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Jeremy Corbyn is missing the point

This is a guest post by St Jude

I guess it started with the January 2002 New Statesman cover of a shiny metal Star of David piercing a prone Union Flag and declaring the discovery of a ‘kosher conspiracy’, complete with a mitigating Daily Mail Headline Scare Question Mark. This was the first time in a long time that I was aware of conspiracy theories going mainstream which connected Jewish people to the secretive and destructive exercise of disproportionate power.

I’d grown up aware of those who had attended, as The Jam put it, “too many right-wing meetings”, spreading this paranoia. And the far-left, too, had always had issues here. But to see it on the cover of our nation’s top lefty weekly was, to say the least, discomfiting. There was relief, though, on reading the article itself. For its main conclusion seemed to be that what Israel advocacy there was in Britain was all a bit amateurish and not, in fact, some sort of ‘conspiracy’.

Unfortunately, I had not reckoned on the New Statesman readership being more interested in pretty pictures than actual, you know, words and facts. So it was no surprise when a little over a year later, the aristocratic Labour MP Tam Dalyell blamed “a cabal of Jewish advisors” for making Tony Blair all trigger-happy.

A frame had been reset. The spectre of Left anti-semitism was rising again.

It’s not just the Left, true. The grand-daddy of UK Libertarian blogs, Old Holborn, carries posts on Israel and Jews that repeat tired tropes about “chosen people” complexes and comparing Zionism to Nazism. In November 2009, Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph broadcast a laughable documentary claiming unwarranted influence over the media and government by certain campaigners. The same campaigners he was criticising and exposing. On a TV channel. Owned by the Government.

The whole sorry pattern reached its nadir in December last year when Paul Flynn MP questioned the loyalty of the UK Ambassador to Israel on the basis that he was Jewish, after a complaint from a constituent whom had met the ambassador when he rescued her from detention at Tel Aviv airport. (The one thing that never came out in that was what exactly it was that Matthew Gould was supposed to have done or not done in the eyes of Flynn’s constituent that made her suspect he was more loyal to Israel than Britain, other than her own prejudices).

In the same vein, Jeremy Corbyn, veteran MP for Islington North, has, in the wake of the Raed Salah affair, called for a public inquiry into the influence of “pro-Israel lobbyists”.

Well, if he’s successful in getting the inquiry established, I’ll be first in the queue to give evidence. For what it’s worth, this is what I’ll say:

First of all, Mr Corbyn: thank you. I have long held that Israel’s supporters hold some sort of undue influence over policy-makers and opinion-formers are based on a woeful misunderstanding of the issues and of politics itself. This forum may be the best opportunity yet for explaining why.

Let me start by clearing up some potential matters of controversy.

First, I spent three years in what you refer to as the “pro-Israel lobby”. Or as I prefer to call it, the pro-Britain lobby. I took the role because I have a huge great bloody axe to grind for British politics. Not because I have any particular wish to promote any Israeli or Jewish perspectives. When it comes to tribal identity, my loyalties fall in the following order: My immediate family and closest friends, Britain, my football team, the district where I live. You see, sensible positions on the Middle East greatly benefits our politicians, strengthens the governments they form, and gives those governments a positive role in the peace process. Yes, I see you smile there but is that not just a reflection of your position with what was the Labour Middle East Council and what is now Labour Friends of
Palestine and the Middle East? We may disagree on what “a sensible position” is, but our aim in establishing it is in order to achieve the same objective.

So I am a zionist, in that I believe in the self-determination of all peoples, including the Jews and the Palestinians. The reaction to that by many on is that I am therefore irredeemably biased and that my
views are worthless. It would be odd if those who have worked in an area, developed expertise and familiarised themselves with the issues should be dismissed outright for commenting on those matters. And that only anyone who has ever been totally neutral should be listened to.

It is one of the more egregious aspects of anti-zionist discourse that it spends a great deal of time bemoaning the fact that not enough people are interested in Israel and Palestine. Then, when people do get involved, you spend a great deal of time bemoaning the fact that it isn’t completely on your terms. Not only does this mean you miss out on campaigning opportunities – a point to which I shall return later – but you also, in general terms, strengthen the hand of those who wish to shut down debate on a whole range of issues, on the same basis: no trade unionist may talk about employment rights, no doctor may offer a view on healthcare, no teacher may share a thought on education policy.

