Making the progressive case for Israel

By John Woodcock

It is not every day that one of the best speeches you have ever read drops into your lap and you are asked to deliver it in front of a packed, appreciative audience.

If I had known that Making the progressive case for Israel was going to be the last thing that its brilliant author would ever write, I would have been barely able to get the words out.

So many moving tributes have already been made to David Cairns by people who knew that kind, effervescent and compellingly passionate man far better than me.

But David’s absence from the excellent and important We Believe in Israel conference in London yesterday, where again I had the sad honour of deputising for him, highlighted that a lasting and fitting tribute would be for us to advance the campaign he crafted as the chair of Labour friends of Israel.

Seeing an increasing threat to the very idea that a secure Jewish Israel should exist alongside a viable Palestinian state, David rightly identified the central importance of challenging what has become the received wisdom for any left winger worth their salt to be anti-Israel.

How is it, he asked in the speech he was unable to deliver, that it is increasingly seen as progressive to make common cause with people who despise the type of society we strive for in this country, and seek Israel’s destruction? For, whatever your views of the controversial measures it has pursued in the name of national security, Israel remains a state founded on progressive, liberal values: a free and vibrant media; a robust, independent judiciary; strong trade unions; a supportive welfare state; equality for gays and lesbians; religious freedom and an unshakeable commitment to democracy.

There is, of course, the need to press for the resumption of the stalled peace process, the right to question the actions of both sides, and to scrutinise appropriately violent incidents in a conflict that continues to claim so many lives. No doubt the clashes on Israel’s borders will be raised in the debate on the Middle East in the House of Commons today.

But, for many, condemnation of Israel has gone way beyond even-handed probity and fair criticism. Somehow, over the years, the centre of gravity on the left of the Labour movement has swung from ardent support for Israel – in the face of scepticism from those on the right of the party such as foreign secretary Ernest Bevin – to a position where the language of de-legitimisation has become commonplace. Even sickening parallels to apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany have not been met by a universal hail of outrage.

This surely should not be acceptable, even for those who do not question the absurdity that the UN human rights council has condemned Israel more times than all dictatorial regimes put together, in a decade which has seen some truly appalling abuses across the world.

If the movements for change characterised as the Arab Spring turn out to be so momentous that every country in the Middle East adopted a constitution similar to that of Israel, we would rightly herald a mighty step forward for global human rights.

As it is, we should do more to show we value the one nation in that region which is already a beacon for so many of the values we on the left came into politics to promote.

David encapsulated it perfectly in the last line of the last thing he ever wrote:

I am appealing for all those who value peace and justice to support our values where we see them lived out, and to assist – not obstruct – those people working on the ground to resolve their conflict and build their progressive society.

He was a fine man. We should listen to him.

John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness and a vice chair of Labour friends of Israel.

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22 Responses to “Making the progressive case for Israel”

  1. Louise Bagshawe MP says:

    A very fine article from David.

    May I offer all Labour supporters condolences on the death of David. He was a credit to Parliament and the Labour movement. I had the honour and pleasure of serving with him this past year on the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport and cannot believe he is gone. He was a wonderful, kind and friendly man and I miss him terribly. It is no surprise to see him here championing Israel and its liberal and progressive values. A tremendous politician and an even better man.

  2. Henrik says:

    Another sad loss to a formerly great Labour movement. A man of education, discrimination and passion.

  3. Maxy says:

    The premature death of David Cairns tragic and sad though it is given his relatively young age should not detract us from the fact that Cairns was an avowed Zionist. What is missing from the debate on Palestine within the Labour Party is that Israel was founded upon sheer brute force and the forcible expulsion of 750.000 native Palestinians in 1948. A state that reserves its democracy for Jews and denies the Palestinians their human rights is not a democracy. What is tragic about this whole debate is that these views are widely held within the Labour. The truth is that the Labour Party has never really supported the rights of Palestinians either in or out of office. I defy you to provide evidence that Ed Miliband will be any different.

