Jonathan Cook – First it was Corbyn. Now the whole British public is being smeared over Gaza

This is a repetition of the propaganda against opponents of the West’s support of Ukraine

Under cover of fear for MPs’ safety, Labour leader Keir Starmer has helped the ruling Tories paint as villains anyone opposed to Israel’s slaughter of children

Jonathan Cook is the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website and blog can be found at

[First published by Middle East Eye]


For the best part of a decade now, the British establishment has been weaponising antisemitism against critics of Israel, claiming as its biggest scalp the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

He lost the 2019 general election – and stepped down as leader – amid a barrage of smears that he had indulged, if not stoked, antisemitism in the party’s wider ranks.

Corbyn is the only major British party leader to have prioritised the rights of Palestinians over Israel’s oppression of them. He was finally drummed out of the parliamentary party by his successor, Keir Starmer, in 2020 for pointing out that antisemitism in Labour had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons”.

Last week, that same establishment campaign plumbed new depths. Now it is not just the left wing of the Labour Party – traditionally critical of Israel for its decades of oppressing Palestinians – facing demonisation. Large parts of the British public are finding themselves being smeared too – and for the same reason.

The inciting cause is a parliamentary crisis precipitated last week by Starmer’s refusal to identify Israel’s slaughter and starvation of the 2.3 million people of Gaza as “collective punishment” – a war crime.

The House of Commons speaker, who is supposed to be strictly neutral, defied convention to allow Starmer to water down a ceasefire motion on Gaza promoted by the Scottish Nationalists, all so he could avert a rebellion in his party’s ranks.

But while a bitter row ensued between Labour and the ruling Tories over the abuse of parliamentary protocol, it also brought the two sides together on a separate matter.

For different reasons, they exploited the crisis over the ceasefire vote to imply, without a shred of evidence, that demonstrations against Israel’s flagrant, months-long atrocities in Gaza constituted not just antisemitic behaviour but a threat to the democratic order and the safety of MPs.

As a result, the consensus of the English political and media establishment has swiftly shifted onto even more dangerous, and anti-democratic, terrain than the earlier antisemitism smears.

Wilfully deaf

According to a recent survey, two-thirds of Britons support a ceasefire in Gaza – with many of them blaming Israel for killing and maiming at least 100,000 Palestinians in Gaza and imposing an aid blockade that is gradually starving the rest of the population.

Only 13 percent of the public share the two main parties’ view that Israel is justified in continuing to take military action.

For months, many hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of London each week to demand that the UK stop its complicity in what the World Court ruled recently is plausibly a genocide being committed by Israel.

Britain is supplying Israel with arms, giving it diplomatic cover at the United Nations, and has effectively joined Israel in its aid blockade. The UK has frozen funds to the UN’s main aid agency, Unrwa, a last lifeline to the enclave.

But those demanding that international law be upheld – and castigating the political class for failing to do the same – are now finding themselves demonised as potential terrorists.

Already, the talk on both sides of the Commons – and in the media – is of the need for new police powers, curbs on the right of the public to protest, and further security measures to keep politicians shielded from the people they are supposed to represent.

This week, a committee of MPs used pressures placed on the police to manage regular mass marches in London against the slaughter in Gaza as grounds for introducing tighter limits on the right to protest.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took up the refrain, calling for greater police powers against what he described as “mob rule” that was supposedly “replacing democratic rule”.

Separately, he insinuated that this so-called “mob” – those troubled by the killing of at least 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza over the past five months – may not “belong here“, in Britain. Notably, he made these remarks during an address to the Community Security Trust, which was at the forefront of promoting the smearing of Corbyn and his supporters as antisemites.

But the fearmongering is far from restricted to the ruling Tories.

Labour’s shadow international development secretary, Lisa Nandy, publicly complained at the weekend about members of the public shouting “genocide” at her, linking it to the greater security measures she has been taking.

Opposition to Israel’s behaviour is a majority view among the public, but neither major party is prepared to listen or respond. Both are wilfully deaf to public concern that Britain needs to stop actively enabling one of the greatest crimes in living memory.

As Labour MP Diane Abbott, a Corbyn ally and long-time target of death threats, noted, Britain is taking “the first step towards a police state“.

Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza is tearing the mask off Westminster. By the day, Britain is looking more overtly like an oligarchy.

Israel partisans

The full import of last week’s events – when the Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle did a grubby backroom deal with Starmer, effectively sabotaging the Scottish National Party’s ceasefire motion – has been obscured by subsequent politicking and point-scoring.

The real story is to be found in the aftermath.

