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Israel’s best hope lies in a single state

In East Jerusalem, vigilantes prowl, hunting for Jewish girls who consort with Arab men. Slavoj Žiže

In Israel, there is a growing number of initiatives - from official bodies and rabbis to private organisations and groups of local residents - to prevent interracial dating and marriage. In East Jerusalem, vigilante-style patrols work to stop Arab men from mixing with local Jewish girls. Two years ago, the city of Petah Tikva created a hotline that parents and friends can use to inform on Jewish women who mix with Arab men; the women are then treated as pathological cases and sent to a psychologist.

In 2008, the southern city of Kiryat Gat launched a programme in its schools to warn Jewish girls about the dangers of dating local Bedouin men. The girls were shown a video called Sleeping With the Enemy, which describes mixed couples as an "unnatural phenomenon". Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu once told a local newspaper that the "seducing" of Jewish girls is “another form of war" and a religious organisation called Yad L'Achim conducts military-style rescues of women from "hostile" Arab villages, in co-ordination with the police and army. In 2009, a government-backed television advertising campaign, later withdrawn, urged Israeli Jews to report relatives abroad who were in danger of marrying non-Jews.

It is no wonder that, according to a poll from 2007, more than half of all Israeli Jews believe that intermarriage should be equated with "national treason". Adding a note of ridicule late last year, Rabbi Ari Shvat, an expert on Jewish law, allowed for an exception: Jewish women are permitted to sleep with Arabs if it is in order to gather information about anti-Israel activity - but it is more appropriate to use unmarried women for this purpose.

The first thing that strikes one here is the gender asymmetry. The guardians of Jewish purity are bothered that Jewish girls are being seduced by Palestinian men. The head of Kiryat Gat's welfare unit said: "The girls, in their innocence, go with the exploitative Arab." What makes these campaigns so depressing is that they are flourishing at a time of relative calm, at least in the West Bank. Any party interested in peace should welcome the socialising of Palestinian and Jewish youth, as it would ease tensions and contribute to a shared daily life.

Until recently, Israel was often hit by terror attacks and liberal, peace-loving Jews repeated the mantra that, while they recognised the injustice of the occupation of the West Bank, the other side had to stop the bombings before proper negotiations could begin. Now that the attacks have fallen greatly in number, the main form that terror takes is continuous, low-level pressure on the West Bank (water poisonings, crop burnings and arson attacks on mosques). Shall we conclude that, though violence doesn't work, renouncing it works even less well?

If there is a lesson to be learned from the protracted negotiations, it is that the greatest obstacle to peace is what is offered as the realistic solution - the creation of two separate states. Although neither side wants it (Israel would probably prefer the areas of the West Bank that it is ready to cede to become a part of Jordan, while the Palestinians consider the land that has fallen to Israel since 1967 to be theirs), the establishment of two states is somehow accepted as the only feasible solution, a position backed up by the embarrassing leak of Palestinian negotiation documents in January.

What both sides exclude as an impossible dream is the simplest and most obvious solution: a binational secular state, comprising all of Israel plus the occupied territories and Gaza. Many will dismiss this as a utopian dream, disqualified by the history of hatred and violence. But far from being a utopia, the binational state is already a reality: Israel and the West Bank are one state. The entire territory is under the de facto control of one sovereign power - Israel - and divided by internal borders. So let's abolish the apartheid that exists and transform this land into a secular, democratic state.

Losing faith

None of this implies sympathy for terrorist acts. Rather, it provides the only ground from which one can condemn terrorism without hypocrisy. I am more than aware of the immense suffering to which Jews have been exposed for thousands of years. What is saddening is that many Israelis seem to be doing all they can to transform the unique Jewish nation into just another nation.

A century ago, the writer G K Chesterton identified the fundamental paradox facing critics of religion: "Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church . . . The secularists have not wrecked divine things but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them." Does the same not hold for the advocates of religion? How many defenders of religion started by attacking contemporary secular culture and ended up forsaking any meaningful religious experience?

Similarly, many liberal warriors are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they will throw away freedom and democracy if only they may fight terror. Some love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalise torture - the ultimate degradation of human dignity - to defend it. As for the Israeli defenders of Jewish purity: they want to protect it so much that they are ready to forsake the very core of Jewish identity.

Slavoj Žižek is a philosopher and critic. His latest book, "Living in the End Times", is published by Verso (£20)

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle

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The Returning Officer: Rusholme II

In 1933, Frank Boyd Merriman, the Tory MP for Rusholme, was appointed a high court judge. At the by-election the local surgeon Percy McDougall stood as an independent but the Liberals, who did not stand, refused to endorse him: “The only fault we had to find last night was that Dr McDougall could speak of nothing else other than land values.”

