It’s a sign of the strange and frankly deeply disturbing Twitterisation of political debate in the UK that Robert Jenrick is not sacked as a Minister for a classic case of corruption, while Rebecca Long-Bailey is sacked as a shadow Minister for sub-tweeting The Independent’s interview with an actor who she knows from her constituency, describing her as “an absolute diamond”.
Real and serious abuses of political power – in support of the former owner of the Daily Star no less, a paper that promoted the English Defence League on its front-page while Desmond was at the helm – are knocked out of the headlines for what is, frankly, nonsense. Holding the powerful to account dumped for manufactured outrage. It’d be bewildering if it wasn’t so transparently an attempt to marginalise the left in the Labour Party.
If you have any doubt about the political motives of Long-Bailey’s sacking, consider the inconsistencies in the policing of shadow ministerial tweets. Rachel Reeves, shadow minister for the cabinet office, has tweeted celebrating the erection of a statue to Nancy Astor, the first female MP in the UK, on the record expressing clearly antisemitic views and having a soft spot for Hitler. Reeves and Labour leader Keir Starmer have been made aware of this – but there has been no apology, and no rebuke, never mind sacking. This happens again and again. There is huge swathes of evidence of not just Islamophobic words but also actions from senior Labour figures on the right of the party, yet it is ignored as a matter of routine, because it’s not politically convenient to address that.
Let’s be clear about what we’re actually talking about here when it comes to actor Maxine Peake’s comments, which were a small part of a much broader interview that Long-Bailey tweeted. Peake had said: “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.” When Long-Bailey tweeted out the article containing this quote, it referenced the following report by Amnesty International detailing US police forces which had received training by “Israel’s national police, military and intelligence services”. The Independent piece also carried a denial from an Israeli police spokesperson that it uses the tactic or protocol to put pressure on the neck or airway.
So Peake’s high-crime appears to have been possibly getting a detail wrong about the repression techniques of Israeli security services. We are supposed to believe that this error is all the justification needed to make the claim she is stirring “antisemitic conspiracy theories”. If Peake had been more precise, and used well-documented examples of racist policing by Israeli security services – like the ones Amnesty had pointed to of extrajudicial execution, ill-treatment and torture (including of children), excessive use of force against protestors – then presumably there would be no out-cry, and Long-Bailey would still be in post? This deeply dishonest ‘gotcha’ politics deliberately looks past substance and meaning so that it can trade in bad-faith smears. Peake is obviously right that systemic racism by security forces is an international issue, and pointing out how one racist security force has learnt violent population control techniques from another is not a conspiracy theory. To be clear, there is of course antisemitic conspiracies theories about Jews controlling America. But it defames Peake to suggest that was what she said or meant, who clarified afterwards that: “I find racism and antisemitism abhorrent and I in no way wished, nor intended, to add fodder to any views of the contrary.”
Some have said that even raising the issue of Israeli security forces in this context is antisemitic, but this implies that we should make it a taboo subject to talk about Israeli state racism and its international connections, and has a chilling effect on genuine, sincere criticism. It is in itself an antisemitic trope to suggest that criticism of the Israeli state is an attack on Jewish communities, implying as it does that Jews have one and the same view of Israeli politics. There are of course many Jewish critics of the Israeli state inside and outside Israel, who are appalled at the quite transparent attempts to undermine those who oppose the racist actions of the Israeli Government.
By the way, that government is set to illegally annex a large part of the West Bank next week. That is not a twitter row about who said what – it’s real modern-day colonialism, and happening now. Anti-racists and internationalists should be united in opposing it, without fear of the social media bullying and smears that will inevitably follow those who do so. Racism and racist policing is a systemic, international problem – let’s start acting like that truth means something by focusing on the structures of power which re-produce these outcomes, rather than fall prey to the individualising, bad-faith linguistic morality contests which dominate the Twitter-sphere.
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