  4. Maxy says:

    For me Gerald Kaufman respresents the true progessive spirit within the Labour Party. He has come full circle by starting out as an avowed supporter of Israel to being one of its staunchest critics. The self congratulatory tone adopted by L Bagshaw is shameful. Where were the liberal progressive values when thousands of phosophorous bombs (banned by the UN) were dropped on the civilian population of Gaza. Where are the liberal progressive values which permits the relentless buidling of illegal settlements in the West Bank? WHere are the progressives within Israeli politics who have yet to receive any political power or influence. It is clear that Bagshaw is completely ignorant of the facts as to how the state of Israel came to be established and it continued subjugation of the Palestinians.

  5. Jen says:

    Maxy – David Cairns, John Woodcock and Louise Bagshawe seem to upset you for simply saying they support the state of Israel and have a different view to yours.

    The Labour Party is committed to a negotiated two state solution which means a viable and democratic Palestinian state side by side with an Israel, safe and secure in her borders. Which bit of that don’t you like and hope Ed Miliband breaks with?

  6. Maxy says:

    Is it not interesting to note that whenever a critical comment is made on Israel that the Zionists always resort to personal attacks.

    If the Labour Party is so committed to a two state solution how come in the fourteen years they were in office, little was done to achieve this objective.

    Indeed if Israel persists in building illegal settlements on the West Bank then the two state solution will not be a viable solution anyway.

  7. Ben Garratt says:

    It is very upsetting to see John Woodcock’s lovely tribute to the late David Cairns commented on in this way.

    David was a true supporter of Israel and of those on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories working towards a two state solution. As a progressive in our party, he rightly felt that Labour supporters should be proud to support our values lived out wherever we see them – including in Israel – but equally we should never hesitate to voice our disagreement over the unfair infringement of rights, as this is how we can support progressive voices in Israel and beyond.

    Surely a two state solution is a better way to resolve this tragic conflict than to try and undo history and argue away Israel’s very existence

  8. Henrik says:

    I see my comment, offering a very sincere tribute to David Cairns, is still awaiting moderation. Fair enough, let’s get on with the Labour attitude to Israel instead.

    Whatever its undoubted failings in terms of attitude to the Palestinians, there are some things which Louise Bagshawe reminds us about which are relevant: Israel is a vibrant, secular, more-or-less-socialist democracy in a sea of absolutist regimes. The State of Israel has had to fight for its life more or less continuously since 1948 and that has necessarily had an impact on its society and attitudes.

    The Palestinian population has, for entirely understandable reasons, historically housed, supported and celebrated irregular military action against the State of Israel. There are some pretty unsavoury people in among the various Palestinian militias, just as there are in the IDF and they have been hardened, scarred and brutalised by over 50 years of armed conflict.

    The reality is that a two-state solution is the only viable solution, given that on the one hand the Greater Israel project is pretty much permanently on hold and on the other that it’s not that likely that Israel’s neighbours will succeed in ‘driving the Jews into the sea’. Labour very sensibly have as their policy support for the two state solution and that is broadly the consensus across UK politics, to the extent that it’s our business (or that anyone in that part of the world gives a toss what the UK has to say).

    @Maxy, it seems to me to be that your are so frothing with rage that a red mist has descended and is shutting out both reality and pragmatism. Quite apart from the extraordinary invention of ‘phosphorus bombs’ – I imagine here he has in mind white phosphorus illuminant and smoke natures – and some sort of half-understood idea that the UN has banned these (again, my assumption is that he is thinking here of their use in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead – for which Israel has been chastised), I sense that Maxy hasn’t really understood the history of that part of the world. The story begins long before 1948 – and the UK has nothing much to be proud of in our record, I seem to recall it was a Labour government which turned back ships full of concentration camp survivors and interned others during the closing years of the Mandate.

    It is perfectly possible to criticise Israeli policy, or even Zionism (I particularly enjoy watching ‘socialists’ having a go at Zionism), but one should beware of anti-Semitism. There is a strong tendency on the left to worship extreme Islam, on the basis that this represents almost pure opposition to capital and also to continue the stale rhetoric about ‘rootless internationalism’ and ‘hidden financial interests’ – which is not-very-good code for anti-Semitism.