McDougall was the treasurer of the local Land Values League. In 1908, he had opposed the move made at the convocation for Manchester University to seek parliamentary representation along with Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield. In 1935, McDougall stood again and lost his deposit. Prosecuted for speeding in Newark later that year, he asked the bench to be lenient as: “It is not long since I have had to sacrifice £150 as a defeated candidate.” 

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide

Ralph Steadman
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Discipline over dazzle: Helen Lewis interviews Yvette Cooper

Yvette Cooper is offering Labour a platform of cautious pragmatism – but will that be enough to take the crown?

In November 1997, not long after Labour’s landslide election victory, the newly elected Yvette Cooper wrote a column in the Independent, where she had previously worked as a writer on economics. “Seven months ago, I was still a journalist, delighting in the healthy scepticism and intelligent individualism that makes broadsheet newspapers so essential to a thriving democracy,” the new MP observed. “In contrast, I fear now that former journalist colleagues will find me earnest, idealistic and breathless. So be it. We have a unique opportunity.”

Fast-forward to 2015, and although few would accuse the 46-year-old of breathlessness, the charge of earnestness has not gone away. When the Labour leadership race began, the conventional wisdom was that Andy Burnham would run a good campaign but ultimately Cooper would triumph by picking up all the other candidates’ second preferences. Her campaign would not be flashy but it would be reassuring. By not making too many pledges, she would win with a clean slate, rather than being hidebound by promises made to assuage one special interest group or another.

The entry of Jeremy Corbyn into the race, and the subsequent surge of support for a conventionally socialist policy platform, upset that calculus. So, I ask Cooper on a visit to her spartan offices overlooking Big Ben, has her campaign been too nebulous? What does she think Lab­our is for? “The simple answer is the Labour Party has to be for a fairer country,” she says in a soft northern accent. “It has to be for greater equality.”

For her, that means weaving together the two strands of Labour identity that have shaped her politics. The first is the “liberation and emancipation tradition”, which takes in feminism and LGBT rights. One of the first political campaigns she was involved in was against Section 28, the legislation banning the “promotion” of homosexuality. “That is probably one of my only . . . well, my few law-breaking moments, when we graffitied these buildings – hoardings – with triangles before a big march.” I look mildly surprised at such youthful recklessness. Where was that? “At Oxford.”

The second strand of her politics is the “tradition of solidarity from the coalfield communities”, with its emphasis on hard work and looking after your neighbours: “Christian socialism but without the God attached”, she calls it. This might seem familiar: in the early days of his leadership, Ed Miliband also used to talk about communities, under the rubric of Blue Labour, an intellectual project championed by the academic Jonathan Rutherford, the independent-minded peer Maurice Glasman and the Dagenham and Barking MP, Jon Cruddas. It was aimed at finding a way for Labour to appeal to socially conservative, working-class voters – essentially, Daily Mail readers who found the party a bit too Guardian.

But Cooper thinks the project was flawed. “I’ve always found the Blue Labour approach to family and community actually just too traditional, too anti-women,” she says. “There’s something in that whole tradition . . . that always assumes all communities are good. You just have strong communities and that’s a good thing. Actually no, some communities are really oppressive and, you know, divisive. Or that all families are a good thing. Well, actually, there’s abuse and there’s violence within the family, and you should be strong about justice as well as about families.”

Cooper is arguably the most experienced of the leadership contenders. Educated at a comprehensive school, Oxford and Harvard, she made her maiden speech in 1997 days after Labour’s first Budget in 18 years, focusing on unemployment in her constituency and the struggle of former mining communities to adapt. “Keynes said: ‘In the long run we are all dead’ – but I say, ‘So what?’ Our children and our grandchildren will still be alive,” she concluded.

In the years that followed she progressed swiftly, serving as minister for housing, chief secretary to the Treasury (during the financial crash in 2008) and secretary of state for work and pensions. Most recently, she has shadowed Theresa May at the Home Office. What reason does she give for May’s longevity in the post, when her predecessors had the life expectancy of a chocolate teapot? “When things go wrong, Labour home secretaries always used to feel we need to go and reassure people that we’re doing something about it, whereas Theresa May just stays way out of the way and blames somebody else.”

In 2001, with the birth of her second child, she became the first minister to take maternity leave, an experience she found relatively stress-free. But when she had her third child in 2004 she found the civil servants in the Communities Department “very unsupportive”. (In 2001 the Daily Mail had nicknamed her “the Minister for Maternity Leave”, noting that “Mrs Cooper [sic] is known as a self-contained character, who gives little away – even to her family”. Fourteen years later, that still sums up the prevailing opinion of her in the party.)

