Thursday 26 October 2017

The British Labour Party and Israel

Why was Moshé Machover expelled from the Labour Party on 4 October for anti-Semitism? Machover, an emeritus professor of mathematics, was born in Israel and has been a lifelong socialist, anti-racist and critic of Israeli policy. For the Labour Party’s Legal Queries Unit to allege that he has been anti-Semitic is ludicrous, so much so that there has been widespread support for Machover from within the Labour Party itself. But this absurdity reflects two things that stem from a third: imperialist politics.

Israel and imperialist politics

Firstly, there is the attempt by supporters of Israel to label all critics of that 1948 creature of imperialism as being anti-Semitic. This is a longstanding policy of Israeli governments, their foreign embassies and support groups. But this Israeli policy has become more hysterical in recent years as opposition to their oppression of Palestinians has become more widespread, and as Israel has found itself facing a more uncertain future. A series of disasters in the Middle East for imperial policy – from Iraq, to Libya, Syria and the rise of Islamic State – has led the major powers to play a more direct role in the region, a development that threatens to sideline the traditional Israeli role as policeman for these powers.
Secondly, a keystone of UK foreign policy has been to support Israel. This has been based upon Israel’s value in helping undermine Arab nationalism. An early example was the 1956 Suez fiasco, a deal between the UK, France and Israel to stage an invasion of Egypt to try and depose Egypt’s President Nasser. Another little noted example is how Israel fostered the growth of Hamas in the 1980s to undermine the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. This promotion of an Islamist group to defeat an enemy has backfired, as have similar imperial enterprises like backing Al-Qaeda (in Afghanistan, etc) and Islamic State (in Iraq, Syria, etc).
That Israel could play a role for different major powers was evident even before the state’s foundation in 1948,[1] following a resolution from the United Nations to replace the former British Mandate over Palestine and partition the territory.[2] But the creation of Israel was based upon a fundamental injustice: Palestinians were made to pay the price for the European slaughter of Jews in the previous decade![3] From its birth, the military and terror forces of the new Israeli state seized Palestinian land and property, through mass expulsions and murder.
The razing of Palestinian villages and destroying signs of Palestinian culture and society, even uprooting olive groves, tries to construct the Zionist myth of ‘a land without people for a people without land’. These crimes were prettified by the Jewish National Fund, a ‘charity’ that gives Palestinian land to those who claim to be Jewish. Many UK Conservative Party and Labour Party leaders have supported this organisation – most recently Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May.[4]
The British Labour Party’s links to Israel were acknowledged in the autobiography of a senior Labour politician, Denis Healey, The Time of My Life, published in 1989. He noted that ‘the Labour Party was overwhelmingly Zionist, and had far closer relations with Israel than the Conservatives – apart from a small group of Tory Zionists such as Churchill himself, Julian Amery and Hugh Fraser’. This relationship was often based upon Labour’s racism towards Arabs, and was supported by Labour’s notion that European Jews could bring ‘civilisation’ to the Middle East in a way that would also be aligned with British interests.[5]

Supporting the Palestinians?

One political party leader for whom endorsing the Jewish National Fund is off limits is Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. But, to go back to my opening question, how then did Moshé Machover’s expulsion from the Labour Party occur when the leader of the Labour Party supports the Palestinians?
Denials of Palestinian rights by the Israeli state have been so outrageous that one would have to be an accomplished ignoramus, an anti-social psychopath, or an ardent Zionist, not to have any sympathy with the Palestinians. The Israeli oppression of the near two million people in Gaza, which has become the world’s largest prison camp, possibly stands out most. These things have now led to a smaller number of Labour MPs to sign up for membership of the Labour Friends of Israel lobby group.[6] But what form does that sympathy take for Jeremy Corbyn? It is the ‘two-state solution’ and an acceptance of the 1948 deal that set up the Israeli state in the first place.
At the Labour Party conference in September 2017, Corbyn said: ‘Let’s give real support to end the oppression of the Palestinian people, the 50-year occupation and illegal settlement expansion and move to a genuine two-state solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict’.
For Corbyn, the ‘50 year’ point only refers to Israel’s extension of its borders to seize yet more land in the 1967 war with other Arab states. Similarly, the ‘settlement’ point refers only to the further seizure of land that has continued since 1967, ones that are illegal even under United Nations law – but violations of which have gone unpunished, given the service that Israel has provided for the major powers that run the world. The failure to recognise the crime of 1948 and the setting up of Israel in the first place – on the majority of Palestinian land – reflects an all-too common view, even among those sympathetic to the Palestinians, like Corbyn.
Getting back to the 1948 set up would endorse the UN decision for the two states, one led especially by the US, but also by the Soviet Union (despite the Balfour Declaration, the UK abstained in the UN’s 1947 vote on partitioning Palestine, not wishing to damage its position with other Arab countries). A 1948 starting point would also leave unchallenged the additional Zionist seizure of land at that time, beyond what was envisaged by the UN’s calculation, let alone the additional annexation of land in later years.
Corbyn’s endorsement of a ‘two state solution’ does not recognise that one of the parties has the imperial jackboot on its neck and a gun to its head in any negotiations. It is also out of bounds for Israel, given the nature of the Israeli state. A state that cannot even define its borders, a state that has an ethnic definition of citizenship, a state that has promoted the influx of hundreds of thousands of subsidised settlers on Palestinian land – that state is hardly likely to agree a return to pre-1967 borders. Nevertheless, a minimum demand on the Israelis to achieve some justice for the Palestinians remains: Give back the land you have stolen!
The imperial modus operandi is that when people rise up against injustice they are killed, or at least prevented from upsetting plans, perhaps by co-opting their leaders. Palestinians have rarely been in the latter, more ‘lucky’ situation, so they remain terrorised and defamed. However, the image of continual Palestinian oppression can still be an embarrassing bloodstain on those who talk about the values of western democracy.

