become ever more risible.

Labour

However, while the accusations about Amnesty International represent Pompeo’s last throw in Trump’s presidential campaign - and perhaps the first in his own attempt in 2024 - smears and slanders are accelerating on this side of the Atlantic. The effect of this campaign of lies within the Labour Party has been the suspension and expulsion of thousands of socialists and the closing down of debate on the Middle East. Although not accused of ‘anti-Semitism’, Blairite Labour MP Stephen Kinnock’s ‘reprimand’ by Keir Starmer for perfectly valid comments made during a parliamentary debate - calling Israel’s occupation “tantamount to profiting from the proceeds of crime” - shows how far this censorship now extends within the party and in public life more generally.13

We have yet to reach peak ‘anti-Semitism’ in Britain. Indeed, with the publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, it is certain that the attack will be put into overdrive. After all, the report claims to have uncovered “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination”. If early indications are anything to go by, the rightwing media are gearing up for a real onslaught on the Labour Party generally, and the left more specifically, in the next few weeks. If past behaviour is any indication of future conduct, the liberal left will join in with gusto, bewailing how a once great party has been brought low by ‘institutionalised’ anti-Semitism, and calling for yet more purges of the left.

Keir Starmer has already praised the “thoroughly professional” report and promised to implement its recommendations “in full”. Understandably, the Zionist camp is delighted with the eminently predictable result. The Campaign Against Antisemitism, which made the initial complaint to the EHRC about Labour anti-Semitism, called the report “groundbreaking”, claiming it shows that under Corbyn’s leadership “the Labour Party became institutionally anti-Semitic”. As for Jeremy Corbyn himself, pathetically, he says that Jewish Labour members were “right to expect the party to deal with anti-Semitism” and expresses his “regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should”. But, he pleads in vindication: “The scale of the problem was ... dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party” - a statement which, of course, led to his instant suspension from the party.

Starmer told reporters:

“If - after all the pain, all the grief, and all the evidence in this report - there are still those who think there’s no problem with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, that it’s all exaggerated, or a factional attack, then, frankly, you are part of the problem too. And you should be nowhere near the Labour Party either.”

Other suspensions and expulsions are bound to follow. It is not because Labour is awash with anti-Semites, but because there are plenty of members who oppose imperialist wars, making the party an unreliable ally as far as the US state department is concerned.

Encouraged by the mainstream press and urged on by Labour’s rightwing, Starmer will surely not be able to resist the chance to finally smash the Labour left and make his control of the party absolute. Former Blairite strategist John McTernan outlined last year how this might be done ideologically, by arguing that the Corbynite left “had fallen prey to the oldest of prejudices” and suggesting that “anti-capitalism masks and normalises anti-Semitism”.14 Thus, a calculated campaign which began with the nonsense of equating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism will shortly reach the even more ridiculous crescendo of identifying socialism with anti-Semitism!15

If the media campaign is already prepared and the finishing touches are being applied to the Labour right’s script, what will be the response of the Labour left to the EHRC report? Past performance does not instil much confidence that there will be any serious fightback against the slanders and the claims of structural anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. The pages of the Weekly Worker over the last five years are full of examples showing the nature of this witch-hunt and the failure of the Labour left to effectively counter it. In many cases this failure is not simply an act of omission - it is actually an act of commission.

A good example is the justification, by former chief of staff Carrie Murphy, of the Corbyn leadership’s handling of alleged anti-Semitism. Clearly getting her retaliation in first before publication of the EHRC report, Murphy says she is proud of how “quickly, transparently and effectively” the Corbyn leadership dealt with the issue within the party.16 The record of which Carrie Murphy is proud is a sorry tale of abandoning leftwing members of the Labour Party in the face of lies and slanders, and leaving good socialists hanging in the wind when they were traduced by the likes of Tom Watson as racist bullies and anti-Semites.17

Unfortunately, this was not just a case of standing idly by in the hope of appeasing the Labour right and their cheerleaders in the media. All too often the Corbyn leadership and its allies in the party apparatus actually joined in the attack and worked to suspend or expel socialists on trumped-up charges.18 Murphy’s lame apologia in advance of the EHRC report will just be the first of many such responses to this new stage in ‘peak anti-Semitism’ in the coming weeks. The pattern is now set and is likely to continue for a while yet. The left will be smeared with anti-Semitism and will respond by continuing to give ground and sacrifice socialists in the face of the attack.

As with Mike Pompeo, the charges and accusations made against political opponents will grow ever more incredible. The bigger the lie, the better. The falsehoods and distortions of ‘peak anti-Semitism’ can be defeated, but it will not be done by quietism or keeping our heads down. The only way to combat these slanders is to fight back, to not give any ground at all and to resolutely defend those under attack. This means exposing the pro-capitalist political agenda of the Starmer leadership and challenging the lies of their friends in the media.

It requires both a political and organisational battle within the party, and it must begin now with a militant response by the Labour left to the EHRC report.


  1. politico.com/news/2020/10/21/state-department-weighs-labeling-several-prominent-human-rights-groups-anti-semitic-430882.↩︎

  2. nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/trump-admin-considers-branding-amnesty-international-other-human-rights-groups-n1244335.↩︎

  3. timesofisrael.com/pompeo-said-planning-to-declare-major-human-rights-groups-as-anti-semitic.↩︎

  4. nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/trump-admin-considers-branding-amnesty-international-other-human-rights-groups-n1244335.↩︎

  5. telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/06/09/mike-pompeo-pledges-push-back-life-becomes-difficult-uk-jews.↩︎

  6. amnesty.org.uk and oxfam.org.uk.↩︎

  7. nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/trump-admin-considers-branding-amnesty-international-other-human-rights-groups-n1244335.For further details about its role as a ’civil society’ NGO, see hrw.org.↩︎

  8. nytimes.com/2019/09/12/us/politics/donald-trump-foreign-policy.html and edition.cnn.com/2020/10/21/politics/trump-foreign-policy-campaign/index.html.↩︎

  9. bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-54437222.↩︎

  10. nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/trump-admin-considers-branding-amnesty-international-other-human-rights-groups-n1244335.↩︎

  11. See, for example, jvpaction.org/jvp-denounces-state-dept.↩︎

  12. ‘End of a love affair’ Weekly Worker May 24 2018.↩︎

  13. dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8876449/Labours-Israel-row-eve-damning-antisemitism-report.html.↩︎

  14. ft.com/content/2448aafc-3b89-11e9-9988-28303f70fcff.↩︎

  15. ‘Weaponising anti-Semitism’ Weekly Worker April 23 2020.↩︎

  16. theguardian.com/politics/2020/oct/26/ex-corbyn-aide-karie-murphy-says-she-is-proud-of-record-on-antisemitism.↩︎

  17. bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-47348617.↩︎

  18. theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/01/chris-williamson-labour-mp-antisemitism-row.↩︎