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Kim Johnson row: Starmer is ignoring Israel's slide into fascism

In slapping down an MP for decrying Israel's new government, the Labour leader has left British supporters of Palestinian rights politically homeless
British MP Kim Johnson called Israel's new government "fascist" (Screengrab: Parliament TV)

What’s become all too clear over the past three years is that Labour leader Keir Starmer tolerates no criticism of Israel whatsoever - even when such criticism accords with international law, the verdict of the human rights community or just plain common sense.

Israel gets a free pass from Starmer’s opposition Labour Party, just as it gets one from the ruling Conservative Party. Any Briton who believes that Palestinians are entitled to a state, or should not have their lands stolen to build illegal, Jewish-only settlements, or should be free from Israel’s apartheid rule, or should not be killed by trigger-happy Israeli security forces, is politically homeless.

That was underscored on Wednesday when the Labour leader forced one of his MPs, Kim Johnson, to apologise after she referred to the election late last year of a “fascist Israeli government”. She did so while putting a question on Israel’s well-documented human rights violations to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the Commons. 

Starmer’s office called Johnson’s remarks “completely unacceptable” and insisted she withdraw them. In her apology, the MP said the use of the term “fascist” was “particularly insensitive given the history of the state of Israel”.

In slapping down Johnson, is he suggesting that Israel has the only political system in the world incapable of putting fascists into power? 

She also apologised for being “insensitive” by mentioning that Amnesty International and other major human rights groups had described Israel as an apartheid state - paradoxically, on the same day Amnesty issued a new statement underscoring that Israeli apartheid was a “cruel system of domination and a crime against humanity”. 

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Once again, only Israeli sensitivities count. Palestinian sensitivities - faced with the most nationalist, most racist, most inciteful government in Israel’s history - appear to be of no interest to Starmer’s Labour Party.

But worse than that, Starmer’s whole approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict has been exposed as toxic. In slapping down Johnson, is he suggesting that Israel has the only political system in the world incapable of putting fascists into power? 

Sweden’s leaders can be deemed fascist; Italy’s leaders too. Only Israeli politicians are exempt from such condemnation, even as they pass racist laws and oppress and kill another people in ways no politician in Sweden or Italy would ever dare to do. 

And the suggestion that Israel has a get-out-of-jail-free card on fascism because Germany committed a genocide against Jews - not Israel - conflates Israel with Jews around the globe. It is antisemitic to believe that Jews are responsible for the crimes committed by Israel, or that any criticism of Israel tars Jews too. The two issues are separate, as attested to by the fact that many Jews call Israel an apartheid state and its new government fascist.

'Fascism Is Us'

In fact, Starmer is barring his MPs from speaking about the new Israeli government in terms the Israeli media regularly uses. Recent headlines include: “Why Are Israel’s Streets So Quiet in the Face of a Fascist Takeover?”, “It’s Official Now: Fascism Is Us”, “The Fight Against Fascism Doesn’t End at the Green Line” and “Yes, Jews Can Support Fascists Too”. 

Even more extraordinarily, Starmer has banned Labour MPs from describing Israeli government ministers in the very language those ministers use about themselves. Last month, Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s new finance minister, was recorded privately characterising himself as a “fascist homophobe”.

Human rights groups have expressed grave concerns over the rapid escalation by the new Israeli government in physical, administrative and legislative assaults on Palestinian communities. They include not only a surge in violence, but “legalising” settlements, a wave of home demolitions, mass arrests, plans to revoke the “residency” of Palestinians, and the crushing of protests. 

Far-right Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks at a rally on 26 October 2022 (AFP)
Far-right Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks at a rally on 26 October 2022 (AFP)

In truth, Johnson’s comment should not even be contentious. A former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak - of Israel’s Labor Party, with which Starmer’s party is formally aligned - warned seven years ago that Israel was rapidly sliding towards fascism. He did so long before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited the openly and virulently anti-Arab Religious Zionism bloc into his coalition

Barak clearly saw where Israel was heading long before Religious Zionism’s lawmakers were sitting in government as the third-largest faction. 

Given Israel’s relentless lurch rightwards over the past 15 years, Israeli pundits have struggled to find new ways to describe Israeli governments’ ever-greater Jewish supremacism. There are only so many “ultras” and “fars” that can proceed “nationalist” and “right”, before the only word left is fascist. 

Even a former senior official at AIPAC, Israel’s main lobby group in Washington, pronounced Religious Zionism’s politicians “fascistic forces” - and he did so in the Netanyahu-friendly newspaper the Jerusalem Post. 

Inciting racism

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a settler leader and key player in the Religious Zionism alliance, leads its most extreme component party, Jewish Power, whose ideological wellspring, Kach, was outlawed by the Israeli parliament back in the late 1980s. 

Ben-Gvir’s mentor, Rabbi Meir Kahane, established Kach on a platform calling for the annexation of the occupied territories; mass expulsions of Palestinians; and the outlawing of marriage - and all sexual contact - between Jews and non-Jews, with prison sentences of up to 50 years. He was committed to the use of specifically Jewish violence to effect such changes. 

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So extreme were Kahane’s views that the US classified Kach as a terrorist organisation in 1997. That designation was only lifted last year, apparently because Kach was viewed as “inactive”. 

But if it is inactive, it is only because the adherents of its ideology have changed their branding. As one US scholar, William Lafi Youmans, told Al Jazeera: “Rather than removing the designation, the State Department should have updated and expanded it.” Ben-Gvir himself was convicted in 2007 of supporting a terrorist organisation and inciting racism. 

Given the rapid rise of the Kahanists in Israeli politics, under a different label, there must at least be a suspicion that the move by US authorities was designed to avoid an embarrassing confrontation with the very Israeli government we have now. 

Ben-Gvir is now the police minister, with unprecedented powers over the paramilitary wing of the police operating inside both Israel and the occupied territories. 

Proceeds of crime

Starmer’s reaction to Johnson’s “fascist” remark is part of a pattern of behaviour since his election as Labour leader that neuters any criticism of Israel and smothers any solidarity with Palestinians.

In 2020, he reprimanded one of his MPs, Stephen Kinnock, for criticising Israel over its illegal settlements. Kinnock, who was at that time standing down as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Palestine, had called for a ban on settlement goods. He noted: “Profiting from these products is tantamount to profiting from the proceeds of crime.” 

Starmer was reported to have been “infuriated” by the speech and gave Kinnock a “dressing down”. But the MP was expressing a view that fully accords with international law and has supposedly been the consensus among the international community for decades. 

Israel's ever-greater extremism has been made possible precisely because it faces no opposition in the West

Jewish settlements constitute a war crime because they require the forcible transfer of the population of the occupying power into Palestinian territory. To support these settlements, Israel has to steal Palestinian land and resources, institute a system of apartheid between the two populations, and use violence to crush resistance. Settlement goods are sustained by the proceeds of those crimes.

Kinnock was entirely right to make his comment. Even the pro-Israel, disunited European Union - backed by the European Court of Justice - has agreed that settlement products must be labelled so shoppers can avoid them. 

A year later, Starmer was at it again. This time, he declared opposition to Zionism, Israel’s official ideology, as antisemitic. He espoused a preposterous political position - one that effectively applies this label to the main western human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as Israeli rights groups, such as B’Tselem. They have all classed Israel as an apartheid state, a position supported by every anti-Zionist Palestinian and those in solidarity with their struggle for statehood and the right to live in dignity. 

Neither Starmer’s office nor Johnson had responded to Middle East Eye’s request for comment by the time of publication.

A blind eye

Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge, a stalwart of Labour Friends of Israel, has added her voice to this week’s row, calling Johnson’s remarks an “insult” to the legacy of Dame Louise Ellman, who was Johnson’s predecessor as Liverpool Riverside MP. Ellman stepped down in 2019, saying it was over the party’s handling of allegations of antisemitism under Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn

But it should not be “insulting” to Hodge, Ellman or other Labour Friends of Israel that a Labour MP pointed out a simple fact: that a fascist party is at the heart of the new Israeli government. Rather, if they care so much about Israel, they should be angry that fascists are in power. They ought to be at the forefront of those speaking out against Israel’s descent into fascism.

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is pictured in Bolton, England, in 2019 (AFP)
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is pictured in Bolton, England, in 2019 (AFP)

But here we get to the rub. Israel’s ever-greater extremism has been made possible precisely because it faces no opposition in the West. Israel apologists dominate the left and right in western capitals. 

Labour “friends” have consistently turned a blind eye to the oppression of Palestinians. However much the situation worsens, they keep quiet - and impose that silence on others by accusing them of being antisemites or “insensitive” if, like Johnson, they dare to speak out. 

Corbyn, Starmer’s predecessor, understood this danger only too well. An Israel that could not be criticised was one that would dial up the suffering of Palestinians with impunity, and one that could be armed by Britain with little scrutiny. The relentless campaign to vilify Corbyn as an antisemite, and to oust him as leader, cleared the way for Starmer’s current targeting of party members, including Jews, who fear where Israel is heading.

Israel won’t move away from apartheid or fascism when there is no political, diplomatic or financial price to pay for oppressing and ethnically cleansing Palestinians. It will simply rush down that road even faster. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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