    Maxy asks where the progressives are in Israeli politics? I expect they’re around, in much the same way that you could probably find some in the UK outside Islington, Camden, a few squats and a couple of universities. They have the same problem as in the UK, of course – even with open, free media and democratic politics, somehow, they don’t seem to be convincing people; perhaps they’re spending all their time violently agreeing with each other, rather than framing their views into a narrative that compels, attracts and convinces.

  9. Maxy says:

    Tto state that I am upset about the MP’s support for Israel is a ridiculous argument.

    The Labour Party was in office for fourteen years and did very little to facilitate the two state solution.

    If Israel continues to build illegal settlements in the West Bank, then the two state solution will not be a viable option anyway.

    I am shocked and dismayed that Labour Uncut has chosen to censor my previous mail. I am wondering is it because I dared to state the unthinkable: that the Zionist lobby is a dominant force in the Labour Party.

  10. Henrik says:

    @Maxy: That’s perilously close to asserting that there are too many Jews in the Labour Party. I counsel moderation.

  11. Maxy says:

    For the record I have conducted research into the Palestinian polity and economy under Mandate Rule: 1920:1948. So my knowledge of the history of the conflict in Palestine is substantial.
    I am dismayed but not surprised that my position is described as frothing with rage/ red mist etc. Instead of reverting to personal attack, why not stick with the issues.
    Sure enough Israel likes to portray itself as a democratic state. So why in that case does Israel refuse to extend that democracy to the 3.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and allow the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Why carry on building settlements in the West Bank when such an activity is considered to be illegal under international law. Indeed it is the intransigence on the part of the Israelis that has pushed Fatah into the arms of Hamas.
    JThe response in the comments section, prove that the Labour Party is unable to articulate a balanced and fair approach to the Palestinians. It is very easy to trot out the usual arguments about we believe in the two state solution. But what did the LP actually do to facilitate that solution. The voices of Zionist are alive, well established and entrenched but I do not believe they represent the views of the majority of the people throughout the UK who want to see a more balanced position Vis a Vis the Palestinians. I remember many years ago as a student at the LSE a talk was given on Palestine in the main lecture theatre. This sent the Jewish Society into commando mode where they heckled, booed and shouted down the speaker who by the way was Jewish. Seems that twenty years on, not much has changed.
    Why cannot the Labour Party admit that its policy towards the Palestinians has been shameful and why is it not legitimate to pose the question: Why does the Labour Friends of Israel have such a dominant influence on Labour Party politics Vis a Vis Palestine.

  12. Jen says:

    Maxy – I knew it wouldn’t take long before you start making accusations about the Zionist lobby though it’s still a shame. Are you saying that because you support a recognised country that makes you part of a lobby as opposed to someone who has seen a few maps/globes…?

    If people say anything about France, Germany, US, Britain, Russia, Japan etc do you point out that they must be part of some kind of lobby? Or is it just people who say something nice about Israel that you object to and throw the term ‘lobby’ at them??

    I do not understand why you think supporting a two solution is Zionist and not a balanced approach which meets the aspirations of both people’s.

    Settlements have been removed in the past and can be removed again. Israel had made numerous concessions for peace so that makes me optimistic for the future, despite Hamas reiterating this week their wish to see Israel disappear.

    My sincere hope is that the Palestinians and Israeli’s can achieve a negotiated two state

  13. Maxy says:

    There you go again Henrik. How is it that Zionists always trot out the anti-semitic card when a legitimate question is raised about why there is so much support for Israel within the Labour Party??? By the way I am an ardent admirer of the dashing Ed Miliband.

  14. Henrik says:

    @Maxy: my regrets if you took my comments as being ad hominem – they weren’t meant that way, more a look at a particular way of thinking.

    The first characteristic of this way of thinking is the perception that what we have to say is in any way relevant or influential on either the Israeli state, the Palestinian Authority or whatever Hamas calls its government. Add in the various foreign actors taking a role in the problem, Hizbollah, the IRI, the USA, the list is endless – what they all have in common is that not one of them gives a toss what you, or I, or Ed Milliband have to say. The P’s might give some attention to the Prime Minister as he is seen as being responsible for the DFID disbursements in both Gaza and the West Bank.

