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?

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The English Revolt

Brexit, Euroscepticism and the future of the United Kingdom.

English voters have led – some would say forced – the United Kingdom towards exit from the European Union. Was this an English revolt, the result of an ­upsurge over decades of a more assertive, perhaps resentful, sense of English identity? At one level, clearly so. Surveys indicate that individuals who most often describe themselves as “English”, and regions where this is common, were more inclined to vote Leave on 23 June. Some of these are poorer regions where marginalised people think that their voices are more likely to be heard in a national democracy than in an international trading bloc, and for whom patriotism is a source of self-respect. But it would only make sense to regard Leave as essentially an English reaction if discontent with the EU were confined to England, or specifically linked with feelings of Englishness.

In fact, negative opinions about the EU, and especially about its economic policy, are now more widespread in other countries than they are in England. Polls by the Pew Research Centre last month showed that disapproval of the EU was as high in Germany and the Netherlands as in Britain, and higher in France, Greece and Spain. Though aggravated by the 2007-2008 crash and enforced policies of austerity, a decline in support was clear earlier. France’s referendum of May 2005 gave a 55 per cent No to the proposed EU constitution after thorough debate, and a now familiar pattern emerged: enthusiastic Europeanism was confined to the wealthiest suburbs and quarters of Paris, and the only professional groups that strongly voted Yes were big business, the liberal professions and academics.

Going far beyond the atavistic and incoherent English revolt that some think they discern, our referendum result is partly a consequence of transnational political phenomena across the democratic world: the disaffection of citizens from conventional politics, shown by falling turnouts for elections, shrinking party membership and the rise of new, sometimes extreme political movements; as well as the simultaneous detachment of a professional political class from civil society, and its consequent retreat into a closed world of institutions.

The EU embodies these phenomena in uniquely acute form. In several cases its central bodies have opposed – or, if one prefers, have been forced to deny – democratically expressed wishes. In Greece and Italy, the EU has enforced changes of government and policy, and in Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands it has pressed countries to ignore or reverse popular referendums. Its own representative body, the European Parliament, has gained neither power nor legitimacy. Crucial decisions are taken in secret, making the EU a hiding place for beleaguered politicians as well as a source of lavish financial reward for insiders. In the words of the historian John Gillingham, Europe is now being governed by neither its peoples nor its ideals, but by a bank board. This is not the “superstate” of Eurosceptic mythology. Though it drains power and legitimacy away from national governments, it is incapable of exercising power effectively itself, whether to cope with short-term emergencies such as an inflow of refugees, or to solve chronic failings such as the creation of mass unemployment in southern Europe. The result is paralysis, the inability either to extricate itself from failing institutions or to make them work.

If popular discontent with the EU continues to increase (and it is hard to see how it could not) sooner or later there will be some unmanageable political or social crisis. The response of too many supporters of the EU is to screw the lid down tighter, including now by promising to make life difficult for the United Kingdom, pour décourager les autres. This is the organisation – unpopular, unaccountable, secretive, often corrupt, and economically failing – from which our decision to depart apparently causes people to weep in the streets.

***

Why this decision? Why in Britain? The simplest and perhaps the best answer is that we have had a referendum. If France, Greece, Italy and some other countries had been given the same choice, they might well have made the same decision. But of course they have not been and will not be given such a choice, barring severe political crisis. This is most obviously because countries that have adopted the euro – even those such as Greece, for which the IMF has predicted high unemployment at least until the 2040s – have no clear way out.

I make this obvious point to emphasise that the immediate explanation of what has happened lies not only and not mainly in different feelings about the EU in Britain, but in different political opportunities and levels of fear. The contrasting votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland have particular explanations. Scottish nationalists – like their counterparts in Catalonia – see the EU as an indispensable support for independence. Northern Ireland sees the matter primarily as one affecting its own, still tense domestic politics and its relations with the Republic. In a European perspective, Scotland and Northern Ireland are the outliers, not England and Wales. Indeed, Scotland’s vote makes it stand out as one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe. If ever there is another referendum to see whether Scots prefer the EU to the UK, it will show whether this level of support for the EU is solid.

If England is exceptional, it is not in its disaffection from the EU, nor in the political divisions the referendum vote has exposed (if France, for instance, had such a vote, one could expect blood in the streets). Rather, its exceptional characteristic is its long-standing and settled scepticism about the European project in principle, greater than in any other EU country. Every ­member has a specific history that shapes its attitude to the theoretical idea of European integration. As John Gillingham, one of the most perceptive historians of the EU, describes its beginnings: “to the French [supranationalism was] a flag of convenience, to the Italians it was preferable (by definition) to government by Rome, to the Germans a welcome escape route, and to the Benelux nations a better choice than being dominated by powerful neighbours”.

