LONDON — Hip hop artist, campaigner and host of the MintPress podcast “The Watchdog,” Lowkey is at the center of a storm of controversy that has reached as high as Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself.
On Wednesday, the prime minister was asked about it in parliament and said that British universities have “for far too long been tolerant of casual or indeed systematic antisemitism,” adding that he “hope[s] that everybody understands the need for rapid, and indeed irreversible change,” before announcing that the United Kingdom needed a new antisemitism task force “devoted to rooting out” the problem at all levels of the education system – comments that suggest that the entire pro-Palestine student movement is under threat.
Johnson’s words came in response to a series of incidents involving Lowkey this month. First, pressure from a local branch of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) forced the University of Cambridge to postpone his March 8 Zoom talk, “The Israel Lobby’s War Against You,” which was, ironically, going to expose the UJS’s (among other groups) financial, ideological and material ties to the government of Israel.
In emails sent to the rapper, the Cambridge University Palestine Solidarity Society, which organized the event, warned that their very existence was “threatened on an institutional level” from above if they were to go ahead with the event as planned. After much negotiation, the talk did eventually go ahead one week later, on March 15 on Zoom, as the college could not rubber-stamp his presence on campus.
More consequentially, pressure, lies and smears from the UJS and a wide range of pro-Israel groups and figures have succeeded in stopping Lowkey from speaking and performing at the annual National Union of Students Conference in Liverpool. UJS President Nina Freedman demanded his cancellation, claiming his presence was “simply unacceptable.”
The Campaign Against Antisemitism expressed their “outrage” at the news he would be there, noting that the rapper has claimed that Israel is a racist state — an assertion backed by Amnesty International in a recent report on Israeli Apartheid — and supported pro-Palestine academics like David Miller and politicians like former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. This, for them, was proof enough of his bad intentions. The Board of Deputies of British Jews made similar remarks, claiming they were “disturbed” by Lowkey’s presence.
The British press also tried to drum up public outrage. Far-right tabloid The Daily Mail strongly implied Lowkey was antisemitic. A scandalized Daily Telegraph also told readers that he had once described Israel as a “racist endeavour.” This, presumably, was meant to be proof of his antisemitism. The Jewish Chronicle quoted one individual claiming that inviting Lowkey was “sickening hypocrisy.” Meanwhile, even during a time of war, global pandemic and endemic poverty and inequality, LBC Radio found the time to devote two segments to the matter.
Pressure has also come from other sources. Pro-Israel lobby group We Believe In Israel has begun a campaign to push streaming giant Spotify to remove Lowkey’s music from its platform, disingenuously claiming that his lyrics “incite and promote hatred, violence, and disinformation against Jews and Israelis.”
Conservative MP Robert Halfon brought up Lowkey in a parliamentary committee. “What more can be done by the [Office for Students] to prevent this type of behavior from occurring again?” he angrily demanded. Today, the matter reached the prime minister himself.
The National Union of Students’ attempts to dissipate the situation, by stating that there were always “safe spaces” for students at events, was spun by the press into the idea that Jewish people would need to be “segregated” for their own safety. When asked for comment by MintPress as to why the event was changed, the student-run union’s press team stated that the rapper was only booked to give a talk at a side symposium, rather than for a concert and an appearance at the main event. “Lowkey was due to speak at [the] Liberation Conference on 30 March. He has pulled out of the event and will no longer be appearing,” they said. However, others familiar with the matter suggested this was not the case. “It is incredibly cowardly of the NUS to cancel it in this way and then dishonestly say Lowkey has pulled out,” said Asa Winstanley, an investigative journalist at The Electronic Intifada, adding:
It is another example of the blatant censorship that exists in this country on the issue of Palestine. There is no other topic, over such a long period of time, other than the issue of Palestine and the Israel lobby, that there is so much danger of being censored or canceled. This pressure by the Israel lobby in this country is really disgusting and needs to end.:
As Winstanley’s comments indicate, further scrutiny into the figures and organizations driving the media hysteria around Lowkey suggests that this was not an organic surge of outrage, but another manufactured operation designed to sideline prominent critics of Israeli government policy.
Virtually all of the loudest voices on the matter have deep financial and other relationships with the state of Israel. The Union of Jewish Students, for instance, lists “engagement with Israel’ as one of its four “core values,” noting that they passionately and proudly celebrate their relationship with the state. Moreover, an investigation by Al-Jazeera found that the UJS is quietly being funded by the Israeli Embassy in London, which goes on to employ prominent UJS operatives.
