The far left event that attacked CST and praised David Irving
7 August 2020
At the end of July an event organised by the group Labour Against the Witchhunt held a Zoom meeting which was broadcast live on multiple pages on Facebook. The meeting was ostensibly about free speech, but in fact turned into an attack on mainstream Jewish community organisations, including CST, that speakers portrayed as a “Zionist lobby” attempting to stifle free speech. On their website Labour Against the Witchhunt claims to be a group that was founded in October 2017 “to oppose the purge of pro-Corbyn supporters in the Labour Party.”
It can hardly be a surprise to those who follow the British far left that an event on free speech would take this turn; Jews protesting about antisemitism are regularly described in this way by so-called anti-Zionists. On this occasion one speaker even went as far as praising the disgraced Holocaust denier David Irving.
The speakers were a veritable who’s who of individuals who found themselves at the heart of Labour antisemitism controversies over the past five years (with notable exception of Ken Livingstone who appears on the publicity of the event but wasn’t present). Jackie Walker, Tony Greenstein and Marc Wadsworth were all expelled by Labour for various contraventions of Labour Party rules. Professor David Miller, who teaches at Bristol University, left the party recently after being suspended. Tariq Ali, controversially refused membership in the party in 1981, later helped found the Stop the War Coalition.
American Political Scientist Norman Finkelstein completed the panel. Finkelstein is perhaps best known for his book The Holocaust Industry in which he claimed that “the current campaign of the Holocaust Industry to extort money from Europe in the name of ‘needy Holocaust victims’ has shrunk the moral status of martyrdom to that of a Monte Carlo casino”. He recently spoke against what he called “that fabricated absurd and obscene assault on this alleged Labour antisemitism of which there's exactly zero evidence.” The event was moderated by Tina Werkmann, co-chair, along with Jackie Walker, of the Labour Against the Witchhunt group and Secretary of the Labour Left Alliance.
Over the course of two hours speakers took turns attacking the “Zionist lobby”, though only former Labour MP Chris Williamson named the organisations he thinks are part of this “lobby”. In the past Williamson has claimed that the Labour Party had been “too apologetic” with regards to antisemitism. During an interview with the Guardian in 2017 he claimed concerns over Corbyn’s handling of antisemitism within the Labour Party and his approach to Venezuela were “proxy wars and bullshit”, this led to Williamson losing the Labour whip before the 2019 General Election – a decision he challenged in court but lost. According to him this “lobby” is “very, very powerful” and sits on “both sides of the Atlantic”: in the USA it includes the Anti-Defamation League, campaign group CAMERA, Canary Mission and “so called Honest Reporting”. Williamson argued that in the UK:
“The Board of Deputies who've already been mentioned, the right-wing pro-Zionist newspaper, if you can call it that, the Jewish Chronicle and others… have been actively working to close down free speech as far as it extends to Palestine and support for the Palestinian people and their aim is to, and it's been effective, is to, it's to, terrify editors, to terrify academics to, to frighten activists. And even judges and lawyers have been intimidated into accepting Zionism and supporting the objectives of the State of Israel and I saw that, that terror, that fear, at first hand from MPs because when I was initially suspended there was literally no public support from my comrades in the Socialist Campaign Group.”
The proof Williamson presents is the fact that no one in the Parliamentary Labour Party supported him during his various disciplinary battles with the Labour Party. In conspiratorial, antisemitic discourse we often see people who are unable to take responsibility for their own actions blaming a Jewish or Zionist conspiracy. Another possibility is that no one would support him because it was obvious to his colleagues that he was in the wrong.
Professor David Miller’s comments at the meeting are due to be the subject of a complaint by CST to Bristol University. He claimed CST is "at the forefront of pursuing the witch hunt. A group which is unable to distinguish between anti-Zionism and antisemitism which purposely blurs together those two concepts in order to pursue the left, that’s been its raison d’etre… since it was created". He spoke about the Israeli government and a “Zionist lobby” in warlike terms arguing that “these are people who must only be faced and defeated" and “The Zionist movement and the Israeli govt are the enemy of the left, the enemy of world peace and they must be directly targeted". He also called the British Government “the enemy”. Read CST’s thread about this here.
Another speaker, Tariq Ali, claimed that “the uses that are being made of the Holocaust to silence and blackmail people into capitulation or inaction, inactivity on this question have been getting stronger and stronger.” Without a shred of irony he referred to Gaza as “the largest ghetto in the world today” in the same speech.
CST has commented on Norman Finkelstein’s position that David Irving is a “very good historian” already. It is telling that Finkelstein explicitly dismissed the expert testimony of Professor Richard Evans, delivered at Irving’s failed libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt, in which Evans painstakingly demonstrated multiple occasions on which Irving had manipulated, misrepresented or cherry-picked historical evidence to back up his own far right sympathies. During his talk Finkelstein also lifted some of the language that the left has been using in reference to the “weaponisation” of antisemitism and applied it to African Americans in the USA, claiming:
“It was the African American community that killed the Bernie Sanders candidacy as the Democratic Party weaponised identity politics. By the way, most significantly in 2020 it was Barack Obama, weaponising the identity politics, which again is roughly a left cause, you know, defending the cause of minorities and persecuted minorities and so forth, weaponising the identity politics to stop Bernie Sanders in the United States.”
None of the speakers can be heard objecting to the comments made and many took pains to make it clear they agreed with everything that had been said. Tony Greenstein went as far as to agree with Finkelstein saying Irving “is a historian one can’t take it away from him” while conceding “the problem is his politics have got in the way of his history and his research and he certainly did tamper with sources from my reading of the transcript of the Irving trial”.
Antisemitism as a presence in UK politics is currently undergoing a change from being at the centre of the Labour Party to being evicted from it. At Prime Minister’s Questions on 22 July Jeremy Corbyn’s replacement as Labour leader, Keir Starmer, proclaimed that “the party is under new management”. As it becomes clear that the new management has a low threshold for antisemitic discourse, passionate advocates of such narratives are seeking a new home outside of the party. This event’s speakers appear to be in the process of creating such a home and are agreeing with and in some cases flaunting conspiracies about “Zionist influence” as a way of attracting people to their banner. CST will continue paying close attention to this ongoing battle within the left and to how antisemitism continues to manifest itself in the future.