The recent speech to the Labour Friends of Israel Annual Lunch by Keir Starmer offered not simply an intellectually coherent outline of his approach to the Middle East but one firmly rooted in our party’s mainstream democratic socialist traditions and values.
Keir’s speech began with a reiteration of the apology he made to the Jewish community on the day he became leader for the hurt and pain caused by the antisemitism crisis within Labour’s ranks.
We have made progress over the last 18 months in rooting our anti-Jewish racism: introducing an independent complaints procedure and banning far-left groups that deny or excuse antisemitism.
As we turn the page on this shameful chapter in Labour’s history, we are returning to a tradition easily recognisable to those familiar with our party’s history.
From its birth, Labour was both a strong ally and friend of the Jewish community and a determined supporter of Jewish self-determination.
As Keir suggested: “Many in the community over so many years have indeed seen our party as their home. They have seen their values – the commitment to community, education, and social justice reflected in our values.”
From Manny Shinwell and Marion Phillips – the first female Labour party organiser and first female Jewish MP – to Louise Ellman and Margaret Hodge, Jewish Labour MPs have served our party and our country with distinction and dedication.
Moreover, Labour’s commitment to a Jewish homeland in Palestine – outlined in the 1917 War Aims Memorandum – was made several months before the publication of the Balfour Declaration.
Traditionally, support for Israel – as well as a recognition of its importance to British Jews – has not been the preserve of any one wing or faction in the party. Ian Mikardo, Eric Heffer, Richard Crossman, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown: all have been firm friends and admirers of the Middle East’s sole democracy.
Nonetheless, as Keir also recognised, the battle against antisemitism won’t be won by legal and institutional change alone. Instead, Labour needs to embark upon cultural change to take on the pernicious ideology of anti-Zionist antisemitism – an ideology whose origins lay in Stalin’s Russia. Anti-Zionist antisemitism seeks to deny to the Jewish people alone the right to self-determination; it focuses obsessively on the world’s only Jewish state, holding it to standards to which no other country is subjected; and – most cruelly of all – it likens the actions of Israel to the crimes of the Nazis.
Rejecting anti-Zionist antisemitism means opposing the BDS movement which demonises and delegitimises Israel, singling it out for boycotts and sanctions. BDS, as Keir suggested, is not only morally wrong, it would also damage the relationship between Britain and Israel and community cohesion at home.
BDS also does nothing to advance the cause of peace, coexistence and two states. The Labour party recognises that the only way to honour the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination – and to preserve both Israel’s security and its character as a Jewish, free, democratic state – is through the establishment of a viable, democratic, and independent Palestinian state.
We recognise, too, the damage to the prospects of peace that has been done by the expansion of settlement building.
Moreover, we recognise that we must stand by Israel in the face of the threat posed by antisemitic terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which are steadfastly committed to its destruction, and whose actions have caused huge suffering for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Keir’s Labour Party believes that such terror groups should not be allowed to operate in the UK.
Labour’s approach, as Keir outlined, will be guided by a simple principle: we are pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace and pro-human rights. Our allies will be those who seek peace in the region and our policy will be to do all we can to support their ambitions.
Unlike the current Tory government, we will back these words with actions. Indeed, in their much-vaunted integrated review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development, ministers do not even mention the ground-breaking Abraham Accords, which are reshaping the contours of Middle East politics and society, offering huge potential economic, strategic and environmental benefits.
Nor has the Government embraced the opportunity offered by the proposal to establish an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Modelled on the International Fund for Ireland, which was established in the darkest days of the Troubles in the mid-1980s, it would invest in civic society projects that bring Israelis and Palestinian together and create new constituencies for peace. This would both open up new political space to fashion an agreement and, as the International Fund for Ireland did in the years after the Good Friday Agreement, provide the popular support necessary to sustain it through the inevitable ups and downs that will follow.
While the US Congress voted last December to invest unprecedented sums in peace-making projects – signalling also its hopes for the multilateral approach that the International Fund exemplifies – Britain has been left standing on the sidelines. Indeed, thanks to cuts in international development spending, our own small-scale coexistence programme has been wound up.
After listening to Keir’s speech last week, I am convinced that a Labour government can, and will, do better – for Israel, for Palestine and for peace.
- Dame Diana Johnson MP is a vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel