In a febrile, political and media age the proverbial lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. Lying is one thing but politicizing racism is something entirely different.
The leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has fought racism all of his political life yet his leadership and party have been dogged by claims of anti-Semitism throughout his tenure.
Renowned U.S political scientist, academic, activist and author, professor Norman Finkelstein, met up with Renegade Inc. to discuss whether there is any substance to all of these allegations or has anti-Semitism been weaponized by Corbyn’s opponents for their political gain?
Challenging the status quo
Given that his primary fields of expertise are the Israeli-Palestine conflict and the politics of the Holocaust, professor Norman Finkelstein is ideally placed to comment on the supposed anti-Semitism crisis currently affecting the UK Labour party. Indeed, Finkelstein says that the focus of his attention at present relates to the way the Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s historical support of the Palestinian cause reflects more widely his support for issues likely to challenge the existing political status quo while offending the establishment media and political class – the “British elite and Jewish community in the UK.” These are the people who stand to benefit from the said status quo.
Corbyn holds out the promise of real change in British society. For those who are comfortable with [this state of affairs]… Corbyn poses a real threat
More specifically in relation to Israel, Finkelstein sees the establishment attacks on Corbyn as part of an historical phenomenon.”Since the 1970s, every time Israel faces a public relations debacle they start up with what’s called the new anti-Semitism”, says Finkelstein. The latest incarnation is outlined here.
According to Finkelstein, the form this latest phase has taken is unprecedented:
“It’s totally predictable that since Corbyn is known to be sympathetic to the rights of Palestinians they [the establishment] would start up a new anti-Semitism campaign. That was a given. But there is a variable and it’s very interesting what happened. Usually, these campaigns are spearheaded by the Jewish organizations. But something different happened this time. Corbyn presented a threat, not only to Israel and Israel’s supporters, he posed a threat to the whole British elite across the board. From the Guardian to The Daily Mail, they all joined in the new anti-Semitism campaign.”
Finkelstein called the British elites attacks against Labour’s alleged anti-Semitism problem a “completely contrived, fabricated, absurd and obscene assault, of which there is exactly zero evidence. Zero.”
Finkelstein also added some much needed nuance:
“There’s no threat of anti-Semitism in British society. I’ve read all the data. I’ve studied it closely. It just doesn’t exist. It’s all being designed and manipulated. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories as you know, but this is a conspiracy [used for political gain].
Finkelstein acknowledges that the threat to the Jewish community resulting from any backlash against contrived anti-Semitism engineered by a politically-motivated minority, is a potentially real one. But a bigger problem than this ‘boy who cried wolf’ scenario, he says, is the possibility that the witch hunt hysteria will result in a decline in Labour party membership. The said membership might then blame it on Jews responsible for fabricating the ‘crisis’. “Jews were the spearhead of this campaign to stop Corbyn and so there’s going to be a lot of anger within the Labour Party. That’s not anti-Semitism, that’s factually based”, claims Finkelstein.
The Jewish academic, who in his book The Holocaust Industry, argues that the memory of the Holocaust is exploited and used as an “ideological weapon” in order to “cast [Israel]… as a victim state”, thereby providing it with “immunity to criticism”, posits that leading Jews “play the most visible and aggressive role in relation to the anti-Corbyn campaign.”
“The British elites could not have gotten away with calling Corbyn an anti-Semite unless they had the visible support of all the leading Jewish organizations”, says Finkelstein, who reiterates the conspiratorial nature of the attacks against the Labour leader:
“You have to remember that during the summer, for the first time in British-Jewish history, all three major British publications took out a common editorial denouncing Corbyn as an anti-Semite and saying that we’re now standing on the verge of another Holocaust. They are the enablers of this concerted conspiracy by the whole of British elite society to destroy Jeremy Corbyn.”
The Jewish-Labour group, Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) have also flagged up the false accusations of anti-Semitism leveled against Jeremy Corbyn:
“It started when Corbyn was still a candidate for leadership when he suddenly began to shoot up in the polls and it became clear that he had a real chance of winning. That was when the Jewish Chronicle began a campaign against him”, claimed JVL member, Deborah Maccoby, who outlined the rationale:
“The Jewish community leaders don’t want him to become prime minister partly because he has always supported Palestinian rights. He said quite clearly he supports a two state solution. The Jewish community don’t want this to happen. I find it hard to understand because surely the best way that Israel can be secure is if it has secure recognized borders.”
“The Jewish community are afraid that the whole British foreign policy will be overturned by Corbyn. There’s so much focus on this idea that Corbyn is a danger to democracy. Meanwhile, the real danger of the far right, the rise of the far right, is being ignored.”
In the view of Finkelstein, the attacks on Corbyn are the dress rehearsal for the attacks on Bernie Sanders in 2020. “It’s exactly the same thing as in the UK where the elites in the Labour Party have been trying to stop Corbyn. The elites since 2016 have been trying to stop Bernie.”
According to Finkelstein, though, this presents a new and more difficult challenge for the establishment in terms of their ability to characterize Sander’s as an anti-Semite. This is because “he’s very Jewish, old time Jewish [and] has all the gesticulating and the verbal intonations of being Jewish. [Moreover], his record in Israel has always been pretty good.”
“That won’t stop them because what they’re going to do is exactly what they did to Corbyn. They’re going to target everybody around him. And there’s going to be large numbers of people around him who buy these technical definitions, like the IHRA (the International Holocaust Remembrance Association) definition which effectively says, ‘If you say anything critical of Israel you’re an anti Semite.’ They’re going to hit all of them and then they’re going to do exactly what happened to Corbyn.”
Whether Sanders will be as ineffective as Corbyn in dealing with the attacks coming his way will, according to Finkelstein, largely depend on the extent to which he stays on message. This is something that Corbyn has failed to do. In Finkelstein’s view, Corbyn made two key tactical-policy errors:
“He should have delivered one policy speech – this is where we stand on anti-Semitism. This is where we stand on the mechanisms for dealing with anti-Semitism in our party. Case closed. The other major mistake he made – true of the entire Labour Party – was his complete abandonment of the principle of freedom of speech. People have the right to say and think whatever they want. I’m a member of the Labour Party. Okay I subscribe to the Labour party’s political platform, that’s what makes me a member but that doesn’t mean you have the right to troll my Facebook postings or vet everything I say or post on Instagram. I mean that’s Romania under Ceausescu or North Korea under Kim Il-sung.”
However, in Finkelstein’s view, the mandate of the Labour Party is akin to the effective probing of members for their perceived ‘anti-Semitic’ thought crimes:
“We’re gonna have a Labour Party which is going to plumb the depths of your conscious, your unconscious, your subconscious and your head looking for some evidence of anti-Semitism”, predicated on what a committee deems you’re “harbouring in your head…It’s complete lunacy. And it’s a complete repudiation of the most fundamental principles of what’s called “The Enlightenment” beginning with – as the Germans put it in that nice German folk song, “Die Gedanken sind frei” (thoughts are free)”, says Finkelstein, who outlines the moral dimension:
“People have the right to think what they believe. Since thought is inseparable from speech you have the right to think and speak as you please. And if you don’t like what a person is saying then you have the right either not to listen or try to persuade the person why he or she is wrong or mistaken in his or her belief. But what you don’t have the right to do is penalize, punish and expel people for their thoughts.”
The academic and activist highlights why this approach is also politically disastrous:
“It forces people to repress what they’re thinking…It validates them for you because people think they don’t want me to say that because it’s true. And then a demagogue comes along and starts to exploit all of those repressed thoughts”, says Finkelstein who explains how is historically candid approach to tackling issues like the one being discussed have helped him reconcile his academic work to the political sphere:
“I had to make a decision at some point in my life”, says Finkelstein. “Am I going to be a grand theorist or am I going to focus on one fairly narrow area?”
The narrow area in question was Israel. At age 29, Finkelstein became intellectually curious in relation to the issues surrounding that country’s invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatila massacre. “Then because the group I was involved with were opposed to the Israeli invasion I then proceeded to study the topic”, says Finkelstein. “[As a Jew]…there was a whole issue about where you stood on Zionism and for various personal reasons I wasn’t prepared to make an intellectual commitment one way or the other until I studied it closely. It eventually became my doctoral dissertation. From that moment on, I felt an intellectual, political and personal attachment to the subject.”
Finkelstein outlines the reasons why:
“Both my parents were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Both my mother and father were in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to 1943 when the ghetto uprising was repressed. The survivors – about twenty or thirty thousand – were deported to a concentration camp. Both my parents were among those deported. My father ended up in Auschwitz and the Auschwitz death march. My mother ended up in two slave labour camps and every single member of the family on both sides, bar none, was exterminated.”
“The Nazi Holocaust was constantly being used – I would say exploited – in order to justify Israeli actions. Now people think I have some sort of obsession with the conflict. Actually, I have none. The problem is it never ended. And it likely won’t find any resolution in my lifetime. I don’t believe that… I can’t say to friends I have in the West Bank or in Gaza, ‘Well you know I got bored, I decided to move on…’ They don’t have that choice, so then I don’t have a choice. And so I stuck to it and it became my life.”
The academic’s perspective of the Middle East and politics as a 29 year old has shifted over time with age:
“When I was a young man”, says Finkelstein, “I was a great follower of Mao Zedong. I was what you call a Maoist. And one of his famous statements at the time in the 70s is, ‘There is great disorder under heaven. This is a good thing.’ “Now most people react with a certain amount of perplexity. How can it be a good thing”? But we did think it was a good thing because a stability based oppression based on vast inequity in the distribution of wealth and the stability based on the misery of most people. Most people are living in a miserable circumstance”, says Finkelstein, who adds:
“I was a radical. I was a revolutionary. I want to change the world and I did believe it was possible to make the world a fairer, decent and more equitable place. With all due regard to Mao Zedong there is now a great deal of disorder in the Middle East and you have to recognize it’s not a great thing.”
