Dear Fiona,

Chris Prendergast
August 17, 2018
Online Only

For some time now, Christopher Prendergast has been in occasional  contact with Fiona Millar in her capacity as a journalist (on the Guardian) and campaigner for state education. This led to her being interviewed by KR in 2016. She is also a life-long member of the Labour Party (married to Alastair Campbell, whom we also interviewed, and a former aide to Cherie Blair). In the August 4 issue of the Guardian, Fiona published an article  explaining why she is now close to leaving the Labour Party. The  following article (in the form of an ‘open letter’) is Chris’s response,  in which he highlights two themes in particular: the divisions around  Brexit and the row over antisemitism. The letter is also ‘open’ in another sense: extendable and revisable in the light of unfolding developments.-

Dear Fiona,

Forgive my dropping in out of the blue, but, as a warm admirer of  your untiring efforts for the cause of education in this country, I  wanted to say a few words about your Guardian piece on why you  are close to leaving the Labour Party. I entirely agree with what you  say on the issue of Corbyn’s (non)leadership over Brexit. Indeed I would  add something that, as far as I know, has not yet been fully addressed.  Corbyn has said not only that he voted Remain, but that if the vote were held again he would vote Remain again (unlike the opportunist Tory Remainers who now declare themselves Leave converts).  But Corbyn also says he objects to the Single Market because its  competition rules would block implementation of his economic policies.  Put to one side whether this is true or not, one thing is clear: this is  inconsistent with having voted Remain, which by its very nature commits  you to the Single Market. Corbyn’s position is incoherent. Until he  squares that circle, he forfeits my support. And, if he can’t square it,  at the very least he should come out in support of the second  referendum for which many in his party, and crucially among his  supporters, have been campaigning. His reported attempts to block a vote  on this proposal at the forthcoming Labour Party conference do not  augur well.

However, on the other principal reason you give for deserting Labour,  I couldn’t disagree more. Corbyn has not handled the ‘antisemitism’ row  well. But most of those who criticize him are, in my view, infinitely  more deplorable. Margaret Hodge keeps telling us that she lost family in  the Holocaust. So did I, but I do not see that as a ticket to surfing  on the wave of a hysterically abusive form of induced indignation,  screaming in the face of the leader of the Labour Party that he’s a  racist and an antisemite. Yvette Cooper et al — including a gaggle of  trade union leaders (“Jeremy must take one for the team”) along with a  ladleful of gobbledygook from former PM, Gordon Brown — go on and on  about adopting the IHRA definition ‘in full’. In your article you appear  to echo that demand. It is a red herring; the LP has already adopted  the definition in full. The argument is about the illustrative examples,  and one in particular: the association of Israeli statehood and the  right to national self-determination with ‘racism’.  The distinguished  lawyer, Stephen Sedley, has lucidly explained how adoption of this  ‘’example’ can be used to close down legitimate criticism. I note in  that connection that none of the grand-standing Labour Party moralizers  banging on about the necessity of including the example have had a  single word to say about the recent vote in the Knesset, lauded by the  truly dreadful Netanyahu, which expressly restricts the ‘right’ to  ‘national self-determination’ to the Jews of Israel, while at the same  time removing from Arabic its status as an official language.

It was thus with a sickening feeling in my stomach that I turned back  to the 2016 speech given by deputy leader Watson in Israel as a member  of LFI, in which he praises Israel for its commitment to the ‘equality’  of Jew and Arab. As far as I know, he has issued no public statement on  the Knesset law. Daniel Barenboim has called it ‘racist’ and rightly so,  if in the peculiar form of reserving the ‘right’ to one category of  ‘Semites’ while withholding it from another, thus adding something to  the special class of the ‘antisemitic Semite’. Hitherto the only version  of that I am familiar with is that of the so-called ‘self-hating Jew’. I  wonder if Sedley has been subjected to that abuse. It was regularly  thrown at my late friend, Tony Judt, for having quietly and wisely  reminded us that ‘we should beware the excessive invocation of  “anti-Semitism”’ and his more provocative but equally wise rejection of  the questions both begged and excluded by Yossi Kupwasser’s notorious  equation: ‘Anti-Zionism and antisemitism are the same lady in a  different cloak‘. There are anti-Zionists who are also antisemites, and  there are those who are anti-Zionists because they are  antisemites, but also all those who fall into neither of those two  groups. Kupwasser’s lady is dressed so as to exclude them.

Alistair  Campbell and partner Fiona Millar attend the funeral of former Liberal  Democrat leader Charles Kennedy in 2015. Source: Zimbio.

