Land, language and Lieberman

On Israel’s identity crisis.

My cover story from last week's issue -- No loyalty, no citizenship -- is now available online. It looks at politics, religion and identity in Israel using as a peg a proposed amendment to the country's Citizenship Act which would see newcomers required to swear allegiance to "a Jewish and democratic state".

The man behind the proposal is Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party (translation = "Israel is our home"). The amendment has been described variously as "a declaration of purpose", "stupid and needless" and "racist". Opponents fear it will entrench the inequalities already felt by the Arab minority in Israel. Proponents say it merely echoes Israel's declaration of independence in 1948.

Here's a taste of some of the voices featured in the piece:

It's a stupid thing to ask Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state before the Palestinians have their own state or at least know where the borders are going to be." -- Sufian Abu Zaida, a former Palestinian minister and senior Fatah official

"Politically, I'm very much on the left, and it's a strange thing to be saying, but I appreciate that Netanyahu has an understanding that the Arab world in some way . . . hasn't internalised the concept of Jewish statehood. It may have done it from a political point of view, but it hasn't done in terms of legitimacy." -- Jeremy Leigh, lecturer in Israeli studies at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem

"Define Jews as a nation and you have a tautology, whereby Israel is the national expression of a nation - explaining and defining nothing." -- Naomi Chazan, a former deputy speaker of the Knesset and now president of the New Israel Fund, a US-based advocacy group

"Maintaining a democratic country with a minority which identifies with a nation that is at war with that country is bound to have problems." -- young, media professional in Tel Aviv.

"Israel did everything it could to make us forget our history: controlling education and the media, putting us in a ghetto, preventing us from having normal relations with the Arab world." -- Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset


After land, language is perhaps the most fought-over and contentious issue in the Middle East. So the use of the terms such as "ultra orthodox", "Zionist" and "Arab Israeli" come with baggage. In the Correspondence page of this week's issue the piece has been criticised for legitimising Palestinians and sanitising Israel. You can make your own mind up by reading it here.


About the picture

The photo on the top of this post is taken from a series by photojournalist Silvia Boarini, which is currently on display at Amnesty International's Human Right's Action Centre in east London. The images document life in al-Araqiba, an "unrecognised" Bedouin village near Negev where the population lives in fear of home demolition. The first mass demolition occurred in July 2010 when 30 homes were destroyed.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.