The pair proferred a dangerous cover story to justify Starmer’s determined efforts to avoid naming Israel’s egregious violations of international law as “collective punishment”.

Hoyle apologised for breaking with long-established convention and allowing Starmer’s watered-down amendment. But he justified his move on the grounds that Labour MPs would have been put in danger if they had been forced to reject the SNP ceasefire motion on their leader’s orders.

He declared: “I don’t ever want to go through the situation of picking up a phone to find that a friend, of whatever side, has been murdered by terrorists.”

The speaker produced no evidence to support this unprecedented claim, one that sounded like it was intended to bring to mind the scenes of the Capitol building being invaded by Trump supporters in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.

Notably, both Starmer and Hoyle are among the many MPs on each side of the aisle who have consistently and proudly demonstrated partisanship towards Israel.

Large numbers of MPs continue to belong to their parties’ Friends of Israel groups, including Starmer, even as the international human rights community has reached a consensus that Israel is an apartheid state – and now that it is committing mass slaughter and starving Gaza’s population.

Hoyle even took time out in November to head off to Israel – now on trial for genocide at the world’s highest court – to be briefed by the very army doing that genocide. He was accompanied by Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, who has repeatedly sought to justify the slaughter.

Starmer himself trumpeted the fact that, before drafting his amendment to the SNP motion, he had called Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, for advice. That is the same Herzog who had earlier argued that Gaza’s entire population, including its children, were legitimate targets for Israel’s military attacks on the enclave.

Moral panic

During the Corbyn years, opposition to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians was denounced as antisemitism.

And in just the same way, reality is being turned on its head once again. Now, the call for an end to Israel’s slaughter of children is being variously denounced as extremism, an attack on democracy, and the stifling of free speech.

Last week, as the Tories dogpiled Hoyle for tearing up the parliamentary rulebook, Sunak warned that the lesson was “we should never let extremists intimidate us into changing the way in which parliament works”.

What could he possibly mean? That the right to protest could not be tolerated within a parliamentary democracy? That free speech was now equivalent to “intimidation”?

Starmer has opened the floodgates to a moral panic in which the people of Gaza are forgotten, except as bit players in a smear campaign to silence those calling for an end to Israel’s genocidal bombing and starvation policies.

In the current climate, it was largely unremarkable that Paul Sweeney, a Labour member of the Scottish parliament, made headlines accusing Gaza protesters of “storming” his offices and “terrifying” his staff – until Scottish police investigated and found no evidence for his claims.

The police described the demonstration as “peaceful”, an assessment confirmed by a reporter for the Scotsman newspaper who was present.

Senior journalists are sticking their oars in too.

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg claimed the dangers extended beyond politicians to journalists like herself.  The current crisis, she suggested, could be traced back to Corbyn’s supporters, who were wont to “boo and jeer” as she and the rest of the media promoted evidence-free claims that Labour was beset by antisemitism.

True charlatans

Sudden concern about the dangers caused by public protest against the slaughter of Palestinians should be ridiculed as the self-serving nonsense it is.

The political and media establishment now whipping up fears for the safety of MPs – so they can continue ignoring Israel’s genocide – is the same establishment that endlessly vilified Corbyn for highlighting Israel’s ugly rule over the Palestinians.

For many years, Corbyn had warned that Israel was brutalising the Palestinian people and stealing their land to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. His 2019 manifesto promised to end the UK’s arms sales to Israel and recognise a Palestinian state.

History has now proven his stance as warranted, while also demonstrating that the political and media class – and most of all Starmer, a human rights lawyer – are the real charlatans.

But more to the point, no one expressed concern for the safety of Corbyn, Labour’s elected leader, or his supporters when they were being subjected to a years-long campaign of vilification. He was variously painted as an antisemite, a Soviet-era spy, and a traitor.

When the Daily Mail presented Corbyn as Dracula above the headline “Labour must kill vampire Jezza”, everyone chuckled. As they did when Newsnight transposed his face onto the Dark Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter franchise.

When British soldiers were shown using Corbyn’s face as target practice, it made fleeting headlines before being forgotten.

There were no demands for soul searching then, as there are now. There was no panic about the stoking of a dangerous public mood. There was no concern about the threat to democracy or the safety of Corbyn and other MPs who spoke out against Israel.

Why? The question hardly needs answering. Because it was the establishment political and media class doing the smearing and inciting. It was the same people whining now about their safety who were actively endangering elected representatives like Corbyn.

‘Barrage of racist abuse’

This is not just about history, of course.

