Ilhan Omar and Chris Williamson: A Tale of Two Parties


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It’s very instructive to compare the difference in treatment of Minnesota Democratic representative Ilhan Omar (above) and Derby North MP Chris Williamson. While Omar got crucial support from within her party in defence of her right to speak out about the influence of the Israel lobby (AIPAC) in Washington, Williamson was pilloried by the Labour party deputy leader Tom Watson and hung out to dry by centrist MPs when he defended the reputation of the party against accusations of being “institutionally antisemitic.”

The Democratic leadership of the House had drafted a resolution condemning anti-Semitism in what was seen as a direct rebuke of remarks Omar was alleged to have made. But other Democrats pushed back: Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote, “We must not equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel.” New York Congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Incidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll ‘send Obama home to Kenya?’”

The reaction from the left of the party forced the inclusion of Islamophobia and the hatred of “African-Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, immigrants and others” in the resolution, which passed the House by an overwhelming 407-23 last week, with only Republicans voting against. NBC News reported that Omar issued a joint statement with fellow Muslim lawmakers Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and André Carson of Indiana, calling the vote “historic on many fronts. It’s the first time we have voted on a resolution condemning Anti-Muslim bigotry.”  They also said they were “tremendously proud to be part of a body that has put forth a condemnation of all forms of bigotry including anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacy. … Our nation is having a difficult conversation and we believe this is great progress.”

In the speech which attracted the attacks from the Democratic establishment last week, Omar said: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. And I want to ask, why is it ok for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby … that is influencing policy?” Immediately after she made this remark, Democrat Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on which Ilhan Omar sits, as well, then accused Omar of making a “vile anti-Semitic slur.” And Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) claimed on Twitter that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.”

She also faced hostility for tweets published on March 3 saying, “I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks … I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.” Paul Waldman commented in the Washington Post that “she didn’t say or even imply anything at all about Jews. She said that she was being asked to support Israel in order to have the privilege of serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which was true. … Her argument, to repeat, isn’t about how Jews feel about Israel, it’s about what is being demanded of her.”

Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies and Jewish Voices for Peace pointed out that, in any case, the attacks were nothing to do with what she had actually said. “It’s about the fact that she is a Muslim African immigrant, a Somali refugee, who is talking about Palestinian rights, who is talking about the power of the Israel lobby, and the big pharma lobby, and the lobby for fossil fuels. And that’s not OK. … She was talking about members of Congress, not Jews, who are forced to pledge some kind of affiliation, support, loyalty, whatever you want to call it, to Israel to maintain the privileging of Israel in U.S. foreign policy … She wasn’t talking about any individual people, Jews or otherwise, having so-called dual loyalty. She was talking about the kind of pressure that is brought to bear on members of Congress to be uncritically supportive of Israel; a kind of pressure that does not exist for any other country in the world.” Moreover, because she is a Black Muslim woman who wears her hijab in Congress, she is more likely to attract false accusations because she conflicts with the accepted image of a Congressional representative.

In the UK, when Derby North MP Chris Williamson said “we’ve been too apologetic” over antisemitism allegations, seeking to stress the history of the party in fighting all forms of racism, 38 centrist MPs demanded his suspension from the party, and got it. Williamson was targeted because he is a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and has been touring constituencies throughout the country calling for democratic reselection of parliamentary candidates. It was because of who he is, not what he said.

In the US, Democratic congresspeople now more adequately reflect the diversity of their constituents, thanks to the primary process of selecting representatives which elevated Moslem, Native American and Latino candidates to Congress. It’s different in the UK, where the parliamentary Labour party represents a New Labour consensus that is both anachronistic and hostile to supporters of Corbyn. Anti-imperialist politics upsets these MPs partly because of the influence of organizations like “Labour Friends of Israel,” which acts as a pro-Israeli lobby within the Labour party.

The aim of the anti-semitism smears is to silence critics of Israeli foreign and domestic policy, as well as the state’s quasi-diplomatic efforts to influence government support. In the US, this aligns with the “decades-old strategic ties between U.S. and Israeli military, security, geo-political and nuclear goals. Those ties—between the Pentagon and the IDF, the CIA and the Mossad, Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump with their shared antagonism to Iran and eagerness to partner with Saudi Arabia—are all far more important in maintaining the Washington-Tel Aviv alliance than any embrace of Israel by the U.S. public,” notes Bennis.

While in the US the controversy has opened up a media debate about whether AIPAC’s influence in Washington is too strong, even the New York Times calling out its boast that it was responsible for encouraging the Democratic leadership to go after Ilhan Omar, the media in the UK is uniformly blasting Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour party, and even equating anti-capitalism with anti-semitism. This campaign merges the hostility of centrist MPs to the enhanced power of the party membership with the sheer panic of the establishment at the prospect of a government collapse over Brexit which could result in a Corbyn-led Labour government. There could not be a stronger argument for the re-introduction of mandatory reselection for Labour MPs, in preparation for the inevitable general election.

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Against the McCarthyite Witchhunt of Chris Williamson


Labour party activists are coming out in support of Derby North MP Chris Williamson, who was suspended from the party pending investigation into expressions he used at a Sheffield Momentum meeting that rejected the accusations of institutional racism against the party. Sheffield Hallam CLP and Hackney North CLP have already passed resolutions strongly in his support.

The suspension has aggravated the divisions between the rank and file and the parliamentary party. According to the Guardian, 38 Labour MPs from the soft left Tribune group, including several frontbenchers, signed a letter to the party general secretary Jennie Formby calling for his immediate suspension. The Yorkshire Post had published footage of Williamson telling the meeting: “we’ve backed off far too much, we’ve given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic” over the antisemitism allegations. He later issued a statement that said it “pains me greatly … that anyone should believe that it is my intention to minimise the cancerous and pernicious nature of antisemitism … I deeply regret, and apologise for, my recent choice of words when speaking about how the Labour party has responded to the ongoing fight against antisemitism inside of our party. I was trying to stress how much the party has done to tackle antisemitism.”