One can debate whether the disputed ‘example’ inevitably has the  effect highlighted by Sedley, although, if the jury is still out on  this, I do not myself see how, in terms of logic and fairness, it could  do anything other than declare for Sedley. The calibre of debate is  certainly not enhanced by the Guardian’s deputy editor, Jonathan  Freedland, playing metaphysical tunes on his journalistic fiddle while  Rome burns, parsing the ontology of definite and indefinite articles in  relation to what it means to speak of the ‘existence’ of the state of  Israel (‘the’ state of Israel is an enduring transcendent essence  floating in an ideological safe space above all the contingent  manifestations of ‘a’ state of Israel at any given historical moment).  This is pitiful nonsense; the state is only and always its historical  manifestations; its ‘existence’ consists in how it actually exists. A  nice further touch is Freedland’s chutzpah in subsequently lecturing  Corbyn on the importance of ‘precision’. It’s a good point as such, but  its maker fails to acknowledge that, in the department of imprecision,  it takes one to know one. But perhaps top of the pops  for the flagrantly disingenuous are loyal Lisa Nandy’s contributions to  discussion (in an interview with the Financial Times), especially her  peculiar conjoining of adjectives and adverbs (the leadership’s attitude  is ‘fairly inexplicable’ and the corresponding threat to the party’s  future ‘quite existential’). I suppose the clunky grammar  reflects a clunky hedging of political bets, inexplicable but not  altogether, existential but not entirely. Here’s another, and not  unrelated, hedge, the wink- wink riff by the lass from Wigan, presumably for her constituents, on  the current Great Divide in the Labour Party, which according to Nandy  is ‘between those who are advocating for an agenda that is very liberal,  feels quite cosmopolitan, very global in outlook — and those who are  speaking much more for security, social conservatism, the sort of things  I hear all the time in Wigan’. The ironies just don’t stop  accumulating. What in earlier times was the group most closely  identified with the rootless ‘cosmopolitan’, or citizen of the world,  aka from nowhere? The Jews of course, the sort of thing Hilaire Belloc  had in mind when he wrote: ‘I do object most strongly to Jewish  cosmopolitan influence’. However there is no hedging at all when it  comes to the crunch: the failures of the ‘leadership’ in connection with  the anti-Semitism row, according to Nandy have produced ‘a complete  breakdown of trust’. No equivocations there from someone billed,  incredibly, as potential future leader, but a question remains: whose  trust in whom?

And then there are the moments when one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Your piece appeared in a Saturday issue of the Guardian.  How on earth, Fiona, could you even have considered disrespecting the  Sabbath? I ask because in precisely the same issue we read of the  following response to a piece by Corbyn: ’The Board of Deputies of  British Jews criticised the Labour leader’s “ill-timed and  ill-conceived” article for the Guardian on Saturday, the  sabbath and therefore traditionally a day of rest’. So Corbyn’s timing  is an insult, further ‘proof’ of his tolerance of the anti-Semite. I  thought at first glance that this was a (rather good) Jewish joke. It  wasn’t. For me, it was the moment the game was up. The clincher came  with a later article (also in the Guardian of course, indeed  where else these days?) with the stunning proposition that unless Labour  adopts ‘full’ IHRA, examples and all, it cannot be a ‘credible critic  of Israel’. And so we see what the aim has been all along: locking the  door and throwing away the key. Either talk on our terms or lose your  right to be heard.

My apologies for going on about this. It is to explain why, as  someone who has always voted Labour in both local and general elections,  I too would be inclined to desert Labour over this row, but for the  exact opposite reasons from yours. If the Labour leadership finally  capitulates by including this contentious IHRA example, that will be the  moment I walk out the door. There has been much talk of ‘shame’ in this  furore (Watson’s ‘vortex of shame’, Ian Austin’s shame at being ‘a  member of the Labour Party’). If that’s what Austin really feels, why  doesn’t he do the honourable thing and quit. To my eye this looks like  the shame of the shameless.The real thing is to be found in the  statement from Gila Zamir, the 58 year-old Jewish Israeli woman from the  mixed Arab-Jewish city of Haifa, protesting against the new law on the  streets of Tel Aviv: ‘I feel ashamed that after 70 years I have to  accentuate my nationalism instead of being generous toward all who live  here’. Or, since he just passed away, we might want  to recall that great Israeli socialist, Uri Avnery, a 1948 war veteran,  once a Knesset member, and implacable opponent of Netanyahu and his ilk.  Six years ago Avnery spoke to author and Independent journalist Robert  Fisk of the settlements policy in the West Bank: ‘the real  question is: if this policy goes on, what kind of state will it be? As  it is today, it is an apartheid state, a full apartheid in the occupied  territories and a growing apartheid in Israel – and if this goes on, it  will be full apartheid throughout the country, incontestably’  Barenboim’s sense of shame echoes Avnery’s brisk indignation, a million  miles from the fake forms of saeve indignatio circulating inside the Labour Party, and the base dishonour of Watson’s saccharine drivel.For  myself, I would be ashamed to vote for a party that had yielded to  demands to identify what Avnery and Barenboim have said as complicit in  or indistinguishable from ‘antisemitism’, and intend to act accordingly should that turn out to be the case. I salute Corbyn for his refusal to bend to this relentless pressure. On the other hand, it now looks – notwithstanding Sedley having been invited to make a submission to the NEC – as  if a fudge is being cooked up whereby the contested ‘example’ will be  incorporated provided that a way is found to protect ‘legitimate’  criticism of Israel. Good luck with that. It’s hard to see how the fudge  would end up as anything other than a capitulatory cop-out. In which  eventuality, I’m headed for the exit.