The establishment campaign that claimed to be outing antisemitism – and that maliciously conflated opposition to Israel’s military oppression of Palestinians (anti-Zionism) with antisemitism – has simply metamorphosed into something even uglier.

Now it seeks to tar those it smeared as antisemites as worse: as a supposed menace not just to Jews but to MPs and democracy. Those trying to stop the slaughter of children are potential terrorists.

One of Corbyn’s few surviving allies – not yet purged by Starmer from the parliamentary party – is the Labour Muslim MP Zarah Sultana.

A tweet of hers that went viral at the weekend read: “Whenever I speak up for the rights of the Palestinian people, I am subjected to a barrage of racist abuse, threats and hate. Things have been particularly bad in recent months.”

As she noted, the prime minister used an Islamophobic trope against her last month, as did another Tory MP, when she urged a ceasefire. Neither apologised. Once again, these incidents barely made ripples, let alone elicited an outpouring of concern.

Though Sultana was careful not to allude to Starmer’s role, she warned that this cynical moral panic must not be allowed to become “a pretext to demonise the Palestine solidarity movement specifically or attack our democratic rights more broadly”.

But the truth is, that boat sailed some time ago.

Plot on parliament?

From the start, Palestine solidarity demonstrations were demonised as “hate marches” by the then-home secretary, Suella Braverman.

Plumbing new levels of disingenuousness, she and other politicians – backed by the media – pretended a longtime leftwing Palestinian solidarity slogan chanted at marches that demands equality for Jews and Palestinians “between the river and the sea” was a call for genocide against Jews.

At the weekend, the Times newspaper turned the flame higher. A front-page article headlined “Plot to target parliament” was meant to evoke in the public’s mind Guy Fawkes’ infamous gunpowder plot in the 17th century to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

But all the stories described were entirely legitimate efforts by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) to lobby parliament to uphold international law and press for a ceasefire.

The Times insinuated that Ben Jamal, leader of the PSC, was behaving in a sinister fashion by calling on the public to “ramp up pressure” on MPs – that is, exercise the most basic of democratic rights.

Meanwhile, Braverman’s successor as home secretary, James Cleverly, insisted that MPs must not be subjected to “undue pressure” – as though it was threatening behaviour for members of the public to give their elected representatives vocal warning that they would refuse to vote for them based on actions such as refusing to oppose a genocide.

Two nasty parties

There is little doubt where this is all designed to lead.

Weaponised antisemitism was always about silencing those protesting against British foreign policy – a foreign policy that prioritises Israel’s pivotal role in promoting western control over the oil-rich Middle East above ending Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.

Previously, that chiefly meant smearing Corbyn and the anti-imperialist, anti-war Labour left.

But with public outrage growing at Israel’s genocide, the stakes have risen dramatically. Now the political and media establishments are desperate to shift attention away both from Israel and their complicity in the slaughter of children.

Their preferred method has been pretending that it is only Muslims and leftwing, antisemitic extremists opposed to the genocide. Normal people, apparently, should be invested exclusively in the impossible task Israel claims to have set itself: of “eliminating Hamas”, however many Palestinian children die in the process.

Evoking King Canute trying to hold back the tide, Nandy denounced Tory MP Lee Anderson – and the wider Conservative party – for Islamophobia after he claimed “Islamists” were in control of London and its mayor, Sadiq Khan.

In the Daily Telegraph last week, Braverman advanced similar racist paranoia, arguing that Britain was becoming a country where “Sharia law, the Islamist mob, and anti-Semites take over communities”.

Giving Starmer a taste of Corbyn’s medicine – and illustrating the way career-minded politicians are kept in line – she accused the Labour leader of being “in hock to extremists” and that the party was “still rotten to the core”.

Two nasty parties, each complicit in a genocide of the Palestinian people, are now competing to stoke Islamophobia – one explicitly, the other implicitly.

With no place to hide for his political cowardice, Starmer has opened the gates to the bipartisan vilification of Muslims, not just in Gaza but at home too. Will he get away with it?

He may find it tougher going than he expects. With the slaughter in Gaza playing out on TV screens and social media accounts, many millions of Britons are incensed. Whatever the political class claims, it is not just Muslims and the anti-war left angry at the complicity of British politicians in genocide.

The smearing of Corbyn over his criticisms of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians largely worked. But gaslighting much of the public as a dangerous “mob” for opposing even more egregious Israeli crimes may yet backfire

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1 Comment

  1. The Vietnam war began like this – those who were against napalm bombing of Vietnamese children were smeared as Communists. In the end many of them became just because they were called so.

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