Deputy party leader Tom Watson has led the campaign against Williamson. He criticised the apology as “long-winded and heavily caveated,” and told BBC Radio that “disciplinary action should be concluded swiftly. ‘It’s definitely weeks, not months, in my view,’ Watson said. Although he said Williamson should be allowed to present his case in a formal hearing, the deputy leader condemned his comments.” In a clear challenge to Jeremy Corbyn, Watson also claimed he was not acting as his deputy but had an independent mandate from 200,000 members that gave him a responsibility to speak out. Perhaps a new “people’s vote” on Watson’s position would give members a chance to reconsider his mandate.

Momentum seems to be confused on how to respond to the issue. The organization has backed an open letter apologizing further to the Jewish community for the party’s handling of antisemitism, although reiterating support for Corbyn’s leadership and the party’s anti-racist principles. But its Camden branch urged Momentum’s national leaders to argue for Williamson’s immediate reinstatement, condemning the “new McCarthyism” driving the disciplinary action. In a letter to the leadership it points out that “nothing about that speech deserves the suspension of the Labour whip, let alone suspension from the party. Jewish Voice for Labour have rightly pointed out that Williamson’s suspension is unjust and have called for it to be rescinded. Camden Momentum adds its voice to that call.”

However, Williamson’s defenders have mistaken the official reason for his suspension for the real one. It has little to do with antisemitism and a lot to do with him touring the constituencies presenting the case for compulsory reselection of MPs. Sections of the PLP are desperate to take back control of policy, know their constituency parties are critical of them, and are violently hostile to Corbyn’s radical democratic philosophy. Cultural and political theory professor Jeremy Gilbert  points out that the party rightwing would continue its campaign of vilification against Corbyn even if he were to “convert to Judaism, apply for Israeli citizenship and call for a People’s vote tomorrow: their attacks on him would not relent for one second unless he agreed to give up control of the party.”

He argues that the “independent group” of defecting MPs will attempt to build a centrist party that, like in Germany, would potentially hold the balance of power in parliament and become an obstacle to progressive government. However, first these MPs would have to be re-elected, and there is little evidence that their future party would fare any better than the Liberal Democrats, especially since the Labour rank and file will be vigorously campaigning against them. The Labour party, Gilbert says, needs to face questions about its future relations with the SNP, the Greens, even the Lib Dems. It should convene a national conference with all these parties as well as trade unionists and NGOs to build a mass progressive movement as an alternative to neoliberal hegemony.

But what has transformed the party has been the shift in the rank and file and the new members who have joined it since 2015 in order to fight austerity. Gilbert’s characterization of Corbynism as merely a left variant of Labourism – the assumption that socialism can only be achieved through a parliamentary majority – is way off the mark. Corbyn is not at all averse to building alliances with extra-parliamentary movements, and the experience of Tony Benn when a cabinet minister in the 1974 Labour government shows that the party’s parliamentary campaigns and government power can be important components of a transformational movement, giving it political legitimacy with the public.

Rather than holding a neo-popular front convention, Labour activists should immediately begin selecting new candidates to replace the “independent” parliamentary squatters, and campaign on local issues in such a way as to connect with social movements that already exist in their constituencies. This would help to clarify the public about Labour’s radical programme and the true politics of the defectors.

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Labour defectors and Watson challenge Corbyn’s leadership


On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show this Sunday, Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour party, threw down a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. He described the defection of nine Labour MPs as a “crisis for the soul of the party” that requires the shadow cabinet to adopt social democratic policies as “the only way to keep the Labour party united.” He himself was prepared to convene a group of MPs that believe in the “social democratic tradition” so that their ideas could be given greater weight in the parliamentary party. Watson repeated the defectors’ rhetoric of “bullying” and “intolerance” to describe attempts by party members to hold MPs accountable for their votes in parliament and statements to the press.

In reality, Watson is advocating a resuscitation of the failed politics of New Labour, not a return to the social democratic tradition of the membership. New Labour broke from this tradition in many ways, including its pro-business and anti-union stance, making benefits conditional on US-style “workfare”, and introducing market relations into social welfare provision. Its limited increases in spending on welfare were perfectly compatible with its “light touch” avoidance of regulation of financial markets that ended in the banking crash of 2008.

Watson and the defectors’ blanket accusations of “antisemitism” are intended to shut down rank and file criticism of the MPs’ differences with Corbyn: their reluctance to raise taxes on the rich, their support for neoliberal austerity policies and opposition to re-nationalisation of public utilities. The “independent” group’s policy platform, such as it is, hankers for the days of the Blairite ascendancy, reviving the “third way” argument of encouraging business so as to fund social welfare. They know there is no political future for this platform, so will continue to occupy the seats in parliament won for them by the efforts of Labour members campaigning on the manifesto produced by the party leadership.

The not entirely unexpected defection of Ian Austin MP makes it clear that the earlier resignations were not primarily about Labour’s Brexit policy. Austin is aggressively pro-Brexit and voted with the Tory government for Theresa May’s deal, while the other eight MPs demand a second referendum to overturn the result of the first one. Austin’s professed reasons for leaving mirror those of the other quitters with his denunciation of a “culture of extremism, antisemitism and intolerance.” But why should party members tolerate behaviour like Austin’s attack on Jeremy Corbyn when the Chilcot report on the run-up to the Iraq war was being discussed in parliament? In very unparliamentary language he told the leader of his own party to “sit down and shut up” and shouted “you’re a disgrace” as Corbyn criticised the Iraq war.

The defecting MPs are especially hostile to Corbyn because his election as party leader has enhanced the influence and assertiveness of the party rank and file, which has brought them into conflict with the privileges of the parliamentary party. This is why the defectors describe the party as “broken.” What truly unites them is their belief in their right to debate how the country should be run while ignoring the opinions and needs of their own members and constituents.

Even the organizational methods of the group reflect corporate financial techniques – incorporating themselves as a company rather than as a political party, which means they do not have to disclose their funders. The “shared values” that the group claims to possess appear to be those of a sense of entitlement to ignore the views of the electorate. They all claim to be working in the “national interest” – that is, the interests of the bankers, landlords, and offshore industrialists who make up the establishment – and cynically demand “leadership” from Jeremy Corbyn. HIs strategy of respecting the referendum result while exposing Theresa May’s dependence on the Tory ultra-right is not regarded by the splinter group as leadership, even though his demand that May should take a no-deal Brexit off the table would have circumscribed her manoeuvring. They want a demagogue who would denounce the referendum and align the Labour party with Tory remainers who represent the affluent beneficiaries of a global economy. Doing so, however, would only strengthen the appeal of the extreme Tommy Robinson right. Labour needs to speak for leavers as well as remainers, making itself a party of all the dispossessed.

Corbyn fired back at the quitters at a rally in former Tory Anna Soubry’s constituency of Broxtowe. He restated the party’s policies such as raising corporation tax to fund free education, and to use the power of government purchasing to end the gender pay gap. “I’m disappointed that a small number of Labour MPs have decided to leave our party and join forces with disaffected Tories, who say they have no problem with austerity that has plunged thousands into desperate poverty and insecurity,” he said. The party’s 2017 manifesto promised an end to austerity, it offered “hope, instead of the same old establishment demand for cuts, privatisation and austerity. That’s why we now back public ownership of the utilities and railways, why we now oppose tuition fees and corporate giveaways, and why we’re no longer afraid to ask the rich to pay their fair share of tax.”

“What’s different now about Labour is that the members are much more involved in their communities, and it’s those members that will write the manifesto for the future,” he told the rally. He had reached out to fellow socialist parties in Europe at their conference in Madrid to outline plans for cooperation after Brexit, and explained to them how anger in left-behind communities was behind the referendum result. “What’s happened in deindustrialized parts of Britain is exactly the same as what’s happened in deindustrialized parts of Germany, France, Spain, and many other countries across Europe,” he said. “The real problem is an economic system that discards industrial workers and allows whole communities to collapse and die and good jobs to be replaced by employers like Sports Direct.”

He warned about the growth of the far right across Europe when populist politicians would blame the nearest group of migrant workers for factory closures instead of the multinational companies who moved industries to the next low-wage economy, and called for closer relations with people in Europe. Climate change is a class issue, he said, and he backed the schoolchildren who had organized to protest climate change, adding that green energy would create jobs and protect the environment.

Unlike Watson, who was only concerned with the opinions of other MPs, Corbyn addressed the issues of homelessness, poverty and growing hospital waiting lists in his speech. His calm and successful leadership of the Labour party must be supported against the frantic efforts of the right wing and the corporate media to railroad through a desperate capitulation to Theresa May’s dogmatic plans.

UPDATE: The left-wing blog Counterfire responded to Watson’s challenge by calling for the party leadership to ditch Labour’s “broad church” model and recast the Corbyn project as a “left reformist socialist party. … A clear declaration that Labour wants to build a new socialist party would enthuse hundreds of thousands of activists, recapture the dynamism of the early Corbyn leadership campaigns, re-engage the party with the most disaffected sections of the working class, and open up the path to election victory.”

What a left reformist socialist party would mean in practice is unclear, but ditching the party’s centrists and making a declaration of socialism from above, so to speak, is not going to solve Labour’s problems and will not necessarily re-engage the party with the most disaffected sections of the working class. What is needed most of all is for Labour to strengthen its connections with the resistance to austerity in the communities and give it political expression. Moreover, the author’s contention that Corbynism is in danger of being killed off if the present regime continues assumes the right has much more power than it does. Counterfire is arguing from the particular standpoint of left activists rather than examining the actual movements of public opinion.

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No “People’s Vote” – fight for a general election now!


The British viewing public on Wednesday evening was treated to the sight of Tory prime minister Theresa May calling on other politicians to find a solution to the problems of her disastrous Brexit plan for the sake of the national interest. What she really meant was for the sake of the irretrievably fragmented Tory party. She appeared oblivious to the devastating parliamentary rejection of her plan the day before, which has further deepened the crisis of the British political class. Among this class are centrist Labour MPs calling for another referendum, or “People’s Vote,” which they hope would reverse the decision of the first one.

These Labour MPs ignore the fact that a new referendum could only be called by the Tory government, which would control the questions to be asked and would not include Labour’s position of a customs union and the preservation of workers’ and consumers’ rights. In addition, such a referendum would take at least seven months to organize, while European parliament elections are to be held in May. Since it would have no representation in the parliament, Britain is effectively out of the European Union already.

Gary Younge commented: “May has spent her premiership not trying to unite the country but her party. She has failed, but her party appreciates the effort. It wasn’t Westminster who backed her [in the no-confidence vote] on Wednesday but the Tories and the Democratic Unionist party, who were paid £1bn for their trouble. Last month a third of Tory MPs said they would rather have another party leader. But having failed in that bid, they would rather have May than Corbyn as leader of their country. So more than 100 Tories voted first to get rid of her, and then to keep her.”

