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Labour’s antisemitism problem will always bedevil Corbyn as long as Palestine remains a cause célèbre

August 18th, 2018

At the heart of modern anti-Zionism is the traditional envy of Jewish success

If Jeremy Corbyn had been politically active seventy years ago, there’s no doubt that he would have been a vocal champion of Zionism. Few things animate him like support for a people he regards as oppressed, who are fighting against a state like Britain or the US. If that struggle involves terrorism, no big deal for him. The creation of a Jewish Israel out of Britain’s League of Nations mandate in Palestine, aided by the Irgun and Stern Gang ticks every box, in red ink and at least twice over.

So what’s changed in those seventy years? What’s changed is the perception of Israel. No longer are the Jews there an oppressed minority but the majority community in an expansionist, wealthy and nuclear weapon-equipped country. It’s Israel which is oppressing Palestinians in the West Bank and particularly Gaza – ‘the world’s largest open prison’ – and Israel which has raided and occupied neighbouring countries.

Or so the Corbynite left would have it. Indeed, other, more sober, commentators would no doubt flag up Israel’s tendency to resort rapidly to force and to use it disproportionately and perhaps excessively. This doesn’t help Israel’s PR and does enable the far left to get a hearing on the issue because their critique is not superficially implausible. But it’s wrong, all the same.

It’s wrong because it fails to understand both what Israel is and also the world within which it sits.

    Forgive me for going a bit Godwin but it’s necessary. Israel is a Jewish state. It was explicitly designed as such in the late 1940s out of a belief that only a Jewish state could protect Jews, and out of the experience of the earlier 1940s.

The history of Jews is one of two thousand years of oppression since the First Roman-Jewish War destroyed the Jewish state, resulting in the population being scattered. Again and again, the cycle repeated: immigration as an alien presence within a guest country, marginalisation, restricted rights, success despite these oppressions, envy, violence, and finally expulsion or exile through intimidation. Such was the consequence of being a nation-religion without a nation-state. Until it got worse. We should never forget that the greatest catastrophe to visit the Jews – a people with a history of three thousand years – occurred within living memory. When critics of Israel cite international law, the retort might well be “what has international law ever done for us?”.

Because here we have to look at Israel’s geographic context. Having decided on creating a new state, yes, it could in theory have been created in somewhere less religiously complex – Kenya or Madagascar or wherever – but the Balfour Declaration and the pull of history meant that Palestine was the only realistic option. What that meant however was firstly overwhelming or forcing out the existing population, and then living among a host of Arab neighbours. As of course it still does.

Both legacies remain with us today. Highly unusually, Palestinian refugee status can be handed down the generations, with the result that the original population of 720,000 refugees from 1948 now numbers around 5 million. Inevitably, those ‘refugees’ cannot return to Israel without rendering the state as constructed unviable and throwing it into civil war – so it won’t ever happen. (As an aside, the fact that refugee status can be inherited is a measure of the extent to which Israel is still not seen as an equal state within the region).

Likewise, while most of its neighbours accept, to some extent or another, Israel’s legal right to exist, this is not universal: in the last ten years alone, Iran refuses to recognise Israel’s legitimacy, Egypt went through a brief period of Muslim Brotherhood government, Hamas won elections in Gaza, and large areas of Syria and Iraq fell to the Islamic State. Each of these is, or could be fatally hostile to a country of 9m people surrounded by 400m others across the Middle East. If Israel seems quick to resort to violence, it is because it exists in a hostile environment where the costs of overreacting are disapproving looks at international conferences, while the costs of underreacting could be the annihilation of the state and its inhabitants. Not difficult to see why Israel tends to err the way it does.

Which is the point at which we need to swing to British politics because that analysis isn’t how Corbyn or his acolytes see it. They don’t accept the relevance of the 1948 war, or the 1967 one, or the 1973 one, or of Iran’s nuclear program, or that detail of history: the Holocaust. They see instead, a rich, American-backed bully.

    The fact of that wealth should not be underestimated in the hostility the left have towards Israel, which ties in with historical antisemitism towards Jewish bankers and businessmen. How dare they succeed and grow a country out of the barren rocks of Palestine?

Sure, Israel benefits from US aid and benefitted early on from German reparations but its indigenous economy is highly advanced; much more so than their Arab neighbours, oil notwithstanding. That wasn’t the case in 1948.

Their obsession with this one country – a democracy in a region of dictatorship and far from the worst in terms of human rights abuses – is of itself telling. After all, Gaza’s border is closed at the Egyptian end too: why no criticism of the role of Cairo (which administered Gaza until 1967) in the ‘open prison’? It is as if Israel’s very existence is an affront to them.

And intentionally or otherwise, their policy prescriptions would ensure that Israel didn’t exist. Demanding Israel respect all international law while not holding Syria, Iran or the Palestinians to the same measure would seriously limit its capacity to defend itself. Given the number of enemies Israel has, that attack would come. And of course, even if the anti-Israeli activists did demand Iran did follow international law, it would make no difference anyway: Tehran would still do what Tehran wanted to do. Demanding an end to the security measures and a return to the 1967 borders and a return of the refugees would destabilise Israel to the point where it would be unviable as a Jewish state.

Indeed, even the two-state solution is unworkable because two states means two armies, two sets of security forces and a full international border. For diplomatic reasons, this fact isn’t currently be acknowledged but it’s true all the same, and is the reason why Israel does not treat the Palestinian Authority as a foreign power. Ultimately, the only permanent option for Palestine-Israel is a one-state solution: the question mark is over the extent of devolved powers to Arab autonomous regions.

That, of course, will never be acceptable to the Corbynite left. Israel’s power and, against all odds – though not against the grain of Jewish history – its success in turning adversity into wealth and power through hard work and good judgement mean it will always be seen as something to be opposed, in its actions if not in its concept (though sadly, sometimes in that too). Instead, Corbyn has proven repeatedly that he would rather associate with those who would, if possible, bring about Israel’s destruction than those who govern it.

Fortunately, it’s almost certain that his opinions – even as prime minister – wouldn’t matter. Still, if they did, they’d likely give him another opportunity to stand silently, head bowed and then quietly intone “never again”. And he’d no doubt feel better for the gesture.

David Herdson