Stand Up to Racism Scotland refused to keep Friends of Israel off its anti-racism march in Glasgow. In the end, supporters of the people of Palestine did Stand Up to Racism’s job for it. But Stand Up to Racism still argues that unity against racism means at least arms-length unity with the Israel lobby. And it still argues for resisting “those who would divide us” without saying who, or how. In fact, Stand Up to Racism is encouraging a division between acceptable and unacceptable kinds of anti-racism. Anti-racism that’s willing to name and shame Israeli apartheid is apparently unacceptable. It would be bad enough that this position has gained a grip on Stand Up to Racism Scotland. What’s worse is the way that it happened.
On Saturday 10 March the steering committee of Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) Scotland overwhelmingly voted down an emergency motion calling for the Confederation of Friends of Israel in Scotland (COFIS) – an organisation that works with the Israeli government to undermine Scottish solidarity with Palestine – to be told that it would not be welcome on the anti-racism march being held in Glasgow the following Saturday. How did that happen?
The motion was proposed by my friend John Porter and seconded by me in absentia (family issues made it impossible for me to attend the meeting). John is not a member of the steering committee; I am. The motion was adopted by Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC). John is a member of SACC; I am Chair.
The motion followed a year of failure by SUTR to act upon, or even discuss, concerns over the participation by COFIS in last year’s anti-racism march. It took a minimalist approach in the hope of gaining wide support. A statement about the racist nature of the Israeli state might have required lengthy discussion before the wording could be agreed. Instead, the motion just said that the aims of COFIS are “incompatible with the principles and aims of SUTR.” A statement banning COFIS from the march might have tied the hands of SUTR stewards who would have to take difficult decisions on the day. So the motion called only for COFIS to be told it was not welcome. Committee proceedings are normally informal; a formal motion has never been tabled at a meeting in the 18 months of the committee’s existence. Nevertheless, we were told in advance that the motion would be taken, only for delegates to be told on the day that it would be considered as statement rather than as a motion.
Those objecting to the motion presented their position as an appeal for unity. For them, our motion introduced an issue extraneous to the core issue of opposition to racism around which SUTR seeks to build maximum unity. It was as if we were asking SUTR to take a position on GM crops. They neither accepted nor challenged the view that Israel is an apartheid state, as former UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk (download his report here: pdf), the charity War on Want and the South African government say. They simply didn’t refer to it at all in their arguments. Nor did they refer to the way that COFIS seeks to misuse anti-racism legislation and policies to smear supporters of the Palestinian freedom struggle as anti-semites.
This disregard for Israel’s racism and the Israel lobby’s abuse of other countries’ anti-racism policies is not a unifying approach. On the contrary, it draws a line between acceptable and unacceptable forms of anti-racism. Anti-racism directed against Israel’s structural racism is unacceptable. It is as if, in the 1970s and 80s, anti-racists were permitted to campaign against racist abuse and violence on British streets but not to oppose apartheid South Africa, lest they be accused of racist or xenophobic disrespect for the laws and institutions of South Africa, or maybe simply of anti-Boer racism.
This position, built out of disregard for the real issues and glamourised by broadsides against regiments of straw men, somehow won the day. It did so in a little gathering of politically sophisticated people, all steeped in struggles against racism. Before asking how this position won, it’s worth asking why anyone would want it to.
The pseudo-unity position is championed by the SWP (Socialist Workers Party), who have played a key role in building SUTR. The SWP’s problem is that Jeremy Corbyn has been unable or unwilling to stand against the witch-hunt within the Labour Party of members – many of them his own supporters – smeared as anti-semitic for making criticisms of Israel that go beyond the limits that Israel itself has set. Corbyn’s position in the parliamentary party is still weak, despite his rank and file popularity. His dilemma is real. The SWP want to encourage a central role for Labour in SUTR, but don’t want to risk upsetting Corbyn’s tight-rope walk by embarrassing him on the anti-semitism question. This is first and foremost a strategy – not necessarily a good one – for engagement with Labour by the revolutionary and radical left. It isn’t a strategy for building a mass anti-racist movement supported by and supporting the communities most threatened by racism. The SWP may believe that these fundamentally different things are for the moment coincident, or nearly so. But the question has never been discussed by SUTR Scotland. It lies hidden beneath appeals for “unity”.
Of course we must stand with Jews facing racist violence, abuse or discrimination, whatever views they happen to hold on Palestine, zionism, other forms of racism or any other matter. But zionism is racism. The slogans against anti-semitism that we march behind must not be mistaken for slogans against anti-zionism, or against robust criticism of Israel. If we fail to stand against organisations like COFIS we expose anti-Zionist Jews – that’s to say anti-racist Jews – to persecution as supposed anti-semites. That’s exactly what’s happening in the Labour Party, where the witch-hunt for anti-semites amounts in large part to a witch-hunt for Jewish socialists. Veteran Jewish socialist and anti-zionist Moshé Machover has forced Labour to reverse his expulsion. Others are still fighting. More information about this struggle can be found on the Labour Against the Witch-Hunt website.
How did the SWP’s problematic strategy for “unity” come to dominate the broad coalition that SUTR Scotland seeks to represent? The answer is very simple.
A number of statements from organisations linked to SUTR were read out or quoted from at the steering committee meeting on 10 March. A statement from Larry Flanagan, General Secretary of the EIS (Scotland’s biggest teaching union) made the familiar point that SUTR “cannot be diverted or divided by any other issue.” He went on to say “EIS will remove it’s support, political, financial and moral if it [SUTR] moves away.”
A note was also read from Nicola Fisher, sent in a personal capacity. Nicola Fisher is a steering committee member, besides being President of the EIS. Her note (in a personal capacity!) said “Larry Flanagan has made it clear that in the event of this statement being supported in any shape or form… there will no further EIS support of any kind for this years demonstration” and the decision “may affect any future support.”
