Israel and the Labour Party: a love story

Leon Rosselson shows how the Labour Party is in a state of denial about an Israel committed to a fantasy of a two state solution to be achieved through non-existent peace talks

This article is reprinted by permission from Medium

In my last blog  I suggested that Israel’s staunch supporters are infected with a brain disease called Zionusitis. It was, of course, a joke. Or maybe it wasn’t. Since then, there has been another enactment of the absurdist farce called Antisemitism in the Labour Party. A demonstration in Parliament Square organised by the (self-selected) British Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council demanded an end to the antisemitism which, so they claim, is now rife in Corbyn’s Labour Party. It was attended by a number of Labour MPs plus various riff-raff from other parties and the usual suspects from the Jewish Labour Movement. Following that, Jeremy Corbyn attended a seder organised by a group of young Jews called Jewdas and was pilloried for consorting with the wrong sort of Jews.

Of course, this has nothing to do with real antisemitism. The Board of Deputies has no problem with the antisemitism of Trump and the American white supremacists or the antisemites in Hungary and Poland, like Viktor Orban, since they are also firm supporters of Israel. Jewdas is attacked as unrepresentative because it is a non-Zionist group. Since Israel claims to represent all the Jews in the world and since Netanyahu claims to speak for ‘the Jewish people’, it would not be surprising if those who are angered by Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians tweet or write criticism of Israel that sometimes topple over into antisemitism. But a report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that the level of antisemitism in the country and across the political parties , including the Labour Party, is low; the level of anti-Israelism, on the other hand, is significantly higher. And this is what the Zionist lobby, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, the Labour Friends of Israel, are concerned about.

In any case, it’s hard to feel sympathy for Labour MPs like John Mann, Louise Ellman, Luciana Berger who complain of being abused on-line when they themselves and other Labour Friends of Israel are silent, or worse, mouth Israeli propaganda in an attempt to justify Israel’s deliberate policy of killing and wounding unarmed demonstrators, including children, in Gaza. As dupes of a foreign power, what do they expect? And, incidentally, the Tory Government’s (now infamous) 2014 Immigration Act that created a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants and asylum seekers and that aimed to turn teachers, landlords, employers and doctors into narks for the government was unopposed by the Labour Party, including the 3 MPs mentioned above. Among the 8 Labour MPs who voted against were Corbyn, McDonnell, Diane Abbott, David Lammy and Denis Skinner. So who are the racists here?

Why do they defend Israel?

My question is — why? Why are all these MPs so desperate to defend the criminal state of Israel? What is it about Israel, as I asked in a previous blog, that addles the brains of otherwise rational politicians? Why is there a Labour Friends of Israel? There isn’t a Labour Friends of Myanmar. There was never a Labour Friends of Apartheid South Africa. Why Israel? Some defenders of Israel — the Virgin Airline passengers who had a brain seizure when they read the word ‘Palestinian’ on the menu and the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips who, when Independent Jewish Voices was formed, called it Jews for Genocide — are clearly bonkers. Others, like Angela Smith, the Labour MP who tweeted her disapproval of Corbyn’s attendance at the Jewdas ‘seber’, and Joan Ryan, Chair of Labour Friends of Israel, are, I suspect, rather dim and shamefully ignorant. But there are others who are intelligent, informed, politically aware and yet, while perhaps critical of the Israeli government’s policies, still defend the State of Israel as a ‘Jewish’ state. Do they know of the crimes committed in the name of Zionism, in the name of the Zionist State?

States of Denial

Stanley Cohen’s book States of Denial describes a psychological condition in which a person knows and yet doesn’t know.

Denial is understood as an unconscious defence mechanism for coping with guilt, anxiety and other disturbing emotions aroused by reality. The psyche blocks off information that is literally unthinkable or unbearable. The unconscious sets up a barrier which prevents a thought from reaching conscious knowledge.

This would explain why it took so long for the abuses committed by Jimmy Savile and Harvey Weinstein to become a public scandal. Some people knew and yet somehow they didn’t know because to accept the reality was unthinkable. Perhaps most of us live in a state of denial because otherwise life would be unbearable. We know, for example, that the threat to the planet from global warming is real, yet most of us live as if we don’t know.

Cohen’s book includes a quotation from Orwell, writing on nationalism, that is particularly apt when applied to Israel and Jewish nationalism:

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them…In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind.

In the case of Israel’s supporters, this brain disorder of knowing and not knowing is paralleled by the disconnect between the image of Israel as it presents itself — as it has always presented itself — to the outside world and the living reality of Israel as it is, as it has always been. For Zionists in the Jewish Labour Movement to allow the reality to reach conscious knowledge would indeed be unbearable, would strike at the core of their identity. After all, the United Synagogue proclaims ‘the centrality of Israel in Jewish life’. That then becomes an absolute bar to acknowledging the reality of Israel and its history.

