Brighton Labour councillors targeted in antisemitism witch-hunt

The hysteria over antisemitism in the Labour Party shows no sign of abating. There has been a renewed outbreak in Brighton, where in recent weeks one Labour councillor has been suspended following complaints about antisemitism, while a second has resigned from the party and a third from the Labour Group. As a result Labour ceased to be the largest party on Brighton & Hove City Council and last week handed over control to the Greens.

The councillor who resigned her Labour Party membership was Kate Knight (pictured above with Jeremy Corbyn). According to a council statement “several complaints have recently been made to the national Labour Party based mainly on allegedly antisemitic posts Councillor Knight made on Facebook between 2016 and March 2019”. A local website, Brighton and Hove News, published screenshots of the posts that apparently formed the basis of the complaints.

It turns out that, rather than having actually posted anything antisemitic herself, Kate Knight’s offence was to have challenged the narrative of widespread antisemitism in the Labour Party, which she described as “merely a vehicle for a vicious attack — not even thinly veiled — on the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn”. She shared material from the Jewish Socialists’ Group, Jewish Voice for Labour and the Electronic Intifada, which argued that false or exaggerated accusations of antisemitism had been used as a pretext for an assault on the Labour left.

The Jewish Socialists’ Group statement from 2016 on “Labour’s problem with antisemitism”, which was promoted by Kate Knight, presented a reasoned case against the claim that the Labour Party was riddled with antisemites. Arguing that accusations of antisemitism were being “weaponised”, the JSG stated emphatically:

“The Jewish Socialists’ Group sees the current fearmongering about antisemitism in the Labour Party for what it is — a conscious and concerted effort by right-wing political forces to undermine the growing support among Jews and non-Jews alike for the Labour Party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and a measure of the desperation of his opponents.”

The piece from the Jewish Voice for Labour website that Kate Knight shared, titled “The attack on Williamson — the start of another coup?”, was the transcript of a speech given in March 2019 by veteran Labour leftist Graham Bash, who is himself Jewish, at a local Momentum meeting in Canterbury. He was equally forthright in condemning the bogus character of the antisemitism crisis and identifying the motives of its proponents within the party:

“What we have seen is a pincer attack with sections of the right wing joining up with pro-Israel supporters and manufacturing a crisis that largely does not exist. And they do it by conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism. And a lot of this has been done with the full support of the Jewish Labour Movement — an affiliated organisation of the party that is Zionist in its constitution and supports Israel.”

Apparently showing sympathy for views like these, as expressed by Jewish socialists, is now a potential disciplinary offence in the Labour Party.

In 2018 Kate Knight also shared an Electronic Intifada article by Asa Winstanley (who himself resigned from the Labour Party earlier this year following false accusations of antisemitism) which was titled “Israel running campaign against Jeremy Corbyn”. It exposed the role of the Act.IL app, a notorious astroturf operation initiated by Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and staffed by former Israeli intelligence officers, in spreading the false story that Corbyn had compared Israel to Nazi Germany.

Asa Winstanley commented: “The Act.IL ‘mission’ is another piece of evidence of the Israeli campaign of psychological warfare against Labour. It is part of a long-running influence operation by Israel and its lobby groups to smear Corbyn, a veteran Palestine solidarity activist, and to label the party he leads ‘institutionally anti-Semitic’.”

The Labour Party’s governance and legal unit probably regards the sharing of such material as doubly antisemitic, because Asa Winstanley not only challenged the legitimacy of accusations of Labour antisemitism but also pointed to the role of the state of Israel in trying to undermine Corbyn — which presumably is held to qualify as an antisemitic conspiracy theory.

Kate Knight’s resignation from the party was followed by Nikkie Brennan’s resignation from the Labour Group on Brighton & Hove council. (It would appear that she retains her party membership and although she is currently under investigation by the party she hasn’t been suspended.)

Councillor Brennan’s offence was to have joined a protest in October 2018 against Brighton & Hove council’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance text, which combines a vague definition of antisemitism with a list of examples that could be (and indeed have been) used to suppress opposition to the state of Israel.

The placard she held condemned Israel as “a racist apartheid state”. This is a characterisation of Israel that militant Zionists claim contravenes the IHRA text and is therefore by definition antisemitic (see my article “Israel as a ‘racist endeavour’ — how the IHRA is used to suppress free speech”). Although Nikkie Brennan has now repudiated her former position on this issue, stating that she was then “not as knowledgeable about the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism as I am now” and that “I do not seek to excuse my actions”, back in 2018 she was quite right and has nothing to apologise for.

A third victim of the Brighton witch-hunt was councillor Anne Pissaridou. She has been suspended from the party and placed under investigation over two Facebook posts, one from 2016 and the other from 2018, which are alleged to have antisemitic content. Such was the supposed significance of this event that it made the national press, with the Guardian running a detailed report on it. Unsurprisingly, the article was co-written by former Jewish Chronicle journalist Jessica Elgot, who was responsible for much of the Guardian’s hostile and unbalanced coverage of Labour antisemitism allegations during Jeremy Corbyn’s five years as party leader.

Rob Shepherd, a Brighton-based member of the Green Party’s national executive, responded to the news by tweeting: “This is quite appalling: such antisemitism has no place in our city. It should also have no place on our city council.” Shepherd demanded that Pissaridou should “do the right thing and resign very soon”.

Fiona Sharpe of the so-called Labour Against Antisemitism group, went further, telling the Jewish News that LAAS welcomed disciplinary action against Pissaridou “on the proviso that it swiftly leads to her expulsion”. Fellow Zionist witch-hunter David Collier offered Pissaridou’s case as proof that there is “a toxic, self-confirming, anti-Jewish atmosphere in Brighton Labour”, which he declared “must be dealt with”. Sharpe endorsed that view and called on Keir Starmer to intervene in the local party to demonstrate his commitment to the principle of “zero tolerance to antisemitism”.

What were the crimes Anne Pissaridou had committed that led to her suspension and to angry demands for her resignation/expulsion, along with appeals for a wider purge of Brighton Labour Party?

Well, one of her offending Facebook posts, from 2018, linked to a piece on Mike Sivier’s Vox Political blog which was titled “Jewish Israeli journalist claims pro-Israel propagandists have ‘taken out a contract’ to stop Jeremy Corbyn being elected”. This was a reference to an article by Gideon Levy in the Israeli daily Haaretz, “Jeremy Corbyn for U.K. Prime Minister”, an excerpt from which provided the text of Sivier’s blog post.

In his Haaretz article Levy hailed the then Labour leader as a man of “conscience and courage” with a long record of supporting progressive causes, before noting: “The Jewish establishment in Britain and Israeli propaganda have taken out a contract on him, to foil his election: He’s an anti-Semite, Labor is anti-Semitic, Jewish life in Britain is in ‘existential danger’, no less, as three British Jewish newspapers cried out in a joint editorial.” Levy pointed out that “Corbyn is a staunch, consistent opponent of Israel’s occupation policy” and observed that Israel and its apologists have a record of falsely accusing its critics of antisemitism.

What idiot in the Labour Party’s governance and legal unit could possibly have thought that sharing the views of an award-winning Jewish journalist like Gideon Levy, as published in Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, provided grounds for disciplinary action against a party member?

Even the Guardian and the Jewish News could see there wasn’t much mileage in that charge against Anne Pissaridou. So their reports concentrated instead on the second charge, namely that back in 2016 she had shared a Rothschild conspiracy article.

The article in question, by one Jay Syrmopoulos, came from a crank website called The Free Thought Project and was titled “Rothschild doubles down on gold as banking collapse begins, Germans told to stockpile food/water”. This was a shock-horror piece outlining an economic-catastrophist perspective in which an imminent failure of Deutsche Bank would trigger a “cataclysmic global banking collapse”.

The article quoted from a statement by Jacob Rothschild — also widely reported by mainstream news outlets — in which he warned of the unpredictable consequences of quantitative easing and the potentially destabilising effects of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, and said that RIT Capital Partners (formerly the Rothschild Investment Trust) had reduced sterling exposure and increased its gold assets. The only antisemitic aspect of the Free Thought Project article was one sentence that read: “When Jacob Rothschild says that he is buying gold because the central banks are out of control, you begin to understand the scope and magnitude of what is transpiring, as his family has been in de facto control of the world’s central banks for centuries.”

