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Laurie Penny on Julie Burchill’s imperialist froth over Israel

The columnist is wrong to describe Louis Theroux’s documentary and The Promise as nothing more than “Jew-baiting”.

In this week's column, shoved in underneath some musings about comedy and refried beans, the Independent rentagob Julie Burchill takes a detour into the sort of stuttering imperialist froth that Russell Brand might refer to as the Bad Zionism.

Burchill denounces the latest popular explorations of Israeli politics – Channel 4's drama The Promise and Louis Theroux's documentary exposé of ultra-Zionist lifestyles in Jerusalem and the West Bank – as foaming anti-Semitism, borne out of Gentile resentment that Jewish people are good at science.

No, really. Burchill really does argue that discussing the most fraught, difficult and painful topic in modern international relations in any terms that do not automatically grant the Jewish people every disputed square mile of moral high ground, because they "built the country we call Israel centuries before Islam even existed", is just bitchy bitterness about so many "Jews winning the Nobel Prize".

Yes, it's bonkers, but there's bile behind it. Burchill stubbornly fails to draw any distinction between the blithely racist, imperialist ultra-Zionists in Theroux's documentary and the more reflective and compassionate politics of the vast majority of Jewish people. In fact, most Jews feel about as much kinship with ultra-Zionists as most Christians feel with the more fundamentalist members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

In Burchill's eyes, though, it's all just "Jew-baiting". Showing Israeli soldiers firing tear gas canisters at Palestinian children in Hebron is "Jew-baiting'. Dramatising the agonising conflict between Jewish war refugees searching for a home and Palestinian families being violently evicted from their land is "Jew-baiting" and nothing more.

I know it's not about me, but as a woman of Jewish descent with many family members living in Israel, I find this sort of reductive bollocks personally offensive. In point of fact, The Promise is not a piece of propaganda. Rather, it is a reflective and excruciatingly well-researched series that throws light on a segment of British wartime history that most Brits prefer to ignore – namely, our own involvement in the creation of the state of Israel and our complicity in the decades of bloody conflict that followed.

It's hard to understand how anyone can accuse a drama that opens with five gruelling minutes set in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, cutting in segments of real footage from the mass graves, of ignoring the tragic nuances of Jewish history. For Burchill, though, since the series stops short of declaring all Palestinians criminal trespassers, it's just more "Jew-baiting".

For some people, history is just a creative space for redrawing the bloody map of the moral high ground to suit your own dogma. For others, history drives right up to your front door on a daily basis in armoured tanks, penning your family behind gun-bristling checkpoints, cramming your friends and neighbours behind an "apartheid wall", bombing your home, machine-gunning your grandchildren.

Dragging all discussion of the suffering of the Palestinian people back to a dry debate over whose tribal deity promised them the land most flamboyantly is a wilfully clod-headed rehearsal of what George Orwell called transferred nationalism – "power-hunger tempered by self-deception".

Ultimately, if we're really going to play the who-got-here-first game, someone really needs to put in a word for the poor old Philistines. And the Caananites. And the Midianites. And the Amalekites. And the followers of Ba'al, all of whom have some prior historical claim on the land by virtue of being slaughtered or enslaved or driven out over the course of three millennia of gory religious tribal wars – it's all there in the Torah. The sort of self-deception that calls all temperate inquiry "Jew-baiting" is just dogged, ahistorical worship of the politics of bullying.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.