Friday 18 July 2014

On the "Obsession" with Israel and Palestine

I think James Bloodsworth has been unfair locating the opposition to Israel's bombing and invasion of Gaza in the matrix of revolutionary identity politics. Yes, in the fractured universe of British radicalism the Israel/Palestine conflict is an occasion for position-taking, and, as with nearly all positions assumed, be it war in the Middle East, the attitude to Labour, or whether capitalism has been restored in China, they are a locus for identity work. However, it is a mistake to say this determines opposition to Israel. Their "obsession" derives neither from freaks of character nor unacknowledged anti-semitism: it's because mainstream politics recognises, treats and privileges the Israel/Palestine conflict as a strategic priority in ways other persistent conflicts are not. It matters to the left because official society says it matters.

Think about it for a moment. At Labour conference this September there will be, as every year, a huge queue lining up outside the Labour Friends of Palestine meeting. If you go from there to the Labour Friends of Israel gathering, it will be as easily packed. It's worth noting as well that respective memberships do not divide along "tradtional" left/right lines. Likewise, if it's only a matter of lefty identity politics, why are some 80% of Tory MPs members of Conservative Friends of Israel? Like Labour, the LibDems have friendly societies that support either side. The conflict is an issue that goes right to the heart of politics. Why?

Peter Oborne (linked above) is right to mention the deep and abiding links between the Tories and early 20th century proponents of Zionism, but these are as rooted in the Labour Party too. There is a legacy of war guilt hanging over mainstream politics too. Allied governments closed their borders to Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. They also knew about the death camps, but chose not to say anything until they were liberated. And they had the capacity to disrupt Hitler's murder factories, but for whatever reason decided not to. There is a historical debt, and supporting the Jewish state is, for some, the contemporary equivalent of 'never again'. The moral case for Israel, drawing as it does from the historical experience of systematic genocide is the wellspring for moral opposition to it as well. Being walled off, subsisting in open air prisons, having land and water resources stolen, demolishing Palestinian property and launching military assaults as collective punishment, if these were the policies of any other state - particularly perceived enemies - its actions would be thoroughly criticised and condemned. As a state founded by victims of industrialised killing, to see successive Israeli governments dole out ethnic cleansing is as awful an irony that can be conceived.

On no other foreign policy issue does historical debt and double standards feature so prominently. Yet it is far from all. The eternal place Israel/Palestine occupies in the political imagination is all about geopolitical interests. The Middle East's oil reserves are the key lynchpin of the global order organised around the international hegemony of a (declining) US, and for Europe the Suez Canal remains an arterial shipping route. The great game of maintaining regimes friendly to perpetuating the status quo is the core concern for the State Department and Whitehall. It's so ingrained in political common sense that few, if anyone, finds the official concern for what happens there and the West's right to intervene diplomatically or militarily, strange. For instance, few would bat an eyelid if Britain proposed to sponsor talks aiming at ending the current round of violence in Israel/Palestine, Syria or Iraq. But if Brazil or China were to, that's weird if not vaguely threatening. Similarly, geopolitically Israel is an ally of US and British interests. The very existence of Israel has presented a destabilising face to the Arab dictatorships and absolutist monarchies. In foreign policy terms, Israel has proven itself to be a convenient meat shield behind which American interests can hide. The wars against Israel, the deep antipathy felt toward it across the region, often times Israel has proven a useful scapegoat by authoritarian rulers who, if anything, are greater supplicants of US interests. Is it also worth noting Israel is a ready market for armaments?

There are good reasons, and there are real reasons. The third axis of interest lies with the political effects supporters of Israel and Palestine have here in Britain. On the one hand, Israel spends big money promoting its right to existence, of making allies and friendships, of organising tours and establishing relationships between organisations here and organisations there (Labour Friends of Israel, for instance, is directly linked with the Labor Party of Israel). Politicians of all parties cultivate wealthy, Jewish backers for funds - a cultivation helped by their membership of the appropriate friendship organisation. And so on. Just so there is no misunderstanding, there is nothing especially "shadowy" or sinister about this, as anti-semitic conspiracy-mongers maintain. All states use whatever means they can to lobby for their interests. Consider the numerous Anglo-Soviet friendship committees of the Cold War, or the gaggle of transatlantic societies promoting America's bountiful virtues. Guess what, Britain does exactly the same thing overseas too. Israel have a finely-tuned PR and lobbying machine that has served successive governments well. It has helped create a political-material advantage in being seen to be a friend.

No such advantage accrues to Palestinians. Except the antipathy toward Israel transfers from Arab lands to Muslim populations here. Accounts of life under siege, land-grabbing, casual brutality, humiliation, and murder have long travelled from mainstream mosque to mainstream mosque as Palestinian speakers work the circuit. The tragedy of the Palestinians cleaves deep into British Muslim identities, whether Arabian or not. The oppression suffered by co-religionists is something all Muslims can rally around. It underwrites the experience of racism and Islamophobia in the West, is an in-your-face reminder that as far as the powers-that-be are concerned, the lives of Palestinians count for less than Israelis. This too impacts on our politics, consistently assisting the politicisation of Muslim kids (if not Islam as a religion), and integrates Muslim communities into the pro-Palestinian sections of the labour and/or anti-war movements. How many British Muslim supporters of Israel have you met?

