inspired by love, kept awake by coffee
I have long been worried about the state of politics in the UK; the shocking lurching to the Right, the erosion of social justice and fair play as core British values, the virtually unquestioned rise of corporate power and rent economies, unchallenged racism, the gradual erosion of civil rights and the many ways of distracting the populace with classic Roman methods such as gladiator games (Big Brother, X Factor, The Voice, the list is endless).
Sure, there are some signs of change – the re-emergence of feminism, increasing legislation around equality (though in the context of increasing inequality in general), even ‘socialism’ and ‘solidarity’ being heard as legitimate terms again, thanks to Corbyn and others. But on the whole, the trend is still firmly to maintain the status quo of corporate and class power, which is increasingly globalised to the extent that countries are becoming local governments at best and colonial offices at worst.
I’ll put my cards on the table. I’m a lifelong socialist, Labour supporter, feminist, peace campaigner, mental health ally, gay rights activist and anti-racist. I’m also half Palestinian and half Silesian (child of two displaced people, who met in London post WWII when they could not return home). My father was a staunch socialist and he brought me up to understand clearly that every person should be free from prejudice and discrimination. That didn’t mean something conceptual, it was a living commitment to treat every human being we came in touch with as our equal in rights, dignity and treatment.
At the same time, I grew up with the stories of displacement and loss (my mother actually lost far more than my father when the Russians ethnically cleansed Silesia of germans to give the land to the poles). These are human tragedies. My father grew up with Jews in Jerusalem (he is from Silwan) and throughout his life, retained friendships with some of them as well as making new Jewish friends in his life as an academic. He spoke Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic and 20+ other languages. I am glad he is dead, to be honest, because I know he would be heartbroken to see what has happened in the Middle East today. I am heartbroken enough by proxy.
The row over how ‘rife’ antisemitism is in the Labour Party is, and the daily suspensions are upsetting me. In common with Palestinians of his generation, my father did not see ‘Jews’ as the problem. He understood the difference between innocent victims of conflicts and the political activities and actors who caused their displacement and loss. He saw early paramilitary Zionist groups (e.g. Irgun, Lehi/Stern gang) as problematic and terrorist in intent, but blamed Balfour and the UK for the loss of Palestine, not ‘the Jews’. Ironically, it is coming into contact with western antisemitism, with talk of Jewish conspiracies, especially financial, and the ‘Pro-Israel lobby’ (which exists, and is undoubtedly very powerful, but all groups lobby their own interests, don’t they?), which has fuelled some of the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment amongst younger people. Although I believe it is still true that most Palestinians blame specific political powers and can make the distinction between them and a generalised ‘Jew’.
But I don’t deny that prejudice exists, any more than I would deny that there are rampant racists in the UK. After all, one of the whole points of an anti-racist perspective is to understand that you cannot generalise the behaviour of some of a group to the whole. I live in an area that elected UKIP councillors, but I wouldn’t say the whole population of East Kent are racists, for example. (Most are regretting their choice now as their incompetence and deceptiveness is being exposed.) Yes, lots of Gazans voted for Hamas, who used the exact same election tactics as UKIP and the BNP – focusing on very local issues and promising what they had no intention to deliver as they only wanted power. It doesn’t mean that all Gazans are terrorists; you wouldn’t say all Jews were terrorists when the paramilitary Zionists were active in the early 20th century. Generalisation is always bad.
It is really gratifying to find an upsurge of interest and support for the Palestinian cause since social media revealed the extent of the violent oppression in Gaza. The renewal of the BDS movement is also something I welcome – I saw it work with South Africa whose incumbent government also pretended to be a Western democracy while engaging in violent suppression of their indigenous population. In the 20th century, historical colonial occupation, enslavement and suppression of indigenous dissent (America, Canada, Australia, most of Africa etc etc) was rightly viewed as incompatible with civilised society and in the 21st century this should be even more true. We attacked Saddam Hussein for the way he treated the Kurds, and rightly so, but he wasn’t pretending to be Western. Saudi Arabia’s version of Sharia is medieval and barbaric, but we recognise they are not pretending to be culturally the same as us.
However, these are nuanced arguments (criticism of political actors and activities, specific policies etc. while not tarring the civilians with the same brush). But that’s really hard. It’s so much easier to be lazy and stereotypical. I’ve forgotten the amount of people I’ve pulled up for suggesting that Americans are stupid, ill-educated and rude. Some are. Some are much better educated than we are and many more are friendly, hardworking, generous and welcoming. Diversity is one of the defining characteristics of humans. That’s what makes us interesting and successful as a species. Division and segregation is what makes us weak.
