Leftwing conspiracy theories and the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey

Keir Starmer’s decision to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary has quite rightly outraged the Labour left. Starmer obviously welcomed the opportunity to underline his total capitulation to the Zionist lobby, while at the same time seizing on a pretext to remove a leading leftwinger who had opposed his spineless response to the Tory government’s reckless easing of the Covid-19 lockdown. (A petition calling for Rebecca’s reinstatement can be signed here.)

In an online press briefing Starmer explained that he took action against Rebecca not because she was herself antisemitic but because she had shared an article “which has got, in my view, antisemitic conspiracy theories in it”.

The article in question was an interview in Thursday’s Independent with actor Maxine Peake. Commenting on the Black Lives Matter protests provoked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minnesota police, Maxine offered the following insight: “Systemic racism is a global issue. The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”

The Independent added a comment pointing out that a spokesperson for the Israeli police has denied this charge, while also noting that an Amnesty report had revealed that US police did receive training from Israel. (Amnesty later stated that they had never claimed that “US police were taught tactics of ‘neck kneeling’ by Israeli secret services”.)

From Maxine Peake’s interview in the Independent

This section of the Maxine Peake interview was soon deleted and the following clarification appended: “A previous version of this article reported that a 2016 Amnesty International report had found that hundreds of US law enforcement officials had travelled to Israel for training. Our article also implied that this training could have included neck kneeling tactics. While it is true that US law enforcement officials have travelled to Israel for training, there has been no suggestion that this training involved the tactics referred to in the article. The article has been amended accordingly.”

Before this amendment had been made, however, Rebecca Long-Bailey had already shared the article on Twitter, commenting approvingly that “Maxine Peake is an absolute diamond”.

Following criticism of the article for promoting a conspiracy theory blaming Israel for George Floyd’s death, Rebecca issued a follow-up clarification stating: “I retweeted Maxine Peake’s article because of her significant achievements and because the thrust of her argument is to stay in the Labour Party. It wasn’t intended to be an endorsement of all aspects of the article.”

This wasn’t good enough for Sir Keir. According to Rebecca, she was instructed to delete the original tweet along with the subsequent clarification, and when she baulked at doing that without issuing a further explanatory statement, she was sacked.

Rebecca’s leftwing supporters who rallied to her defence vehemently denied that she had shared an antisemitic conspiracy theory. In some cases, it must be said, this was in contrast to their shoddy record when it came to defending victims of the antisemitism witchhunt during Jeremy Corbyn’s period of leadership.

John McDonnell (who in 2016 had been happy to throw his then PPS Naz Shah under the bus in a vain attempt to appease the Zionist lobby) tweeted: “Throughout discussion of antisemitism it’s always been said criticism of practices of Israeli state is not antisemitic. I don’t believe therefore that this article is.” Momentum founder Jon Lansman (who had been equally happy to sacrifice Ken Livingstone for offending Zionists by mentioning the Nazis’ record of support for Zionism) agreed: “I don’t believe there is anything antisemitic in the interview.”

In fact general agreement could be found throughout the left that there was nothing remotely antisemitic in Maxine Peake’s claim that the restraint technique used to kill George Floyd was “learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services”. Personally I’m not convinced. Here’s why.

It is certainly the case that US law enforcement officers have been receiving training from Israeli police, military and security services. Jewish Voice for Peace has been leading a campaign against this, with some success.

Their 2018 report Deadly Exchange: The Dangerous Consequences of American Law Enforcement Trainings in Israel, produced in partnership with Researching the American Israeli Alliance, revealed the scale of this cooperation:

“From the acting Deputy Director of ICE to the current Chief of Police in Washington DC, from San Diego to Chicago to Atlanta, since 2002 thousands of American law enforcement officials have trained in Israel with Israeli police, military and the Shin Bet. And thousands more have participated in security conferences and workshops with Israeli military, law enforcement and security officials held in the U.S. But despite their branding as top-tier counter-terrorism experts, Israeli police and security agents regularly violate civil rights, and implement racist and deadly policies.”

As JVP’s current director Stefanie Fox stated at the time: “American police already have a terrible track record on civil rights and racism — and then they go to Israel and train with Israeli police and security agencies that are documented human rights violators! We should be investing in our communities, not militarizing our police.”

Some Palestine solidarity activists went further than that, however. They noted a similarity between the knee-on-neck chokehold that caused George Floyd’s death and a technique used by the Israeli police and IDF. The Morning Star quoted Neta Golan of the International Solidarity Movement as saying:

“When I saw the picture of killer cop Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd by leaning in on his neck with his knee as he cried for help and other cops watched, I remembered noticing when many Israeli soldiers began using this technique of leaning in on our chest and necks when we were protesting in the West Bank sometime in 2006 … it is clear that they share these methods when they train police forces abroad in ‘crowd control’ in the US.”

But what concrete evidence is there that Israel has actually trained US cops to use a knee-on-neck restraint method? The Morning Star claimed to have found the smoking gun.

Their report, by Steve Sweeney, stated that back in 2012 “officers from the US police force responsible for the killing of George Floyd received training in restraint techniques and anti-terror tactics from Israeli law-enforcement officers”. This supposedly took place at a half-day conference in Minneapolis, put on by Israel’s Chicago consulate, where the cops “learned the violent techniques used by Israeli forces as they terrorise the occupied Palestinian territories under the guise of security operations”.

The source for the Morning Star’s claim was a contemporary report by MPR News titled “Minn. police learn from Israeli counter-terrorism conference”. The report quoted Israeli deputy consul Shahar Arieli as saying that Israeli law enforcement officers had shared techniques to prevent terrorist acts, such as suicide bombings. He continued: “We have a police commander who is speaking from the point of view of the police chief. And we have a bomb tech specialist who is actually speaking about the techniques and the improvised explosive devices that were used by the terrorists.”

But the MPR News report contained nothing to substantiate the Morning Star’s assertion that the officers attending the 2012 conference “received training in restraint techniques”. (Nor did the news release from the Israeli consulate, for that matter.) It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in a breach of journalistic ethics that should have no place in a leftwing publication, Steve Sweeney just made the story up.

Maxine Peake is a great admirer of the Morning Star, for which she acts as an official ambassador — indeed she describes it as “the only paper I buy and read”. So when she told the Independent that the technique used to kill George Floyd was taught to US police by Israeli agencies, she was almost certainly basing her claim on that fake news story from the Morning Star.

The Morning Star report was widely shared across social media and helped to spread the story of US police being trained by Israel in the use of a deadly restraint technique. This has now become received wisdom among a section of the left. For example, in a recent slightly deranged interview with the Gaza-based Shehab News Agency, former Pink Floyd bassist and pro-Palestine campaigner Roger Waters declared:

“The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week was done with a technique invented by the IDF, by the occupation forces. Israelis invented ‘let’s kill people by kneeling on their necks and cutting off the blood supply of the carotid artery to the brain’. That is an Israeli technique, taught to the militarized police forces of the United States of America by Israeli experts who the Americans have been flying over to the United States to teach them how to murder the blacks, because they’ve seen how efficient the Israelis have been murdering Palestinians in the occupied territories by using those techniques.”

Roger Waters being interviewed by the Shehab News Agency

To be fair, in response to some forthright criticism of the interview Waters did withdraw this accusation, writing:

“I suggested during the interview that Israeli Police working with US Police forces had introduced to this country the knee/carotid artery choking technique that was used in the murder of George Floyd.… I was wrong about that. A friend I called for guidance on this, who is an acknowledged expert on the police exchange programs and connections between American and Israeli state violence, agreed that Israel’s militarizing influence on the U.S. and around the world is a grave and concerning fact. He also confirmed that law enforcement exchange programs with Israel facilitate the sharing of racist practices and repressive technologies that enhance and normalize mass surveillance, criminalization, racial profiling, and the violent repression of communities. But, he told me that Israel does not train US police in tactics, like those used to kill George Floyd. They don’t have to.”

Maxine Peake, too, retracted her comment, stating that she had been “inaccurate in my assumption of American Police training & its sources”. Rebecca Long-Bailey, however, has yet to accept that there was anything inaccurate or objectionable about Maxine’s mistaken claim. After her sacking she told the Mirror: “There is a valid concern about police practices across the world and I don’t think that, worded in the right way, it’s racist or anti-Semitic to draw attention to that.”

But that isn’t what Maxine Peake had done. She promoted a crank conspiracy theory about Israel’s role in a racist killing which lacked any basis in fact. Rebecca shouldn’t have approvingly shared an article containing that false accusation, and when she was pulled up on it she should have deleted the tweet and apologised, before Starmer had a chance to intervene. It appears that Rebecca still hasn’t faced up to this.

Is the accusation of Israeli complicity in George Floyd’s murder actually antisemitic, though? I would say it is at least borderline. The false story that it was Israel who introduced US police to a potentially lethal restraint method does amount to a hidden-hand-of-Zionism conspiracy theory, which carries unfortunate echoes of traditional antisemitic fantasies about the controlling power of Jews. It also diverts attention from the endemic racism of the US police, suggesting that they use such violent methods against African Americans because Israel put them up to it.

As already noted, Jewish Voice for Peace has played a leading role in exposing collaboration between US law enforcement and Israeli police, military and security services. But they have also expressed concern about people attributing to Israel a central role in the killing of George Floyd. JVP warns against playing into the hands of far right who want to “frame Jews as secretly controlling and manipulating the world”, and they have asked Black Lives Matter supporters to avoid criticising US-Israeli police exchange schemes in a way that “provides fodder for those racist and antisemitic tropes”. The conspiracy theory that holds Israel responsible for supplying the cop who killed George Floyd with the technique he used to do it is very likely the sort of thing JVP has in mind.

I sometimes get criticised for banging on about the problem of conspiracy theories on the left. I’m told I should have more important things to do with my time. But I see Rebecca Long-Bailey’s downfall as a direct result of the culture of conspiracism that has pervaded the left in recent years.

So we have the Morning Star adopting a journalistic method more usually associated with leftwing “news” sources like The Canary or Skwawkbox and publishing a clickbait article based on a fact-free conspiracy theory. Maxine Peake happily embraces this conspiracy theory without bothering to ask whether it’s true or not. Failing to register that there might be something dodgy about it, Rebecca Long-Bailey shares an interview in which Maxine repeats the conspiracy theory, and hands Keir Starmer an excuse to remove her from the shadow cabinet and weaken the Labour left.

In short, conspiracism isn’t restricted to tinfoil hatters making idiots of themselves on social media. It can have a seriously damaging impact on mainstream politics.

It’s probably futile trying to persuade fringe outlets like The Canary or Skwawkbox to change their ways. But the Morning Star, which has claims to be a more mainstream labour movement institution, should recognise that it has an obligation to exercise greater editorial responsibility. As for the leftists who thoughtlessly repeat conspiracist nonsense without bothering to check for accuracy, just because it fits in with their own political views, they urgently need to develop some critical faculties. Otherwise they’ll continue providing political ammunition for the Labour right and facilitating further purges.

Update: See “Knee-on-neck restraint and the Minnesota police — a clarification”, Morning Star, 3 July 2020

This article was first published on Medium in June 2020