The great betrayal

The issue of Israel has become a terrible fault line on the British left but liberal opinion may soo

Over a kibbutz breakfast of boiled eggs, fresh salad, olives, hummus and bread in the glorious spring sunshine, Valerie Chikly voices her frustration with the usual left-wing hostility towards Israel. "We are always compared to South Africa. It upsets me deeply," she says. The common cry of the outraged western liberal, that Israel is an "apartheid" state because of its treatment of the Palestinians, carries a particular barb for Valerie. She herself left South Africa 32 years ago to make her home in Israel. Armed with her socialist ideals, a hatred of apartheid and the belief that the Jews needed a homeland after the experience of the Holocaust, she set up home on Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu and has lived here ever since.

"Growing up in South Africa, growing up under apart heid . . . one of the reasons I left was I never felt comfortable there. Part of the thinking was that it was OK to believe the white man was a better person than the black man," Valerie says. She tells me she was convinced that Israel's problem was conflict, not racism. "Israel is always fighting for its survival. If we were able to make peace with the Arabs we would live together."

It is difficult to imagine a more idealistic, open-hearted lefty than Valerie Chikly. She still describes herself as a socialist and a committed kibbutznik, although privatisation and the nuclear family have replaced the original dream of communal living. She worked on a joint project teaching puppetry to Palestinian and Israeli children until one of her Arab students was shot during the second intifada. But the conflict has taken its toll, especially on the next generation. Valerie says her eldest son's time serving in the Israeli army has marked him. "I think his mistrust of Arabs is greater than mine. He has the experience of searching people and finding bomb belts on their bodies."

In Israel, the conventions of the generation gap are reversed, with young people often more hardline than their parents. Military service (three years for men, two for women) means that the younger generation has had experience of far more violent times. The Israeli consciousness is ingrained with death and violence. I will never forget the roll-call of more than 200 dead alumni from Herzliya High School, flashed up one by one on a cinema screen to the whole school during national remembrance day. I was a special guest on the occasion and was also shown a shrine to the dead, with photographs of each fallen soldier or victim of terrorism, which serves as a year-round reminder of the duty of each Israeli citizen to fight for the state's survival. I found the ceremony deeply disturbing - it also involved watching film clips of Israel's military legacy and performances by schoolchildren on the theme of war.

Yet still this does not answer the question: Why do liberals hate Israel so much? That was the question I found myself asking throughout my visit to the country this month.

As the great Israeli journalist Amos Elon wrote eight years ago in the introduction to his essay collection A Blood-Dimmed Tide: "Zionism was a child of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the need to separate church and state. Its aim was to provide persecuted Jews with a safe haven, recognised in international law, a National Home." Elon left Israel in disillusionment in 2004.

On the face of it, the answer to my question is simple. The British left hates Israel because it has abandoned its Enlightenment principles and set about the systematic oppression of a people whose land it occupies. The invasion of southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006 was a new low point that caused international outrage. For most people on the left in Britain, support for Israel is out of the question. Solidarity for the Palestinians is synonymous with the anti-American, anti-imperialist stance of the movement that opposed the war in Iraq. Thousands of people who marched in London against British intervention carried Freedom for Palestine placards, even though these were provided by the Muslim Association of Britain, an organisation of the Islamic religious right that supports the terrorist group Hamas.

Mike Marqusee, an organiser of the Stop the War Coalition, wrote in If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew: "The blame for the misidentification of Jews as a whole with Israel lies principally with the Jewish Establishment, with the Zionists, with the Israeli spokespersons who justify every lawless, brutal act as a necessary part of the battle for Jewish survival. And with all those who've installed the cult of Israel at the centre of Judaism and Jewishness."

Victors and colonisers

The Israel issue has become a terrible fault line on the British left and betrayal is felt on both sides. Israelis I spoke to dated the breach to the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Jews of Israel turned from passive victims to military victors and colonisers. There is something in the argument that the left loves a victim and the modern Israeli does not fit the mould.