Unfortunately, as is probably inevitable, anger at the actions of the current Israeli government towards Palestinians is often expressed by British pro-Palestinian activists in terms that are unsound and often stereotyping, hateful and ignorant. Combine this with white male privilege and you get Ken Livingstone who just couldn’t resist lording his ‘superior’ knowledge of obscure aspects of history over and over while oblivious to his context. I don’t need that kind of support for Palestine, thanks. He did the same with his misogynistic remarks – acted as though he was above reproach and simply misunderstood. For an ordinary person, that is a bloke in the pub with an opinion he thinks is above challenge because it entered his head. For a politician it is incompetence and arrogance.
Student activists, in particular, may be prone to ill-conceived utterances. They should be soundly challenged so they can learn why that is unacceptable. That’s how I learned feminism. I am not proud to have to admit I once thought that if a woman was raped she must have done something to invite it. It seemed logical. When you grow up in a patriarchal society you are brainwashed. However, part of the wisdom of adulthood is a) recognising one’s responsibility to behave in ways that do not offend or discriminate fellow humans and b) remembering that you first have to be young and foolish to be old and wise. Rather than condemn and brand someone, it is better to educate and improve them. I know that in my work as an HE teacher I have made many students rethink their ideas and move away from gross generalization and prejudice. I have had to deal with outright racism towards Eastern Europeans in the classroom, for example, with many of my students coming from East Kent.
The latest target of the antisemite purge of the Labour Party is Jackie Walker, a lifelong anti-racist campaigner who has stood up against the BNP in Dover, been herself subjected to racist attacks and who is of both Afro-Caribbean and Jewish descent as is her partner. She carries two holocausts – that of the colonial slave industry out of Africa, and that of the Jews. In her Facebook discussion, she wanted to remind people of both and that sometimes victims can also be perpetrators. It was also part of a perfectly valid argument made by some, that the Holocaust is often used as justification of Israeli domestic policy or political capital (though the policy of industrial extermination of an entire race remains a horror to beat all horrors in my view). As a black woman, her point that black people are still experiencing severe prejudice and discrimination (as a result of colonialism and the slave trade) to an extent which most Jews are not, is hard to refute. She wasn’t denying the Jewish holocaust, she was trying to make a completely different point.
Her point about Jewish financing the slave trade is more problematic as it is probably based on the Nation of Islam ‘research’ which vastly overestimates Jewish involvement in the slave trade (which is, however, true) and doesn’t take into account the social and historical context (they were all at it!). Hopefully, an educative approach could help her to develop a more accurate view. But in the heat of an argument, exaggeration is always a risk. When atrocities are committed against a population with whom you sympathise it’s really hard to avoid lashing out at the whole population of your oppressor. But if peace is to come, that is exactly what we must work hardest to avoid.
There was a really poignant story in the news today too about elderly survivors of the Holocaust who are still waiting for the return of their stolen possessions and are living in poverty. Aside from my natural socialist inclinations to ask why the government of Israel aren’t providing social support (the history of the way Holocaust survivors were or weren’t entirely welcomed in Israel is quite contentious) the point that was made is:
“every effort be made to rectify the consequences of wrongful property seizures, such as confiscations, forced sales and sales under duress of property, which were part of the persecution of these innocent people and groups.”
I read that, and my first thought was, ‘Ha! And they wonder why we Palestinians feel the same way about them! That’s exactly what we think.’ And then I stopped, because I am older and wiser and have learned that compassion is the best antidote to hatred and conflict and thought, ‘those poor people, gone through so much, whose hopes of a safe and better life in their homeland have not fully materialised, the poor and dispossessed, just like many of my own relatives and tribe. Just like innocent people in conflicts all over the world, forgotten, betrayed by everyone including their own. My heart goes out to them. May they have justice soon, especially today on Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel.’ That is, I am sure, what my father would have wanted me to do. He would have been 93 on May 3rd and I owe him a deep debt of gratitude that he made me question every thought that came into my head and never stop learning.
One positive that could come out of this whole debacle is that people begin to remember what racism is and the violence it perpetrates. I’ve long critiqued the rise of ‘diversity’ instead of ‘racism’ as the discourse (thanks, interestingly, to Livingstone and Jasper) as divisive rather than integrative. Goldsmith’s (or probably more correctly, Crosby’s) filthy campaign is being justifiably condemned too. Perhaps it’s time for solidarity between those who experience racism to come together and challenge all parts of the establishment. This is where we could begin to disentangle the fight against racism from the abuse of anti-racism for witchhunting for party political/vested interests, rather than ethical, reasons.