The British referendum on membership in the European Union on 23 June has exposed deep layers of racism and xenophobia in the United Kingdom and raises serious concerns about the welfare of minorities and immigrants in the country. Verbal violence and the murder of a politician who devoted her life to justice and peace – including in Palestine – are the terrifying manifestations of the ugly face of the referendum.
And yet if we think of the wider implications of the vote, with a view to evaluating the outcome’s relevance to Palestine, the results are less of a disaster and open new vistas for our struggle for peace and justice in Palestine.
There are three reasons why those deeply involved in the struggle should regard the decision as an opportune moment to advance Palestinian freedom and not be depressed as are colleagues in the London bubble – and beyond – who have been overwrought following the decision.
Israel loses an advocate
The first reason is quite mundane but important. Britain, as an EU member, was one of Israel’s main advocates in the discussions of the organization’s policy towards Palestine. More often than not, Britain blocked initiatives backing Palestinian rights and helped shield Israel from accountability. Its voice in those institutions will not be missed.
Secondly, we have to appreciate that the xenophobic, anti-immigrant and ugly mood was not the only impulse leading people to vote leave. It is not the first time, and will probably not be the last, that extreme right-wing factions have successfully channeled working class anger away from the ruling classes and towards more vulnerable groups of workers: immigrants and refugees.
The vote was also motivated by a justified sense of neglect felt acutely by the disenfranchised society beyond London and other major cities. Ever since the 1970s, the British political elite, Labour and Conservative alike, has failed to represent faithfully the underprivileged northeast and northwest regions of England. The referendum was a democratic chance for them to demand better following the destruction of the welfare state by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
Disempowered sections of Western society have demanded a more democratic representation of their will ever since the financial crisis in 2008, as the Arab world has since 2011. In both cases, democratic voices have yet to prevail: either the powers that be regained their previous dominance or non-democratic forces exploited the upheaval to strengthen their hold over society. This is an ongoing historical process that is only in its early stages.
The demand for transparency from political and economic elites – and a respect for the people’s own agenda and wishes – unfortunately, at times, manifests itself as a racist call for anti-immigration policies. But it also has positive aspects. Brexit was a protest vote against political cynicism and the dishonesty of politics as much as it was about immigration and patriotism. The coincidence of the publication of the Chilcot Report with the Brexit vote shows that dishonesty and lack of regard for what people really want or need does not refer to social and economic issues alone.
People are also enraged when the government pursues criminal and immoral policies in the Middle East. The road from admonishing the Blair government for its Iraq policy to rejecting the outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron’s policy in Palestine may be shorter than previously realized.
Such a public impulse for change creates opportunities for politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party in the United States. Tragically, it also contributes to phenomena such as Donald Trump in the US and Nigel Farage in the UK.
In fact, the demand for a different kind of a democracy is more than an impulse, it is a zeitgeist. This new spirit pushed people to occupy Wall Street and Tahrir Square in 2011 and, in March this year, it led a million workers and students to occupy Place de la République in Paris on nights dubbed “Nuit Debout” (for Palestinians it translated as Leilat al-Sumud).
The French soccer team’s success in reaching the Euro 2016 final this summer was hailed as grim compensation for the horrors of terrorism. But it will not help the workers and students of France. They and other victims of the neoliberal capitalist system will continue to assert their right to demand a more fundamental solution for poverty, unemployment and austerity.
Neoliberalism has devastated whole communities in the West and in the larger world. The multinational and military-industrial complex’s connections with oppressive regimes in the Arab world and Israel help squelch any genuine attempt for democracy and reconciliation in the region. The same repressive policies that helped the regimes in the Arab world clamp down on the Arab Spring have aided for years the settler colonial project in Palestine.
Concerted action against neoliberalism and the repressive Israeli occupation necessitates a network of solidarity including trade unions, student activists, anti-war and disarmament coalitions, victims of police brutality and groups fighting for the rights of the underprivileged and marginalized. The struggle for Palestine epitomizes the overall struggle for social and moral justice. It is not distracted by false political crises or distractions that remind us of the gladiators’ games in the declining Roman empire.
For all this attention, in Europe and the US, official positions on Palestine are as far as possible from public sentiment supporting equal rights. Any process that narrows the gap on Palestine between the electorate and the official political position, despite all the dangers mentioned earlier, is much better than the status quo.
A more democratized Britain harbors opportunities as well as dangers and requires all of us to take a nuanced look at reality. Democratic improvements can lead to a more honest reflection of the strong pro-Palestinian sentiment that exists here in the UK, including among the underprivileged parts of our society. Consequently, democratic change can be better for many Palestinians and for the Palestine solidarity movement, but can still be a nightmare for an immigrant facing expulsion or a child facing an increase in racism.
Finally, the vote is just the beginning of a process set in motion by the 2008 financial crisis. Any attempt at this moment to conclude that Brexit – which frankly nobody fully comprehends – is the end of the road would be premature.
Even at this early stage, we can say with certainty that countries such as Palestine – notwithstanding the despair, helplessness and imbalance of power faced there – can only benefit from earthquakes. Business as usual is the worse thing for Palestine.
In this respect, the potential for Palestine lies in the positions of two generational groups which stood out in the Brexit affair: the young generation of 18 to 24 and the older generation in their 70s and 80s. These two generational groups are deeply involved in activism for Palestine in the West. We know them and see them in our meetings, activities and advocacy. They are a powerful combination already rattling the neoliberal castles of comfort.
Their joint efforts help explain why young people chose a septuagenarian socialist as presidential hopeful in the US and a slightly younger socialist to head Labour in the UK. What unites them is a disgust towards the establishment’s economic, social and foreign policies. The publication of the Chilcot report and throughout the years leaks from Wikileaks and other sources, point out how dishonesty in social and economic policies is echoed in foreign policies of invasion, crypto-diplomacy and old imperial policies of divide and rule.
Their vote in the Brexit referendum is not the critical issue: identifying the political potential is. Although those aged 18 to 24 in Britain voted overwhelmingly to remain, a large number of this age group did not vote at all. Only a touch over one-third of the younger generation voted. Furthermore, almost 40 percent of the elderly voted to remain and anecdotal reports indicate many among this age group declared their confusion and changed their opinions after the referendum. So the impulse was not only to say something clear about the EU, but to voice a democratic protest against establishments that run their lives, whether in Westminster or Brussels.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party, was accused of not working wholeheartedly for the Remain campaign. This is true. He reflected the reluctance and confusion of the non-xenophobic electorate; namely “Remain” or “Leave” is not the crucial political agenda facing Britain. The real referendum has to be, and still will be, about social, economic and moral justice.
The younger generation and the elderly are our main electorate for Palestine. They are not easily fooled by neoliberal manufacturing of political crises that in the case of Prime Minister Cameron was caused mainly by his wish to win the last election.
The call from below for more transparent, moral and democratic policies can only enhance the cause of Palestine. Israel feared, and worked against, the democratic impulse that engulfed the Arab world in 2011. A similar impulse in Europe and the US is our only hope for narrowing the gap between popular pro-Palestinian perceptions and official American and European policies on the ground. It is through the wider public that we will be able to challenge criminal Israeli policies in Palestine.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article misstated the year that Occupy Wall Street started. It was 2011, not 2008. The article has since been corrected.
The author of numerous books, Ilan Pappe is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.