The government is caught in a constitutional conundrum. While a majority of MPs would prefer to remain in the European Union, parliamentary sovereignty was superseded by the electorate’s participation in the referendum. As Chris Bickerton of Cambridge University pointed out, MPs have repeatedly voted to implement its result. “For the House of Commons to endorse a second referendum, it would have to repeal past Brexit legislation in a manner that flouts the position adopted by the main parties in the last general election. Were this to happen, it would tear up established relations between executive and legislature, pitting popular and parliamentary sovereignty against one another. Parliament would in effect be seeking, in a Brechtian fashion, to dissolve ‘the people’ and put another in place that will vote differently in a second referendum.”

May’s negotiations with Brussels have been protracted because of her “red lines” – her insistence on ending freedom of movement, leaving the customs union and single market to pursue an independent trade policy, and ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  Her dogged insistence on these conditions stem from her need to balance between the Tory party’s ultra-right leavers and centrist remainers. Her fixed strategy is to run out the clock in order to force acceptance of her deal as the only alternative to the chaos of a no-deal Brexit. Moreover, the inflexibility and arrogance of her negotiating stance has alienated any possible allies within Europe. Tom Kibasi, the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, remarked after it emerged she had misled business groups about her withdrawal agreement: “It was as if May sincerely believes that she alone is the arbiter of the national interest and that it should be self-evident that she is right.”

Only a change of government would be a sufficient cause for the EU to renegotiate a deal, which would make it possible to ditch Theresa May’s red lines. According to the Independent, the EU would reopen talks if the red lines were dropped. “Speaking the morning after MPs rejected the prime minister’s deal, Michel Barnier said that the European Council ‘unanimously’ agreed and had ‘always said that if the UK chooses to shift its red lines in the future, and if it makes that choice to be more ambitious and to go beyond a simple free trade agreement, then the EU will be immediately ready to go hand in hand with that development and give a favourable response’.” But there could be no renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, including the “backstop” hated by the DUP and the Tory ultra-right.

In a supreme historical irony, the Northern Ireland border has become a major stumbling block to any agreement. Partition was enforced in 1921 by the British imperial state to enable the protestant Unionists to stay dominant in the north, where they are a majority. Now the prospect of a hard border in Ireland is being vetoed by the independent Irish state, backed by the EU, while the DUP are implacably opposed to a border in the Irish Sea since it would mean Northern Ireland being treated differently from the UK.

The referendum itself exposed the erosion of parliamentary legitimacy in Britain. Many voters wanted to return to the more stable social-democratic society of the 1950s. For example, Burnley leisure worker Hazel Allen, explained to the Guardian that she voted Leave to protect the NHS, after the town’s A&E unit was closed with no plans to reopen it.  “I have not changed my mind and I don’t want another vote,” she said. “I am deeply disappointed with the government. They could have worked together to achieve what the people wanted, could have been stronger. What we have seen is just weakness and fighting. We voted for something but it doesn’t feel like we’re going to get it. What is the point?” In Glasgow, Lorne Bourhill said that she is against a second vote. “I didn’t want to leave the EU, but people have made their choice. The government should get on with it and find a deal that has enough support. How can I tell my children to vote in a general election if they see decisions being overturned like that?”

The Guardian’s deputy opinion editor, Joseph Harker, wrote a comment piece that was in marked contrast to the paper’s editorial line: “There’s been little attempt to acknowledge the widespread poverty, deprivation, insecurity and marginalisation of so many towns and cities that led them to seek such a drastic solution [as Brexit] to their problems. … I was born and raised in Hull, a medium-sized, solidly working-class city in east Yorkshire. I remember the Thatcher recession of the 1980s, and the hit the city took, along with the collapse of its fishing industry. I also remember feeling incredulous when the media, over the following years, reported the economic boom: the yuppies, the ‘big bang’ in the City of London, the ‘share-owning democracy’. None of that was felt anywhere near us.

“And little has changed. The only two regions of the UK that have recovered after the 2008 crash are London and the south-east. So, during the referendum campaign, to raise the economy as a reason for staying in Europe was always likely to fall on deaf ears – and it did. Yet since 2016, remarkably, most remainers seem to feel that if they keep repeating this message, somehow people will change their minds. It won’t work. … Certainly, few of them are likely to be persuaded by the leading voices in the people’s vote campaign – almost all wealthy and middle class, and most of them southerners. … ‘Why won’t Labour’s leader help us and make all this nightmare end?’ they say. It is of little importance to them that Labour, as a national political party, has to listen to the voices of its northern voters; nor that Corbyn has, so far, played a tactically astute game.

“They forget that in the general election of 2017, less than two years after becoming leader, he gained 3.5 million extra Labour votes (and 1.5 million more than David Cameron had for his majority government in 2015). Corbyn did this backing a soft Brexit. And he did this when there was a clear remain option on the ballot paper – in the form of the Lib Dems, whose vote bombed. Much as the Labour membership is clearly pro-EU, Corbyn’s stance helped Labour in large parts of the country beyond the south-east – it held on to all three seats in Hull, a city that voted 68% leave. He correctly judged that, above all, people wanted to be listened to, and for the misery of austerity to end.”

For Labour to win a general election, it needs the support of voters in swing northern constituencies like Hull as well as its voters in the cities. Corbyn’s strategy is to unite leavers and remainers by focusing on the social problems facing all of them. He told an audience today in Hastings: “While Brexit consumes all the government’s energy, the vital issues that affect people most directly – cash-starved schools, the NHS at breaking point, rising bills, unaffordable housing – have all gone to the back of the queue. Two and a half years of Brexit bungling and failure have left parliament in deadlock. Nothing can be decided. Nothing can get done. We believe that the best outcome for the country remains a general election to break the deadlock and find a solution that works for the whole country.”

