Defending the indefensible

Israeli liberals are increasingly gloomy so British 'progressives' are being mobilised to fight the

Israeli bulldozers demolish a hotel in East Jerusalem in January
Source: Getty Images

Away from the comatose 'peace process' and focus on Iran, a wave of anti-democratic and nationalistic legislation in Israel's Knesset shows no sign of slowing down.

For Israel's liberals, these are worrying times. The publisher and owner of Ha'aretz newspaper this week issued a warning about apartheid and democracy, while his colleagues have launched a special project on Israel's "eroding freedoms" called "Black Flag Over Israel's Democracy".

The rhetoric of anger and fear about these "threats to democracy" reflects a definite shift in Israel. It is crucial to note that Israel has never been 'democratic' for Palestinians, who are excluded from their homeland entirely, live under military rule in the West Bank and Gaza or are second-class citizens in the pre-1967 borders.

What is happening now is that the democratic rights enjoyed by Jewish Israelis are being threatened. Yet as Israeli politics and policies lurch ever further to the right, and the country's liberals feel increasingly gloomy and under attack, in the UK it is self-identified 'progressives' who are increasingly being mobilised to fight Israel's corner.

The Reut Institute is an influential Israeli think tank that has done considerable work focused on countering the growing Palestine solidarity movement (what it calls the 'delegitimization' of Israel). Their proposals have been influential; for example, Reut is front and centre of this weekend's Israel lobby conference in Manchester.

A key emphasis of their recommendations for Israel lobbyists is to focus "on engaging the hearts and minds of liberal progressive elites", a strategy elaborated on in a substantial London-specific report. In the context of the UK, Reut suggest that "liberal and progressive left" voices are the ones "most effective" in shielding Israel from human rights campaigners, and the think tank urges Israel's defenders to "substantively engage liberal and progressive circles".

It is no surprise then that Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) has 'reinvented' itself in order to "develop the 'progressive case' for Israel", while the chief executive of Israel lobby group BICOM - herself a former member of LFI - has committed the organisation to "driving the campaign for the Left to support [Israel] as a Jewish state".

These tactics were transparently on display at a recent 'Question Time'-style debate I participated in at the University of Birmingham, where the two guest speakers on the 'Israel side' - Alan Johnson of BICOM and David Hirsh - both took pains to repeatedly emphasise that they were coming from 'the Left'.

On campuses in general, this push is also reflected in the efforts by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) to rebrand their Israel lobbying in terms of 'liberation' and 'progressive' values, since - in their own words - "hasbara is not working". UJS's language echoes that of Reut, and the Campaign Director explicitly referenced the think tank when explaining the strategic shift. In summer 2010, Reut hosted a 20-strong delegation from UJS to discuss Israel lobbying on campus.

On the ground in Palestine/Israel, the daily apartheid continues. Just days ago, Israeli soldiers demolished a number of Palestinian homes and structures in the West Bank, a routine, brutal occurrence. Also this week, Minority Rights Group International published a report that describes how, on both sides of the Green Line, Bedouin have been "subject to a series of human rights violations, including forced displacement". Another snapshot: it was reported this week that on a visit to the UK, the head of the World Zionist Organisation - a body with an official relationship with the Israeli state - urged more Jewish immigration to counter 'Arab growth'.

Rather than resist or challenge this, Israel's so-called liberal friends in the UK are increasingly at the forefront of efforts to defend the indefensible, mobilised to help perpetuate a status quo that not only excludes and discriminates against Palestinians, but is now shrinking the space for dissent for Jewish Israelis too.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

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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.