Subsequently, for the eastern European states, it was a decisive step away from communist dictatorship, and for southern Europe a line drawn under a traumatic history of civil conflict. There is also a widespread belief, powerful though fanciful, that the EU prevents war between the European states. All these are important reasons why there remains considerable support for unification as an aspiration. But all these reasons are weaker, and some of them non-existent, in Britain, and especially in England. The simple reason for this is that Britain’s experience of the 20th century was far less traumatic. Moreover, during that time loyalty to the nation was not tarnished with fascism, but was rather the buttress of freedom and democracy. Conversely, the vision of a European “superstate” is seen less as a guarantee of peace and freedom, and rather as the latest in a five-century succession of would-be continental hegemons.

Given all this, an obvious question is why the United Kingdom ever joined in the European project in the first place. The answer helps to explain the country’s subsequent lack of enthusiasm. Its first response to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 was not to join, but to agree to establish a separate European Free Trade Association (Efta) in 1959 with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland; over the next three decades the seven founder members were joined by Finland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. This worked efficiently, cheaply and amicably, and, in time, Efta and the EEC would doubtless have created trading arrangements and systems of co-operation. But then the historic mistake was made. Efta was considered too small to provide the diplomatic clout craved by Whitehall at a time of severe post-imperial jitters. A cabinet committee warned in 1960 that “if we try to remain aloof from [the EEC] – bearing in mind that this will be happening simultaneously with the contraction of our overseas possessions – we shall run the risk of losing political influence and of ceasing to be able to exercise any real claim to be a world Power”.

Besides, Washington disliked Efta as a barrier to its aim of a federal Europe, and the Americans put heavy pressure on London to apply to accede to the Treaty of Rome, which it duly did in August 1961. “It is only full membership, with the possibility of controlling and dominating Europe,” wrote an optimistic British cabinet official, “that is really attractive.”

As the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson (one of the early backers of European integration) put it, in a now celebrated comment in December 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire, and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role . . . apart from Europe . . . based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States [or] on being the head of a ‘Commonwealth’ . . . – this role is about played out.”

Acheson’s words long haunted British policymakers; perhaps they still do. And yet Britain remains one of the half-dozen strongest and most assertive states anywhere in the world, just as it has been for the past three centuries.

To fear of diplomatic marginalisation was added fear of economic decline. A government report in 1953 warned of “relegation of the UK to the second division”. Over the next 30 years there was a chorus of dismay about “the sick man of Europe”. Belief that EEC membership at any price was the only cure for Britain’s perceived economic ills became the orthodoxy in official circles: Britain was “the sinking Titanic”, and “Europe” the lifeboat.

So, on 1 January 1973 Britain formally entered the EEC with Denmark and Ireland. Other Efta members remained outside the Community – Switzerland and Norway for good. Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the EEC in effect turned on Europe’s superior economic performance – which, though no one realised it at the time, had just ended.

This memory of apparent British economic weakness half a century ago still seems to weigh with older Remainers. Yet it was based on a fundamental misconception: that European growth rates were permanently higher than in a supposedly outdated and declining Britain. In reality, faster growth on the mainland in the 1950s and 1960s was due to one-off structural modernisation: the large agricultural workforce shifted into more productive industrial employment. From the mid-1940s to the early 1970s this gave several European countries “windfall growth” at a higher rate than was possible in Britain, which since the 19th century had had no large agricultural sector to convert. By the early 1970s, once that catching up was finished, European growth rates became the same as, or slightly lower than, Britain’s. When measured over the whole half-century from 1950 to 2000, Britain’s economic performance was no different from the ­European norm. By the mid-1980s, growth was faster than in France and Germany, and today Britain’s economic fundamentals remain strong.

Slower European growth lessened the perceived attractiveness of EU integration. In 1992, on Black Wednesday (16 September), hesitant participation in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism led to forced devaluations in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Spain and, finally, Britain. This was a huge political shock, though an economic boost.

Black Wednesday subsequently made it politically difficult for Britain to join the eurozone – allowing us a narrow escape, attributable more to circumstance than to policy, as vocal political and economic lobbies urged joining.

Moreover, Britain’s trade with the rest of the EU was declining as a proportion of its global activity: as Gordon Brown observed in 2005, 80 per cent of the UK’s potential trade lay outside the EU. The EU’s single market proved not very effective at increasing trade between its members even before the crash of 2007-2008, and prolonged austerity thereafter made it stagnant. Consequently, in the 2016 referendum campaign, more emphasis was placed on the dangers of leaving the single market than on the precise benefits of being in it.

But the days when Britain seemed the Titanic and Europe the lifeboat were long gone. On the contrary, Britain, with its fluid and largely unregulated labour market, had become the employer of last resort for the depressed countries of the eurozone. The sustained importation of workers since the 1990s had become, for a large part of Britain’s working class, the thing that most obviously outweighed whatever legal or economic advantages the EU might theoretically offer.

