Game over for Labour Friends of Israel?

Long after waving goodbye to Labour, Tony Blair is still worshipped by its internal Israel lobby. 

Nedal Shtieh APA images

These must be worrying times for Labour Friends of Israel (LFI).

The prospect of Jeremy Corbyn being elected the UK Labour Party’s new leader is something of a nightmarish scenario for its internal Israel lobby. Not only is Corbyn a long-standing defender of Palestinian rights, he stated that Tony Blair should be tried for war crimes in a BBC interview yesterday.

Despite — or perhaps because of — all the carnage Blair caused in Iraq, the former prime minister is still spoken of in reverential tones at LFI gatherings.

Recent comments from the LFI hierarchy prove that it is an amoral organization.

Jennifer Gerber, its director, claimed in July that “something has gone badly wrong with Labour’s once warm relationship with the [Jewish] community.”

Deceitful and dangerous

Writing for the website Labour List, she argued that since the party went into opposition in 2010, its leadership showed a “certain carelessness” towards Britain’s Jews. “The rhetoric deployed by the party’s front bench during last summer’s Gaza war, for instance, seemed one-sided with little empathy with the fears of ordinary Israelis as their homes were under attack from Hamas rockets.”

Gerber’s “analysis” is both deceitful and dangerous.

First, it is simply not true that the party’s grandees resorted to partisan rhetoric.

Ed Miliband, then Labour’s leader, couched his timid criticisms of Israel with repeated references to “both sides.” By doing so, he suggested there was some kind of parity between a nuclear-armed state assailing a besieged people with drones, bunker-buster bombs and white phosporous and a resistance group fighting back with crude projectiles.

Secondly, Gerber implies that defending Israel is a central concern for all British Jews. She negates how there are many Jews in the UK and further afield who are horrified by Israeli aggression and by its apartheid system.

Gerber has been trying to vilify Jeremy Corbyn for once describing Hamas and Hizballah as “our friends” at a meeting in the House of Commons.

Corbyn’s choice of words was innocuous; the term “our friends” is used frequently in political discourse. Most people know that calling someone a “friend” doesn’t mean you agree with him or her on everything.

Smear campaign

More than likely, Corbyn was just being polite to visitors from the Middle East at that meeting. Yet contributors to The Jewish Chronicle, a London-based Zionist newspaper, have exaggerated the significance of his comments in a smear campaign.

One of the paper’s columnists, Geoffrey Alderman, has effectively accused Corbyn of anti-Semitism. Alderman made a big deal out of how Corbyn stated during a LFI-sponsored debate last month that the Balfour Declaration was opposed by “some of the Jewish members” of the British government.

At the time that Arthur James Balfour, then foreign secretary, delivered his 1917 declaration in support of creating a “Jewish national home” in Palestine, Edwin Montagu was the sole Jew serving as a British cabinet minister.

While acknowledging that Montagu was indeed hostile towards Zionism and the Balfour Declaration, Alderman has tried to detect a sinister undercurrent behind Corbyn’s remark.

“He might, of course, have made a genuine error,” Alderman wrote. “But I believe his reference to ‘some of the Jewish members of cabinet’ was more in the nature of a Freudian slip and that what this error tells us is that Jeremy Corbyn sees Jews where there are none (or at least very few).”

“Corbyn — in other words — has a problem with Jews, whose political influence he grossly overstates,” Alderman added.

There is an inevitability behind these kinds of insinuations. Hurling baseless allegations of anti-Semitism at Palestine solidarity activists is standard operating procedure for the Israel lobby.

Indelible stain?

Other Israel defenders have been more subtle when trying to disparage Corbyn and his supporters. Jonathan Freedland, a pro-Israel pundit, has rebuked the numerous young people energized by Corbyn for being motivated more by social justice than power. He wants Labour strategists to persuade those callow idealists that “an identity built on the purity of impotence is not much of an identity at all.”

Freedland is editor of The Guardian’s opinion pages. Those pages have featured quite a few anti-Corbyn rants over the past few weeks.

From searching The Guardian’s website, I counted eight opinion pieces in which Labour members were explicitly urged to reject Corbyn since 18 July. Owen Jones was the only Guardian writer to have a column endorsing Corbyn in that period.

It is easy to see why the mainstream media wants to stop Corbyn. His views on public services, taxation and foreign policy are anathema to an establishment besotted by capitalism and imperialism.

Labour Friends of Israel became a key pressure group during the Blair years. Joining it was considered almost mandatory for ambitious members of parliament.

It is also a simple fact that there has been a strong overlap between it and other groups linked to the party — notably the Blairite “think-tank” Progress — dedicated to narrowing the policy difference between Labour and the traditionally more right-wing Conservatives.

A Corbyn victory would certainly discomfit LFI. But I think it would be premature to pen that group’s obituary. Regardless of who becomes leader, there will still be a sizeable Blairite wing in Labour. LFI will be able to rely on its support at least for the near future.

Nor is it beyond the bounds of possibility that Corbyn will weaken his stance on Palestine and other causes he has championed.

Broadly, I share his politics. As an Irishman, I am especially impressed that he recognized there were real injustices fuelling the conflict in my country. When the British establishment was fulminating about “terrorism” in the 1980s, he was advocating dialogue with Sinn Féin. It is now generally accepted that he was correct.

As a general rule, though, I do not trust politicians. The Labour Party’s record in power does not inspire confidence.

The late Robin Cook is remembered for his eloquent resignation speech in protest at the invasion of Iraq. Yet, as foreign secretary in Blair’s government, Cook approved the delivery of weapons to Indonesia, a military dictatorship conducting a genocide in East Timor.

The same Robin Cook had pledged to ensure that British foreign policy acquired an “ethical dimension.”

I’m not comparing Corbyn to Cook. Rather, I’m saying that Blair has left an enormous stain on Labour’s record.

Hopefully Corbyn will be able to wash off that stain. But I fear it is indelible.

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Also, about 80% of Conservative MPs are members of Conservative Friends of Israel. How many, I wonder, are Friends of Liverpool, Manchester, or Hartlepool ?

Videos : Dispatches : Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby /AIPAC : Inside America’s Israel Lobby https://mpbondblog.wordpress.c...

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I believe there's a huge sea change happening from the ground up starting with young people, it's spreading around the world. People can see injustice now like never before, they are sufficiently well educated to make their minds up and no longer believe the propaganda be it from Israel or the British government. The rottenness prevailing in Israel is now subject to scrutiny and will no longer be tolerated, hence the panic !!

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A former Chair of Labour FoI is now on the "top team" at the BBC. James Purnell was a minister in the last Labour government. In his new position as BBC Director of Strategy he rubs shoulders with Danny Cohen and James "I Believe In Israel" Harding.

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We would do well to remember that the Labour Party began as an organisation dedicated principally to the cause of the working class. For many years the party was quite simply the only broad-based political vehicle in which trade unions and their members could pursue their interests. The building of the party, like the movement it represented, took many years and involved many battles. With the ascent of the Blair faction, and arguably earlier, Labour became an electoral instrument of right wing forces in Britain, from the media and monopolistic business concerns, to the City of London and the US empire. Hopefully, Corbyn's anticipated election will to some extent reanimate what has become at best a moribund least-worst option on the political landscape.

Should Corbyn become leader, some have predicted a formal split and the emergence of a new, hard-right party led by young Blairites. Personally, I don't think these people will ever leave, and they intend to sabotage Corbyn from within the party. In effect, they're prepared to destroy Labour rather than grant a genuine voice in British politics to the left. For that reason I suspect that what we're seeing is yet another protracted demonstration of the impossibility of progressive change under the present institutional arrangements.

A new working class movement will require time, long-term mobilisation and organisational innovation before it coalesces into a party capable of taking power. The Labour Party is unlikely to play a role in that process. Jeremy Corbyn is exactly the sort of person needed as leader, but unfortunately his party is no longer a fit vehicle for the required change.

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Though I broadly agree with your well-made comments, I fear that they may prove academic in the end. The Blairite Right of the party, especially the careerist MPs who dominate the parliamentary party, will see to it that Corbyn is denied the leadership, and that the unexpected groundswell of grass-roots and newly won support (especially among young people) is left high and dry.
I hope to be proved wrong.

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Jeremy Corbyn has been a strong supporter of the Palestinians for over 30 years. I originally got to know him as Chair of the Labour Movement Campaign on Palestine in the 1980's. He spoke at all our fring conference meetings. He is now a patron of Palestine Solidarity Campaign and attends most of their annual general meetings.

Nonetheless, having watched the hustings hosted by LFI and Poale Zion I worry that, if he does win the leadership election, he will come under enormous pressure from those he is surrounded by. He needs to define certain red lines and also appoint someone as Shadow Foreign Secretary who is not indebted to LFI. His performance was certainly not strong at the hustings and he hadn't done his homework.

His failures in particular were:
i. A complete failure to mention racism within Israel or the refusal of successive Israeli administrations to genuinely consider a peaceful settlement.
ii. That the record of the Israeli Labour Party is as bad as its Likud successors.
iii. That the Palestinians are, like Black South Africans the oppressed.
iv. The right of return and to throw out the question as to why anyone Jewish in that audience would have the right to go and settle in Israel/Palestine when Palestinians born there cannot.
v. Unequivocal support of Boycott. People should be less defensive about the tactic - and a comparison with the Boycott of Nazi Germany would be a good one.
vi. To make it clear he is not a Zionist and does not accept their 'solution ' to the Jewish question.
vii. Israel's role as a US satellite and its links with some of the world's most unsavoury regimes, not least Apartheid South Africa.
viii. Israel's role in the region e.g. Lebanon where it created Hezbollah.

The weak

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I am always extremely scepticaat some new politician will
transform British (and world) politics. It remains true as writer David
Cronin and perceptive commenters note that the beginning of a voice
is an improvement on total silence.

Despite Israeli PR it is not the "victim" but the "oppressor". The provocator
of war. The design of brutal so-called "retaliatory" actions.

There are many excellent sources on the origins of Zionism, I recommend
strongly George L. Mosse's THE CRISIS OF GERMAN IDEOGOLOGY...
You will be amazed at how similar Zionism is to the volkish movements.
Add to that the basic characteristics of settler colonialism examined in
several other sources. Add as well the methods of functioning of Israel
in the world today (especially noting its umbilical relationship to the US following the UK).

---Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

David Cronin

David Cronin's picture

David Cronin is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada. His latest book is Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War (Pluto, 2013). His earlier book is Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation (Pluto, 2011).