Second, let us consider whether the concerns you have raised are purely about “zionists” and Israel. It is oft-claimed by anti-zionists that they absolutely do not mean Jews and Jewish communities when
discussing their concerns over the “Israel lobby”. And 99.99% of the time I 100% believe them. But you are terribly unlucky, aren’t you? Israel is the world’s only Jewish state. The vast majority of Jews identify with it. How unfortunate it is that analysis (so-called) of the policy development in this matter reflects so precisely centuries-old anti-semitic canards. What tricks fate must be playing with you that the accusations you make of zionists controlling the media, governments, finance, and of having divided loyalties, and of being cruel, so clearly echo the case made against Jews by proud and out Judaeophobes. Even the fervently Israel-sceptic columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has suggested that this complaint is a valid one and that discussions about zionists can be atavistic. When this is pointed out by Jewish people, the reflex on the Left is to scream that they are falsely being accused of anti-semitism in order to stifle debate.

Indeed, it is now an unquestioned assertion on the Left that Zionists systematically cry “anti-Semite” at anyone questioning Israel. Yet examples of somebody who actually matters, calling genuine criticism of Israel anti-semitic are never forthcoming. Perhaps at the end of this inquiry we may have some solid examples. I’ll bet not. It will remain a straw man.

Now as offensive as some of the rhetoric around alleged zionist influence has become, I’m an adult and I’ll take all that on the chin.

What really infuriates me is not so much the claims themsleves, but the way in which they distract from the real debates that should be had and the real work that needs to be done to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Other than an occasional blog post or comment, I haven’t been involved with the issue for five years. Never intended to return to it at all, as it happens. But if there was a part of me that fancied a spin around the issues again, it was one that envisaged doing so actually in the region, doing something to help Israelis and Palestinians talk to each other, rather than frittering away valuable time and intellectual energy arguing with you.

Israelis and Palestinians. Do you remeber them Jeremy? Can I call you Jeremy, now? I feel like we’ve reached that point in our relationship.

I ask if you remember them because this inquiry highlights one of the main problems with Palestinian solidarity campaigning in the UK. It is not about solidarity at all. It is narcissistic. It is self-obsessed:
more concerned with portraying yourselves as victims of the ill-motivated, or as underdogs in a fixed system. That’s even true when you are successful, for God’s sake!

Look at the events that have led to this inquiry. As it happens, I don’t think anyone should be banned from a country for what they say or write or think. But we are where we are with the law. So you invite
a bloke over. Some people think he shouldn’t be allowed. They advise the person whose call it is (the Home Secretary). She agrees. Bloke banned. Bloke and his mates use courts to appeal. Courts agree with
bloke and his mates. Bloke starts packing his bags and changing up his shekels for sterling. Is this not how things should work? Where’s the corruption here? Democratically elected politician hears arguments, makes decision, decision is appealed, decision overturned. What exactly are you complaining about? I’m used to you lot throwing your toys out of the pram over “zionist influence” when you lose an argument. To see you do it when you win one looks like some sort of pathology.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand why you feel this way. In nearly half a century of campaigning, official Palestinian solidarity has achieved the square root of diddly squat. Despite the backing of a populous and wealthy regional bloc. Despite the cynical mobilisation of identity politics in electorally significant communities with great sympathy for the Palestinian cause. And despite – get this, folks – being right. Yes. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is wrong. The settlements are a disgrace. The Israeli state and military do not behave like angels. But, as with anything, the solutions are never as black and white as the issues themselves.

And the worst aspect of this is that the influence and power you ascribe to this bogeyman of a lobby simply is not true. To believe otherwise is to completely misunderstand the situation. Western
democracies are not more pro-Israel than you believe they should be because they have successful pro-Israel lobbies. Rather, they have apparently successful pro-Israel lobbies because they are quite
sympathetic to Israel in the first place. The reasons for good relations with Israel are manifold and are rooted in the geo-politics of the region and the complexities of a multi-polar world. Across the globe, nations ally with nations. We may assess that these alliances are for the good of world peace. We may, alternatively, view them as counter-productive. In extreme circumstances, you may feel them to be
morally wrong (oh, if only bigger and more powerful nations’ relationships with the world came under as much scrutiny as Israel’s).

Whichever it is, you’re not going to change anything if you’re not engaged constructively. Occasionally, in the short term, that will mean not being as publicly critical as you would like to be or as certain activist bases wish you were. (Let’s face it, after all, Mr Corbyn, that when it comes to Israel, no criticism or withdrawal of support will ever be enough for you).

In the long term, and in the case of the Middle East conflict, this translates in to different priorities depending on where you basically stand.

If you’re worried about Israel’s security, then the situation in the Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) is your priority. This is based on the belief that when the region is a better neighbourhood,
Israel will be a better neighbour.