Her political persona has never been that of a firebrand feminist, but during this campaign she has made an explicitly gendered pitch for the top job. First, there is the assertion that “it’s time Labour elected a woman leader”; second, her pledges include buffer zones around abortion clinics and better provision of women’s refuges, where contracts too often go to generic outsourcing companies rather than specialist providers. She names Jane Ellison as her favourite Tory MP, for the work they did together on opposing a crackdown on sex-selective abortion, which Cooper saw as a Trojan horse for attempts to restrict access to termination more generally. “I wish I was here as Labour home secretary having this discussion, because we would have done a Violence Against Women and Girls Bill,” she adds.

Like many women, she says, she has been reluctant to push herself forward. Although she comes from a politically engaged family – her father was general secretary of the Prospect trade union – she “ended up as an MP by accident” after being urged to stand in 1997 by her fellow candidates Ruth Kelly and Lorna Fitzsimons. “Women often need to be asked to apply for things or to stand for things or to be encouraged, whereas men are more likely to think to do something,” she says. “So if you want to encourage more women at the top of an organisation you have to actively ask and encourage.”

Yet not everyone is impressed with her feminist credentials. There have been complaints from Liz Kendall’s camp that Cooper’s pitch as a “working mum” is an implicit rebuke to their candidate’s childlessness (Cooper rejects this, saying the point is being used to divide women unnecessarily). Others in the party complain that she has a record of squashing potential female rivals. When I ask which women in the party she is proud to have mentored or promoted, she says she doesn’t want to “take the credit” for anyone’s career, but names Seema Malhotra, a junior shadow minister in Cooper’s team, as someone who is “doing some great stuff”.

She also believes that a female leader would be well placed to attack David Cameron. “I don’t think he sees or gets women’s lives at all, which is why [the Tories] do things like such massive cuts to tax credits, which will heavily hit women . . . I don’t think David Cameron knows how to handle women in parliament, either, in the chamber, in the Commons. You know, the ‘calm down, dear’ moment was an extreme example of it, but it’s not the only example.”

To prove that she isn’t only interested in feminism when there are partisan points to be scored, she shows me a 1999 parliamentary question she found while clearing out her office. In it, she asks Patricia Hewitt – then economic secretary to the Treasury – about the impact of the Budget on women. That’s depressing, I say. Sixteen years later you’re still having to ask the same questions. “It shows consistency about a problem that’s not yet been solved,” she replies. “But it also shows the contrast . . . Labour governments could deliver.”

That is the heart of the Yvette Cooper pitch, and her rebuttal to Corbynmania. She has been a Labour MP in government and out of it, and she prefers the former.

At leadership hustings, she tells the story of speaking to a constituent on election day who was in arrears on the bedroom tax. In between sorting out the woman’s debt, Cooper urged her to go to the polling booth. “What we were trying to do that day was sort out her bedroom-tax arrears but also abolish the bedroom tax altogether . . . So we persuaded her to go and vote, but what difference did it make? We lost. We let her down; we can’t abolish the bedroom tax.”

Election day brought another blow for Cooper – her husband, Ed Balls, who had hoped to become chancellor of the Exchequer, lost his seat to a Conservative candidate. A polarising politician, Balls had won respect from colleagues for his relentless countrywide campaigning although many marvelled that he did not take more care when his own seat was so marginal. “It was admirable, but mad,” a shadow cabinet colleague of his told me afterwards. “You have to mind your own backyard.”

Cooper says that when the results from Balls’s seat, Morley and Outwood, came through on the morning of 8 May, she was devastated, and struggled with an “immediate emotional feeling . . . of wanting to walk away”. But party loyalty and a sense of purpose won out. “You can’t walk away, because it’s too important.”

The unspoken truth, of course, is that her partner’s exit from parliament made it easier for her to stand for leader. After the Miliband v Miliband psychodrama of 2010, who would want to risk stories about cabinet splits between a husband and wife? There are practical benefits to the new arrangement, too: a few days after the election, Balls was pictured collecting the family’s dry-cleaning, and during the Budget he took their teenage daughter on holiday to Greece. Cooper tells me he has recently baked an impressive Go Ape cake for one of their children’s birthdays, and laughs at my suggestion that he go on The Great British Bake-Off. (For an insight into what Ed Balls might be like as a political spouse, consider this, from a 1996 Independent column by Cooper: “Oh for the days – and the balls – of Denis. Male and retired, Denis Thatcher could play the strong, silent type . . . Denis was never required to slide on to the stage at an English seaside resort to snuggle with Margaret at the end of her speech.” So, no snuggling from Ed. Praise be.)