The Rothschild family has long been the subject of conspiracy theories, one currently in circulation being the nonsensical idea that they own most of the world’s central banks. This grossly exaggerated view of the Rothschilds’ financial power is an integral part of the traditional antisemitic fantasy about scheming Jews secretly controlling the world. However, unless Anne Pissaridou was clued up on the history of Rothschild conspiracy theories — and in my experience a surprisingly large number of leftwingers were not at that time — then it’s understandable that she failed to grasp the antisemitic element in the article she shared.

Her mistake would have been more appropriately dealt with by the Labour Party if she had been required to acknowledge the antisemitic character of Rothschild conspiracy theories and issue an apology. Instead a decision was taken to suspend her, and then a member of staff evidently leaked the details to the Guardian, unleashing the vicious attacks on Pissaridou that falsely depicted her as an antisemite.

The contrast with the party’s treatment of shadow communities secretary Steve Reed a week or so earlier over a similar offence is stark.

On 4 July, in response to allegations about home secretary Priti Patel doing a favour for the Tory Party donor and prominent Jewish businessman Richard Desmond, which followed similar revelations concerning housing minister Robert Jenrick, Reed tweeted: “Is billionaire former porn-baron Desmond the puppet master for the entire Tory cabinet?”

Portraying rich and influential Jews as puppet masters who subject politicians to their command and control is an antisemitic trope as old as Rothschild conspiracy theories. It played a prominent role in Nazi propaganda and is still used by the far right today, notably in relation to George Soros, having inspired the terrorist who in 2018 shot dead eleven people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Maybe Reed didn’t realise Richard Desmond is Jewish (that’s what “a source close to Steve Reed” told the Sun) although it strikes me as unlikely, given Desmond’s high profile. Or perhaps Reed didn’t understand that the Jew-as-puppet-master image is antisemitic. In fact it’s not even clear whether he now accepts that this is the case — all he was prepared to admit was that his “language” was “inappropriate”.

The reason we don’t know the answers to any of these questions is because the Labour Party didn’t require Reed to offer any explanation for his offensive tweet, and indeed took no disciplinary action against him at all. A Labour spokesperson justified this on the grounds that “Steve deleted the tweet and did not mean to cause any offence”.

Jewish puppet master cartoons from Nazi Germany

Recent Jewish puppet master cartoons from the USA

It was notable that the Labour antisemitism witch-hunters showed little enthusiasm for going after Steve Reed. Euan Philipps of Labour Against Antisemitism couldn’t even bring himself to characterise the tweet as antisemitic, describing it only as “hugely ill-advised”. The misnamed Socialists Against Antisemitism group, which has never hesitated to endorse accusations of antisemitism against the Labour left, similarly baulked at condemning the use of the puppet master trope as antisemitic. They observed mildly that “opinions differ as to whether the tweet put out by Steve Reed was actually of an anti-Semitic nature”, adding blandly that “there is imagery that is best avoided”. Mostly, however, Reed’s defenders resorted to the argument that he deleted the tweet and apologised, so the matter was closed.

But all three of the Brighton councillors apologised too and deleted their offending social media posts, and much good it did them. Kate Knight said “I regret if anything I posted caused distress, as this was not my intention”, and Nikkie Brennan said she was “deeply sorry for the pain this has caused to the Jewish community”, while Anne Pissaridou similarly stated she was “deeply sorry for my actions and any distress I have caused to the Jewish community”. This didn’t prevent the Labour Party from taking action against them.

Which brings us back to the theme of the articles Kate Knight shared, namely that the campaign against antisemitism in the Labour Party has served as a pretext to attack the pro-Palestinian left. All three of the Brighton councillors were Corbyn supporters who were selected as Labour candidates with leftwing support, and were also critics of Israel. Steve Reed on the other hand is a paid up member of the party’s right wing who has given the Zionist establishment a firm commitment that he will oppose “actions that seek to delegitimise the State of Israel”. In today’s Labour Party, and for the witch-hunters inside and outside the party, that’s enough to get you off the hook whatever antisemitic tropes you may post.

First published on Medium in July 2020