The recent withdrawal of Labour Party support for Rochdale byelection candidate Azhar Ali over controversial comments he made regarding Israel and the October 7th attacks raises questions over whether the accusations of antisemitism hold weight. While Ali’s comments linking Israel to security lapses were certainly misguided and promoted an unproven but reported conspiracy theory, a closer examination shows they do not clearly meet the threshold of antisemitism.
Firstly, Ali did not directly attack or stereotype Jewish people. His comments centered around criticism of the Israeli government, its Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu and security forces regarding the attacks. While false and problematic, criticising a nation-state’s security and defence policies cannot automatically be equated with racism against an ethnic group. That Mike Katz and Louise Ellman were initially prepared to support Ali demonstrates the Labour right will hold its nose and support those it sees as political bedfellows. If this was another member of the Socialist Campaign Group I’d expect Ellman and Katz would have been chomping at the bit for the whip to be removed (See Oz Katerji tweet below).
A new recording obtained by The Mail allegedly shows Mr. Ali defending Labour MP Andy McDonald, who was suspended for using the phrase “from the river to the sea” in a speech. The report claims Ali stated at a Lancashire Labour Party meeting that McDonald “shouldn’t have been suspended” (and I agree) while also asserting that “the media—and some of the people in the media from certain Jewish quarters—were giving crap about what he said.” My only criticism here is Ali was naive to use the term “Jewish quarters” when he could have suggested the criticism was coming from Netanyahu/Israeli government supporters.
Secondly, Ali apologised and backtracked from his earlier statements, acknowledging he had promoted an “online conspiracy theory.” This suggests his views stemmed more from being misinformed than from antisemitic beliefs. His history as an ally against “Labour antisemitism” (by being on the right of the party) makes this even more likely.
Finally, the substance of Ali’s additional alleged comments reported by the Daily Mail—that Israel wanted to “get rid of” Palestinians in Gaza—resembles harsh but common criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Such political stances and rhetoric may be disputed but generally fall under legitimate debate regarding the conflict.
Ali’s suspension over relatively mild comments critical of Israel has not played well among Rochdale’s large Muslim population. Voters are reportedly grilling the former Labour candidate on the campaign trail over perceivably weak stances regarding Israeli aggression in Gaza. This underscores a deeper dissatisfaction with how the Labour Party has put internal discipline over foreign policy principles that defend oppressed groups like the Palestinians.
The swift axing of Ali only exacerbates Labour’s credibility problems among British Muslims in light of leader Keir Starmer’s perceived pandering towards Israel. His unwillingness to condemn actions like the bombardment of Gaza as genocide or war crimes aligns Labour against Muslim voter sentiments. This is taking an electoral toll; recent polls indicate the party’s support has collapsed among this key demographic due to its positions regarding the humanitarian crisis facing Palestinians. As a result, Labour is now facing multiple threats from an insurgency of newly independent candidates and supporters. In marginal areas like Rochdale, Muslim turnout could well swing the result if Labour is seen as soft on criticising Israeli policy while coming down hard on allies like Ali at home.
However, the swift move to discipline Ali also exemplifies a wider trend of the Labour Party overreacting to even mild criticism of Israel post-Corbyn. The former leader’s reticence to address unfounded antisemitism allegations created a backdrop where any anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian rhetoric gets framed as racist. This leaves current Labour leaders paranoid about seeming soft on potential antisemitism.
In particular, the party now appears frightened of Tory and ReformUK opponents weaponising such incidents, even when unmerited. This defensive posturing undermines formulating clear, consistent policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It hampers condemning human rights violations like the continued Israeli bombardment of Gaza. What is deemed antisemitic becomes about optics rather than principles. In Ali’s case, this produced a questionable withdrawal of support to shield against political attacks. It represents a missed chance for stronger moral leadership.
Martin Forde KC, the senior lawyer who investigated Labour’s handling of antisemitism complaints, has criticised the party’s “shambolic” response to the Ali controversy. He contends withdrawing support so late implies a double standard, where backbench leftwing MPs face swifter censure for comparable comments. Forde’s accusation of disparate treatment echoes previous warnings that Labour has yet to ensure its disciplinary processes are fair and consistent. The perception that responses still partly follow factional lines risks undermining the moral authority of decisions like disciplining Ali. It again raises doubts about whether judgements genuinely reflect the severity of offences versus political calculations.
Criticising the influence of Israeli state lobbying or media perspectives is also clearly distinguishable from antisemitism. For example, the media regulator Ofcom recently fully exonerated Al Jazeera over a documentary investigating the political influence of the Israeli embassy in the UK. It ruled that the exposé did not portray offensive stereotypes about Jewish control or breach impartiality guidelines. This demonstrates that exploring the Israeli government’s lobbying and pressure tactics through its proxies abroad is not inherently bigoted. Just as scrutiny of the Saudi or Chinese governments’ propaganda arms does not equate to racism against Arabs or Asians, Ali’s comments situate themselves more within this context of commentary on a foreign power versus hatred against Jews.
The turmoil engulfing Labour’s campaign in Rochdale leaves voters facing unappealing options come election day. With drawbacks plaguing both leading opposition candidates, the choice essentially boils down to two undesirable alternatives: George Galloway‘s demagogic, Gaza-dominated rhetoric that panders to the Muslim community or disgraced former Labour MP Simon Danczuk running under Richard Tice’s hard-right ReformUK banner.
Labour’s flailing campaign and the questions surrounding their actual nominee, Azhar Ali, have created a vacuum that neither fill for progressive voters. Galloway’s dog whistle appeal based on attacking Keir Starmer’s Israel stance may succeed in sections of the borough but seems unlikely to attract broad support. Meanwhile, Danczuk, who was suspended from Labour over a sexting scandal, now pushes an agenda attacking the party’s “woke” policies and amplifying culture war rhetoric.
The inability of Labour to clearly consolidate opposition to the divisive figures leaves Rochdale facing a red-brown runoff. Galloway’s demagoguery channels resentment over Gaza into narrow ethnic politics, while Danczuk’s newfound reactionary stance exploits grievances on the right. With its candidate on the ropes, Labour risks leaving the field open for two flawed alternatives come election day.
In summary, Azhar Ali’s comments about Israel’s role in the October 7th attacks were certainly false and foolish. But upon closer inspection, they align more with broader anti-Zionism sentiments prevalent on the left than with clear discrimination against Jews. With no history or pattern of antisemitism otherwise, the evidence suggests the accusations likely did not warrant Ali losing Labour’s endorsement. The decision appears politically motivated to save face rather than based on Ali genuinely crossing the line into antisemitism.
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