Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader has already signalled progress in tackling the scourge of antisemitism and rebuilding our relationship with the Jewish community.
The roots of the problem are deep as Keir has rightly suggested.The damage done to Labour’s once-close relationship with British Jews won’t be easy to repair.
As the new Chair of Labour Friends of Israel, I am committed to LFI playing an active, positive and constructive role in supporting the crucial work ahead.
It is important to recognise that anti-Zionist antisemitism is at the heart of this crisis. As I wrote in the Jewish Chronicle, earlier this month: “No Jewish member will feel comfortable sitting in local Labour party meetings while a small number of cranks and bigots loudly proclaim their views about Jews, Israel and Zionism at every opportunity. We must end this obsession with Israel which has been allowed to drive far too much of the discussion and promote too many ridiculous resolutions within the party from its grassroots to the floor of party conference.”
I believe Labour should begin by taking five steps.
First, we need to recognise the strong bond which exists between the vast majority of British Jews and Israel. A 2010 survey by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research found that 90% of Jews in this country view Israel as the “ancestral homeland of the Jewish people” and 95% have visited it. A further study tshowed that 93% of British Jews say that Israel forms some part of their identity as Jews. Moreover, the vast majority supported Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state (90%), expressed pride in its cultural and scientific achievements (84%) and saw it as a vibrant and open democracy (78%).
Recognising this in no way undermines Labour’s commitment to a two-state solution. It complements it. The 2015 City University study also showed that a substantial majority of British Jews support a two-state solution (only 16% oppose) and see it as the only way Israel will achieve peace with its neighbours. They also believe that the Palestinians have a “legitimate claim to a land of their own”.
Second, Labour’s core principle should be one of balance. It should not be to demonise and delegitimise one side. We should seek to understand the hopes, fears and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. This means being clear that expanded settlement-building is a barrier to a two-state solution. LFI has also unequivocally opposed any Israeli annexation in the West Bank. Unilateral steps, like this, are a barrier to peace. That is why we also oppose Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. That is an issue – like those, of settlements, security, borders and refugees – that can only be resolved in the context of proper negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The international community should work to promote and facilitate such talks. We should also be clear that the prospects for a two-state solution are poor if Hamas continues to refuse Israel’s right to exist and promotes a constant war of terror. Nor should we ignore officially sanctioned incitement by the Palestinian Authority – including the effort to poison young minds through schoolbooks, summer camps and TV programmes which legitimise violence and glorify terrorists.
Third, Labour needs new thinking about the wider Middle East. The fixation on the Jewish state has stifled fresh thinking and analysis about the long-term challenges and opportunities facing the region.
We need a new approach towards Iran. Its expansionist activities – which see it wielding vast influence in the so-called “Shia crescent”, stretching from its borders through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – have brought bloodshed, suffering and instability. It has also triggered massive geopolitical shifts as Israel and many Arab states begin to quietly forge new relations in the face of this common threat; a threat made more dangerous by Iran’s repeated breaches of the 2015 nuclear accord. The theocracy’s imperialist ambitions have also provoked a backlash: huge protests, led by young people, have swept Lebanon, Iraq and Iran itself over the past six months. They speak to widespread anger at the economic hardship and political corruption for which the regime and its proxies are responsible. Labour should seek to align itself with the progressive movements designed to bring about change.
Beyond Iran there are a plethora of issues – from the lack of rights for women and minorities to the deep inequalities and authoritarianism which characterises many parts of the region – Labour must develop responses to these issues.
Fourth, Labour should campaign against terror and hatred at home. Last year, the party’s frontbench failed to support the government’s decision to fully proscribe Hezbollah – a virulently antisemitic terror group which attacks Jews and Israelis around the world and advocates the annihilation of Israel. London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has been an outspoken supporter of tougher action against Hezbollah and its supporters. It is encouraging also that the new Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, has made moved so swiftly to announce that the Labour party now supports the ban. We must hold the government to account and ensure that it works, with our allies, to choke off the flow of cash to Hezbollah. I hope that Labour will also speak out against campaigns such as Israel Apartheid Week which occurs annually on campuses. This campaign peddles the lie that Israel resembles apartheid-era South Africa and is extremely offensive and upsetting to Jewish students.
Finally, Labour needs to think creatively about how we promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The boycott divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) is divisive and counterproductive. It serves to drive two peoples apart and strengthen the hand of the most extreme elements on both sides. I am delighted that Labour’s new frontbench team has moved swiftly to reaffirm our party’s long-standing opposition to boycotts, with Shadow Communities Secretary, Steve Reed, announcing last week that he will remind Labour council leaders of the importance of opposing local boycott initiatives.
Labour should adopt a similar approach to LFI’s long-running “For Israel, For Palestine, For Peace” campaign which aims to boost funding for coexistence projects that bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Initiatives such as the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which is modelled on the highly successful International Fund for Ireland, can help boost constituencies for peace, foster trust and reconciliation and help establish the vital civic society foundations upon which any lasting settlement must be built.
We now have an opportunity to move on from the stark, binary and divisive debates which have characterised Labour’s approach over the past five years. We should work to develop a policy agenda for our party with which we can play a meaningful and constructive role in the region. With ambition, imagination and open-mindedness, we can open a new chapter in Labour’s internationalist tradition.
Steve McCabe has been the Member of Parliament for Birmingham Selly Oak since 1997.