But there is more to it than that. The internet has flushed out a whole subculture of left-wing hostility to Israel that should make even Marqusee uncomfortable. This has a regular and willing outlet on the Guardian's Comment is Free website and the New Statesman also suffers from it whenever we publish articles on Israel. Postings on our blog casually link Zionism to fascism or South African apartheid. The language is so unpleasant that it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that many of the comments are driven by anti-Semitism.

I was travelling in Israel with a group of four other journalists as a guest of BICOM, a British organisation set up to improve Israel's image in the media. Not an easy task. The trip coincided with the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the state, a time for reflection and reassessment. It also coincided with the latest round of peace talks between Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. While we were there, hopes of peace faded even further. Olmert found himself embroiled in a political funding scandal that weakened his hand and a deal by the end of the Bush administration looks unlikely.

In four days we were given a crash course in the modern Zionist narrative of Israel. At Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust museum, our guide told us in no uncertain terms that a Jewish state was necessary because we in western Europe could not be trusted. We were introduced to government officials, politicians and senior military officers on the front line in Gaza and the West Bank who demonstrated the reality of the threat to Israel as they saw it. We visited Ramallah to meet a senior representative of the Palestinian Authority, but for the most part it was the Israeli case being made.

Propaganda aside, there is an Israeli case. And it is one the west, including the British left, ignores at its peril. At the police station in Sderot, a southern town of roughly 20,000 inhabitants less than a mile from the border with Gaza, Barak Peled stood next to a collection of several hundred rockets fired by Palestinian militants over the past few months. The attacks began in 2001, but intensified after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza three years ago. Most of the missiles were the home-made Qassams fired by Hamas, but each faction has its own makeshift devices. "Once it was stones and Molotov cocktails," said Barak. "Now look at it. They have brought the war to us." Even now the technology is moving on. Among the gruesome artefacts, Barak found the smashed fuselage of a Grad missile, Russian-designed but supplied by Iran.

Besieged by neighbours

This may be just so much Zionist PR, but the events are real and real people's lives are destroyed by the constant rocket attacks. No children play outside. A rudimentary siren system gives the people of Sderot 15 seconds to run to one of the bomb shelters dotted around the town. Sometimes it doesn't work.

Geut Aragon, a 34-year-old nurse, described how no siren sounded as her house was destroyed by a Qassam rocket in January. She, her four-year-old son and a neighbour's child were trapped in the rubble. The young mother still has shrapnel from the incident in her head. Asked about the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, she told me: "It was not a good idea. We knew it - you don't have to be very smart. We knew as soon as they pulled out we would be under attack."

Now, with the introduction of the Grad rockets, targets further inside Israel have come within missile range of Hamas, including the city of Ashkelon on the coast, which has already suffered a handful of attacks. Israel has always felt besieged by its neighbours, but today Iran poses a different order of threat. At the same time, a strategic alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas is causing concern outside Israel. The Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram has reported that Hamas is already developing a pilotless drone with the Brotherhood for use in Israel. Whether or not this is true, it is a sign of a growing nervousness about the rising military power of the Islamists.

One senior Israeli military source in the West Bank told me: "If we go back into Gaza, we know we will be facing a trained army. This will be a very different type of conflict from what we have seen before."

Iran is now a constant source of fear in the Israeli psyche. Mark Regev, spokesman for Olmert, said that Britain, like the rest of Europe, needs to wake up to the reality of the threat: "The governor of the Bank of Iran needs to understand that because of the nuclear programme, his daughter can't study at Cambridge."

There are all sorts of good reasons for the left to fall out of love with Israel. At the same time, it is quite possible to un derstand how left-wing Israelis feel betrayed by international liberal opinion. Valerie Chikly reads the international media online from her kibbutz, and says she has given up expecting support. "One of the reasons I came here was because of the Holocaust," she says. "I really believe we have to have our own country and we have to defend ourselves. Who else is going to defend us?"

But the threat from Iran - not just the direct threat of a nuclear bomb, but its support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah - gives the relationship a different dimension. For a long time Israel has been accused of crying wolf over surrounding countries that want to "drive it into the sea". Now it has a neighbour whose president has not only made that threat explicit, but who intends to develop the capacity to do it. In such a conflict, which has already begun for the people of southern Israel, on whose side will British left-liberal opinion be?

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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