The United Kingdom’s centrist Labour Party head, Keir Starmer, stirred up a vexing controversy when he decided to remove MP Rebecca Long-Bailey from her position as Shadow Secretary of State for Education. Long-Bailey, who is associated with Labour’s left wing and its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had shared an article by a prominent actress in which she repeated the unfounded rumor that American police officers had learned the “knee on the neck technique” that Derek Chauvin used to kill George Floyd at a training in Israel.
After the bruising controversies over antisemitism in the U.K. that some believe helped lead to an electoral rout for Labour last year, Starmer was eager to demonstrate his “zero-tolerance policy” on antisemitism.
But an internal Labour investigation last year raised serious questions as to how much of the antisemitism controversy was magnified by Corbyn’s rivals within the party. And while Labour should be commended for taking a firm stand against antisemitism and any other form of bigotry, this action had nothing to do with antisemitism, relating purely to a story—albeit an inaccurate one—about Israel. And it could well cause harm to Labour, to Palestinians, to Israelis, and to Jews in the U.K. and all over the world.
The firing was a clear overreaction, but that was not the worst of it. The incident made it plain that the conflation of criticism of Israel and antisemitism has triumphed in the U.K. That’s a concern not only for the British, but for everyone.
It got worse shortly after Long-Bailey’s removal when shadow Welsh Secretary Nia Griffith stated explicitly that anyone defending Long-Bailey was also guilty of antisemitism. So, not only was it antisemitic to say something inaccurate about Israel—an inaccuracy which, as I will show presently, is a perfectly reasonable one to believe given Israel’s deep entanglement with American militarization of its police force—it is even antisemitic to defend free speech and to debate whether a statement that is not connected to the Jewish people but only to the state of Israel is, in fact, Judeophobic.
Given the extreme, draconian penalty Long-Bailey faced for merely retweeting an article that contained a single mistaken sentence about Israel, it is easy to see how dangerous Griffith’s broad application of false charges of antisemitism is. Moreover, given the assault on both free speech and academic freedom when it comes to the subject of Israel in the United States, this contemptible new McCarthyism—which is inevitably going to greatly increase antisemitism and make it harder to combat because it obscures the real antisemitism coming from the same right-wing sources it has always come from—is a danger on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.
The tweet that led to Long-Bailey’s sacking promoted a profile of British actress Maxine Peake. In an interview of nearly 1,700 words, Peake opined on a wide variety of subjects, expressed her disdain for Starmer and the centrist Labourites. She also was quoted as saying, “Systemic racism is a global issue. The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”
That was it. One sentence out of a lengthy article, and hardly an antisemitic screed.
Some believe that Starmer was looking for an excuse to get rid of Long-Bailey as part of an effort to suppress the “Corbynite” left in Labour. It’s more likely that Starmer was trying to ensure that accusations of antisemitism will not dog him the way they did Corbyn. But there were ways to do that without conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
The New Canard
While anti-Zionism is sometimes used as a shield for real antisemitism, it is more frequently the case that false accusations of antisemitism are used as a shield to deflect legitimate criticism of serious Israeli crimes and human rights violations. All too often these days, real antisemitism isn’t hiding. But apparently under the zero-tolerance policy Labour has adopted, it is criticism of Israel, not attacks on Jews, that will be forbidden.
Peake’s now-retracted claim about Israeli training is unsubstantiated, and almost certainly incorrect. The story has gotten traction because people have found photographs of Israeli police and soldiers kneeling on the necks of Palestinians in a manner horrifyingly reminiscent of George Floyd’s murder. But kneeling on a neck is barbaric, cruel, torturous, and obviously lethal; it is not some advanced “technique” in which one has to be trained..
Moreover, this behavior is hardly new for American police. For example, in the infamous case of the brutal police assault on Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima in 1997, a witness described the police arresting him with excessive force, saying, “I saw seven or eight cops jump on Abner. One put his foot on his back, and one put his knee on his neck.”
Indeed, a 1996 Amnesty International report on police brutality specifically mentioned kneeling on the neck as a tactic police employed and that is was potentially lethal. The exchange program for U.S. police in Israel did not start until months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
No, Chauvin did not learn to kill George Floyd in Israel. Police in the United States have been killing people, especially Black people, long before Israel came about.
So, Peake was wrong, but was she being antisemitic? That accusation depends on there being no reason to believe that her claim was true. But the rumor that Chauvin learned how to kneel on a neck in Israel has been flying around for weeks. People believe it because they’ve seen pictures of Israeli troops doing to Palestinians exactly what Chauvin did to Floyd, and because of a 2016 report by Amnesty International about an exchange program between Israel and the United States where police from both countries are trained in some of the tactics of the other.
This was followed by a report in 2018 by Jewish Voice for Peace called “Deadly Exchange,” which documents not only the exchange program but documents the shameful complicity of the radically militaristic Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the Orwellian “civil rights organization,” the Anti-Defamation League in arranging for these programs. Neither the JVP report nor the Amnesty one mentions anything about a kneeling-on-the-neck technique.
As I reported recently, these programs have contributed heavily to the increased militarization of police forces in the United States. Still, they are hardly the sole, or even the primary, causes of that militarization. That goes back to the 1990s, particularly the 1997 The National Defense Authorization Act which authorized the sale of surplus or obsolete military equipment to domestic law enforcement agencies. In the wake of recent events, there has been a renewed effort in Congress to reverse the 1033 program authorized by that bill for those sales.
There’s no denying that, after 9/11, Israel became a model for militarized police forces or that Israel has capitalized on that role and worked to militarize police forces across the United States and elsewhere, through training and through the sale of military-grade weapons and equipment. But American police did not go to Israel to learn how to be racist or how to use excessive force. Both police forces have demonstrated quite amply that they know how to do those things.
Getting It Wrong
Maxine Peake acknowledged she was wrong. But given the central role that Israel plays in the militarization of police in the United States, it was an obviously honest mistake. It’s absurd to accuse her of antisemitism on this basis, much less Long-Bailey for retweeting an article with a single sentence about it.
The broad interpretation of antisemitism that Starmer used to sack Long-Bailey is a dangerous instrument. Peake said something inaccurate about George Floyd’s murder, but it was related to an objectionable truth about Israel’s role in the militarization of American police. Long-Bailey tweeted the piece and there’s no reason to believe that one inaccurate sentence had anything to do with her decision to do so.
These extreme interpretations of antisemitism are not confined to the U.K. We’ve seen this often in the United States and elsewhere and it’s effective. As we saw with Labour, it doesn’t only affect defenders of Palestinian rights, but is also useful against broader progressive forces. Moreover, it blunts the effectiveness of legitimate complaints of antisemitism, whether minor or gross. It distorts the politics of Palestine and Israel and thereby perpetuates the denial of Palestinian rights. That won’t help anyone in the long run.