The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic. Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self. (James Baldwin)

Ethnic cleansing

Look at it this way. Israel was founded on ethnic cleansing, the total destruction of some 400 Palestinian villages and on deliberate massacres of the indigenous population. Deir Yassin was the most infamous but more gruesome was the massacre at Al Dawayima on 29 October 1948 when, according to a report received by the Israeli daily Al Ha-Mishmar, soldiers from the 89th Battalion entered the village and killed 80 to 100 Arab men, women and children.

The children they killed by breaking their heads with sticks. There was not a house without dead…One commander ordered a sapper to put two old women in a certain house…and to blow up the house with them. The sapper refused. The commander then ordered his men to put in the old women and the evil deed was done… One woman, with a newborn baby in her arms, was employed to clean the courtyard where the soldiers ate. She worked a day or two. In the end they shot her and her baby.

The report was never published. In another village, Safsaf, a report submitted to the Mapam Political Committee listed the crimes committed by Israeli soldiers: 52 men tied with a rope and dropped into a well and shot. 10 were killed. Women pleaded for mercy. Three cases of rape…a girl aged 14 was raped. Another was killed.

Of course, terrible things happen in war. Soldiers on all sides commit atrocities. But the point here is that the actions of the Israeli army were driven by the political imperative of establishing a Jewish state with ‘maximum territory, minimum Arabs’. The blame lies not so much with the individual soldiers as with Zionist ideology. As Ben Gurion wrote in his diary:

Soldier eyewitnesses to these events concluded that ‘cultured officers had turned into base murderers and this not in the heat of battle…but out of a system of expulsion and destruction. The less Arabs remained — the better. This principle is the political motor for the expulsions and the atrocities.

In April 1948 Tochnit Dalet, Plan D, was put into operation giving the green light for the indigenous population to be expelled outside the borders of the state. Mass expulsions followed. In July 70,000 Palestinians were driven out of Lydda and Ramleh with nothing to eat or drink on an order signed by Yitzhak Rabin and approved by Ben Gurion. It was known as the Death March. Hundreds died.

There is nothing more moral from the viewpoint of universal human ethics than the emptying of the Jewish state of the Arabs and their transfer elsewhere…This requires the use of force. (Avraham Katznelson, Mapai politician.)

In December 1948, Israeli ministers discussed the atrocities. The Agricultural minister, Aharon Zisling said, “This is something that determines the character of the nation…Jews too have committed Nazi acts.” Finally it was decided that, in order to preserve Israel’s image , nothing should be admitted.

In the same month, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194 which supported the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. In response, Mapai, Israel’s ruling party passed the Absentee Property Law which forbade Palestinian ‘infiltrators’ from returning on pain of death and legalised the seizing of property belonging to those who had been expelled so that it could be given to Jews.

It is well-known that we are the best socialists in the world…even as we plunder the Arabs. (Pinchas Lavon, Mapai politician.)

So Israel was, as Shlomo Ben-Ami, Barak’s Foreign Minister, acknowledged, ‘born in sin’ and stained with blood; yet in its own eyes and in the approving eyes of most of the non-Arab world, it was an immaculate birth in the wake of a terrible tragedy.

The terrorist group, the Stern Gang, holds its victory conference

Prominent Labour Party politicians, both on the right, like Richard Crossman and Herbert Morrison, and on the left like Michael Foot, Harold Laski, Aneurin Bevan & Anthony Wedgwood Benn (before he became Tony Benn & a fierce critic of Israel), were enthusiastic supporters of the new state. Ernest Bevin, for his own political reasons, was a notable exception. After the catastrophe of the Holocaust this is, perhaps, not surprising. Nevertheless it required a deliberate denial of the injustice done to the Palestinians. The massacres were ignored or the knowledge of them was repressed — it would be decades before Israeli ‘revisionist’ historians like Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim shed light on the real history of the Nakba. As for the mass expulsions, Israel invented a plausible explanation: they fled because the Arab leaders told them to. There was never any evidence for this but Israel has never required any evidence for its propaganda myths. Also overlooked was the fact that, while the 1947 Partition Plan gave Israel 55% of Palestine (although Jews formed only 30% of the population and owned only 7% of the land) by the end of the fighting, Israel’s borders had expanded to take in 78% of the land. Acquiring territory by war is a violation of international law but this, too, was overlooked.

The Labour Party’s close relationship with and support of Zionism goes back well before the establishment of the state. It endorsed the Balfour Declaration in 1917. In 1920, Paole Zion, the British section of the International Labour Zionist Organisation (the forerunner of the Jewish Labour Movement) affiliated to the British Labour Party. In the following decades, the Labour Party supported Zionism’s creeping colonisation of Palestine, the process of buying land from absentee landlords and evicting the native farmers who worked the land, a process which had begun towards the end of the 19th century.

Land is the most necessary thing for establishing our roots in Palestine. Since there are hardly any more arable unsettled lands in Palestine, we are bound in each case of the purchase of land to remove the peasants who cultivate the land. (Arthur Rappin, head of the JNF 1920)

Palestinian refugees

In 1944, the Labour Party conference passed a resolution promoting free immigration of Jews into Palestine and transfer of the Arab population. “Let the Arabs be encouraged to … move out as the Jews move in.”

