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29 June 2020

Why one bad tweet shouldn’t distract from the issues driving Black Lives Matter

Criticism of Israel is not “gagged” in the UK – but an ill-judged tweet shouldn't be used to belittle a whole cause.

By Stephen Bush

Does the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey mean that you cannot talk about the condition of the Palestinians? That’s the contention that some on the British left are making and, I assume, the subtext of a tweet by the “official” (to a given extent) Black Lives Matter Twitter account, saying that “mainstream British politics is gagged of the right to critique Zionism”. Are they right? And if they aren’t, what does that mean for other organisations’ decision to engage with the Black Lives Matter movement? Should they back off?

In the real world, British politicians criticise the state of Israel, its policies and its policing, both that of its police and security services, all the time. This week alone, dozens of British politicians, the former Conservative leader and peer Michael Howard, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge and the British government itself have condemned the planned annexation of part of the West Bank. 

In the real world, the policy platform of the British Labour party on Israel/Palestine did not change under Jeremy Corbyn from what it had been under Ed Miliband. It has changed under Keir Starmer, to become more critical of the state of Israel, with the shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy proposing that goods from outside Israel’s pre-1967 borders should face sanctions if the Israeli government’s annexation plans go ahead.

So the idea that you cannot “critique” the state of Israel or Zionism more broadly is not true. You can draw attention to commonalities of oppression in one country with another. You should! Just as methods to improve schools are emulated across states, so too are the tools of oppression. And the trade between states, particularly a large military power such as the United Kingdom, and other smaller states is a crucial component of how that oppression endures. Resistance can be sharpened and strengthened by those cross-border conversations: in the US, the original Black Lives Matter protesters received advice from Palestinian protest movements about how to protect themselves from tear gas, because the tear gas that is used in Israel is manufactured and sold in the US, and the UK for that matter, which is why the Scottish parliament has voted, albeit symbolically, to end the sale of tear gas in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this year.

This, by the way, is one reason why, when people guffaw about the pointlessness of protesting a US injustice in the UK they are missing the point: while the arms industry remains one of the success stories of British manufacturing, there will be few international atrocities that could not, at the very least, be lessened or inconvenienced by changes of policy here in the UK. 

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It’s a problem that there isn’t enough attention paid to the condition of Muslims in China – not that there is a surfeit of attention paid to the problems of people in the US. But that truth also exposes part of the problem with the concept that conversations around Israel-Palestine in the UK are “gagged”, or that repressive policing in the US originates in Israel. The point of origin is the other way round – to invert it is to engage in conspiratorial thinking about Israeli influence over world affairs, whether consciously or unconsciously.

So, yes, you can point to sales of arms or expertise between states. You can press for a change in foreign policy or arms trading – as indeed, the Labour Party is doing. What you cannot do is share an unevidenced antisemitic conspiracy theory – one that states that a particular method of lethal police violence in the US originated in Israel – without caveat or apology and remain on the front bench of Keir Starmer.

The existence of real injustice does not make the sharing of falsehoods any more acceptable. The existence of genuine oppression does not legitimise, excuse or justify sharing untrue conspiracies.

But that doesn’t mean that the people who look at an, at best, ill-judged tweet by “Black Lives Matter – UK” and use that to suggest that the whole movement should be disregarded are right either. Others have gone so far as to ask if I should mothball the commission on racial inclusivity in the Jewish community that I have been asked to chair.

The central problem here is that no one looks at, say, an ill-judged protest by Extinction Rebellion, or a statement that repeats antisemitic tropes by a Green group, and seriously decides that as a result they are going to buy an SUV and turn all the heating on in the middle of summer. When someone claims that they will do this, we rightly intuit that they simply aren’t supportive of the wider cause and are looking for a pretext.

We should treat Black Lives Matter UK’s Twitter account as no more representative of the average person on a Black Lives Matter protest than the leadership of the Stop the War coalition is of the average Iraq war opponent, or the leadership of the People’s Vote campaign is of the average person on an anti-Brexit march, not least because the process by which the account has been verified by Twitter and reaches positions to tweet about is opaque.

One of the central tasks of leadership, be that leadership of a charity, a business, a local authority or a state is to use your judgement: to think about the causes of a protest and not just to listen uncritically to, or throw out a cause on the basis of, its leaders, appointed or otherwise. It’s not good leadership to respond to someone who thinks the solar panels on their tower block roof are why they have problems with persistent damp by ripping off the solar panels. It’s not good leadership to decide that because they have wrongheaded views about solar panels, they should have to live with rising damp.

In terms of the wider Black Lives Matter moment, there is no statement that could be made that would make the problems unearthed by David Lammy’s review into inequality in the UK, or Theresa May’s inquiry into deaths in police custody, less pressing.

And in terms of the question of antisemitism in the UK, there is no behaviour by the state of Israel that makes it legitimate or necessary to spread false tropes here in the UK, or indeed in Israel.

Colluding with any of those ideas advances and entrenches the idea that only the perfect should be able to talk about and bring a halt to their mistreatment: an idea that serves only those who want the victims of oppression to be silent.