The centrist Labour MPs’ call for a second vote should be ignored in favour of Corbyn’s strategy of fighting for a general election to elect a Labour government. There is no point in remaining in the EU if it means keeping a Tory government in power.

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Republican Supreme Court Triumph Against Background of National Discontent


Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a new Supreme Court justice is a pyrrhic victory for the Republicans. It achieves a solid right-wing majority on court decisions, but reduces the legitimacy of these decisions in the eyes of the public and the legal system.

His ranting attack on the Democrats at the hearing removed all pretence of judicial impartiality – it “pulled the cloak off the Wizard of Oz” as law professor Stephen Gillers put it, shattering public belief in the Supreme Court’s independent authority. It also exposed the supposedly moderate Republican senators who capitulated when Kavanaugh “pivoted to a pure message of aggression, anger and promises to fight the recognized set of political enemies that bind him to his mass and elite supporters … Early Thursday afternoon, Kavanaugh’s nomination was on life support. He went full Trump. And it worked,” Josh Marshall commented. “A scion of the [Washington] beltway political elite who received the country’s finest elite education, he made his name in the Bush White House. He is the epitome of the pre-Trump conservative establishment. Yet we can see here how seamless the transition was to full Trumpism, as it was for all the Republican Senators who rushed to his side after his Thursday afternoon performance.”

The right-wing bias of the court is now decidedly out of tune with the public on many issues, nullifying its role as a moderating bastion of government. The New York Times reported: “Several priorities of the conservative legal movement already conflict with public opinion. The movement’s biggest target is Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that identified access to abortion as a constitutional right, yet a poll in July by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal showed an all-time high in public support for the decision, with 71 percent saying that Roe should not be overturned. The conservative wing of the court has also focused on upholding voting restrictions, gerrymanders and purges of the registration rolls. In the 2010 Citizens United decision, the same justices opened the door to a massive amount of spending to influence elections. Polls show, however, that more than 70 percent of Americans don’t like extreme partisan gerrymandering and want to overturn Citizens United.”

The importance of judicial appointments is clear from the pushback of some federal judges against Trump’s immigration laws and the separation of children from parents seeking asylum at the border. For this reason, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has made the justice system a partisan battleground. According to the Washington Post, “he’s been very attuned to the power of the courts and made judges a top priority. He has described the 2016 blockade of Merrick Garland after Antonin Scalia’s death as one of his proudest achievements.” He is ready to push through 30 more lifetime District and Circuit court nominees before November’s mid-terms, though under Senate rules Democrats could delay them.

It is a dangerous moment in US politics because the Republicans have spent the years since Nixon encouraging a racist pushback against civil rights legislation, building an aggrieved and aggressive right-wing base that connected with white supremacist movements in the course of Trump’s election campaign. Josh Marshall sums it up: “The politics of aggression, norm-breaking, the penchant for conspiracy theories, the increasingly explicit white nationalism – these were all present in 2014, 2010 and in a more attenuated form in 2004. What Trump did was, through some malign and impulsive intuition, fuse these together into a workable politics. He took what was still the underbelly of Republican politics, which nevertheless provided it with the bulk of the GOP’s motive force, and made it the face, the brand.”

But what it also poses is how the public can claw back legal protections from state assaults. The guilty verdict on Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke for killing black teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014 shows a significant shift in public appreciation of state repression of African American youth. A dashcam video showing Van Dyke unloading 16 gunshots into the 17-year-old was allegedly suppressed ahead of the mayoral election in 2015, and mayor-elect Ralph Emanuel, a Democrat, together with the Chicago police department, was accused of overseeing a cover-up. In These Times reports: “In the aftermath of the video’s release, activists staged massive protests across the city, shutting down major business districts and thoroughfares. Soon after, then-Police Chief Garry McCarthy was fired by Mayor Emanuel. And later, States’ Attorney Anita Alvarez lost a high-profile election to reformer Kim Foxx. Last month, Emanuel announced that he will not be seeking re-election for a third term, meaning that the three most prominent officials associated with the alleged cover-up will soon no longer sit in their previous positions of power.”

The release of the video came after strenuous efforts of civil rights lawyers who challenged the city’s right to withhold it for more than a year. Together with civil rights organizers, “community members in and around Chicago refused to let justice die along with McDonald. It was not the notable activists and national leaders we see on television who ensured this story did not end like so many others before. It was the citizens who cared about their community and about justice being done,” writes the executive director for Human Rights Watch, Nicole Austin-Hillery.

Building mass opposition movements is important, but so is the battle for control of the state – as the sustained efforts of right-wing Republicans demonstrate. It has to be fought on all fronts. The Democratic base is furious at Kavanaugh’s appointment, but this has to be directed at mobilizing those who do not usually vote to come out in the November mid-term elections. That could overturn the Republican hold in both the House and the Senate, allowing the possibility of a renewed investigation into Kavanaugh’s misleading testimony and his potential impeachment.

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Judge and Fury: Kavanaugh’s Rage Exposes the Festering Politicization of Justice


For the last few days, America has been transfixed by the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. The entirely believable testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford was contrasted with Kavanaugh’s aggressive, blustering, and enraged response at her accusations’ damage to his shot at a lifetime Supreme Court judgeship.

The Court is the highest and most visible part of the justice system which is theoretically independent of the legislature and the executive branches of US government. Whatever happens with Kavanaugh’s appointment, the Court’s independence and the Senate’s legitimacy are now facing intense public scrutiny. That is why, after voting in favor of Kavanaugh on committee but then being confronted in an elevator by two angry victims of sexual assault, Senator Jeff Flake brokered a week-long delay on the final Senate vote in order to allow the FBI to conduct an investigation.

The Washington Post reported: “After this [hearing], public perception is going to increasingly be that it’s more a political body than a judicial one,” said Benjamin Barton, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who studies the federal judiciary. “To me, this will be a disaster for them.” Added Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia. “The court is a political institution, yes, but as much as possible it’s critical for the justices to be — and be regarded as — impartial, trustworthy and above the political fray. The justices have reason now to be concerned.”

Republican support for Kavanaugh is only the latest in extreme partisan interference in the normal workings of the justice system, with Senate leader McConnell delaying and frustrating Obama-era appointments until Trump’s election enabled them to fill hundreds of lower-court vacancies with conservative judges. The transformation of the judiciary into a weapon of mass incarceration is a project more important to the Republican leadership, it seems, than their success in the House and Senate mid-term elections.

The New York Times commented: “Party leaders have concluded that supporting Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, in the face of sexual assault accusations against him, will all but ensure that Republicans lose control of the House in November even as their fortunes may improve in some tough Senate races. … Even as Mr. Trump and Senate leaders acceded to an F.B.I. investigation into the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh, Republicans say they did so grudgingly. Privately, they are determined to press ahead with the confirmation process despite the political risks and the possibility that Republican senators may still defect and oppose the nomination in the end.”

The Republican Senate committee members attempted to blame the Democrats for disrupting their staged confirmation by raising Dr. Ford’s objections. Kavanaugh himself raged: “This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups,” which apparently impressed Trump enough to tweet his support.

But the Democratic representatives are voicing a muted version of public hostility to the corruption of the political system that has been festering for many years before Trump took office. Kavanaugh is closely connected to this corruption: in earlier hearings, he lied skilfully about his involvement with formulating the legal justification for torture under the Bush administration, about his extreme partisanship during the Starr attempt to impeach Clinton, and the 2000 Supreme Court verdict that gave Bush the presidency.

The Democrats on their own could not prevent Trump and the Republicans from shifting the Supreme Court sharply to the right, endangering the Roe v. Wade decision and civil rights generally. But the glare of the spotlight on the raw machinations of power may well force a retreat on Kavanaugh’s elevation – who, despite the revelations about his character, will remain in an influential position on the Washington D.C. Appeals Court.

In any case, the Republican party has now clearly branded itself the party of white male entitlement, attracting those railing against the modern world that they believe “is hostile to their individual rights, political power and social status.” But in doing so, they are alienating themselves from the mass of people who don’t regularly vote, and may well be inspired to do so in November after the hearing’s demonstration of exclusive class privilege and of hostility to women.

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Labour’s crisis is over Israel, not anti-semitism


By Jonathan Cook, an award-winning British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, since 2001. Reblogged from jonathancook.net.

If there is indeed an anti-semitism problem in the UK’s Labour party, it is not in the places where the British corporate media have been directing our attention. What can be said with even more certainty is that there is rampant hatred expressed towards Jews in the same British media that is currently decrying the supposed anti-semitism of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Here is a piece of what I hope is wisdom, earnt the hard way as a reporter in Israel over nearly two decades. I offer it in case it helps to resolve the confusion felt by some still pondering the endless reports of Labour’s supposed anti-semitism “crisis”.

Racism towards Palestinians

In the first year after my arrival in Israel in late 2001, during the most violent phase of Israel’s suppression of the Palestinians’ second intifada, I desperately tried to make sense of the events raging around me. Like most new reporters, I searched for experts – at that time, mostly leftwing Israeli analysts and academics. But the more I listened, the less I understood. I felt like a ball in a pinball machine, bounced from one hair-trigger to the next.

My problem was exacerbated by the fact that, unlike my colleagues, I had chosen to locate myself in Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel, rather than in a Jewish area or in the occupied territories. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians seemed much more complex when viewed through the prism of Palestinian “citizens” living inside a self-declared Jewish state.

The Israeli experts I contacted deplored the brutality of the occupation unequivocally and in ways it was difficult not to admire, given the morass of anti-Palestinian sentiment and self-righteousness into which the rest of Israeli society was rapidly sinking. But each time I latched on to such an Israeli in the hope of deepening my own understanding, something they said would knock me sideways.

As readily as they condemned the occupation, they would laud the self-evidently bogus liberal democratic credentials of a Jewish state, one that I could see from my location in Nazareth was structurally organised to deny equal rights to its Palestinian citizens. Or the experts would echo the Israeli government’s inciteful claims that this largely quiescent Palestinian minority in Israel – a fifth of the population – was at best a demographic threat to the Jewish majority, and at worst a Trojan horse secretly working to destroy the Jewish state from within.

The very racism towards Palestinians in the occupied territories these experts eschewed, they readily flaunted when discussing Palestinians inside Israel. Were they really leftists or covert ethnic chauvinists?

Appearances can be deceptive

It was many months before I could make sense of this puzzle. An answer was only possible when I factored in the Israeli state’s official ideology: Zionism.

Israeli leftists who were also avowed Zionists – the vast majority of them – saw the conflict exclusively through the colonial prism of their own ethnic privilege. They didn’t much care for Palestinians or their rights. Their opposition to the occupation was barely related to the tangible harm it did to the Palestinian population.

Rather, they wanted an end to the occupation because they believed it brutalised and corrupted Israeli Jewish society, seeping into its pores like a toxin. Or they wanted the occupation to end because the combined populations of Palestinians in “Greater Israel” – in the occupied territories and inside Israel – would soon outnumber Jews, leading, they feared, to comparisons with apartheid South Africa. They wanted Israel out of all or most of the occupied territories, cutting off these areas like a gangrenous limb threatening the rest of the body’s health.

