A picture taken from the Israeli border shows the sun setting over the Gaza strip. Photo: Getty
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A reply to Jason Cowley on Gaza

Alan Johnson responds to the NS editor’s article about Israel, Gaza and the left.

I write in reply to Jason Cowley’s blog in which he referenced my Daily Telegraph blog about Jon Snow.

My blog claimed that Jon Snow has three illusions about Hamas: he thinks Hamas are a negotiating partner-in-waiting being ignored by Israel, but they aren’t; that Hamas grew as a popular reaction to the blockade, but it didn’t; and that the ordinary people Snow talks to in Gaza can speak freely about Hamas, but they can’t.

I also suggested that these delusions were rooted in some tendencies found on much of the liberal left – what US social democrat Paul Berman called its “rationalist naivete” and what Natan Sharanky identified during the cold war as its tendency to blur the line between democracies and totalitarian / authoritarian states and movements.

How did Cowley critique my argument? Not, I suggest, by meeting its full force and rebutting it, that’s for sure.

First, he “spun” the debate to make his opponent sound like an idiot and the argument very easy for himself. “It shouldn’t be a question of either you support Israel, no matter what it does, or you are on the side of the Islamists,” wrote Cowley. “Ah,” the reader is supposed to say, “this Johnson thinks everything Israel does should be supported and he is having a go at Snow because he is willing to criticise Israel – boo!”

The trouble with Cowley’s argument is that my blog was about Snow’s illusions in Hamas, not his criticisms of Israel. More: every issue of Fathom, the online journal I edit, carries criticisms of Israel. Fathom readers are introduced to sharply critical perspectives on the occupation and the settlements from Ahron Bregman, Raanan Alexandrowicz, Sayed Kashua, Dror Moreh the director of The Gatekeepers, the Palestinian activist Hitham Kayali and others. Fathom showcases the full spectrum of political views about Israel, including those of the peace camp. Cowley ignores that and pretends I am a crude Israel Firster.

Second, Cowley reminds me that “We should care about all of the innocents [killed in the various Middle East wars]” implying my blog did not. Actually, on this point my blog praised Snow: “His broadcasts reflect the anguish of millions who identify with his passion about the ‘innocent children too broken by battle to survive’.”

Third, Cowley responded to my claim that it was not the Israeli-Egyptian blockade that caused the Hamas rockets (“The one begets the other” Snow had tweeted) but the other way round, not by challenging the accuracy of the claim itself, but by some sneering: “Well, useful to get that learnt, as Philip Larkin wrote.”

Larkin’s line is about a man who reduces a complex personal experience – the poem is about a failed romantic relationship of seven years and 400 letters – to a trite “lesson”. I guess the implication is that I reduced a complex historical experience to a talking point. But I did not. I was challenging a tendency on the left to reverse cause and effect so that our understanding of the conflict in Gaza, and what is needed to end it, is utterly distorted. Elsewhere I have set out the sequence of events after the 2005 disengagement more fully. Unfair, on the basis of one paragraph in one blog, to dismiss me as Larkinian Man.

Fourth, Cowley criticises me for not writing a different blog about a different subject. I wrote a blog about Jon Snow’s political illusions in Hamas but Jason criticises me for not writing about something else, the humanitarian plight of the Gazans. Again, it is feels like I am being framed rather than engaged in debate. “Never once does Johnson mention the conditions inside Gaza... Nor does Johnson condemn the shelling of schools, hospitals and a home for the disabled in Gaza. Why not?” Well, because it was a blog about Jon Snow’s “disabling illusions about Hamas” not about the terrible plight of the Gazan people. As far as the blog touched on that plight, as I say, I was full of praise for Snow.

Would it be fair of me follow suit by pointing out, with much finger wagging, that Cowley’s own article does not mention the terror tunnels? Would it be fair to ask the rhetorical question, “Cowley does not condemn the murder of Israelis or the traumatisation of Israeli childhood. Why not?” No, it would not be fair.

Fifth, Cowley says I do not mention the occupation as I have “no wish to discuss the facts on the ground”. Well, I edit a journal devoted to the facts on the ground. I have written policy papers, addressed overseas think tanks, and toured campuses making the case for “two states for two peoples”.

One last point. About some troubling habits of mind on parts of the left, I found Cowley’s response to be intellectually complacent. Move along, move along, nothing to see here. But there is a lot to see. Today, there are forms of anti-Zionism that demonise Israel and fuel hate, from the academic theory of Judith Butler and Gianni Vattimo to the historiography of Shlomo Sand, from the popular street phenomenon of the “quenelle” to the ugly rise of “Holocaust inversion”.

Oppression is no guarantee of political goodness or even of political decency. It can breed its own pathologies, and it can be, it often is, exploited by people who have no leftist commitments at all. The militants who act in the name of the oppressed are sometimes the agents of a new oppression – ideological or religious zealots with totalising programs and a deep contempt for liberal values. And then they should be met with hostility by leftists the world over: because they don’t serve the interests of the people they claim to represent and because they don’t advance the cause of democracy or equality. But often, instead, our illusions are regnant.

That’s what my blog about Jon Snow and Hamas was about.

Alan Johnson is a senior research fellow at BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre, and the editor of “Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region and senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).

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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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