Zionism was a colonising project

Even anti-colonialist socialists like Michael Foot could not bring themselves to acknowledge that Zionism itself was a colonising project and that Israel was a settler state. With their racist mindset they saw Israel as an oasis of Western civilisation in a desert of Arab backwardness. They felt an affinity with the ruling party’s professed socialism, ignoring the fact that this Jewish socialism excluded the Palestinian minority, most of whom were living under military rule until 1966. They fell for the guff about ‘making the desert bloom like a rose’ and admired the egalitarian ideology of the kibbutzim, not realising — or unwilling to believe — that many kibbutzim were built on the ruins of Palestinian villages, that Palestinians were barred from joining and that the policy of the kibbutz movement was not to use ‘Arab’ labour. In supporting the Histadrut, Israel’s TUC, they somehow failed to notice that it was a racist organisation dedicated to excluding Arabs from the workforce, thus following Herzl’s injunction to ‘spirit the penniless population across the border by denying them employment’.

The Labour Party’s love affair with Israel continued despite Suez in 1956 — Israel’s role in the plot against Egypt escaped blame when Bevan launched his famous attack on the Tory government at the Trafalgar Square demonstration; despite the 1967 Six Day War initiated by Israel’s attack on Egypt — the Israeli propaganda machine went into overdrive here with a claim that Egypt had attacked Israel, a lie repeated at the UN two weeks later by Abba Eban; despite its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and annexation of East Jerusalem; despite its wars against Lebanon in 1978 and 1982; despite Sabra and Shatila; despite Israel’s violent response to the first non-violent intifada met by Rabin’s order to ‘break their bones’, an order carried out to the letter by Israeli soldiers; despite the settlement expansion during and after the Oslo talks; despite the wars on Gaza, the war on Lebanon, the siege of Gaza, the use of torture and imprisonment without trial, the Wall, the demolition of houses, the theft of water, the uprooting of olive trees, the ethnic cleansing of the Bedouin, the apartheid, the everyday violations of international law, the incarceration of Palestinian children…. And still they love Israel though it should surely be clear to any rational person what sort of state Israel is…

A state like no other and a law unto itself. It is an anachronism: a settler state in the 21st century. It is, as far as I know, the only state with flexible borders, as they must be if Zionism’s dream of a Greater Israel embracing world Jewry is to be fulfilled. The international consensus is that pre-1967 Israel defines its final borders. Israeli maps, however, have not shown the Green Line as the border of Israel since 1971 when Golda Meir declared that Israel’s borders are determined by where Jews live, not by a line on the map. It is the only state I know of that defines nationality by (supposed) ethnicity so there is no such thing as Israeli nationality because it is a state not for its citizens but for all the Jews in the world. It is nuclear-armed, has one of the most powerful armies in the world with the most sophisticated weaponry and has launched five aggressive wars against its neighbours, yet claims always to be the victim. It uses the Holocaust to justify its oppressive policies but has treated its Holocaust survivors abysmally.

And it is a psychotic state, a state in denial. Its first myth was A land without a people for a people without a land thus disappearing the indigenous people. In 1969 Golda Meir was still insisting that ‘There were no such thing as Palestinians….They did not exist’ . It is a state that rewrites its own history and will not acknowledge, nor will the majority of its Jewish citizens, the suffering it has inflicted on the Palestinian inhabitants of the country it has colonised.

Israel. as a society, suppressed the memory of its war against the local Palestinians because it couldn’t really come to terms with the fact that it expelled Arabs, committed atrocities against them, dispossessed them. This was like admitting that the noble Jewish dream of statehood was stained forever by a major injustice… (Shlomo Ben-Ami)

No wonder then that any commemoration of the Nakba has been made illegal.

The Israeli political establishment inflicted on Palestinians four types of denial. First came the denial of our very existence. Then followed the denial of our rights. All this was accompanied by the denial of our sufferings and the denial of their moral and historical responsibility for this suffering.
(Afif Safieh, Palestinian diplomat.)

So now we have a Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary who loves Israel. She cannot accept that the Israel she loves, ‘the only democracy in the Middle East‘, bears little resemblance to the actual Israel. She will not see that the increasingly repressive nature of the state, the militarisation of society, the racism, the growing religious fanaticism are the inevitable consequences of its self-definition as a ‘Jewish’ state, a state that excludes its non-Jewish minority from full citizenship. She criticises the policies of the present government and believes — or professes to believe — that a change of government would remove the settlements and bring about a two state solution. This delusion is necessary because it would be too awful to acknowledge that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is inherent in the nature of the Zionist state and not due to this or that government’s policies.

The Labour Party itself, up to and including Corbyn, is in a state of denial. It hangs its hopes on a two-state solution brought about by peace talks. There are no peace talks. There never were any genuine peace talks. The peace talks were in reality an excuse for Israel to consolidate its settlement project. There is no two-state solution. The two-state solution is dead, even Jonathan Freedland can see that. But this hard reality must be denied because the alternative — a single secular state with equal rights for all, i.e. the end of the ‘Jewish’ state — is too awful to contemplate.

Is it? Really?

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