    The second characteristic is to pursue the reduction ad absurdum which follows from ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. Under this, if you are opposed to Israel/Zionism/the Jews (delete as necessary), clearly anyone opposed to them is a Jolly Good Sort. This is not the case, membership of a suppressed and brutalised minority does not confer virtue. All it confers is suppression and brutalisation.

    The third characteristic is to misunderstand the Realpolitik which actually conditions the conflict. Israel is a polity which feels itself under distinct threat from its neighbours and from a substantial population which feels that it has rights to property and resources within the polity and has registered an intent to acquire that property and those resources through violence. Israel is also fearsomely militarily competent by comparison with its neighbours, notwithstanding the Hizbollah debacle of a couple of years ago. Israel has in the past only survived concerted attacks by its neighbours through that military competence and accordingly places a value on armed force rather greater than we in the West do – and therefore has a tendency, as an entity with a big hammer, to see most problems as nails. There is a tendency inside Israel to think differently and to contemplate a different approach, but experiece of what actually happens and happened in the past when that approach is tried has not been encouraging. The Israelis are rational and can be convinced; they can not be bullied.

    For your information, I’m neither a Zionist nor a Labour Party supporter or member. I comment here out of a sense of interest as to what the thinking is inside Labour and to encourage the comrades to step up and actually form an Opposition, which would involve developing a narrative which might encourage people not part of the tribe to vote Labour.

  15. Maxy says:

    In response to Jen, I offer the following:

    1. The Labour Friends of Israel is a powerful lobby group within the Labour Party. The Labour Friends of Palestine in contrast does not have as many members, clout or influence. A current serving Labour MP has confirmed this fact to me .
    2. The truth is that the Zionist lobby whether in or outside Parliament is very powerful.
    3. Correct me if I am wrong, but how many of the countries cited above have displaced close to a million people in order to make way for a new state composed of people coming from western Europe and beyond.
    4. A country should be judged on how it treats all of the people within its area of control. How is it possible to reconcile democracy with a brutal occupation on the West Bank and Gaza.
    5. The two state solution is a reasonable and admirable objective and if it is the case that the Israelis would adhere to this solution, then how come five years of talks with the moderate leader Abbas have failed to bring this about.
    6. I would also point out that if the Israelis are sincere in their desire to achieve a two state solution, why continue building settlements in the West Bank. How does this make any sense.
    7. Why also does Israel persist with its policy of targeted assassination of the Hamas elected government?
    7. As for the dismantlement of settlements in the West Bank, may I point out that there are close to 300,000 thousand Israelis living in settlements which are dispersed throughout the whole of the West Bank? Why does the current Israeli government have a policy of settlement expansion? It makes no sense whatsoever and makes the two state solution impossible to achieve.
    8. Which Israeli government do you think will have the courage or political will to remove such settlers?
    9. In relation to Hamas which by the way was created by Mossad to create divisions between Fatah and Hamas did win the election in Gaza. May I also remind you that to this day Zionists and Israelis alike continue to peddle the myth that Gaza and the West Bank should be ethnically cleansed of Arabs and that there is plenty of room in the surrounding Arab countries. Voting for Hamas is in a sense a vote for desperation and powerlessness that ordinary Gazans feel. Resistance and defiance is the only way (rightly or wrongly) that Gazans can make themselves less invisible to the world.
    10 It may surprise you but Gazan families are human beings and want the same things that every human being wants for their families; namely to live a decent life in dignity and freedom for themselves and their children.
    11. I see nothing in the past or current Israeli leadership that will allow that to happen

  16. Maxy says:

    In response to Henrik, I offer the following:

    1. Where is the evidence that the rational Israeli narrative is prevailing and acknowledges that building settlements is absolute madness.
    2. I am perplexed that you are trying to imply that Israel is unique in the problems it faces. Surely that is racist.

