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On the “Obsession” with Israel and Palestine

Israel-Palestine-e1297092190649I think James Bloodsworth has been unfair locating the opposition to Israel’s bombing and invasion of Gaza in the matrix of revolutionary identity politics. Yes, in the fractured universe of British radicalism the Israel/Palestine conflict is an occasion for position-taking, and, as with nearly all positions assumed, be it war in the Middle East, the attitude to Labour, or whether capitalism has been restored in China, they are a locus for identity work. However, it is a mistake to say this determinesopposition to Israel. Their “obsession” derives neither from freaks of character nor unacknowledged anti-semitism: it’s because mainstream politics recognises, treats and privileges the Israel/Palestine conflict as a strategic priority in ways other persistent conflicts are not. It matters to the left because official society says it matters.

Think about it for a moment. At Labour conference this September there will be, as every year, a huge queue lining up outside the Labour Friends of Palestine meeting. If you go from there to the Labour Friends of Israel gathering, it will be as easily packed. It’s worth noting as well that respective memberships do not divide along “tradtional” left/right lines. Likewise, if it’s only a matter of lefty identity politics, why are some 80% of Tory MPs members of Conservative Friends of Israel? Like Labour, the LibDems have friendly societies that support either side. The conflict is an issue that goes right to the heart of politics. Why?

Peter Oborne (linked above) is right to mention the deep and abiding links between the Tories and early 20th century proponents of Zionism, but these are as rooted in the Labour Party too. There is a legacy of war guilt hanging over mainstream politics too. Allied governments closed their borders to Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. They also knew about the death camps, but chose not to say anything until they were liberated. And they had the capacity to disrupt Hitler’s murder factories, but for whatever reason decided not to. There is a historical debt, and supporting the Jewish state is, for some, the contemporary equivalent of ‘never again’. The moral case for Israel, drawing as it does from the historical experience of systematic genocide is the wellspring for moral opposition to it as well. Being walled off, subsisting in open air prisons, having land and water resources stolen, demolishing Palestinian property and launching military assaults as collective punishment, if these were the policies of any other state – particularly perceived enemies – its actions would be thoroughly criticised and condemned. As a state founded by victims of industrialised killing, to see successive Israeli governments dole out ethnic cleansing is as awful an irony that can be conceived.

On no other foreign policy issue does historical debt and double standards feature so prominently. Yet it is far from all. The eternal place Israel/Palestine occupies in the political imagination is all about geopolitical interests. The Middle East’s oil reserves are the key lynchpin of the global order organised around the international hegemony of a (declining) US, and for Europe the Suez Canal remains an arterial shipping route. The great game of maintaining regimes friendly to perpetuating the status quo is the core concern for the State Department and Whitehall. It’s so ingrained in political common sense that few, if anyone, finds the official concern for what happens there and the West’s right to intervene diplomatically or militarily, strange. For instance, few would bat an eyelid if Britain proposed to sponsor talks aiming at ending the current round of violence in Israel/Palestine, Syria or Iraq. But if Brazil or China were to, that’s weird if not vaguely threatening. Similarly, geopolitically Israel is an ally of US and British interests. The very existence of Israel has presented a destabilising face to the Arab dictatorships and absolutist monarchies. In foreign policy terms, Israel has proven itself to be a convenient meat shield behind which American interests can hide. The wars against Israel, the deep antipathy felt toward it across the region, often times Israel has proven a useful scapegoat by authoritarian rulers who, if anything, are greater supplicants of US interests. Is it also worth noting Israel is a ready market for armaments?

There are good reasons, and there are real reasons. The third axis of interest lies with the political effects supporters of Israel and Palestine have here in Britain. On the one hand, Israel spends big money promoting its right to existence, of making allies and friendships, of organising tours and establishing relationships between organisations here and organisations there (Labour Friends of Israel, for instance, is directly linked with the Labor Party of Israel). Politicians of all parties cultivate wealthy, Jewish backers for funds – a cultivation helped by their membership of the appropriate friendship organisation. And so on. Just so there is no misunderstanding, there is nothing especially “shadowy” or sinister about this, as anti-semitic conspiracy-mongers maintain. All states use whatever means they can to lobby for their interests. Consider the numerous Anglo-Soviet friendship committees of the Cold War, or the gaggle of transatlantic societies promoting America’s bountiful virtues. Guess what, Britain does exactly the same thing overseas too. Israel have a finely-tuned PR and lobbying machine that has served successive governments well. It has helped create a political-material advantage in being seen to be a friend.

No such advantage accrues to Palestinians. Except the antipathy toward Israel transfers from Arab lands to Muslim populations here. Accounts of life under siege, land-grabbing, casual brutality, humiliation, and murder have long travelled from mainstream mosque to mainstream mosque as Palestinian speakers work the circuit. The tragedy of the Palestinians cleaves deep into British Muslim identities, whether Arabian or not. The oppression suffered by co-religionists is something all Muslims can rally around. It underwrites the experience of racism and Islamophobia in the West, is an in-your-face reminder that as far as the powers-that-be are concerned, the lives of Palestinians count for less than Israelis. This too impacts on our politics, consistently assisting the politicisation of Muslim kids (if not Islam as a religion), and integrates Muslim communities into the pro-Palestinian sections of the labour and/or anti-war movements. How many British Muslim supporters of Israel have you met?

So no. The centrality of the Israel/Palestinian conflict is not a quirk of political culture, or an indifference to horrible things happening elsewhere. It has deep cultural and material roots spanning across communities, politics, government departments, and perceived geopolitical interests. That is why it is well-covered, written on, and furiously argued over. It has a unique place because it has a unique place. What-abouting will not do. To make the situation mundane is to work toward a positive, peaceful solution.

15 Comments

  1. Jim Denham says:

    Bloodworth makes some fair points about the left’s apparent obsession with Istael/Palestine. I’d add this: I/P is a uniques issue on which trendy-leftie identity politics intersects with good old-fashioned high-Tory public school antisemitism. NOT that all pro-Palestionians (amongst whom I’d count myself) are conscious antisemites. But the crucial question is “do you support two states?” If the answer’s “no” then you are, politically antisemitic WHATEVER your subjective motivation(s).

  2. James Martin says:

    I think Bloodworth hits a few straw men more than anything else actually.

    The historical basis of the conflict is like no other. On the one hand with Israel there is the terrible history of the holocaust, the progressive left/communist-Zionists in the Kibbutz movement (that were not all built on stolen land, although enough were to discredit the movement as a whole) and a formally strong labour and trade union movement that still has some strongholds left in Israeli society. But on the other there is the right-wing nationalist and racist settlers and politicians that has made modern Israel similar in so many ways to apartheid era South Africa. And just because the Boers were once oppressed by the British imperialists, their later oppression of black Africans was not made somehow morally right.

    But in Palestine the PLO has long (and in fact always) been corrupt, which has in itself debased its secular ideology. Fatah’s failure then gave rise to Hamas (there is in many ways a class base to this split as much as religious) who was – irony of ironies – initially supported and funded by Israel to weaken Arafat. Hamas does not have a nice ideology, but nevertheless even in its Gaza stronghold many Palestinians remain broadly secular in outlook and have worked hard to protect Christian Palestinian communities who have been the hidden victims of Israel for a long time now (hidden because it doesn’t play well with in the US public, so the US govt ignores the issue).

    As everyone with any sense knows, the two-state solution is already dead, the land thefts and settler numbers have been too great. However, that does open up better the arguments for a single state solution, although only socialism could bring it – and the necessary workers unity – into possible being.

    And that is the real tragedy of the conflict now. In Israel the left is small and marginalised (although those like Uri Avnery continue a heroic rear-guard fight). In Palestine and the arab areas the left forces were smashed from the 1950s onwards by the failures of the Stalinised communist parties, the ultimately reactionary nationalism of Ba’ath ‘socialism’, and the later dead-end individual terrorism of the PLO Popular Front faction.

    And perhaps the ultimate irony here is just as the western left has increased it attachment to the cause of Palestine (that in itself is good), the forces able to achieve a viable state for the Palestinian people have weakened in both Israel and Palestine itself. It would be a fascinating puzzle if it wasn’t so deadly for all concerned.

  3. gerry says:

    James Martin – good analysis, but Bloodworth hits the nail on the head here.

    In the middle east, every single country is a cesspit of corruption, fundamentalism, sectarianism, authoritarianism and murderous oppression, from Saudi to Qatar to Libya to Syria to Algeria to Iraq to Iran to Egypt to Turkey.

    Secular or Islamic, basic human rights literally do not exist in any of them – indeed, human rights abuses and social injustice are even worse in the states who call themselves Islamic!

    And the sectarian religious movements -ISIS, Hezbollah, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Al Nusra Front, Islamic Jihad, AQIM, AQAP and hundreds more – are so blood-soaked and fascistic that noone can have any doubt that there would be even worse to come when/if they take full political power in the region.

    A Hamas led Gaza has offered nothing to Palestinians but misery, oppression and so-called martyrdom..as socialists we should be doing all we can everywhere to marginalise the hard-right (Islamic and Israeli settler), and to keep advocating socialism and social democracy as the only decent answer to social and economic injustice.

  4. swatantra says:

    As several have pointed out already theArabs couldn’t run a whelk stall let alone a country, so I see no reason why we cannot have a One Palestine with the Jews and Arabs living side by side along the NI model. In theory it would be an all inclusive Govt of Palestine, but in theory it would probably end up with the clever Jews being forced to run the country, with some assistance from the Palestinians, those that are capable that is. So its a win-win situaltion for the Jews.

  5. David Pavett says:

    I found Bloodworth’s article trite bordering on offensively stupid. It simply repeated a series of hackneyed arguments about the left and Palestine/Israel without bothering to investigate the reality of the claims made. Poor journalism.

    I agree with much of the case made by PB-C. There are many good reasons why one can be both interested and concerned about this conflict without being “obsessed”.

    Were we “obsessed” with South Africa during Apartheid? Does the lack of awareness SA’s current murky politics show double standards? I think not (even if I would prefer a higher level of awareness). Were we “obsessed” with Ireland during the troubles?

    Plenty of people on the left concerned about P/I see that as part of a wider concern about the whole Middle East. Does not that receive quite a lot of attention. Models in this respect was the late Fred Halliday in this country and the late Maxime Rodinson in France, both great specialists on the region.

    We have no need to apologise for being interested in P/I among other conflicts. We should ignore arguments like those of Bloodworth which amount to little more than an attempt to stop discussion.

    Apart from anything else, the EU and the USA play a big part in the issue and that alone should concern us. For example I was shocked to find that the Palestinian draft constitution was drawn up with the help of EU legal advice. It contains some awful stuff. It is scandalous that the EU supports Tony Blair as the Quartet’s ME envoy. I think that it is also a scandal that the EU does not give the issue Israel’s continued occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land to much more prominence.

  6. swatantra says:

    ‘Shame on the BBC…’ But this time they reported 40 0000 out.
    Great Demo and March yesterday. Starting out from High St Ken Stn and walking all the way up to Trafalgar Square and Plmrt. Everyone in a good mood and in good spirits. Sun was out and so were all of us feeingl the pain of the Palestinian Peoples.
    ‘…. we are all Palestinians’ …
    Roads were closed, everyone one out kids in buggies dogs on leads, people pushing bikes, invalids in wheelchairs, the Police walking along with us.
    Took 2 hours; I was hot and exhausted and had to break away from he March at Traf Sq just to wquench my thirst, and restb my weary legs.
    ‘… Shame on Cameron’
    Great speeches from platform, particularly Owen Jones.
    ‘5 6 7 8 Israel is a terror state’
    A good day out, not just London but the World was out protesting.

    1. Robert says:

      Tell that one to Miliband, it will not be his bacon Butty which he has trouble with, can he count to eight.

      1. Ann says:

        Swatantra’s Twaddle regarding the Middle east and Robert’s trolling, you two deserve each other.

        1. swatantra says:

          Give it another week and the death toll could rise to 2000 Palestinians and 20 Israelis. A bit disproportionate don’t you think? And a 3rd week, 3000. And following that another cease fire, and lull and the whole situation erupts again in a years time.
          This could be another 100 years War, and all because someone decided to plant a mythical country that had ceased to exist for 2 thousand years ago, into the land of the Palestinians.

        2. Robert says:

          True Ann I’m now a troll, I may even vote Nerwer labour.

  7. David Ellis says:

    Bloodsworth and his AWL chums are agents of Ziofascism in the labour movement. They are almost single handedly responsible for giving respectability to the far right’s characterisation of the pro-Palestinian movement as anti-semitic.

    That said, the failure of the pseudo anti-imperialist left to support the Syrian Natioinal Democratic Revolution but to actually support Assad’s bloody repression of it not only enouraged the ISIS sadists but the current Zionist assault on Gaza.

  8. Gerry says:

    Swatantra – if there was ever a “one-state” solution, then lets get ready for the public beheadings, crucifixions, stonings and amputations so beloved by Islamists in the region!

    David Ellis – “ziofascism” – thats a new one! Is that the same as “islamofascism”, only for Zionists?

    But seriously, how can anyone who purports to be socialist ( take a bow Owen Jones) make common cause with vile sectarian hard-right movements like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, ISIS, Hezbollah, Muslim Brotherhood and all the rest?

    1. swatantra says:

      … to borrow a phrase from Ann the islamofacists Hamas and the facist zionists ‘really do deserve each other’. I am friends of neither and wish a plague on both their houses. But remeber that Hamas does not represent all Palestinians; there is Fatah, pretty hopeless and incompetant, but at least they are the moderate wing. You have to remember also that the Palestinians have been interned within the borders of an expansionist Israel for years and years, and need the permission of the Israelis even to breathe; they are designated as living in occuped territories, or internment camps.

  9. Robert says:

    Maybe all the socialist have retired how anyone can back Israel I’ve no idea. Forget Gaza you still have the issue of Israel stealing land.

    Both these countries leaders are morons one wants a war the other wants people to fight it’s wars.

    no thanks. sadly the innocents will suffer as they did in Iraq and every other wars.

    1. Gerry says:

      Robert and Swatantra – you are right in one way, Hamas/Islamic Jihad are hard-right blood-soaked zealots, and their mirror images are the hard-right Israeli settler zealots – a plague on both their fundamentalist houses, true…

      Objectively though, Israel as a state is far more progressive, tolerant and decent than any other state in that dreadful region. Of course there must be a viable and independent Palestine in the west bank and in Gaza, but until there is a Palestinian leadership and political majority which rejects terrorism, sectarianism, religious fundamentalism and the rest, then this conflict will sadly go on forever…

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