IT TOOK DONALD TRUMP and George Floyd for European liberals to grasp that the land of the free was a carceral state founded on racial hierarchies. The evidence should have been there all along: in prison statistics, in Clinton-era legislation, in discourses of “super-predators”. But it was neither convenient nor fashionable to notice. “Anti-Americanism” was seen as contrarian and morally perverse. Sophisticated people acknowledged “complexities” and carried on regardless.
Today, as we register the first anniversary of Floyd’s death, the shift is palpable: if anything, European liberals are so obsessed with American racism (see any non-fiction bestseller list) that they have no others lens through which to view political events. Black Lives Matter and taking a knee became so routinised in corporate culture that football’s fiercest anti-racists, led by Wilfried Zaha, abandoned the practices as toothless and merely performative. Equally, though, the very banality of Americanised anti-racism testifies to its mass profile.
With a ceasefire just announced, is Israel about to undergo its own Floyd moment? Israel administers an apartheid regime – the term preferred by a range of respectable human rights groups – many times more brutal than anything in America. If you include the whole area over which it exerts sovereignty, the most elementary civil rights are being denied. Name any abusive practice that a state can impose on a subject people, and Israel is likely imposing it on the Occupied Territories.
But discussion has been muted. Decades of Palestinian solidarity were subjected to a fierce cultural backlash, particularly in Britain, where it was bundled with centrist efforts to retake the Labour Party. Mainstream media ran a veritable inquisition on the premise of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, almost entirely founded on what you can and cannot say about the Israeli state (the sticking point of the IHRA debate). No Palestinian or Arab voices were invited to participate in that discussion, even though the nature and the fate of Israel equally implicates them.
The question of Palestine serves as a reminder that “cancel culture” is not confined to blue-haired, spittle-flecked clicktivists. What happened to Jeremy Corbyn, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Ken Loach, if not cancellation? Their sorry fates demonstrated the moral absurdity of identity politics, which, at its extremities, can be (and was) weaponised to defend an apartheid state in the name of anti-racism. The Left found itself defenceless when its own tropes were turned on its leaders. Rather than rethink the premises, too many meekly accepted that standing for Palestine was “problematic”.
However, after a week of US-funded, UK-armed Israeli barbarity, we have seen the biggest pro-Palestine demonstrations in London’s history. Similar protests were held across the UK, including numerous Scottish towns and cities. And progressive legislators in America are making unprecedented – albeit likely doomed – efforts to halt arms sales to Israel.
Our own historical role in this apartheid system cannot be denied. The man who made Zionism a viable project was a British imperialist born in East Lothian. While America’s carceral state should be condemned, this conflict directly implicates British foreign policy, then and now. It’s about time we showed some moral backbone.