    3. What in your response thus far could persuade people to vote Labour unless you acknowledge that fact that the LP record of unconditional support for Israel was wrong
    4. The majority of fair minded people throughout the UK want to see the establishment of a Palestinian state. I do not think you are going to get very far with persausing people if you do not acknowledge the fact that LP policy has always been skewed in favour of Israel.
    5 It is my sincere hope that Ed Miliband will go some way to addressing this imbalance.

  17. Oli says:

    Maxy, in response to your points….

    1. We live in a free democratic country. If Labour Friends of Palestine fails to attract enough members it should look inwards. It is not a conspiracy just people stating a preference. I have worked for enough people in the Labour Party to know they are perfectly entitled to support either side as they wish, or indeed support a two state solution and support both sides equally.
    2. Many lobby groups are very powerful, very few more than the lobbying done in the UK by Arab governments and their nationalised oil companies. I am a lobbyist now, I can safely say few lobby groups get more airtime than Arab nations. It is a shame those Arab nations a) never choose to support or represent the Palestinian people or b) send weapons but not aid to Gaza.
    3. Correct me if I am wrong, but how times have 6m people of one race or religion been exterminated, leaving the towns/ villages/ homes they came from demolished with nowhere to go back to.
    4. Nearly all countries treat their own people differently to how their army acts abroad. When Afghanistan was in US control did Afghans vote in the US election? They are occupied territories, not part of Israel. That is why Israel fully withdrew from Gaza, only to be see their population bombarded by rockets thus provoking military re-entering. That withdrawal should have been a huge step towards peace but Hamas ensured it was not.
    5. If Abbas is such a moderate why does he continue to teach and stand by his Holocaust denial views? He is moderate in comparison to Hamas, but that does not say a lot.
    6. I am also against all of the settlements, so I will agree with you that it is unfortunate that the Israeli democratic system ends up having to pander to some pretty unhelpful parties. It is just lucky the AV vote failed in the UK to stop the same happening here.
    7. Are you against Bin Laden’s assassination too? There is a fine balance between the need to protest your civilians and protecting the rights of terrorists.
    7. I agree re settlements
    8. Ditto
    9. I disagree with you re Hamas. I think you discredit the Palestinian people with your comments. The election of Hamas was more about education and healthcare and anti-coprruption than it was about hatred of Israel. I don’t believe the Palestinian people elected Hamas for its violent hatred of Israel, just as many people in the UK voted for Labour governments despite their opposition to various wars.
    11. I disagree

  18. maxy says:

    n response to Oli:

    1. The attempt at logic in point one is completely flawed and amateurish. Are you seriously suggesting that the power and influence of Labor Friends of Israel over Labor Party Policy on the Palestine question is a natural result of the democratic process? Given that you claim to be a Labour insider perhaps you could answer the question as to how the influence of LFOI is all out of proportion to their actual support in the wider community. Does this make the Labor Party out of touch too then? Also does this make the Labour Party appear unprogressive?
    2. I cannot believe that you are seriously suggesting that the Zionist lobby which has support inside and outside Parliament does not exert considerable influence over Labour Party policy on the Palestine question. You state Arab nations get more airtime than a few lobby groups. Where is the evidence for this? What on earth has nationalised oil companies got to do with the Palestine question. There is no oil in Palestine. As for Arab nations supporting the Palestinians, they do in their limited capacities whatever can be done and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the other Gulf countries have given billions of dollars over the years. You state that Arab nations are sending weapons to Gaza, could you elucidate which countries you are referring to. Correct me if I am wrong but is there a blockade on Gaza where Israel controls all the exit and entry points. As for sending aid many convoys have attempted to break the blockade of Gaza and many volunteers have lost their lives as a result as in the case of the Mavi Mamara. May I remind you also that Israel was condemned by the UN for the way it behaved.
    3. I agree there is no historical precedent. However, I do not see why the Palestinians who played no role in the holocaust should have to pay the price for what took place in Nazi Germany. I do not accept that because of the Holocaust close to a million Palestinians should be forced to flee from Mandate Palestine in order to make way for Jewish refugees. One wrong inflicted on the Jewish people does not give them the right to inflict another wrong on the Palestinians.
    4. I fail to understand the relevance of the Afghan analogy. More flawed and fatuous analysis is employed here. So because the occupied territories are not part of Israel, this justifies the harsh treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and the implementation of a harsh military authority. As for Gaza, I would argue that the Israelis have withdrawn form Gaza in all but name. Israel controls the air space, telecommunication, water, exit and entry points so that the people of Gaza are in effect living in an open prison. Even the Conservative William Hague said as much.
    5. Where is the evidence that Abbes is a holocaust denier? He has been involved in peace talks with Israel for the past 10 years. I believe the same was said about Yasser Arafat. The idea of no partner for peace is part of the same tired old rhetoric.
    6. So if like me you are against the settlements, how is it going to be possible to displace 300.000 Israelis? The settlements are scattered throughout the entire West Bank. Which Israeli leader is going to take that step? Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that more settlements are needed makes a mockery of the peace process.
    7. What has Bin Laden got to do with the Palestine question, assuming that he was really killed a few weeks ago????
    8 In relation to the people of Gaza, I believe it is a normal reaction to resist and oppose the Israeli army. Had the Israeli army permitted full and free access in and out of Gaza, then the situation would be less volatile. So the actions of Israel has made Gazans appear more extreme, a perfectly normal reaction in my opinion. Can anybody seriously argue that the average Gaza is living the good life? I repeat most Gaza’s like millions of families thought the world want to live in peace and dignity. I have actually visited Gaza many years ago and I came across some of the most wonderfully hospitable, loving and caring people

  19. Henrik says:

    Maxy, my reponses interpolated below:

    .. 1. Where is the evidence that the rational Israeli narrative is prevailing and
    .. acknowledges that building settlements is absolute madness.

    I wasn’t aware that I was implying that the ‘rational’ narrative was prevailing. I said I was pretty sure one existed. I rather think I explicitly said that, if it did, it clearly wasn’t prevailing.

    ..2. I am perplexed that you are trying to imply that Israel is unique in the problems it
    .. faces. Surely that is racist.

    Ah yes, racism. The catch-all allegation. Of course Israel’s not unique, except in so far as it faces a number of very real external threats and a somewhat less real internal threat, to all of which it feels it has crafted a very effective response – military force. This has worked well for them in the past and there is a very strong current of thought in Israel which feels that it will continue to do so. I see no racism in this, any more than asserting that the strategic weakness of the Pakistani position (for example) is to some extent mitigated by the possession of WMD.

    .. 3. What in your response thus far could persuade people to vote Labour unless you
    .. acknowledge that fact that the LP record of unconditional support for Israel was
    .. wrong

    Do you seriously suppose that more than a bare handful of UK voters give a flying whatsit about what the Labour party has to say about Israel and Palestine and, if they do, whether that would influence their voting intentions? For what it’s worth, my sense is that the ordinary working folk of the UK, who are generally a pretty warlike crowd, actually rather admire the Israelis for taking forthright action in a determined manner and compare it unfavourably to the spinelessness of Labour, who seem keen on starting wars but then specialise in leaving the forces fighting them dangling with no strategic leadership or defined end state.

    ..4. The majority of fair minded people throughout the UK want to see the
    ..establishment of a Palestinian state. I do not think you are going to get very far
    .. with persausing people if you do not acknowledge the fact that LP policy has
    .. always been skewed in favour of Israel.

    See above. I’d be amazed if more than a tiny handful of UK folk gave a toss.

    ..5 It is my sincere hope that Ed Miliband will go some way to addressing
    .. this imbalance.

    Great. How’s that working for you?

  20. Maxy says:

    I submitted a response to Oli but it seems it has disappeared from your webiste. Is some censorship going on here??

  21. Oli says:

    Maxy, I don’t think someone questioning the death of Bin Laden deserves a sensible response on individual points, we are not going to agree. But I will agree with you, having lived in Israel myself, having been to the occupied territories many times and having lived with Israeli-Arabs in Jersualem, that the vast majority of Palestinians are warm, welcoming and have not brought the situation they face upon themselves.

  22. Puzzled says:

    Why did John Woodcock . . er . . not mention the occupation and the settlements?

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