Changing times

For Jeremy Corbyn to raise the issue of Palestine in his Labour Party conference speech might be seen as a breakthrough. Until now, there has not been the slightest indication that the Labour Party would move from its faithful backing of the global power structure that has Israel as its armed guard against Arab nationalism. But the rise to prominence of Corbyn’s view reflects a subtle change in how Israel is now seen by the major powers.
Israel’s increasingly reactionary policies have become a problem for politicians claiming to hold a progressive view, especially under Netanyahu’s Likud Party. No longer can pro-Zionist Labour politicians point to those Potemkin villages, known as kibbutzim, as examples of socialism in action. For every celebration of rejuvenating desert land, there are dozens of Israeli bulldozers destroying Palestinian homes, and systematic brutality meted out to Palestinians by Israeli police, soldiers and settlers. For those of a more conservative outlook, who do not worry about such things, Israel is also beginning to be seen as more of a troublemaker than a useful ally.
The structure of imperial support for Israel was built upon acceptance of its immunity from UN resolutions, no matter what it does, an immunity backed especially by the US. That has worked well before, but now less so, given that a more overtly pro-Israel Donald Trump also tramples liberal opinion in the wider world. If this US backs Israel, and the US is overturning the established order with an ‘America First’ policy, then it indirectly also helps to undermine acceptance of Israel’s policies by the other powers. For now, although maybe not for much longer, the traditional political support for Israel stays in place. But its foundations are being eroded.
These crumbling foundations are the reason the Labour Party machine is now accusing Moshé Machover, a committed socialist and anti-racist, of anti-Semitism. With support for Israel under threat, it is urgent for pro-Israel advocates to argue that being anti-Zionist is also to be anti-Semitic. One lesson from World War Two is that this version of racism is not acceptable in polite company, so this smear is a way of indirectly sustaining support for Israel.
The role Israel plays for imperialism has probably not yet diminished enough to lead UK political parties to criticise its policies in any way that has consequence. In line with this, I would not expect Jeremy Corbyn to reject the absurd allegations against Moshé Machover. The issue is one of imperialist politics, not common sense. Even if Corbyn did, a socialist should not look for a place in the pro-imperialist Labour Party.

Tony Norfield, 26 October 2017

[1] For example, the French assisted Zionist militias in their war against the British prior to 1948, reflecting the rivalry of the two powers in the region. See James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East, 2011.
[2] Just to make clear, I do not accept that the United Nations, dominated by the major-powers, can be considered as some kind of neutral or fair arbiter of justice. The British state, much weakened by the mid-1940s, was in no position to manage its Palestine Mandate any longer, which was why it left the decision to the UN. The decision to set up a ‘national home’ for ‘Jewish people’ on Palestinian land was based partly upon Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration, a deliberately ambiguous and deceitful document that promised both a Jewish state and that the rights of the local non-Jewish population in Palestine would not be harmed. Labour had the same idea for a Jewish state before this declaration and also fully supported it when it was published.
[3] Germany has been singled out for this slaughter, but this ignores the other western and eastern European countries who also took part in the crime. The refusal of the US and the UK to accept more than a token number of Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 1940s should also be noted.
[4] The notion that Israel is the ‘ethnic homeland’ of people calling themselves Jewish is rubbish. For example, historians such as Shlomo Sand (see his Invention of the Jewish people, 2009) document how followers of Judaism were ardent proselytisers and converted Europeans and Asians, and others, to their faith over many centuries. So, far from all current ‘Jews’ being able to trace back their ethnic heritage to ancient Israel, they mostly come from elsewhere. In any case, the point comes down to imperialism – where the political institutions stand in relation to the major powers – not to ethnicity.
[5] For more on this point, see the excellent article by John Newsinger detailing the historical relationship of the Labour Party to Zionism and anti-Semitism here
[6] Al-Jazeera did an exposé of how such groups are used to whitewash Israel and bring down any critics, see here. One of the key Israeli embassy officials involved was recorded as complaining that not enough young people or MPs were now joining Labour Friends of Israel.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tony,

    I am wondering if there's much economic sense in Euro-Atlantic support for Israel, beyond the obvious long term benefits one gets by exercising geopolitical control over an area like the Middle East. In what ways does capital actually benefit from the existence and conduct of Israel? If supporting the Ulster of the Middle East is an increasingly expensive policy option in a hardly auspicious economic environment, might that also explain why said option is gradually becoming less popular, in addition to it being rather embarrassing?