In truth Britain can do nothing to alter the course of the conflict in the Middle East. We are no longer a major military and political power with global reach. Labour politicians calling for a ceasefire are performing for audiences at home. The principal political task for Labour is to limit the impact of the conflict here in the UK.
In Britain, unlike much of continental Europe, Jews have been secure and Muslims have had freedom to express their cultures and practise their faith. But this inheritance of liberty, hard fought for by our forebears, is now deeply threatened by a small minority. The labour movement once safeguarded the country from communism, fascism and a mass politics of anti-Semitism. Through a politics of the common good it built its power by bringing together Jews, Catholics and Protestants.
Labour is losing this democratic practice of negotiating a common good between estranged interests. The party under Jeremy Corbyn accelerated this trend, giving a national voice to a combination of anti-Zionism and identity politics. It lacked any conception of the paradoxical nature of politics and the need for compromise and negotiation in building broad coalitions of support. Instead it inhabited a Manichean world of good and evil, victims and perpetrators.
Victimhood was given a moral superiority and so this politics was able to accommodate Jew haters, supporters of Islamist terrorism and the Iranian theocracy. On 7 October those associated with this politics refused to condemn Hamas for its atrocities against Israelis. Instead they obfuscated their support of reactionary, theocratic terror by presenting Israeli settler colonialism as the principal cause of this act of “resistance”.
The politics of anti-Zionism stands in the historical tradition defined by John Hobson’s book Imperialism (1902). Hobson described a small group of Jewish financiers who he claimed determined Britain’s foreign policy and war aims in South Africa during the Boer War. In similar fashion, today’s radical left accuses “Zionists” of being the agents of US imperialism in the Middle East. They ascribe Jews the function of colonial settlers. Like GK Chesterton and Oswald Moseley, the anti-Zionist left avoids accusations of racialised anti-Semitism by disliking Jews “for what they do, not for who they are”.
Anti-Zionism is the last refuge of a far left that has lost its ideological purpose. However, its dwindling cadres have found a new and ready audience in the university graduates who over the last decade have reshaped Labour’s class base in its new metropolitan heartlands. Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1848) criticise proponents of this kind of politics for wanting “a bourgeoisie without a proletariat” – a politics in which this bourgeoisie “naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best”.
This politics interprets the world through the prism of its own Western liberal experience. In the prescient words of Philip Rieff in The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966) it replaces “I believe” with “I feel”. Its politics around race, gender and sexuality are shaped by American cultural imperialism. Class conflict has been replaced with an altruism accompanied by an overriding sense of white privilege. While it follows the uncompromising anti-Zionist ideologies it cannot conceive of a politics born out of an existential struggle between life and death.
Like the anti-Muslim hard right, this alliance of anti-Zionism and the bourgeois left presents an obstacle to resolving ethnic, communal and religious conflict in our increasingly divided society. Intoxicated with its own self-righteousness, unwavering in its maximalist demands, this movement refuses to take responsibility for the difficult politics of de-escalating and containing conflict here at home. In London and metropolitan centres where its culture dominates, Jews go in fear. And by accommodating and amplifying the voices of theocratic extremists, it contributes to the growing tensions in our provincial towns and smaller cities where the great majority of Muslims are vulnerable to far-right attacks and a public backlash.
In the long and terrible future of this conflict, there appear no good outcomes for Israel, only a protracted, defensive war against those forces that want to exterminate it. Under such conditions of existential insecurity, the Palestinians will be fated to further suffering and degradation. The chances of them achieving peaceful prosperity and self-determination are limited.
As Starmer recognised in his speech at Chatham House on 31 October, Labour must stand for a secure Israel and an independent Palestinian state. Here at home Labour needs to match this with the democratic practice of the common good that prioritises social integration. The alternative is to be in hock to the grievances of identity politics.
We are no longer living in a progressive age with its illusion of history as unfolding towards a more just future. This is an age of tragedy in which the options will be between the bad and the worse. Starmer appears to understand this. He has stumbled, reversed and retracted under mounting pressure, but in his speech at Chatham House he held his nerve and opposed an unconditional ceasefire.
In doing so he has gained clarity and status as a national leader. On 31 October he took a decisive step towards political power and a Labour government.