Labour Party conference this week was an important moment for the Jewish community.
The Board of Deputies erected a Succah outside the entrance to conference and the JLM hosted a packed-out fringe event, addressed amongst others by Sadiq Khan and Lisa Nandy. Conference passed the recommended EHRC rule change to establish an independent complaints process and we witnessed a welcome back to Louise Ellman from Labour Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, at the very start of his conference speech, to rapturous applause and a standing ovation. All a welcome change from the Corbyn era of leadership.
Meanwhile , whilst Sir Keir was preparing for his conference speech, a group of masked settlers were attacking a Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank destroying cars, injuring livestock and throwing stones, leaving a four year old boy with a fractured skull.
Three settlers have since been arrested but given that 91% of investigations into ideological crimes committed against Palestinians end without an indictment, arrests don’t mean much in the West Bank where Palestinians and Israelis are subject to two completely different and unequal legal systems.
The violence that took place in the West Bank is just one example of many that highlight the urgent need for robust international action to bring over 54 years of occupation to an end.
So why then was the Labour leadership right to say it would not support a motion passed at conference proposed by Young Labour, that condemned de facto annexation of the West Bank, violence at the Al Aqsa Mosque and forced displacements from the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah?
The leadership were right to reject the motion, not because of the references to apartheid, support for the ICC investigation and sanctions, but because, at its core, it lacks nuance and empathy.
Prevailing wisdom within parts of the Labour left Palestine solidarity camp seems to be that anything that expresses sympathy and solidarity with Israelis that legitimately fear for their safety and security, or highlights the war crimes that Israelis have been subject to, specifically at the hands of Hamas, means that you are somehow incorrectly portraying the Israel-Palestine conflict as a conflict of equals, and in so doing ‘selling out’ Palestinians.
There is a way to express concern and empathy for both Israelis and Palestinians and desire for a solution that addresses the needs of both peoples to live in safety and security, whilst also being equally clear that this is not a conflict of equals and that policies of occupation must be held to account.
The motion passed at conference falls significantly short of that mark and does a disservice to the cause of ensuring the Labour Party has a fit for purpose Israel-Palestine foreign policy.
Against the backdrop of ensuring that Jews can again call the Labour party their political home, it is essential that the leadership of the party can be more even handed in its approach to Israel-Palestine, ensuring debate around the conflict doesn’t slip into antisemitism.
When Sir Keir Starmer stands up at conference and welcomes Louise Ellman back, he wants to be taken seriously. And so, when a motion is put forward like the one that was passed on Monday that lacks an iota of concern for the lives of Israelis , the leadership has no choice but to reject it for fear of support for it being interpreted as not just criticism of policies of the Israeli government, but actual fundamental dislike of Israelis.
Instead, what you end with is the recorded speech Sir Keir gave at the Labour Friends of Israel reception.
It may have been a welcome change to a previous party leader who could not bring himself to mutter the word Israel, but beyond a commitment to a two-state solution there was no mention of settlements, occupation or a Labour party commitment to any kind of policy that might help thwart ongoing de-facto annexation of the West Bank highlighted in the conference motion.
The closest to that was a very vanilla mention of an Israel ‘recognised within its borders’.
It was almost as if Sir Keir’s speech was an attempt to drown out the unhelpful noise of the motion passed on the conference floor. Compare Sir Kerir’s speech with the motion passed at the Liberal Democratic Conference which had the backing of Layla Moran MP, the Liberal Democrat’s foreign affairs spokeswoman and first MP of Palestinian heritage, which called for a ban on trading with settlements.
Until the discourse on Israel-Palestine in parts of the Labour left changes, the UK’s party of opposition will act much like our current government when it comes to Israel-Palestine: robust commitments to two-states, human rights, the illegality of occupation with no tangible policy to ensure any of those things see the light of day.
Only with detoxified and sensible language will we see a Labour leadership that is prepared to be brave and bold.