Eric Lee

A battle for the soul of social democracy

The war unleashed by Hamas on Saturday morning has shone a spotlight on political movements across the world. In the movement I consider home — social democracy — some important divisions have come into the light.

In Britain, the leadership of the Labour Party, which this week is holding its annual conference, immediately expressed its support for Israel following Saturday’s attacks. The party’s leader — and Prime Minister in waiting — Keir Starmer, could not have been clearer. He tweeted: “I utterly condemn the ongoing attacks on Israel and her citizens. There is no justification for this act of terror which is being perpetrated by those who seek to undermine any chance for future peace in the region. Israel has a right to defend herself.”

His predecessor as Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was somewhat less forthright, tweeting that “We need an immediate ceasefire and urgent de-escalation. And we need a route out of this tragic cycle of violence: ending the occupation is the only means of achieving a just and lasting peace.”

Those sentences could serve as a textbook example of “weasel words”. But that may not be fairs to weasels. Because reading between the lines — or just reading the tweet until the end — it is clear that what Corbyn means is that Israel must “end the occupation” to solve the problem.

This should come as no surprise, as Corbyn has previously invited representatives of Hamas to the British Parliament where he called them his “friends”.

A similar division can be seen on the “democratic socialist” wing of the Democratic Party in the U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who almost single-handedly created a new American left in his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, tweeted this: “I absolutely condemn the horrifying attack on Israel by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. There is no justification for this violence, and innocent people on both sides will suffer hugely because of it. It must end now.”

It’s not as strong as what the UK’s Starmer posted, but it will do. In the past, Sanders has spoken out for Israel’s right to self-defence even as some of his supporters showed their disapproval.

The gap between Sanders and those supporters is certain to grow as the largest organisation on the American left, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has now taken a clear pro-Hamas position. Their members helped organise a number of small demonstrations in American cities on Sunday to show their “solidarity with Palestine” even as Hamas murderers were slaughtering the innocent. One might have expected them to wait until Israel launched its counter-attack (when they could denounce Israel for a “disproportionate” response) but clearly they were keen to be among the first to denounce the Zionists.

DSA, it should be recalled, grew out of organisations which were both anti-Stalinist and pro-Israel. It was only six years ago that the organisation voted to support BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) at one of their annual conventions. That vote was celebrated with chants of “Palestine will be free – from the river to the sea” which should have given us some warning of what would happen next.

In other countries, leaders of Social Democratic parties have also expressed their clear support for Israel in this time of need.

For example, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh, tweeted that he “strongly condemns these horrifying attacks by Hamas on Israel. Civilians should never be targeted and all hostages must be released immediately.”

Germany’s Social Democratic chancellor, Olaf Scholz, told the people of Israel that Germany “is on their side”. He added: “Israel’s security is a German reason of state. This is especially true in difficult times like these.”

It is good to have the support of leaders like Sanders, Starmer, Singh and Scholz. They are voices of sanity and compassion, friends of Israel in a very dark time.

But there are also voices like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK or the leaders of DSA in the US who hate Israel so much that they cannot conceal their glee when mass murder is committed in broad daylight.

A battle is taking place within the left and it’s important to understand who is upholding the great humanitarian values of that left — and who is supporting the terrorists of Hamas. This is a battle for the soul of a once-great historic movement — and it matters to all of us who wins.

About the Author
Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the author of several books about 20th-century history. His next book is The August Uprising 1924: Georgia and the Birth of Democratic Socialism. He was a member of Kibbutz Ein Dor from 1981-1998.
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