Only later, when I started to meet anti-Zionist Jews, did I find an opposition to the occupation rooted in a respect for the rights and dignity of the Palestinians in the territories. And because their position was an ethical, rights-based one, rather than motivated by opportunism and self-interest, these anti-Zionist Jews also cared about ending discrimination against the one in five Israeli citizens who were Palestinian. Unlike my experts, they were morally consistent.

I raise this, because the lesson I eventually learnt was this: you should never assume that, because someone has adopted a moral position you share, their view is based on the moral principles that led you to adopt that position. The motives of those you stand alongside can be very different from your own. People can express a morally sound view for morally dubious, or even outright immoral, reasons. If you ally yourself with such people, you will invariably be disappointed or betrayed.

There was another, more particular lesson. Ostensible support for Palestinians may in fact be cover for other ways of oppressing them.

And so it has been with most of those warning of an anti-semitism “crisis” in Labour. Anti-semitism, like all racisms, is to be denounced. But not all denunciations of it are what they seem. And not all professions of support for Palestinians should be taken at face value.

The vilification of Corbyn

Most reasonable observers, especially if they are not Jewish, instinctively recoil from criticising a Jew who is highlighting anti-semitism. It is that insulation from criticism, that protective shield, that encouraged Labour MP Margaret Hodge recently to publicly launch a verbal assault on Corbyn, vilifying him, against all evidence, as an “anti-semite and racist”.

It was that same protective shield that led to Labour officials dropping an investigation of Hodge, even though it is surely beyond doubt that her actions brought the party “into disrepute” – in this case, in a flagrant manner hard to imagine being equalled. This is the same party, remember, that recently expelled Marc Wadsworth, a prominent black anti-racism activist, on precisely those grounds after he accused Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth of colluding with rightwing newspapers to undermine Corbyn.

The Labour party is so hamstrung by fears about anti-semitism, it seems, that it decided that an activist (Wadsworth) denigrating a Labour MP (Smeeth) was more damaging to the party’s reputation than a Labour MP (Hodge) vilifying the party’s leader (Corbyn). In this twisted set of priorities, a suspicion of possible racism towards a Jewish MP served to justify actual racism against a black party activist.

But the perversion of Labour party values goes much further. Recent events have proven that party officials have decisively prioritised the rights of diehard supporters of Israel among British Jewry to defend Israel at all costs over the right of others, including Jews, to speak out about the continuing brutalisation of Palestinians by Israel’s occupation regime.

Hodge and the other Labour MPs trumpeting anti-semitism might be entitled to the benefit of the doubt – that they truly fear anti-semitism is on the rise in the Labour party – had they not repeatedly indulged in the kind of anti-semitism they themselves have deplored.

What do I mean?

When they speak of an anti-semitism “crisis” in the party, these Labour MPs – and the fervently pro-Israel lobby groups behind them like the Jewish Labour Movement – intentionally gloss over the fact that many of the prominent activists who have been investigated, suspended or expelled for anti-semitism in recent months – fuelling the claim of a “crisis” – are in fact Jewish.

Why are the “Jewish” sensitivities of Margaret Hodge, Ruth Smeeth or Louise Ellman more important than those of Moshe Machover, Tony Greenstein, Cyril Chilson, Jackie Walker or Glyn Secker – all Labour activists who have found their sensitivities, as Jews opposing the abuse of Palestinians, count for little or nothing among Labour officials? Why must we tiptoe around Hodge because she is Jewish, ignoring her bullygirl tactics to promote her political agenda in defence of Israel, but crack down on Greenstein and Chilson, even though they are Jewish, to silence their voices in defence of the rights of Palestinians?

‘Wrong kind of Jews’

The problem runs deeper still. Labour MPs like Hodge, Smeeth, Ellman and John Mann have stoked the anti-semitic predilections of the British media, which has been only too ready to indict “bad Jews” while extolling “good Jews”.

That was only too evident earlier this year when Corbyn tried to put out the fire that such Labour MPs had intentionally fuelled. He joined Jewdas, a satirical leftwing Jewish group that is critical of Israel, for a Passover meal. He was roundly condemned for the move.

Jewdas were declared by rightwing Jewish establishment organisations like the Board of Deputies and by the British corporate media as the “wrong kind of Jews”, or even as not “real” Jews. In the view of the Board and the media, Corbyn was tainted by his association with them.

How are Jewdas the “wrong kind of Jews”? Because they do not reflexively kneel before Israel. Ignore Corbyn for a moment. Did Labour MPs Hodge, Ellman or Smeeth speak out in the defence of fellow Jews under attack over their Jewishness? No, they did not.

If Greenstein and Chilson are being excommunicated as (Jewish) “anti-semites” for their full-throated condemnations of Israel’s institutional racism, why are Hodge and Ellman not equally anti-semites for their collusion in the vilification of supposedly “bad” or “phoney” Jews like Jewdas, Greenstein and Chilson.

It should be clear that this anti-semitism “crisis” is not chiefly about respecting Jewish sensitivities or even about Jewish identity. It is about protecting the sensitivities of some Jews on Israel, a state oppressing and dispossessing the Palestinian people.

Policing debates on Israel

When the Guardian’s senior columnist Jonathan Freedland insists that his Jewish identity is intimately tied to Israel, and that to attack Israel is to attack him personally, he is demanding the exclusive right to police the parameters of discussions about Israel. He is asserting his right, over the rights of other Jews – and, of course, Palestinians – to determine what the boundaries of political discourse on Israel are, and where the red lines denoting anti-semitism are drawn.

This is why Labour MPs like Hodge and journalists like Freedland are at the centre of another confected anti-semitism row in the Labour party: over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-semitism and an associated set of examples. They want all the IHRA’s examples adopted by Labour, not just most of them.

There are very clear, existing definitions of anti-semitism. They are variations of the simple formulation: “Anti-semitism is the hatred of Jews for being Jews.” But the IHRA takes this clear definition and muddies it to the point that all sorts of political debates can be viewed as potentially anti-semitic, as leading jurists have warned (see hereand here).

That is only underscored by the fact that a majority of the IHRA’s examples of anti-semitism relate to Israel – a nuclear-armed state now constitutionally designed to privilege Jews over non-Jews inside its recognised borders and engaged in a half-century of brutal military occupation of the Palestinian people outside its borders.

To be fair to the drafters of the IHRA guidelines, these examples were supposed only to be treated as potentially anti-semitic, depending on the context. That is the express view of the definition’s drafter, Kenneth Stern, a Jewish lawyer, who has warned that the guidelines are being perverted to silence criticism of Israel and stifle free speech.

And who are leading precisely the moves that Stern has warned against? People like Jonathan Freedland and Margaret Hodge, cheered on by large swaths of Labour MPs, who have strongly implied that Corbyn and his allies in the party are anti-semitic for sharing Stern’s concerns.

Hodge and Freedland are desperate to strong-arm the Labour party into setting the IHRA guidelines in stone, as the unchallengeable, definitive new definition of anti-semitism. That will relieve them of the arduous task of policing those discourse boundaries on the basis of evidence and of context. They will have a ready-made, one-size-fits-all definition to foreclose almost all serious debate about Israel.

Want to suggest that Israel’s new Nation-State Law, giving Jewish citizens constitutionally guaranteed rights denied to non-Jewish citizens, is proof of the institutional racism on which political Zionism is premised and that was enshrined in the founding principles of the state of Israel? Well, you just violated one of the IHRA guidelines by arguing that Israel is a “racist endeavour”. If Freedland and Hodge get their way, you would be certain to be declared an anti-semite and expelled from the Labour party.

Grovelling apology

Revealing how cynical this manoeuvring by Hodge, Freedland and others is, one only has to inspect the faux-outrage over the latest “anti-semitism crisis” involving Corbyn. He has been forced to make a grovelling apology – one that deeply discredits him – for hosting an anti-racism conference in 2010 at which a speaker made a comparison between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. That violated another of the IHRA examples.

But again, what none of these anti-semitism warriors has wanted to highlight is that the speaker given a platform at the conference was the late Hajo Meyer, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who dedicated his later years to supporting Palestinian rights. Who, if not Meyer, deserved the right to make such a comparison? And to imply that he was an anti-semite because he prioritised Palestinian rights over the preservation of Israel’s privileges for Jews is truly contemptible.

In fact, it is more than that. It is far closer to anti-semitism than the behaviour of Jewish critics of Israel like Greenstein and Chilson, who have been expelled from the Labour party. To intentionally exploit and vilify a Holocaust survivor for cheap, short-term political advantage – in an attempt to damage Corbyn – is malevolence of the worst kind.

Having stoked fears of an anti-semitism crisis, Hodge, Freedland and others have actively sought to obscure the wider context in which it must be judged – as, in large part, a painful debate raging inside the Jewish community. It is a debate between fervently pro-Israel Jewish establishment groups and a growing body of marginalised anti-Zionist Jewish activists who wish to show solidarity with the Palestinians. Labour is not suffering from an “anti-semitism crisis”; it is mired in an “Israel crisis”.

‘Repulsive’ campaign

In their silence about the abuses of Meyer, Jewdas, Greenstein, Chilson and many others, Freedland and Hodge have shown that they do not really care about the safety or sensitivities of Jews. What they chiefly care about is protecting their chosen cause of Israel, and crippling the chances of a committed supporter of Palestinian rights from ever reaching power. They are prepared to sacrifice other Jews, even victims of the Holocaust, as well as the Labour party itself, for that kind of political gain.

Hodge and Freedland are behaving as though they are decent Jews, the only ones who have the right to a voice and to sensitivities. They are wrong.

They are like the experts I first met in Israel who concealed their racism towards Palestinians by flaunting their self-serving anti-occupation credentials. Under the cover of concerns about anti-semitism, Freedland and Hodge have helped stoke hatred – either explicitly or through their silence – towards the “wrong kind of Jews”, towards Jews whose critical views of Israel they fear.

It does not have to be this way. Rather than foreclose it, they could allow a debate to flourish within Britain’s Jewish community and within the Labour party. They could admit that not only is there no evidence that Corbyn is racist, but that he has clearly been committed to fighting racism all his life.

Don’t want to take my word for it? You don’t have to. Listen instead to Stephen Oryszczuk, foreign editor of the Corbyn-hating Jewish News. His newspaper was one of three Jewish weeklies that recently published the same front-page editorial claiming that Corbyn was an “existential threat” to British Jews.

Oryszczuk, even if no friend to the Labour leader, deplored the behaviour of his own newspaper. In an interview, he observed of this campaign to vilify Corbyn: “It’s repulsive. This is a dedicated anti-racist we’re trashing. I just don’t buy into it at all.” He added of Corbyn: “I don’t believe he’s antisemitic, nor do most reasonable people. He’s anti-Israel and that’s not the same.”

Oryszczuk conceded that some people were weaponising anti-semitism and that these individuals were “certainly out to get him [Corbyn]”. Unlike Freedland and Hodge, he was also prepared to admit that some voices in the Jewish community were being actively silenced: “It’s partly our fault, in the mainstream Jewish media. We could – and arguably should – have done a better job at giving a voice to Jews who think differently, for which I personally feel a little ashamed. … On Israel today, what you hear publicly tends to be very uniform.”

And that is exactly how Hodge and Freedland would like to keep it – in the Labour party, in the Jewish community, and in wider British society.

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