***

What galvanised the vote for Brexit, I think, was a core attachment to national democracy: the only sort of democracy that exists in Europe. That is what “getting our country back” essentially means. Granted, the slogan covers a multitude of concerns and wishes, some of them irreconcilable; but that is what pluralist democracy involves. Britain has long been the country most ­resistant to ceding greater powers to the EU: opinion polls in the lead-up to the referendum showed that only 6 per cent of people in the UK (compared to 34 per cent in France, for instance, and 26 per cent in Germany) favoured increased centralisation – a measure of the feebleness of Euro-federalism in Britain.

In contrast, two-thirds wanted powers returned from the EU to the British government, with a majority even among the relatively Europhile young. This suggests a much greater opposition to EU centralisation than shown by the 52 per cent vote for Brexit. The difference may be accounted for by the huge pressure put on the electorate during the campaign. Indeed, arithmetic suggests that half even of Remain voters oppose greater powers being given to the EU. Yet its supporters regard an increase of EU control over economic and financial decisions – the basics of politics – as indispensable if the EU is to survive, because of the strains inherent in the eurozone system. This stark contradiction between the decentralisation that many of the peoples of Europe – and above all the British – want to see and the greater centralisation that the EU as an institution needs is wilfully ignored by Remain supporters. Those who deplore the British electorate’s excessive attachment to self-government as some sort of impertinence should be clear (not least with themselves) about whether they believe that the age of democracy in Europe is over, and that great decisions should be left to professional politicians, bureaucracies and large corporations.

Some have dismissed the Leave vote as an incoherent and anarchic protest against “the establishment”, or as a xenophobic reaction against immigrants. Some of the media in Britain and abroad have been doing their best to propagate this view. Yet xenophobia has not been a significant feature of British politics since the 1960s, and certainly far less so than in many obedient EU member states, including France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands. As for the anti-establishment “revolt”, this emerged when parts of the establishment began to put organised pressure on the electorate to vote Remain. Would-be opinion-formers have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent weeks. They have been out of touch and out of sympathy with opinion in the country, unwilling or unable to engage in reasoned debate, and resorting to collective proclamations of institutional authority which proved embarrassingly ineffective.

Worst of all, their main argument – whether they were artists, actors, film-makers, university vice-chancellors or prestigious learned societies – was one of unabashed self interest: the EU is our milch-cow, and hence you must feed it. This was a lamentable trahison des clercs. The reaction to the referendum result by some Remain partisans has been a monumental fit of pique that includes talking up economic crisis (which, as Keynes showed, is often self-fulfilling) and smearing 17 million Leave voters as xenophobes. This is both irresponsible and futile, and paves the way to political marginalisation.

The Queen’s call for “deeper, cooler consideration” is much needed. I recall Victor Hugo’s crushing invective against French elitists who rejected the verdict of democracy, when in 1850 he scorned “your ignorance of the country today, the antipathy that you feel for it and that it feels for you”.

This antipathy has reduced English politics to a temporary shambles. It is too early to say whether there will be some realignment of the fragments: One-Nation Toryism, Conservative neoliberalism, “new” and “old” Labour, the hibernating Liberal Democrats and Greens, the various nationalists and, of course, the unpredictable Ukip. When in the past there were similar crises – such as Labour’s rift over the national government in 1931, the Liberals’ split over Irish home rule in 1886, or the Tory fragmentation over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 – the political balance was permanently changed.

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Many Europeans fear that a breakdown of the EU could slide into a return to the horrors of the mid-20th century. Most people in Britain do not. The fundamental feature of the referendum campaign was that the majority was not frightened out of voting for Leave, either by political or by economic warnings. This is testimony to a significant change since the last referendum in 1975: most people no longer see Britain as a declining country dependent on the EU.

A Eurobarometer poll in 2013 showed that Britain was the only EU member state in which most citizens felt that they could face the future better outside the Union. Last month’s referendum reflected this view, which was not reversed by reiterated predictions of doom.

In retrospect, joining the Common Market in 1973 has proved an immense historic error. It is surely evident that we would not have been applying to join the EU in 2016 had we, like Norway or Switzerland, remained outside it. Yet the political and possibly economic costs of leaving it now are considerable. Even though discontent with the EU across much of Europe has recently overtaken sentiment in Britain, Britain is unique, in that, ever since the 1970s, its public has been consistently far less ­favourable to the idea of European integration than the electorate in any other country. Hence the various “opt-outs” and the critically important decision to remain outside the euro.

Now, by a great historic irony, we are heading towards the sort of associate status with the EU that we had in the late 1960s as the leading member of Efta, and which we could have kept. Instead, this country was led by its political elite, for reasons of prestige and because of exaggerated fears of national decline and marginalisation, into a vain attempt to be “at the heart of Europe”. It has been a dangerous illusion, born of the postwar declinist obsession, that Britain must “punch above its weight” both by following in the footsteps of the United States and by attaching itself to the EU.

For some, money, blood and control over our own policy were sacrifices worth making for a “seat at the top table”. This dual strategy has collapsed. In future we shall have to decide what is the appropriate and desirable role for Britain to play in the world, and we shall have to decide it for ourselves.

Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at Cambridge University. His most recent book is “The English and Their History” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt