A left take on Israel, Palestinian justice and anti-Semitism

On Sunday, I spoke at an event organised by the Jewish Labour Movement in memory of Henry Smith, the late father of one of my best friends, who died in 2015.

Here’s some of the things I talked about. The relatives of Henry: his father, a underage conscript in the German Army in World War I who worked as a stretcher bearer on the Eastern front. He had a wife and child in 1930s Berlin. He survived, but his family were exterminated. I once stood on a train track in Berlin with Henry’s son, Stef: here his relatives were shoved into cramped trains to the forests of Latvia, where they were shot before the gas chambers became the industrialised means of the attempted extermination of every single Jew in Europe. While Henry’s mother was a survivor, too, dozens of members of her family were among the 6 million people murdered by the most abominable regime humanity has ever produced.

I spoke about other things, too. The need for the left to stand shoulder to shoulder with British Jews against anti-Semitism, wherever it appears. About the enabling and legitimisation of anti-Semitism by the Trumpist alt-right movement in the United States. About the need to drive anti-Semitism, however it manifests, subtle or overt, from the left, a movement whose entire USP is the elimination of all forms of exploitation, oppression and bigotry from society. About how many Jews feel unwelcome in the rank of the left and how distressing and unacceptable that is.

Here’s another thing I spoke about. The brutal occupation of Palestinian land, the illegal settlements which must be immediately dismantled, the need for a just peace that secures a genuinely independent and free Palestine, which gives security and peace to Jews and Arabs alike. At the very end, when I made this pitch against the brutality and bigotry of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, a handful heckled. Their heckles were drowned out by the applause in the room.

There will never be peace and security in the Middle East without dialogue and negotiations. We need a broad coalition: of Jews, of Muslims, of Christians, of non-believers, all committed to the objective of Palestinian liberation and freedom, with a two-state solution guaranteeing peace and stability for all.

My decision to speak at this event triggered an online firestorm. I’ve rarely been so glad to face down such a group of unreasonable or disingenuous critics and — in some cases — conspiracy-minded bigots. Yes, I spoke partly to honour the memory of a man whose decency and honour and compassion always shone through, who has every reason to be proud of his beautiful family. But I also wanted to stand in solidarity with a community which increasingly feels alienated by the left. The brilliant chair of the event was Sarah Sackman, a former Labour parliamentary candidate. She pointed out that support for Labour among British Jews has all but collapsed, even though the research shows unambiguously that the political views of Jews tend on average to be more progressive than the rest of the population.

Many of my friends — like Stef — are Jews who are repelled by what the Israeli government is doing. They also fear, in good faith, the resurgence of anti-Semitism. Since when did the left not listen to the lived experience of ethnic minorities when they discuss the bigotry they face? Since when did we deflect, or minimise, or victim blame?

The left desperately needs to stand with Jews. Partly because it’s the right thing to do, to stand against bigotry in all its forms. Partly because so many British Jews feel alienated from their natural political home: Jews have always disproportionately contributed to the left and progressive movements. Partly because so many British Jews — whether they be public sector workers or on zero hours contracts or youngster struggling to afford a decent home — need a Labour government as much as anyone else. Partly because there will never be peace without the involvement of Jews, in the diaspora and in Israel itself.

Here’s my general thoughts on a left approach to Israel, Palestine and anti-Semitism: they are, I should say, just my own.

  1. A recognition that the Shoah is the biggest single crime in human history by virtue of intent and means. Human history is littered with terrible, terrible crimes: from British imperialism in India and Ireland, to King Leopold in the Congo, to Stalin’s gulags, to the slave trade. What makes the Shoah so unique is an industrialised, systematic, bureaucratic attempt to exterminate an entire people without trace. There are those who compare the occupation of Palestine to Nazi tyranny. This is an attempt to say to Jews — “look, you are now doing to Palestinians what Hitler did to you.” It is deeply offensive and wrong. The occupation of Palestine is bad enough on its own terms. It is oppressive and stifling and brutal. It does not represent — or even close — an attempt to physically exterminate an entire people.
  2. To recognise that the Jews, in Nazi Germany, were victims, not collaborators with a regime which wanted nothing else than the destruction of the Jewish people. David Baddiel has dealt with this beautifully on why Ken Livingstone’s theories about Hitler’s evolving strategies to permanently remove Jews from the territories he ruled are so offensive.
  3. To listen to the lived experience of Jewish people when they talk to anti-Semitism. There are some who believe that any mention of anti-Semitism is a ruse, a means to crush any attempt to criticise Israel. I’ve encountered this so many occasions, online, when anti-Semitism is mentioned by a Jew or a non-Jew, and somebody deflects with “What about what Israel is doing to Palestinians?” It is unacceptable. Would the same people respond in such a way to a Muslim, or a black person, speaking about their lived experience of racism? (In some cases, to be fair, they probably would, but it would be no less unacceptable).
  4. To commit to building a Palestinian solidarity movement where British Jews who are genuinely committed to the end of the occupation and settlements feel welcome. Sorry, but I know all too many who just don’t. That means using language that is inclusive and empathetic.
  5. To demand the immediate end of the occupation of Palestinian land, the end of the blockade of Gaza, the dismantling of all settlements. See? It’s possible to take anti-Semitism seriously and to demand Palestinian justice. There is no contradiction. Indeed, the opposite: both stem from the same thing — opposition to all forms of bigotry and oppression.
  6. Boycotts of products made in illegal settlements of Palestinian land. These settlements are a colonial landgrab, and represent an attempt to permanently crush any aspirations for Palestinian statehood. All products made on illegal settlements designed to destroy the rights of national self-determination of any people should be boycotted.
  7. Calls for a British arms embargo against all human rights abusing states. That includes Israel because of the occupation and repeated brutal military offensives.
  8. Solidarity with all peace activists in Israel who are courageously fighting for Palestinian justice. It is not easy to fight for peace and justice in Israel right now. The government increasingly portrays — and treats — such dissent as ‘the enemy within’. There will never be peace and justice for Palestine unless these besieged and brave elements receive solidarity.

These are just some draft thoughts, but it’s beyond me why there can’t be consensus on these demands. We need to eliminate all forms of anti-Semitism. We need an independent and free Palestine. There is no contradiction here. There has to be empathy, discussion and dialogue. The elements who try to stop all of these things are friends of the occupation. If they win, they will achieve nothing else other than a) making Jewish people feel that progressive movements aren’t a home for them and b) destroying any chance of a coalition that can realise Palestinian national self-determination. And that’s why — despite the hysterical opposition — I proudly spoke at the Jewish Labour Movement event in memory of my friend’s father on Sunday.