At an event in November last year, UJS President Freedman addressed Israeli President Isaac Herzog, proudly stating that “UJS alumni are currently serving in senior positions in the Israeli government, the foreign ministry, the IDF, and even the president’s office.” Freedman went on to say, “We are committed to shine a positive light on the successes of Israel. We are also encouraging students to take an active role in defending Israel.” “UJS is at the frontline against antisemitism, anti-Zionism and BDS,” she added, a statement that implies that she views those three concepts as interchangeable.
One of the UJS alumni that Freedman was referencing is Yair Zivan, who left his job as campaign director of the UJS to become a press officer for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). From there, he took a job as then-President Shimon Peres’s international media coordinator. He is currently a foreign policy advisor and international media spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
Others go in the opposite direction. Current UJS CEO Arieh Miller, for example, was head of digital media and Jewish community relations for the Israeli Embassy in London between 2013 and 2015 and later served as the executive director of the Zionist Federation before his UJS appointment, highlighting the connections between the Israeli state and supposedly independent domestic civil-society organizations.
The UJS encourages Jewish students to move to Israel, including promoting programs that help foreign nationals join the IDF. It even employs an “Israeli engagement sabbatical officer” to help others fall in love with the country. And the organization has also played a prominent role in previous witch hunts against pro-Palestinian voices. As Winstanley said,
The Union of Jewish Students is committed in its own constitution to promoting a deeper connection between British Jewish students and the state of Israel. They are not secretive about that. It is there in black and white. They state their own purpose. They would object to the characterization “Israel lobby” but, nonetheless, that is an accurate description of what they do: they lobby for Israel.”
Enemies in high places
Other organizations coming after Lowkey have similar connections to the Israeli state and its expansionist plans, raising serious questions about their nature and true purpose.
The Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) was formed in 2014 in the wake of Operation Protective Edge, the seven-week Israeli campaign against Gaza – an onslaught that killed thousands and drew worldwide condemnation. It immediately began attempting to change the conversation from Israeli aggression to antisemitism. Its first action was to organize against a London theater that refused to participate in the UK Jewish Film Festival unless the organization stopped receiving funding from the Israeli government. The theater’s clear and principled stand could in no way be described as antisemitic; and yet it was presented as such. The CAA was also at the forefront of the disingenuous attacks on Corbyn, attempting to present the lifelong peace and racial justice activist as a secret racist. In 2018, for instance, it launched a petition entitled “Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite and is unfit to hold any public office.”
The chief executive of the CAA is Gideon Falter, an individual who is simultaneously vice chairman of the U.K. branch of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization that helps build illegal settlements in Palestine, thereby contributing to the process of ethnic cleansing. Accounts for the JNF U.K. show that it provides money for IDF recruitment programs. Its patrons include the prime minister and president of Israel, as well as two former British prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The JNF also recently planted a tree in Israel in the name of Theo Underwood, the LBC host who excoriated Lowkey on his program, something he said meant a “great deal” to him.
The Board of Deputies has no fewer official ties to the state of Israel. While claiming this could lead to one’s expulsion from the Labour Party on the grounds of antisemitism, the board’s own 2020 trustees’ report casually admits in its achievements section that it maintains a “[c]lose working relationship with the Embassy of Israel in the UK, including with the Ambassador, diplomats,and professional staff, and strengthened links to the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the IDF Spokesperson Department.”
Meanwhile, Robert Halfon is the former director of the Conservative Friends of Israel group (CFI) and has stated that one of the few things that motivate his politics and worldview is his “unashamed support for the State of Israel, as the only real democracy and progressive force in the Middle East.” He has previously attempted to ban initiatives that tackle Islamophobia in the United Kingdom. The CFI and its directors are major funders of the Conservative Party and use their financial clout to influence policy. In 2012, the chairman of Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit Systems was caught on tape claiming that his company had “piggybacked” on the CFI to “gain access to particular decision makers.” The CFI pays for politicians to visit Israel, where they often visit Elbit Systems headquarters, according to The Financial Times.
Exaggerations and retractions
For all the media hysteria, many of the prime movers in denouncing Lowkey have gone suspiciously silent, deleting their previous comments. The Board of Deputies has wiped its accusatory statement from its website. Journalist Sabrina Miller did the same, deleting an accusatory tweet. And while Halfon enjoys absolute freedom of speech in parliament, he does not if he publishes those comments online, which perhaps explains why he deleted a Twitter video calling Lowkey antisemitic.
In the past, The Jewish Chronicle and the Campaign Against Antisemitism have had to retract a claim that Lowkey inserted an antisemitic line into one of his raps, as it was ruled to be untrue.