Finkelstein justifies his acceptance of disorder during his revolutionary period on the basis that he perceived it as a form of organized disorder – “revolutionary radical movements which were determined to alter the balance of power and wealth in the world.”
Finkelstein expands on this point:
“Libya and Gadhafi was an awful place for sure, but is the situation that replaced it better? No. There’s just great disorder. There’s no organized resistance there’s just warlords. Complete disorder. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a terrible place. Was the situation that replaced it for about 10 years better? No. Syria under Assad – or Bashar – not a good place. Is what replaced it the past five or so years better? No. So there is a point where the great disorder becomes wholly negative.”
“When we thought about this back then we thought about it as a step towards a revolutionary transformation of society. China underwent a great disorder from early part of the 20th century until Mao Zedong came to power. There was a civil war and there was a brutal civil war. It ended with his ascension to power which had its good and bad side. I think the balance sheet is positive – but that’s a matter of opinion. But the disorder which now covers virtually the whole of the Middle East is obviously a complete and total disaster.”
Illusions & myths
In hindsight, Finkelstein regards the movements he describes as being based on a set of illusions and myths, which he has felt he had to acknowledge:
“It’s painful for me to acknowledge, not because I have a problem with acknowledging error. [Rather], it’s a matter of acknowledging a squandered youth”, says Finkelstein”, who adds:
“The only thing I got out of it was negative lessons. Now negative lessons are good but it would have been much better if I got positive lessons.”
“Presumably there’s going to be consolidations of power at some point in all the places, but they probably won’t be positive “because”, says Finkelstein,
“armed struggle doesn’t bring the best people into power; it brings people who are ruthless, who are power hungry. Those types don’t augur well for the future.”
The long history of foreign policies of the U.S and Britain are an integral to how the history of the Middle East has evolved over time. “You have to look at it over a long period. You cannot pretend as if the situation that has befallen the Middle East – the past say, decade – is divorced from these kind of system that was set up by the British when they came to the Middle East – The “British moment” as it’s called I think by the British historian, Elizabeth Monroe – that moment it climaxed in the mess that you have now because they set up all these autocracies – self-serving corrupt regimes”, says Finkelstein.
This set a reaction among competing capitalism’s culminating in the contemporary domination of the region by the U.S. “You can’t understand Iran without understanding the coup orchestrated by the United States in Iran in 1953. You can’t understand Saddam unless you see that the U,S supported Saddam during the war with Iran from 1980 to ’88. I think one has to accept the fact that the climax of that foreign first intervention then interference, is what we’re experiencing right now. This is the result of that whole corrupt system”, says Finkelstein.
White Man’s Burden
The contextual analysis outlined by Finkelstein is largely lost on a Western political and media establishment guided by morally paternalistic concepts akin to Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’:
“There’s a feeling like we did them a favour and they blew it”, says Finkelstein. “I knew this creepy guy at Princeton who ended up at Johns Hopkins. His name was Foyad Ajami. He was one of the big supporters of the Iraq war. He was a Arab from Lebanon and wrote a book after the Iraq war debacle called “The Foreigners Gift.” You get the whole idea in the title: We came in, we ended the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and then they blew it. We gave them a gift and they blew it because, Arabs are so incompetent and stupid.”
Underpinning this notion of imperialistic paternalism is a form of authoritarianism with a moral obligation at its core predicated on hubris and arrogance that’s devoid of responsibility. Finkelstein nails the imperialist-colonial mindset:
“These are lesser peoples and they’re basically incompetent – not very bright.”
In order to counter this, says Finkelstein:
“You set up some sort of benign dictatorship which looks to the West for its inspiration. So they’re not there to set up democratic regimes but regimes that are enthralled to the west. They then justify it in their minds on the grounds that, ‘Well that’s the best you can hope for from people like that.’ But they also do believe that these Middle Eastern types are African types who are completely incompetent. Left to their own devices, they’re going to mess everything up because that’s just their nature.”
Then there are the pragmatic achievements of the west’s adversaries:
“That’s why I like Nasrallah (the head of the Hezbollah). He is an extremely smart guy, very focused. He’s the only leader in the world who you actually learn things from his speeches”, says Finkelstein. “It begins with the Koranic verses and allegories but then around one-quarter of the way through he starts with the facts and analysis. You could see he’s a guy who is using his time to educate. And you feel somebody there who has pride in being Arab and Muslim. I’m not a believer. but I do think there’s something to be said at the end of the day about human dignity and being”.