Both Cooper and Balls have tried to keep their children out of the public eye, and insights into their home life are rare. She has said that work, childcare and demands for a “taxi service” don’t leave a lot of time for hobbies. The last book she read for pleasure was an Agatha Christie mystery – “about how the establishment had to stand firm against a communist conspiracy that was manipulating the General Strike” – and she likes watching Strictly Come Dancing and Doctor Who, though she worries that the latter has become “a bit dark”. (Her favourite Doctor is David Tennant but Peter ­Capaldi is growing on her: “Now I really like him. I just feel like he’s too sad, so I feel worried for him.”)

It’s just as well that Cooper doesn’t have many outside interests, because whoever takes over the party will face a formidable task. If you accept the premise that Scotland is lost to Labour for a generation – and most observers do – then the party needs to win more seats in England and Wales than it did in 1997 just to scrape an overall majority. Unsurprisingly, Cooper sees fighting nationalism as critical to Labour’s rehabilitation: challenging not only the Scottish National Party, but also the English nationalism promoted by Ukip and the Tories.

“The biggest challenge for us is Scotland,” she says. “The heart of that is actually how you stand up against nationalism and how you cope with nationalism. When you’ve got falling living standards for a long period of time, that is always fertile ground for nationalism, and has been all over Europe.”

Her analysis, with its emphasis on UK-wide solidarity, reminds me of the one I heard from Labour’s chief election strategist Douglas Alexander before he was swept away by the SNP wave in May. He reflected that it was hard for a party that stressed solidarity to compete with one that gave priority to identity. “The thing about nationalism is it manages to combine the politics of blame with a false politics of hope,” Cooper says. “Hope for a better, sparkly future that is simply about changing the name of your country.” She does not believe that Labour should back full fiscal autonomy (“that’s just bad for Scotland”), but Scottish Labour does need to have “a distinctive Scottish argument about what they want to do” and be able to oppose “very unsocialist” SNP policies such as cutting college places.

As voting for the leadership approaches, Cooper’s campaign has had mixed fortunes. After a slow start in May she finished almost level with Andy Burnham in nominations from constituency Labour parties, clocking up 109 to his 111 (Jeremy Corbyn secured 152). Early in August she was endorsed by Alan Johnson – who declared she had “the intellect, the experience and the inner steel” needed – and by Jack Straw. Her supporters claim that private polling puts her ahead of Burnham, though critics say this is an attempt to claim the “Stop Corbyn” mantle. A YouGov poll on 11 August put her third.

In response to criticisms that her campaign has been too quiet, a small stream of policy announcements began to dribble out. Cooper wants the minimum wage rise to apply first to care workers; the return of Sure Start centres (which looked after young children); and a freeze on appointing new members of the Lords until the second chamber has been reformed or replaced. She is open-minded about the future of the railways but opposes the return of Clause Four, Labour’s commitment to public ownership of the means of production. She scored a decent hit with a list of “Nine Broken Promises From the First 100 Days of This Conservative Government”, including cuts to tax credits. In line with collective responsibility, however, she abstained rather than voted against the Welfare Reform Bill.

There is talk in the Cooper campaign of a “radical centre” but it remains to be seen if her rather cautious platform can tempt back Corbyn supporters. For instance, when I ask her for her opinion on a universal basic income, an idea fashionable among left-wing economists, she says that “if you have a minimum wage and you have tax credits, then you have effectively a basic income”. But you don’t: UBI is supposed to apply even if you are unemployed.

If you believe the polls, Jeremy Corbyn’s lead now looks unassailable. But there is still a small chance for Cooper, as the vagaries of the leadership vote – in which candidates are eliminated in rounds and their support redistributed to their remaining rivals – mean that second preferences are vital.

Among those who will be voting Corbyn first, it is hard to predict whom they will put second. Many I’ve spoken to do not believe their candidate can win in 2020 – but they don’t believe any of the others can, either. “They might create an effective opposition if they can be shown to believe in something,” is a typical sentiment. I put this to Cooper. No one would deny that her career shows she is clever and hard-working: but discipline can feel cautious, even boring. Is there an unavoidable difference between an effective leader and an interesting leader?

“Yes,” she says simply. “And it’s also the difference between being in journalism and being in politics. The great thing I used to enjoy about being a journalist was the irreverence . . . The downside was that you could feel very strongly about something but not actually be able to deliver it or to change it. Whereas in politics there’s a lot of earnestness. Some of that’s inevitable because you’re trying to change important things and, you know, leadership is serious.”

For Cooper, getting the chance to change policy is worth a life of rictus self-control at the despatch box, in media appearances – and even at the checkout. “You can’t lose your temper . . . if someone pushes in front of you in the queue,” she observes of the downsides to life as a politician. “That’s the responsibility.” And so, the question is: does the party want discipline – or dazzle?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais