Ian Austin

Ilhan Omar should be shunned by our politicians, not celebrated

The sight of senior Labour figures embracing her shows how much further Starmer has to go

July 14, 2022 15:47

Six months ago, Keir Starmer gave a powerful speech at the Labour Friends of Israel lunch. He attacked “anti-Zionist antisemitism”, opposed BDS and condemned those who “focus obsessively on the world’s sole Jewish state and hold it to standards no other country is subjected to.”

I joined in the applause. Unfortunately, it now seems easier for Labour’s leader to speak positively about Israel at lunches than challenge the hatred that took hold under Jeremy Corbyn.

It might have helped Labour to show that it was tackling the anti-Jewish racism that poisoned the party if senior figures had not fawned over controversial American congresswoman Ilhan Omar when she visied the UK last week.

She has been criticised for saying: “Israel has hypnotised the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evildoings of Israel”. Omar also implied money was behind support for Israel, tweeting: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby”, a reference to a song about $100 bills and the pro-Israel campaign AIPAC.

Her fellow Democrat chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, called for an apology after she suggested pro-Israel groups “push for allegiance to a foreign country”. It was “unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens because of their political views, including support for the US-Israel relationship. We all take the same oath. Worse, Representative Omar’s comments leveled that charge by invoking a vile antisemitic slur.”

And last year, she tweeted: “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the US, Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.” Imagine comparing Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy and the world’s only Jewish state, to genocidal terrorists like Hamas which wants to wipe it out!

None of this is difficult to find if you have a computer and have heard of Google, so it is not unreasonable to ask why Sadiq Khan, seven Labour MPs — including four members of Keir Starmer’s frontbench team — and Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi were so keen to meet her last week.

Bradford MP and Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion Naz Shah called Omar an “inspiration”. Shadow Justice Minister Afzal Khan described her as “incredible”, adding: “We stand united against Islamophobia”.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said it was a “pleasure” to meet Omar, “to discuss how we keep building bridges, not walls”.

He said: “We must stand firm in upholding progressive values of equality and inclusion in the face of those who seek to divide us.”

It is a disgrace that Muslim politicians are attacked because of who they are, what they look like or how they worship — but there are mainstream Democrats the Mayor could work with on inclusion that have not caused offence with controversial statements like Ilhan Omar.

Many of the Mayor’s supporters will be surprised by his endorsement of the congresswoman. He made building links with the capital’s Jewish community an urgent priority after being elected in 2016 and has worked to maintain positive relations since. But last week’s meeting will remind people how he nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership of the Labour Party.
No doubt Omar and the people she met will dismiss any opposition, saying as usual that it is possible to criticise Israel without being antisemitic.

No one disputes that is true. But let’s be really clear: Omar’s statements go way beyond legitimate criticism of Israel, its government, policies or security forces.

Suggesting politicians support Israel as a result of financial inducements is just the latest manifestation of the ancient antisemitic trope about wealthy, powerful Jews controlling politics.

Labour has taken action to deal with the antisemitism that flourished under Corbyn. But progress has been slow and some people who ought to be nowhere near a mainstream party are given temporary suspensions when they should be permanently expelled.

Starmer’s cheerleaders criticise those who make this point, but more thoughtful members of the party — including Jewish councillors and activists I have spoken to — explain that it will take time to deal with the problem, especially in areas where the far left have not yet been driven out.

They agree it is clearly much too soon to claim, as Sir Keir did recently, that he has “rooted out the poison of antisemitism”.

Perhaps he could accelerate the process by making sure senior figures do not praise people like Ilhan Omar.

Former Labour MP Lord Austin is UK Trade Envoy to Israel and a crossbench peer

July 14, 2022 15:47

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