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Palestinian scholar Ghada Karmi explains that in defending himself from accusations of anti-Semitism, both Jeremy Corbyn – the head of the British Labour Party – and the opposition to him are reneging on their responsibility towards Palestinians

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

Since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the British Labour Party in the fall of 2015, he and a large number of party officials have been accused of anti-Semitism. How real is the anti-Semitism? More to the point, many hold that Corbyn has been unfairly attacked, and that for many the line between anti-Semitism and opposing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Palestine are one and the same. That’s why the real political issues around Palestinian liberation and the reality of occupation must be explored. It is not anti-Semitic to oppose Israeli policies. In this British debate of whether Corbyn and the Labour Party are anti-Semitic, the voices of Palestinians, especially British Palestinians who are part of the Labour Party and outside that party, are rarely heard. Today we are changing that at The Real News.

We talk with Dr. Ghada Karmi, who is a Palestinian scholar, doctor of medicine, who lives in England and teaches at the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. She’s also the author of many books and articles on the history of Palestine. And Dr. Karmi, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.


MARC STEINER: So let me begin here. A number of British Labour Party leaders were pushed out of a Labour Party, accused of anti-Semitism. Corbyn has been really attacked as an anti-Semite. And he was attacked by Benjamin Netanyahu, especially, over his laying a wreath in Tunisia, allegedly, quote-unquote, by Palestinian terrorists. In reality, people who were killed by an Israeli attack. But let me, let’s hear this piece from Jeremy Corbyn around this Netanyahu attack, and we’ll jump back to our conversation.

JEREMY CORBYN: No I’m not apologizing for being there at all. I went to a conference to try and promote peace in the Middle East. I remembered those that had died in an attack on Tunis by the Israeli Air Force which was condemned by the whole world. And I’m sure Luciana would also condemn that attack. It was unprovoked. It was wrong. And by killing Palestinian people there, did that advance the cause of peace? Of course it didn’t.

JEREMY CORBYN: So let’s take it from there. How do you, how can you explain to us the history of these accusations around Corbyn, why they’re taking place, and what’s missing in this analysis we’ve heard so far?

GHADA KARMI: Well, first of all, let me tell you it’s a pleasure to be able to give the Palestinian position on this. Because as you pointed out in your introduction, that has been missing, largely, in this debate. And it’s, in my view, the whole thing is about Palestine. And I will explain that, I hope, in due course. Now, the issue really is that, is that the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been subjected to an unprecedented attack by members of his own party, by a lobby of people claiming to hunt anti-Semites, and by some parts of the British press. It is an unprecedented and very bad attack, which he does not deserve.

Now, in terms of what has he actually done, the answer is nothing. What has he done to offend these people? The thing he really has done to offend them is that he supports Palestine and the rights of Palestinians, and has supported that all his political life. That is something which is anathema to certain Jewish groups in Britain, Friends of Israel, and members of his own party who don’t want him to become prime minister. That is the reality of the position. And that’s very, very depressing, and very wrong that that issue, that aspect of it has not been forward, has not been put forward often enough and strongly enough. This is about Palestine, and it’s about Israel’s maltreatment of the Palestinian people, and it’s about the desire of defenders of Israel to attack people who support the Palestinians because they want to defend Israel. So if that’s not too complicated an argument, that, believe me, is the chain of events.

JEREMY CORBYN: What was the story, from your perspective, behind the connection with the Labour Friends of Israel and what the Netanyahu government did to kind of exploit this issue of claiming that Corbyn and others were anti-Semitic? What, what was that story? What was behind that?

GHADA KARMI: Well, first of all, if you mean the, the laying of a wreath in Tunis- well, I mean, that is so ludicrous it has to, it makes one laugh. First of all, the the incident took place in 2014. Now, you’ve got to ask yourself, why do you wait till 2018 to make such a fuss? If it was so offensive, it should have been pointed out in 2014. However, they waited four years. Because of course it’s not about whatever happened in Tunis. It’s about attacking Jeremy Corbyn.

Now, the event was very simply this: Corbyn and some other British political leaders were invited by the Tunisian government to a conference whose subject was Israeli aggression and the effect on the Palestinian people. That’s actually what the conference was. Now, the ceremony was to commemorate and lay a wreath on the graves of Tunisians and Palestinians together who perished in an Israeli bombing attack in 1985. Now, that’s what actually happened. It really wasn’t-. It’s not my perspective. It’s what happened. Now, Netanyahu, who has joined the pack of Corbyn hunters for his own reasons, came into this- and outrageously, really. He’s a foreign leader. He’s a leader of a foreign state. He has no business interfering in a domestic issue. However, he barged in, and he accused Corbyn of laying a wreath on the graves of, quote, terrorists.

Now, those- there are no terrorists in the victims, amongst the victims of the Israeli bombing attack. So the problem is that he has joined the side of the people who want to discredit Corbyn so he never becomes prime minister. I can’t stress too strongly that the idea of a pro-Palestinian, pro-justice British Prime Minister is anathema to certain groups of people, Israel and its friends most prominently.

JEREMY CORBYN: So inside the Labour Party itself, there’s this group called Momentum. And there is a split inside, it seems for the Labour Party, growing wider and wider over this particular issue. I mean, so what is that struggle about? And how does this fit into that? And I’m also curious if there are conversations going on within the Labour Party between Palestinian activists inside the party and the Jewish community.

GHADA KARMI: There isn’t really a- it’s not as bad as a split in the Labour Party. There are divisions, there’s no question about it. And they’re mainly, if I can simplify, they’re really mainly between an alliance of Jewish members of the party who are defenders of Israel with the members of the parliamentary Labour Party who dislike Corbyn, which has nothing to do with anti-Semitism but is to do with the fact they fear his policies, which are egalitarian, which are socialist. And these people don’t want to see that.

So they’ve allied themselves to that lobby of Jewish- I call them anti-Semitism hunters. And so they’re, they’re forming one group within the party. And the issue really is that something has to be done about this breach. Because really and truly, you know, if you think about it, the idea that there are members of the British political party defending the interests of a foreign state- because that’s what Israel is, it’s a foreign state- why is that allowed to happen? It’s really something that people should take notice of. You know, we don’t have members of a political, British political party defending Russia, let’s say, or running around defending China. That would be immediately criticized. Why is it different in the case of Israel? So there is that question of this, of this breach. And some people would say, you know, that Corbyn made a mistake in not being much harder on these members of his own party who are disloyal to him. Who are simply disloyal.

Now, in terms that- you had, in terms of Palestinians, are we speaking to Jewish members? You know, we, as a Palestinian group, are very, very anxious that our voice is heard and that our point of view is taken into account. Because far too often, the media, the political elite, is hostage, held hostage, really, to a lobby that does not hesitate to use the anti-Semitism smear, because they know it’s effective. And it discredits the people, whether it’s true or not. Now, we as Palestinians have found it almost impossible to persuade people who are so devoted to Israel they can’t see straight, to try to explain to them there is a whole story there which is not simply a question of being anti-Jewish when you criticize Israel. You have to criticize Israel, because it behaves in ways which are illegal, very aggressive. And if you don’t feel able to criticize a state that does that and not be labeled some kind of racist, then you know, it’s a terrible world we live in.

MARC STEINER: So what would it mean for Jeremy Corbyn to become the next prime minister of Great Britain? When it comes to the Middle East, when it comes to the issue of the occupation of Palestinian land, and the future of Palestine, and what is Israel, what, what would that mean for the entire international dialogue and struggle, do you think?

GHADA KARMI: Well, I think it would be really very important for him to become prime minister, because we need a voice at that sort of level to support Palestinian rights. The Palestinians have had a very bad deal from the international community, and it’s time that some Western leader got up and spoke up for the Palestinians. So I think that would be extremely important, because it inserts a dimension into the so-called peace talks, whatever one wants to call them, it inserts a crucial dimension that it’s not all on Israel’s terms. So you know, that’s the first thing that one has to say.

Now, the second thing is to hope that despite the best efforts of these lobbies we’ve been talking about to stop Corbyn from getting to power, despite their best efforts, we can only hope that the common sense, the goodwill, the sense of justice, the moral sense that so many people have in Britain, whether they’re members of the Labour Party or are not members of any party, that those people would form a much larger bloc and would elect Corbyn for all that he stands for.

MARC STEINER: So it’s interesting, because there are parallels to me with what’s happening inside the Labour Party and the elections taking place during the primary elections here in the United States where we broadcast from, where you’re seeing increasing numbers of younger Democrats elected who question- question Israeli policy, but also support the right of Palestinians. And there’s a similar struggle brewing in the Democratic Party, which is not completely akin to the Labour Party, but there are interesting parallels. And I mean, the issue of anti-Semitism is real, because it exists, and it’s deep, I think. And it allows the lines to be blurred when people are talking about Israeli policy and turning that into anti-Semitic rage, as opposed what it really is, which is the political circle of Palestinian people.

So this is all going to play out, I think, in a deep way between what’s happening inside the Democrats in the United States and what’s happening inside the Labour Party. And I’m just wondering, you know, as we get to that point, what you think that- where that may lead us.

GHADA KARMI: Well, I have to tell you, I am extremely interested to see what’s happening in the United States. And my short comment would be not before time that you actually have people running for office who support the side of the Palestinians. Now, in terms of where that might lead and what might happen, obviously we can only speculate. But you know- but you know, it’s very, very serious to allow groups of people with their own agendas to use anti-Semitism as a tool to weaponize it, to use a popular term, to weaponize it in order to defend certain behaviors on the part of of Israel. It’s very, very serious. People should take it seriously. I mean, it’s not a, it’s not a joke to try and discredit any political person, political spokesperson, whoever it might be, discredit what they’re saying by accusing them of being Jew haters. Because really, I think- by the way, the term anti-Semitism is not useful anymore. It’s very emotive. We need to talk about Jew hatred.

Is it really the case that if you criticize the policies of the Israeli state and its army, that this is hatred of Jews? Of course not. When you put it like that, you know very well it’s nonsense. But it’s weaponized. It’s used cynically by people who want to defend Israel to do that. Of course, you in the United States have a far more serious problem with that than we have in Britain. You have my sympathies, because people can’t think straight. They can’t, they no longer can distinguish between the policies of a state, wherever it might be, and between hating the identity, the nationality, the race, or whatever, of the people who are citizens of that state, or indeed, people who share their religion who live outside the state.

So I mean, what I’m doing is making a plea for people to take this seriously, and not shrug their shoulders and say, oh well, it’s Israel, or something. No. It’s not a joke. And when you actually work to promote and defend the side of a party- in this case the state of Israel- which oppresses another people, which occupies their land, which kills them and their children, imprisons their children, what kind of a person who are you? How can you defend a state that behaves like this, whether it calls itself a Jewish state, or whatever- a whatever else kind of state. It’s not a state people should be supporting. And that, I think, is really the main point of all this.

MARC STEINER: We’ve just really kind of covered the tip of the iceberg, as we say. And I think that this- and I look forward to having a much deeper conversation with you and others as we continue this conversation about what anti-Semitism anti-Semitism means, how deep and real it is, but also how that is used to obfuscate the issues facing Palestinians in their liberation. I think there’s a really critical discussion to have. And one that’s difficult to have, honestly, but I’m looking forward to having that. And I deeply appreciate the work you’ve done, and getting your voice here, and hearing your voice great deal more. And Dr. Ghada Karmi, it’s been a pleasure to talk with you, and I look forward to many more conversations.

GHADA KARMI: Thank you. Thank you very much.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Let us know what you think. We do need to explore this in greater depth, and we will explore this in greater depth. And I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News Network. Thanks for being with us. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.