Last week, shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey tweeted public support for a newspaper interview given by the actor Maxine Peake.
The article, in which Peake said that anyone who couldn’t vote for Labour because of Jeremy Corbyn had “voted Tory”, included this line: “The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.” This was later accompanied by a factual clarification to the contrary, inserted by the paper.
While the political focus of the last week has been on the consequential sacking of Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet, it is imperative that this antisemitic conspiracy fantasy which the scandal has amplified exponentially be taken on directly.
Fundamentally, whatever the ill in the world, antisemitism will find a way to place Jews behind it.
This was the case with the Black Death of the fourteenth century, and is the case with Covid-19 today. Jews are blamed for spreading diseases or accused of running conspiratorial plots using epidemics. It was the case with the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter in 2018 who blamed Jews for aiding the “great replacement” — that is, importing migrants to displace so-called white “indigenous” populations.
It is also the case when those in online conspiracy forums blame Jews for beginning a race war, and thus inspiring anti-black racism.
In the conspiracy voiced by Peake and amplified by Long-Bailey, responsibility for the death of George Floyd, the black man brutally murdered and who inspired recent Black Lives Matter protests across the globe, is placed on Israel. For the purposes of this conspiracy, the sole Jewish state is uniquely evil.
But Israel did not teach racist, violent police in America how to kill black men.
The main evidential base for this allegation is a 2016 report from Amnesty International about US police training with the Israeli military and secret services to learn about counter-terrorism tactics. However, no one is suggesting that the officers who killed Floyd thought he was a terrorist.
Moreover, Amnesty has now clarified that not only does its report not show “neck kneeling” as a technique taught in Israel, but the Minnesota police cannot be said to have received such training at all.
The Israeli police too are clear that kneeling on someone’s neck is not taught or encouraged. Nor is it official policy. The originator of the exchange programme between the US and Israel has explained that it in fact arose from fears for American unpreparedness in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
No questions have been raised since Floyd’s death about other countries in which US police train. Read into that what you will.
Peake has since retracted her comment, stating that she was “inaccurate in my assumption of American police training and its sources” and that she abhors racism and antisemitism. This is obviously welcome, but it is deeply disappointing that the actor so naively engaged in it.
Depressingly, anti-Jewish racism draws from the resistance to it. So the easily muttered conspiracy has now been shared countless number of times. Together with the sacking of Long-Bailey, it has fuelled another antisemitic conspiracy: that her dismissal was part of a Jewish plot to rid the Labour party of particular political elements, restrict criticism of Israel, and — in some cases — pit antisemitism against the Black Lives Matter Movement.
And so we come full circle.
Meanwhile, a “legitimate criticism of Israel” side-show is also running. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell waded in to say in Long-Bailey’s defence that “criticism of the practices of the Israeli state is not antisemitic”. That McDonnell fails to see that this is not an example of criticism of Israel, but rather a conspiracy drawing Israel into a racist murder, might be why the party under his and Corbyn’s leadership failed so woefully to understand and address a culture of anti-Jewish racism.
As for Long-Bailey herself, she has tweeted a clarification suggesting she posted the article because of Peake’s achievements and the latter’s argument to stay in the Labour party. She said it “wasn’t intended to be an endorsement of all aspects of the article”. She later tweeted again with a long thread, stating she “learned many people were concerned by reference to international sharing of training and restraint techniques between police and security forces”.
This is not good enough. And her subsequent article, without apology or significant explanation, is still not good enough either.
Long-Bailey failed to do the one thing that conspiracy theories demand of us: to debunk and ridicule them. As of writing, she has still not properly explained the conspiracy to her 150,000 Twitter followers and many more people now looking in.
These things cannot go unchallenged. And that is why, if Long-Bailey is not going to thoroughly debunk the myth herself, people like me will have to do it for her.
Main image credit: Getty