Friday, August 7, 2015

Game over for Labour Friends of Israel?

These must be worrying times for Labour Friends of Israel (LFI).

The prospect of Jeremy Corbyn being elected the UK Labour Party's new leader is something of a nightmarish scenario for its internal pro-Israel lobby. Not only is Corbyn a long-standing defender of Palestinian rights, he stated that Tony Blair should be tried for war crimes in a BBC interview earlier this week.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- all the carnage Blair caused in Iraq, the former prime minister is still spoken of in reverential tones at LFI gatherings.

Recent comments from the LFI hierarchy prove that it is an amoral organization.

Jennifer Gerber, its director, claimed in July that "something has gone badly wrong with Labour's once warm relationship with the [Jewish] community."

Deceitful and dangerous

Writing for the website Labour List, she argued that since the party went into opposition in 2010, its leadership showed a "certain carelessness" towards Britain's Jews. "The rhetoric deployed by the party's front bench during last summer's Gaza war, for instance, seemed one-sided with little empathy with the fears of ordinary Israelis as their homes were under attack from Hamas rockets."

Gerber's "analysis" is both deceitful and dangerous.

First, it is simply not true that the party's grandees resorted to partisan rhetoric.

Ed Miliband, then Labour's leader, couched his timid criticisms of Israel with repeated references to "both sides." By doing so, he suggested there was some kind of parity between a nuclear-armed state assailing a besieged people with drones, bunker-buster bombs and white phosporous and a resistance group fighting back with crude projectiles.

Secondly, Gerber implies that defending Israel is a central concern for all British Jews. She negates how there are many Jews in the UK and further afield who are horrified by Israeli aggression and by its apartheid system.

Gerber has been trying to vilify Jeremy Corbyn for once describing Hamas and Hizballah as "our friends" at a meeting in the House of Commons.

Corbyn's choice of words was innocuous; the term "our friends" is used frequently in political discourse. Most people know that calling someone a "friend" doesn't mean you agree with him or her on everything.

Smear campaign

More than likely, Corbyn was just being polite to visitors from the Middle East at that meeting. Yet contributors to The Jewish Chronicle, a London-based Zionist newspaper, have exaggerated the significance of his comments in a smear campaign.

One of the paper's columnists, Geoffrey Alderman, has effectively accused Corbyn of anti-Semitism. Alderman made a big deal out of how Corbyn stated during a LFI-sponsored debate last month that the Balfour Declaration was opposed by "some of the Jewish members" of the British government.

At the time that Arthur James Balfour, then foreign secretary, delivered his 1917 declaration in support of creating a "Jewish national home" in Palestine, Edwin Montagu was the sole Jew serving as a British cabinet minister.

While acknowledging that Montagu was indeed hostile towards Zionism and the Balfour Declaration, Alderman has tried to detect a sinister undercurrent behind Corbyn's remark.

"He might, of course, have made a genuine error," Alderman wrote. "But I believe his reference to 'some of the Jewish members of cabinet' was more in the nature of a Freudian slip and that what this error tells us is that Jeremy Corbyn sees Jews where there are none (or at least very few)."

"Corbyn -- in other words -- has a problem with Jews, whose political influence he grossly overstates," Alderman added.

There is an inevitability behind these kinds of insinuations. Hurling baseless allegations of anti-Semitism at Palestine solidarity activists is standard operating procedure for the Zionist lobby.


Other Israel supporters have been more subtle when trying to disparage Corbyn.
Jonathan Freedland, a pro-Israel pundit, has rebuked the numerous young people energized by Corbyn for being motivated more by social justice than power. He wants Labour strategists to persuade those callow idealists that "an identity built on the purity of impotence is not much of an identity at all."

Freedland is editor of The Guardian's opinion pages. Those pages have featured quite a few anti-Corbyn rants over the past few weeks.

From searching The Guardian's website, I counted eight opinion pieces in which Labour members were explicitly urged to reject Corbyn since Saturday 18 July. Owen Jones was the only Guardian writer to have a column endorsing Corbyn in that period.

It is easy to see why the mainstream media wants to stop Corbyn. His views on public services, taxation and foreign policy are anathema to an establishment besotted by capitalism and imperialism.

Labour Friends of Israel became a key pressure group during the Blair years. Joining it was considered almost mandatory for ambitious members of parliament.

It is also a simple fact that there has been a strong overlap between it and other groups linked to the party -- notably the Blairite "think-tank" Progress -- dedicated to narrowing the policy difference between Labour and the traditionally more right-wing Conservatives.

A Corbyn victory would certainly discomfit LFI. But I think it would be premature to pen that group's obituary. Regardless of who becomes leader, there will still be a sizeable Blairite wing in Labour. LFI will be able to rely on its support at least for the near future.

Nor is it beyond the bounds of possibility that Corbyn will weaken his stance on Palestine and other causes he has championed.

Broadly, I share his politics. As an Irishman, I am especially impressed that he recognized there were real injustices fuelling the conflict in my country. When the British establishment was fulminating about "terrorism" in the 1980s, he was advocating dialogue with Sinn Féin. It is now generally accepted that he was correct.

As a general rule, though, I do not trust politicians. The Labour Party's record in power does not inspire confidence.

The late Robin Cook is remembered for his eloquent resignation speech in protest at the invasion of Iraq. Yet, as foreign secretary in Blair's government, Cook approved the delivery of weapons to Indonesia, a military dictatorship conducting a genocide in East Timor.

The same Robin Cook had pledged to ensure that British foreign policy acquired an "ethical dimension."

I'm not comparing Corbyn to Cook. Rather, I'm saying that Blair has left an enormous stain on Labour's record.

Hopefully Corbyn will be able to wash off that stain. But I fear it is indelible.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 5 August 2015.

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