My take on Jeremy Corbyn’s apology

Earlier this month, UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn apologised for “the concern and anxiety he caused” by hosting an event in Parliament on Holocaust Memorial Day 2010, titled “Never Again for Anyone – Auschwitz to Gaza”.  

The event, organised by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), aimed to encourage people to learn from the atrocities of the past and attract attention to Israel’s ongoing crimes against the Palestinian people.

Ever since he caused a huge upset in the UK establishment by unexpectedly becoming the leader of the opposition, Mr Corbyn has faced several accusations of anti-Semitism, largely based on his active involvement in the pro-Palestinian movement. And a couple of weeks ago, following a report by The Times newspaper, his participation in the 2010 event was swiftly added to the long list of his alleged “anti-Semitic” acts. This time, the comparisons that were made there between some actions of Nazi Germany and the state of Israel were the bone of contention.

I feel the need to comment on the criticism of this particular event and Mr Corbyn’s apology, because I was also present – albeit on the phone – at the said event, and my name was also mentioned in relation to these baseless accusations.

The story of a Palestinian refugee

In 2010, Auschwitz survivor Hajo Meyer and I were invited by SPSC and IJAN for a speaking tour in the UK and Ireland, which also included the Memorial Day event at the Parliament.

I had to tell them that I could not attend because of the medieval siege imposed on my homeland, Gaza, by Israel. Then the tour’s representatives asked me to send a pre-recorded speech about the situation in Gaza instead.

When I started thinking about what to say in my message, the first thing that popped into my mind was my parents.

Because this is where my story starts. Because I inherited my refugee status from them, like the majority of the two million people currently living in the prison that is called Gaza.

My parents were from the village of Zarnouqa, which once stood near what used to be the Palestinian city of al-Ramla. Israeli militias ethnically cleansed the area in 1948, expelling tens of thousands of Palestinians, including my parents.

They both died in the Nusairat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, in 2005.

I could not attend their funeral and give them a proper farewell, because I was living abroad at the time, and Israeli troops controlled, as they still do now, all entrance and exits to Gaza.

A year after my parents’ death, the lives of Palestinians became even harder. That year Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank were asked to choose their representatives in the Legislative Council. The results of the election were catastrophic for Israel, its Western allies and the Palestinian Authority – People had voted against the Oslo Accords and the two-state solution “industry”.

In response, Israel imposed a deadly siege on Palestine, which has been described by Ilan Pappe as a form of “incremental genocide”.

But that was not enough for apartheid Israel! In December 2008, Israel launched a new war against Gaza. In just 22 days, more than 1,400 Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of whom civilians, among them scores of children, were killed. Thousands more were forced to live in tents, as their homes were destroyed by Israeli bombardment.

(Of course, Israel’s attacks on us Palestinians continued at full pace in the following years. It waged two more deadly wars on the people of Gaza – in 2012 and 2014 – and killed thousands more civilians. And since March 30 this year, we have seen the death of more than 150 civilians, including children, women and medics, who have participated in the Great March of Return aiming to implement UN resolution 194 which calls for the return of all refugees and their compensation.)

So, all this was on my mind when I was preparing my message for the gathering at the House of Commons back in 2010.

But I was not only thinking about the Palestinian struggle.

Learning from past atrocities

I am also a naturalised South African. I spent five – six years in the Republic of South Africa, starting from 1997 –  Only three years after the first non-racial elections which ultimately led to the appointment of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of the country.

I’ve learned a lot from South Africa and its struggle against one of the most inhumane regimes in history, one that is – like Israel and Nazi Germany – based on racial and ethnic exclusivity.

I believe there are many parallels between the racist states of today and the yesteryear. And I believe we, the Palestinians, have a lot to learn from past struggles for freedom, integrity and equality.

I believe, to make sure past atrocities are not repeated, we need to remember them, learn from them and examine the reasons that allowed them to happen. 

This, in the end, was the gist of my message to the gathering at the House of Commons on Holocaust Memorial Day.

In this context, I made comparisons between the actions of Nazi Germany and Israel in my speech, but I was criticising Israel, not Judaism or Jews.

The quotes I used in my speech were taken from either progressive Jewish activists and intellectuals such as Ilan Pappe, Gideon Levy, and Ronnie Kasrils – with whom I share an anti-racist, secular, democratic vision – or from Israeli military and political leaders. 

I abhor all forms of racism and bigotry. In fact, I am one of the authors of a statement issued by a group of Palestinian writers and activists condemning racism and anti-Semitism and calling on supporters of the Palestinian struggle not to provide any platforms for their dissemination. I, like the rest of the authors of the statement,  see anti-Semitic language as “immoral and completely outside the core foundations of humanism, equality and justice, on which the struggle for Palestine and its national movement rests”.

Our struggle is with Zionism, not Judaism or Jews.

“There is no room in […] our struggle for any attacks on our Jewish allies, Jews, or Judaism; nor denying the Holocaust; nor allying in any way shape or form with any conspiracy theories, far-right, orientalist, and racist arguments, associations and entities. 

Challenging Zionism, including the illegitimate power of institutions that support the oppression of Palestinians, and the illegitimate use of Jewish identities to protect and legitimize oppression, must never become an attack on Jewish identities, nor the demeaning and denial of Jewish histories in all their diversity.”

When the Times and the BBC mentioned my name in relation to the outrageous allegations made against Mr Corbyn, they did not give me the opportunity to explain where I stand. Neither The Times, nor the BBC – or any other mainstream British media organisation – contacted me for a comment.

In their reports, they just took a couple of quotes out of context, failing to mention that I was relying on statements made by the likes of Gideon Levy or quoting my friend, anti-apartheid former MK Ronnie Kasrils. British media reports also did not mention the comparisons between Nazi Germany and Israel’s policies made by Israeli generals and state officials in the past.

Take, for example, the threat made by Israel’s deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai in 2008, that the Palestinians of Gaza “will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah [holocaust]”. Or a more recent speech by the Israeli deputy chief of staff, delivered on Holocaust Memorial Day in 2016, in which he compared what he called “the revolting trends” in Europe and Germany in the1930s and 40s to tendencies visible in Israel today. 

Mr Corbyn should stand his ground

I actually finally managed to visit London in 2011, a year after the event, and meet Mr Corbyn. I told him about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) call made by the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian civil society and about my dream of one day seeing a secular, democratic state in historic Palestine – a state for ALL its citizens, regardless of their race, gender, religion or ethnicity.

After meeting Mr Corbyn, and following his political career for nearly a decade, I was convinced that we belong to the same movement – a global movement that calls for justice, human dignity, equality, and social, economic, cultural and political rights.

This is why when I first heard of Jeremy Corbyn “apologising”, I thought he had apologised for not doing enough to rectify the horrific crimes committed by Labour party leaders, such as the invasion of Iraq.

Then I read his slightly defensive piece in the Guardian addressing the anti-Semitism accusations directed at his party, and I started getting worried. I was worried that while trying to placate the pro-Israel lobby in the UK, he may risk alienating those who brought him to the leadership of the Labour Party – people who want their party to stand up to any form of racism, oppression and discrimination.

I chose not to rush and write a piece immediately after the news broke about Corbyn’s apology, because I did not want it to be considered a response. I understand the extent to which the pro-Israel Lobby would go in order to “bring him down” and how hard it must be for someone like Mr Corbyn, who spent a lifetime fighting racism, to find himself facing these kinds of accusations. 

Our hope in Palestine is that Mr Corbyn stands his ground and becomes the Prime Minister of a more democratic UK, one that will address the horrific crimes committed by his predecessors, including the Balfour Declaration and the unlimited support given to Apartheid Israel.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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