So no. The centrality of the Israel/Palestinian conflict is not a quirk of political culture, or an indifference to horrible things happening elsewhere. It has deep cultural and material roots spanning across communities, politics, government departments, and perceived geopolitical interests. That is why it is well-covered, written on, and furiously argued over. It has a unique place because it has a unique place. What-abouting will not do. To make the situation mundane is to work toward a positive, peaceful solution.


ejh said...

I think James Bloodsworth has been unfair

You could have stopped at this point, or rather, started at a different one. There is no more point in discussing a column by James Bloodworth than one by Dan Hodges. Unfair is what they do. Do not feed, etc.

Phil said...

This point from 'anonymous' on Facebook:

In many ways I agree but in one key area I don't. And that area of disagreement is your claim the Palestinians have no such advantage in lobbying as the Israelis do. This is simply not true. You must consider all the Arab states that continually pester the Foreign Office about the Palestinians. Some of those states have oil and of those some a substantial amount of oil. One doesn't have to be a Marxist to know this is important. In fact the so-called Zionist lobby pales into insignificance when compared to pro Arab lobbying. Having said that many MPs are "friends of Israel" because that is their ideological position. It is not a function of lobbying. In fact such membership can work against an MP. Consider what MPAC ( an anti-Isael pro Muslim lobby group) did go Lorna Fitzsimmons when she was an MP because of her stated support for Israel.

Roger McCarthy said...

A key factor distinguishing I/P from Syria, Iraq or anywhere else in the ME is that here and here alone there appears to be an actual solution available which is not monstrously inequitable.

That appearance here is deceptive and that the two state solution is dead does not make it any less seductive precisely because Israel's wiser politicians know better than to decently bury it.

And so Westerners who crave solutions latch onto Israel and Palestine quite oblivious to the realities of Israeli (and Palestinian) politics which are founded not on rational calculation but on Enoch Powell's great simplicities (although ironically nowhere on earth are these simplicities more malleable and more a self-conscious post-modern donning of masks than they are in Israel).

That Israel appears so much like an advanced Western democracy maintains the illusion that change is possible - while most of the population vote as tribally as they do in any of their neighbours that allow elections and persecute their communal feuds as ardently as any Syrian, Iraqi or Lebanese sect, clan or whatever.

So what if the beginning of wisdom is to admit there is no solution and that in this case it is pointless to organise and we can only mourn.

Anonymous said...

As the Israelis massacre the Palestinians some say "why are you so bothered?"

It is simply a myth to say the left don't engage with other parts of the world, based on their beliefs. Socialist argue about everything from Ukraine, Israel, Iran, Colombia, Venezula, basically everywhere.

But I guess the anti Apartheid struggle would have fallen under the same category.

Bloodsworth's argument is pure apologism. I mean why get so bothered by 9/11, what with all the bad things that happen. Why get bothered about the holocaust, it is simply one of many throughout history? Bloodworth's argument is morally contemptuous not unfair!

Anonymous said...

Just on the Arab lobby and the Zionist lobgy.

Firstly, the Arab rulers are paid off by the imperialists, i.e. they receive weaponry to protect their rule from the masses below. They receive protection from the empire, they will not threaten the empire with blackmail! The OPEC crisis showed where the real power lies.

Secondly, the Arabs sell oil to the West, not the other way round. So by threatening the empire with oil sales they threaten their won existence.

Thirdly, the actual production and distribution of the oil is effectively controlled by the empire and not the Arab states!

Lastly, the Zionist lobby is mainly internal to the empire, this makes all the difference. Therefore the effective form of struggle by those in the West is to create a Palestinian Lobby in the West. This is the way to defeat Israel from the outside and begin to challenge the empire from within.

Speedy said...

The Jewish state is the culmination of western guilt - what the Israelis have done this week in Gaza Europeans did casually on any wet afternoon in Poland or the Ukraine ten-fold in 1941.

As they had done in fits and starts for more than a thousand years.

The Jews could thus be forgiven for wondering why it is only now Westerners ring their hands. The Westerners say "how could they of all people?" Which is of course the most grotesque charge - surely they of all people understand the rank hypocrisy of the West, which did nothing while their people were exterminated in their millions.

But you are spot on about why it "matters" - the Jews and guilt about the Jews are core to Western identity. What sticks in the craw is the fact that not content with trying to murder the lot of them, the West then has the temerity to condemn them for adopting a similar (if hardly comparable) attitude to their enemies. It seems Jews are simply held to higher standards than the rest of us - and doesn't that exceptionalism give some truth to the cries of anti-semitism?

Gary Elsby said...

I think if we have to start somewhere we should look into why the USA, a declared 'non interventionist and near isolationist Country, with a President who cherished such thoughts, decided to intervene in World War One on the side of the allies (France, Great Britain).

A toss of the coin could have seen the USA come in on the side of the Kaiser.

So why did Woodrow Wilson the ultimate pacifist commit the USA to such a war?