So senior EIS officers used their union’s perceived financial clout to hold SUTR over a barrel. Since the EIS was not represented at the meeting, these statements – if the committee was minded to heed them at all – made it quite impossible to seriously consider any amendment to our motion or any alternative statement with similar intent.
Statements against our motion from other organisations served little purpose except to give cover for the force majeure exercised by the EIS. A note from Richard Leonard’s office said, just like the EIS: “We cannot be vehicle for any other issue.” Barrie Levene, Convenor of Scottish Jews for a Just Peace (SJJP), sent a statement saying: “I’m wholly and completely opposed to this proposal from SACC.” Other members of SJJP had sent a statement making the opposite point, but the meeting was not told about it. Their statement said: “we are appalled that there can be any hesitation over banning Zionist organisations from a demonstration against racism.” It can be read here.
It would perhaps be a mistake to read too much into the momentary requisitioning of the EIS to support the SWP side in a leftist wrangle. But if the view implied by the statements from EIS officers really is prevalent in the EIS hierarchy, you need only look at the effect it has had on SUTR to see the what the consequences might be for Scotland’s schools.
SUTR Scotland has avoided any official comment on Palestine. Grassroots SUTR supporters – mainly SWP members – have been active on social media trying to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable forms of anti-racism. They drew the line almost exactly where the respectable wing of the Israel lobby would like it drawn. Opponents of the SUTR Scotland position have in effect been placed under suspicion of anti-semitism, and sometimes explicitly accused of it.
If the EIS takes this approach, it is difficult to see how we can count on its help in working towards a fair treatment of the Israel-Palestine issue in Scottish schools. And it is difficult to see how teachers can count on meaningful support from the EIS if they feel under pressure, from their school’s management or from other authorities, to treat children who show support for Palestine as showing signs of anti-semitism. All this casts a long shadow over hopes that Scottish schools’ poor track record in tackling Islamophobia (see, for example, Samena Dean’s booklet Islamophobia in Edinburgh Schools and the SACC briefing Tackling Islamophobia in Scottish Schools) will improve.
SUTR’s refusal to take a stand against COFIS led pro-Palestine organisations, including the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Scottish Friends of Palestine, the Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign and the Association of Palestinian Communities – Scotland to refuse to participate in the Glasgow march. A number of other organisations, including the Muslim Council of Scotland, the Muslim Women’s Association of Edinburgh and the Communist Party of Britain refused to participate for the same reason.
In the end, activists from West Dunbartonshire Supports the People of Palestine put some distance, quite literally, between the march and COFIS. They created an “apartheid wall”, held COFIS behind it and inched their way slowly through the Glasgow streets behind the SUTR march. The march set off 15 minutes earlier than scheduled and pulled well clear of the embarrassment. It also pulled temporarily clear of some SUTR supporters, as the EIS-funded coach from Edinburgh hadn’t arrived when the march set off.
Some of the speakers at the closing rally censored their comments rather less rigorously than grassroots SUTR activists had done. Others limited themselves to name-checking Palestine, or said nothing about it at all.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard MSP gave about as much support to Palestine as Labour policy would in any case have permitted, saying “we stand in solidarity with the people of the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank.” Lawyer Aamer Anwar maintained his reputation for plain speaking, saying: “I stand with the Palestinian people and condemn without condition the racist apartheid system of the state of Israel.” Anas Sarwar MSP (Labour) declared his solidarity with the Palestinian people as well as the Iraqi people, the Afghani people, the Syrian people and the Kashmiri people. Alison Thewlis MP (SNP) made an impassioned speech in support of refugees but said nothing about Palestine. Satnam Ner, STUC President, declared his solidarity with Rohingya, Palestinian, Syrrian, Kurdish and Columbian people.
Larry Flanagan, General Secretary of the EIS, briefly mentioned his recent visit to Palestine as part of a teacher delegation. Despite his statement to the steering committee that SUTR should not be deflected by issues other than racism, he seemed in fact to be happier talking about internationalism than connecting oppression overseas to racist ideas.
The road ahead for the anti-racist movement is a bumpy one. COFIS and groups like it identify as anti-racist only to protect Israel from criticism. It is as if Police Scotland’s aversion to being accused of institutional racism were to somehow be embedded in the movement. SUTR’s stance consolidates and normalises the view that Israel cannot be accused of apartheid and racism, and the even more vicious view that those who do so are themselves racists. This will help promote inflated ideas about the prevalence of anti-semitism, deflect from the struggle against Islamophobia and of course undermine support for Palestine.
Islamophobia is at the moment a much larger problem in the UK than anti-semitism. It is being exploited to create public acquiescence in UK military adventures and in Israeli attacks on Palestine. It is also being exploited by the far-right to power their growth not just in the UK but across much of Europe and the US. Islamophobia, not anti-semitism, is nearly everywhere the fuel that the far right relies on. Where successful, the far right then tends to turn on its traditional target, the Jewish community. Muslims, Jews and all the rest of us have a shared interest in draining the swamp of the racism and Islamophobia on which the far right relies. We cannot do that at the same time as empowering zionists and allies of the Israeli state to divide us.
Richard Leonard began his speech by saying: “We can’t leave the fight against racism to the black and minority ethnic community.” But the risk that minorities may find themselves left to fight alone isn’t the whole of the problem. The other part of the problem is that a coalition of political parties and trade unions, all with agendas of their own and with little regard even for their own democratic processes, is very forcefully trying to direct the way that communities fight back. That has to stop.
Photo: COFIS walking behind the “apartheid wall” created by West Dunbartonshire Supports the People of Palestine