I repeat, Fiona, that I write to you about these difficult matters  from a position of immense respect, indeed because of that respect. It  is a rare experience these days, as well as a huge relief, to find  oneself in a world of differences that can be inhabited sanely.

PS There have been many further developments since I signed off.  Several Labour MPs have, it seems, been visited by feelings of  ‘homelessness’, Mike Gapes ‘agonizes’ over his membership, though only  Frank Field has actually resigned (and even there solely the party whip,  claiming he’s still a party member or thinks he is). But if that looks  like logic stood on its head, what to make of former chief Rabbi,  Jonathan Sacks, weighing in with a take on the logic of meaning and  reference that makes Freedland’s riff on definite and indefinite  articles look philosophically compelling. Sacks has said that when  Jeremy Corbyn used the word Zionist it was code and meant Jews. How so?  Not, as it turns out, because antisemite Corbyn equates Zionist and Jew,  but because Sacks does. Zionist had to mean Jew, and both terms have  refer to the same thing, by virtue of the fact that the ‘majority’ of  British Jews are Zionists. If these are the determining equations,  where, one might ask, do they leave the minority of non-Zionist British  Jews? Are they Jews too?  Meanwhile, the fudge I anticipated has  arrived, with a further contribution to inside-out logic.  Notwithstanding the arguments of the lawyers (Sedley, Robertson, Gould),  the contested ‘example’ which prohibits descriptions of the state of  Israel as racist has now been adopted by the Labour Party NEC, but with  an accompanying ‘clarification’ that protects the right to freedom of  speech in criticizing the state of Israel (Corbyn’s own draft having  been rejected). Opponents of the ‘clarification’ have, quite rightly,  objected that this ‘drives a coach and horses’ through the vote to  accept ‘full’ IHRA, since under freedom of speech we can echo Daniel  Barenboim in, also quite rightly, describing the new Basic Law on  statehood and national self-determination as ‘racist’. In short, it  seems the Labour Party has entered an Alice in Wonderland world where  the logic of either/or has been suspended, a world in which  characterizing the Israeli state as discriminatory is both antisemitic  and not antisemitic. When farce takes over, all that is left is satire.

One thing is for sure: Mr Netanyahu, lately seen shaking hands with  that lovely man, Rodrigo Duterte, and good friend of well-known  Judeophile, Viktor Orbán, must be laughing all the way to the political  bank. In the meantime, we are left to ponder this principle, enunciated  by Labour MP Luciana Berger with a vehemence that suggests unusually  secure access to the higher moral truths: ‘It is a fundamental  anti-racist principle that oppressed groups define their own oppression,  not anyone else. The Jewish community must be allowed to define the  anti-Semitic hate that is directed towards it, not some members of a  Labour party working group’. Leave on one side the question-begging  circularity of this argument (if the oppressed group is to define the  oppression, who decides what is to count as an oppressed group?). But,  for argument’s sake, let’s hold Berger’s assertion to be true, even if  that were to mean white supremacists self-defining as oppressed and in  charge of describing the nature of that oppression. But, less  caricaturally, if what Berger says is true, we should surely be asking  whether she will extend the same courtesy to Palestinians’s  ‘perceptions’ of how they are treated by Israel, and, if so, what in her  view is likely to follow? Might what follow be that, if the  Palestinians define the Basic Law and its state supports as  discriminatory after the fashion of ‘racism’ or ‘apartheid’, we must not  only accept that, but also be free to speak out against it without fear  of being branded antisemites?


All by
Chris Prendergast