If you’re worried about Palestinian security and human rights, then the situation traversing the Green Line is your priority. This is based upon the belief that when Israel starts being a good neighbour,
the Palestinians will reciprocate.

If you’re worried about the development and welfare of BMENA, then your priority is justice and independence for Palestine. This is based on the belief that until that is resolved, Arab (and other)
governments will have an excuse to ignore their own peoples and will use the conflict as a mass distraction.

Within each of these views, there are smaller and more complicated priorities. Which side should do what first? Of course, most people worry about all three of those aspects and want to do something about all the priorities within them. It’s messy. Sorry, but it is. There are no absolute solutions. Just trade-offs. No black and white, I’m afraid. Only shades of grey.

At any point, a third party such as Britain will be anywhere on that spectrum of grey when trying to engage with Israelis or Palestinians. If you basically think Israel isn’t understood enough, you are always going to think that the Government’s position is too white. If you think the Palestinians aren’t understood enough, you will always think it too black. (Same goes for how fair you believe the media is, by the way).

But guess what? It. Is. Not. About. Us.

When I was campaigning on all this, I was part of an effort supporting a meeting in London between some senior Israelis and some senior Palestinians. An MP who was obsessed with the issue called the
provisional leader of the Palestinian delegation and told him not to come because they (the MP) was not part of the meeting. The Palestinian told the MP to shove it: the reason that MP was not coming was that neither side wanted them there because their black and white view of the conflict had no constructive role to play in negotiations.

The binary perspectives that Palestinian solidarity has forced upon the political arenas are entirely self-defeating. They may be very good at attracting attention to the cause, yes. After that, as the nuances and complications become more obvious, most people demand new ways of engaging. If you constantly paint a picture of Israel as the epitome of evil, do not be surprised when, having gained even the most fleeting familiarity with Israel, activists and politicians reject such extremism and seek out a less strident approach to the Jewish state while maintaining full support for an independent Palestine. It is this that the so-called “pro-Israel” lobby fulfils. It does not artificially inflate the demand for the other side of the story through cunning and abuse. It simply supplies to current requirements.

No one makes anyone go on a delegation. Or attend a reception. You criticise those who (shock horror) meet with the “wrong” side as weak-minded and/or corrupt. Then you bemoan your own lack of influence with those same people.

In January, Asa Winstanley of Electronic Intifada threw a hissy fit because the Union of Jewish Students had taken Labour Student Union sabbatical officers on a delegation. Pathetic. Literally, pathetic.

Why not contact those officers? Tell them that you’re glad they got the chance to go, welcome their interest, and then offer to brief them on things you think may have been missed from your point of view. Even play, if you must, the whole we-are-an-impoverished-campaign card.

That is, see it as an opportunity, not a threat. As I said earlier: you rage that not enough people are involved, then when they get involved you scare yourselves into impotency because they may not now
buy wholesale your take on matters. The Palestinians really do deserve better friends and more competent campaigners.

There are many other ways in which you fail. The hectoring of Israel and Israelis – this anti-imperialism of fools, as it has been described – simply strengthens the insular, rejectionist Israeli right. Your fawning over Palestinian rejectionists drives grassroots Palestinians to despair. Your failure to adequately address the blurring of anti-zionism and anti-semitism has repelled the Jewish diaspora.

My, God! The alliance we could have had this last 45 years! Of secular forces in Palestine. Of the liberal majority in Israel. Of an unselfish Western Left. Of Palestinian and Jewish civil society in the diasporas- not arguing with each other but getting civilians and their representatives in Israel and Palestine to cooperate. People like you, Jeremy, could have led that. Instead, you have driven wedges. Between communities here. Between people in the region. Between yourself and policy-makers. And, according to you, everyone else is to blame for your failure.

You never learn. Who honestly are you hoping to attract to your cause with Raed Salah? He’s been admitted because Justice Ockleton thought he was not a threat to public order, not because he hasn’t promoted anti-semitism. That’s the nuance of the judgement. Yet you, in your black and white way, are happy to promote the guy. When this latest farce is over, you will not be able to show one person who is
persuaded of anything different after Salah has done whatever you plan to do with him.

Will it make any difference? Will you blame the success of your imagined opponents? Or will you this time consider your own real failure?

If it’s the last, then let me know. I’ll leave my number with the clerk. I’ve got some great ideas to give the Palestinian perspective the profile it deserves in the British body politic. And I don’t cost
much. We could even approach this guy I know – a Jewish fella – to fund it all. I mean, he’s loaded. And really well connected…