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  1. Politics
1 June 2015

Labour’s relationship with Britain’s Jews is at a low ebb. Can it be rebuilt?

Labour's bond with the Jewish community is at breaking point. What's to be done about it?

By Daniel Elton

Now is not a good time to be in my particular demographic. Actually for ‘Labour-supporting Jewish Zionist trade unionists’, it could be described as a pulsating silent scream of the soul.

Before the general election, we had to contend with the growth of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement through the trade union movement, that threatens the viability of the Jewish community in this country.

Now we have to deal with Labour’s relationship having gone so disastrously wrong with the community, that a bank of three marginal seats with high Jewish populations in allegedly pro-Miliband London, returned comfortable Conservative majorities.

Let’s start with the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement of Israel. BDS is fired by a belief that Israel is unjustifiably oppressing the Palestinians, and applying the BDS treatment to Israel will help change its behaviour.

Its stronghold is in the trade union movement, where it is currently the official policy of Unite, Unison and GMB. It has escalated over the years. I first heard of it being directed to products made in the West Bank, then to shops that stocked products in the West Bank, and then to Israeli academics and cultural institutions that took money from the Israeli government.

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There are Jews who see no conflict between their Jewish identity and supporting BDS. But it is also true that BDS, if left unchecked, may destroy Jewish communal life in this country. The reason is simple: Maths. There are around 300,000 Jews in this country. Meanwhile six out of the 18 million Jews worldwide live in Israel. Our institutions almost by necessity revolve round it. Our kosher products are made there, our Rabbis are trained there, our Hebrew textbooks are printed there.

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Many of us have mothers, fathers, siblings and children there. For many families BDS makes it a moral offense to take a grandchild to see their grandparent. For all of those items and activities to be liable to pickets is intolerable. Many who wish to live a full Jewish communal life – or more crucially help organise one – at some point will decide that it’s not worth the hassle of living in a country where BDS is in full swing. The fact that it is the Left that has incubated it, is even more tortuous for those who share my faith and my political values. Although we are some way off that point of no return, BDS has been continually strengthening in the UK since it was launched, and there is no reason to suppose it will not continue to do so.

Meanwhile, as a Labour adherent, the pain of election night was all too obvious. What was particularly difficult was watching the Tory vote in three “Jewish” seats push near or go past half –Hendon 49 per cent (previous Tory majority: 106), Finchley and Golders Green: 51 per cent, Harrow East: 50 per cent.

Anecdotal evidence – and after the poll fiasco, it’s as good as any – from campaigners tell me that the effect of the Ed Miliband leadership on our Jewish vote has been disastrous. As Luke Akehurst pointed out on LabourList, harsh criticism of Israel over the Gaza war and pushing for Palestinian statehood in the Commons has come to hurt Labour. Those vying for the Labour candidacy for mayor have certainly noticed.

Things look like they aren’t going to get any better. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Natenyahu has announced arguably the most right wing government in Israel’s history. Bibi has appointed as Justice Minister a politician who has risen to power partly by launching broadsides against the country’s Supreme Court – one of the few institutions that is holding back Israel’s slide from democracy, and that stands up for Palestinian land rights. It’s hard to see how this does anything other than get worse.

However there is a possible way out. But, like a lot concerning Labour politics at the moment, it requires a radical rethink. It should start by slaying the greatest sacred cow of them all – the two state solution.

This is allegedly what we in the liberal pro-Israel community are campaigning for. But it’s problematic at the very least. At best, it forces us into a running commentary of ‘who has damaged the two-statesolution more this week’, indirectly by Palestinians using inflammatory language, preparing for war or launching unilateral initiatives, or Israelis directly by continuing to build settlements on the West Bank, making any proposed Palestinian state increasingly unviable. At worst, it actually fuels BDS. Since Israeli governments of all political stripes have expanded the settlements which threaten the two state solution (building settlements is how Israeli administrations earn public consent for peace negotiations), something must be done to change Israel’s mind, and BDS is, well, something.

Even worse, since the settlements are inextricably linked to Israeli society, most parts of Israeli civil society – from trade unions to theatre groups, have some link to them. So BDS justifies a boycott not just of the Israeli government, but Israeli civil society, and therefore, Israelis.

Even if this was acceptable, BDS doesn’t change Israel’s mind. The Israeli Right say ‘ look, same old world, always against us. No point listening to them anyway’. What it does do very effectively is harden the hearts of the Jewish community against the Left in this country. The attitude is that Western countries like Britain and America have wrestled with problems of power and security for years and not done such a great job – exhibit A being the Iraq misadaventure that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Who are they to judge a country facing, in many Jewish minds, an existential threat? If the British and American Left want to boycott anybody, it should be their own countries.

Furthermore, given the growth of settlements, it is hard to see whether two-state solution, can be achieved, without creating a non-viable Palestinian state, or expecting Israel to voluntarily inflict a national trauma of settlement evacuation on itself that it is hard to see a democracy voting for.

It’s also, arguably, deeply patronising. Campaigning for a two-state solution from the UK actually means, from the safety of more than 1,000 miles away, telling Palestinians to give up dreams they have held dear through more than 60 years of pain and Israelis to sacrifice their security for our consciences.

A two-state solution has become shorthand for the best way we can envisage respecting the national and individual rights of Israelis and Palestinians. But it’s imperfect, and really we should leave it to them to work out how to reconcile what may be irreconcilable, and what needs to be sacrificed in the process.

Our stance should be to campaign for ‘ a peace of mutual consent’. This could be seen as a step to the right, as settlements – or at least some connection to them – are no longer beyond the pale of acceptability, Or a step to the left, as a unitary or federative state could be put on the table as well as the two state solution, at least, theoretically. But it is, in fact, a step to the sensible. In practice, it would mean assisting those institutions in both Israel and Palestine that are building majorities for peace on either side, whatever that peace looks like, and building trust between the sides, rather than evangelising for a given proposal.

Campaigning for a ‘Peace of Mutual Consent’ automatically precludes BDS, as BDS creates suspicion between the partners and reduces the trust needed for peace. However, such a campaign would also be liberated to work with those parts of the Israeli left not wedded to the two-state solution but more interested in a bi-national solution.  Actions under this mantra could include initiatives as disparate as: Supporting efforts to increase Arab turnout in Israeli elections; Creating Venture capital funds for joint Israeli-Palestinian start up companies; helping to build any Palestinian organisation that wished to engage with dialogue with the Israeli side. Crucially it would directly counterpose BDS’s implied boycott of Israeli civil society.

BDS’s great strength is that it gives a ‘something’ to fill the vacuum created when ‘something must be done’. A campaign to create a peace of mutual consent provides a different something, and shows BDS to be the counter-productive strategy that it is. It is time that the very hardworking anti-BDS activists in the unions were for something they can practically build towards – and a peace of mutual consent can be that.

Such a campaign would give the Leader of the Labour Party something to support. Since BDS is really the only game in town in terms of practical campaigning on the Left, an attack on BDS is currently an implicit acceptance of the status quo, which the Left cannot accept.

The likes of Robert Philpot and Lord Finkelstein have written in the Jewish Chronicle, that Labour must return to the uncomplicated pro-Israel ways of Tony Blair. But the Israel of 1994 was implementing affirmative action for its Arab citizens. In 2015, its Prime Minister whips up votes by demonizing Arabs. That is an impossible position for the political leader of the British Left to be in.

However, by supporting a peace of mutual consent, the Labour leader could both oppose BDS, and credibly claim that they were adopting the position most likely to lead to peace,

Once a Labour leader took an active interest in such a campaign – and the Jewish community understood that it was a direct counterpoint to BDS, then some of the damage of recent years could be prepared.

Some political choreography will also be needed. A big set-piece speech at a large London synagogue at the next Israeli Independence day would not go amiss. And I’m not supposing that all those Jewish votes could be won back. Some Jews are very hawkish on Israel, and many would never share a Labour Leader’s economics. But some do just need the permission to vote Labour again.

If the new Labour leadership and anti-BDS activists adopted this approach, the Labour party wouldn’t just have the opportunity to win back three seats in outer London. They also might just save my way of life, and that of Britain’s 300,000 Jews.

Daniel Elton writes in a personal capacity. He tweets as @danielelton