To speak out as a leftwing Jew on any aspect of this century-old conflict is to risk isolation and hate from both sides. That much I know, having directed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns and called out the antisemitism of that period. So, on 8 October, absorbing the emerging details of the Hamas massacre the previous day, I feared the consequence of speaking out again.
It turned out that in such circumstances I could not have been in a more supportive place during the Labour party conference than at a joint-faith meeting organised by a Jewish and Muslim women’s group in a Liverpool synagogue. Grief shared in such a setting was great comfort and some relief for all of us together – Muslims and Jews.
It used not to be difficult to support both peoples who live in Israel and the Palestinian territories, as I did, by distinguishing their needs and aspirations from those of their leaders. But the rise to power of former rightwing terrorists Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir to the highest office in Israel was where a supremacist philosophy began to take hold in the politics of Israeli Jews. It appealed, as far-right politics always do, to those who felt let down or ignored by their governments, as Mizrahi Jews (of Middle Eastern or north African heritage) and more religious Jews did by the secular Ashkenazi (European) Israeli Labor Party establishment.
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza also began to lose trust in their leaders from Fatah and the Palestinian Authority who were seen as self-serving, even corrupt – a shift that benefited more religious candidates and Hamas. Tensions increased within and between both communities.
However, the Israeli left is not without its share of responsibility. In Israel’s prehistory, those who led the Jewish government-in-waiting before the state’s establishment observed the Holocaust from British-administered Palestine. Their attitude to the 6 million murdered and the 1 million survivors who found their way to Israel can be characterised by the phrase they used to describe the manner of their deaths: “They went like sheep to the slaughter.” A contempt for weakness was embedded in the Israeli left, which now in the hands of its far-right successors, has created a culture of permanent war that is supremacist and authoritarian towards Palestinians. A culture mirrored by Hamas.
And so, in the war that was certain to follow the Hamas attacks, how can a leftwing Jew best maintain support for both peoples when your family, friends and comrades take opposing sides?
These two peoples are crammed into a tiny space in the former British mandate of Palestine, about 7 million of each. Each of them astonishingly resilient after almost a century of conflict. Wars. Terrorism on both sides. Shoah and Nakba. Pogroms and “transfer”. And each side with leaders they would do better without. Benjamin Netanyahu and Ismail Haniyeh. Lions led by donkeys.
I immersed myself at an early age in the history of centuries of Jewish suffering. Expulsion from England in 1290, from Spain in 1492 alongside the Muslims. On and on until the ultimate destruction, before, finally, sanctuary arrived with the 1947 UN decision to partition Palestine and create a refuge for Holocaust survivors. In the UK, Labour’s conference had supported partition, especially the left. The Attlee government ignored the conference – some things don’t change. It resisted partition, pleading its duties as the mandate authority.
I do not accept the official narrative curiously shared by both Zionists and anti-Zionists that Israel was created because of a chain of events from Theodor Herzl’s inspiration through to Balfour’s declaration and the UN partition. It was driven more by guilt than principle: no one would take the Holocaust refugees, and there was no other option. To have the Holocaust now often thrust in your face by people on the left as a reason for your failure to have “the right line” on Israel (whatever that means) is hard to take.
In the 1960s, the left backed Israel. Aged 10 in 1967, I cut out news stories each day of the six-day war. In 1973, Israel, caught off guard by Egyptian and Syrian forces in the Yom Kippur war, was again the underdog, supported in Britain by the Labour opposition but not by the Heath government. The fact that Israel was still being attacked by its neighbours 25 years after it was established as a refuge for Holocaust survivors is the root of my sympathy for the Jews of Israel/Palestine, the people, but not necessarily for their government.
History itself is a weapon in the present. My generation remembers when Israel was led by the left and supported by the left elsewhere. My children’s generation see an Israel where there is not a sizeable left to speak of.
I might have no religious faith and I do not believe that the land was given to Jews by anyone other than the UN, but I celebrate the same festivals they do and eat the same food. I still feel an affinity I cannot explain.
There is no military solution to this conflict. But 7 million Jews and 7 million Palestinians are not going to go away. They need leaders who will work for peace, and bring Palestinians and Israelis together. There can be no role for those who want perpetual war.
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