The Jewish Chronicle is acting increasingly in the vein of a domestic spying agency against Palestinian liberation groups. Last week, it admitted to infiltrating meetings of activist group Palestine Action and secretly recording speeches made by Lowkey, claiming that he “urged” the group to “build on previous acts of vandalism” – the vandalism in question being the occupation of Elbit Systems’ Oldham factory. Elbit Systems weapons have been used against Palestinians, contravening international law. Members of Palestine Action who have disrupted weapons plants have been repeatedly cleared by British courts.
Pro-Palestine activists are also subject to regular harassment and surveillance. In May 2021, at the height of Israel’s latest major assault on Gaza and the Unity Uprising, Lowkey was spied upon in public while in Kensington Gardens in London, just a stone’s throw away from the Israeli Embassy. He noticed a suspicious man hiding around a corner and surreptitiously photographing or filming him, as can be seen in the images above. The man then proceeded to follow him. When engaged, he insisted that he was merely taking photos of “parakeets.” Ornithology is a common excuse for intelligence agents on spying missions. For instance, MI6 officials posing as birdwatchers spied on anti-Apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.
An irony on steroids
Because of Britain’s libel laws, the evidence-free claim of antisemitism against Lowkey must only be implied through suggestion and association. Much of the most recent furor is based upon comments he made to Winstanley in a recent episode of The Watchdog. The press was seemingly scandalized that the rapper said that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Jewish heritage has been weaponized by the media in order to shield our own government from scrutiny of the Nazi groups it is arming and training in Ukraine. Yet until only a few weeks ago, a wide swath of the corporate press itself was warning that many of the country’s institutions were being overrun by fascists.
Furthermore, it is demonstrably clear that corporate media are continually referencing Zelenskyy’s Jewish heritage to deflect any scrutiny of the Ukrainian government’s actions. For example, on Fox and Friends, former CIA officer Dan Hoffman declared that “it’s the height of hypocrisy to call [on] the Ukrainian nation to denazify — their president is Jewish after all.”
On MSNBC, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) said Putin’s “terminology, outrageous and obnoxious as it is — ‘denazify’ where you’ve got frankly a Jewish president in Mr. Zelensky. This guy [Putin] is on his own kind of personal jihad to restore greater Russia.”
And on CNN, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman said that the Nazi claim is “patently absurd, there’s really no merit… you pointed out that Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish… the Jewish community [is] embraced. It’s central to the country and there is nothing to this Nazi narrative, this fascist narrative. It’s fabricated as a pretext.” This will be news to many Ukrainian Jews, as well as Israeli media, who have long warned about the influence Nazis have inside the country.
None of Lowkey’s comments on Ukraine are antisemitic, diminish Russian culpability, or attempt to justify its invasion. Yet the existence of Nazis at the highest levels of Ukrainian society does complicate the situation beyond the overly simplistic paradigm currently being established. As Winstanley told MintPress:
Lowkey made the point, which I agreed with, that the president of Ukraine’s Jewish heritage is being weaponized in order to protect Ukrainian Nazis. No one is saying that Zelenskyy himself is a Neo-Nazi or that even the Ukrainian government can be said to be a Nazi government. But there is no doubt that the Ukrainian state since 2014 has been absolutely riddled by the far-right – and the Ukrainian military especially.”
Ironically, the rapper is now being accused of antisemitism for opposing the funding, arming and training of Nazi groups.
The battle and the war
The furor around Lowkey underscores the fact that this has very little to do with antisemitism and far more to do with his steadfast support for Palestinian liberation. He is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and brings its people’s struggles to a global audience of millions through his music.
The power of music to reach and radicalize a new generation is well understood by pro-Israel groups. In 2011, The Jewish Chronicle described Lowkey’s increasing influence and recognition as one of the most gifted lyricists in hip hop as a “potential nightmare” for their side. Hence the desire to demonize, defame and deplatform him from Spotify.
In their campaign against pro-Palestine activists, this interconnected group of organizations is increasingly resembling an unofficial spying agency operating inside a foreign country and doing everything that an intelligence agency does: planting stories, following and surveilling individuals, and spreading lies.
Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of pro-Israel groups, public sympathy for Palestine and identification with its cause is on the rise at universities and among the public more generally. A February poll conducted by YouGov showed that more than two-and-a-half times as many Britons (27%) now sympathize with Palestine more than with Israel (11%) – a figure that continues to rise.
The tireless work of activists exposing its crimes has led to organizations as diverse as the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Harvard Law School identifying Israel as an Apartheid regime. The pro-Israel crowd may have won a small battle in forcing Lowkey not to perform this month, but they are losing the war for hearts and minds across the West.