Like Ed, we should all be friends of Israel

Tel Aviv, Israel, gay pride

In common with many British Jews, Ed Miliband has a close family association with Israel. In a speech this week to Labour Friends of Israel, the Labour leader described his grandmother’s emigration to Israel and his visits as a young man to Yad Vashem, the monument to the Holocaust. Here, at the Avenue of the Righteous, he commemorated the Catholic family who sheltered his mother and aunt from the Nazis.

For progressives, support for Israel should be as natural as support for any other pluralist, democratic state. Like the USA, Israel was born as a democracy, with liberty, human rights and the rule of law enshrined in its constitution from the start. As the late David Cairns MP, twice chair of Labour Friends of Israel, wrote in a speech which he never got to deliver:

‘in good times and bad, Israel has undeniably positive attributes: a free and vibrant media; a robust independent judiciary; strong trade unions; equality for gays and lesbians; and an unrivalled commitment to free, world-class education.’

As Cairns goes on to outline progressive values, and say ‘there is still only one country in the Middle East where those values are lived out every day.’

David Cairns’ undelivered speech is contained in a new collection of essays about Israeli politics and society, published to coincide with the LFI event at which Ed Miliband spoke. Essayists include Michael Dugher MP, Rachel Reeves MP, Meg Munn MP, Jonathan Reynolds MP and the chair of the LFI, John Woodcock MP.

That the first four or five paragraphs of this column will have sent some readers into apoplexy raises some interesting questions. Nothing I’ve written is anything other than factual. Israel is a liberal democracy, the only one in the region. It enjoys the support of many in the Labour party, including the MPs I’ve listed. The Labour leader, an atheist Jew, has family living in Israel.

Yet some – unfortunately I think a better word is many – on the left see Israel as an evil entity, deserving of the rockets and suicide bombs visited upon it every week. Unlike discourse about any other country, many on the left make little or no distinction between the government of Israel and the state of Israel. Even the most visceral opponent of George W Bush did not argue that America shouldn’t exist. No anti-apartheid campaigner wanted South Africa to be abolished.

My question to those who want to destroy Israel is always the same: ‘are there any other members of the United Nations that you don’t think should exist?’ The answer is always ‘no’. Once you get to that position, you have to wonder why Israel is uniquely singled out for destruction, why it is uniquely judged against a different standard from any other country, and why its people are uniquely denied their nationhood. One answer might be that it is because Israel is uniquely Jewish.

I love Israel. My first visit was in 1990, when thousands of Russian Jews were arriving after the thaw in the Cold War. The signs at Ben Gurion were in Cyrillic script. Since that first trip, I have stood at the summit of the Golan Heights, eaten with Kibbutzniks, swum in the Med off Tel Aviv, waved at Hezbollah across the Lebanese border, and walked in the footsteps of Jesus on the shores of Galilee and the Mount of Beatitudes. Crossing into the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, I have met with Palestinian trade unionists. One had fled in fear of his life – from Hamas death squads in Gaza. I’ve met with young women in the Israeli Defence Force, who weeks earlier were hanging around outside Blooms in Golders Green.

To love Israel is not the same as loving, or even approving of, its government or its politicians. To allow yourself to be blinded by love of the country to the faults of its government is as foolish as to allow yourself to be blinded by hate for its government to the legitimacy of the country.

Israel is a country founded as a direct response to evil, anchored in the traditions of the Labour and trade union movement, and living out progressive values, surrounded by dictatorships and Iran-funded terrorists. It is the only place where women can vote, where there’s an open gay scene, where the people can get rid of their government without bloodshed. Like Ed Miliband, we should all be friends of Israel.

Making the Progressive Case for Israel, edited by Ben Garratt, is published by LFI.

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Paul Richards is a former special adviser and writes a weekly column for Progress, Paul’s week in politics

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Photo: Meir Jacob

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  • http://twitter.com/oliver_segal Oliver Frank Segal

    very true

    the truth is much anti-israel feeling is anti-Semitism or a loathing of western liberalism.

    • http://twitter.com/tommilleruk Tom Miller

      Though I partially agree with your statement, I don’t think it is what Paul is trying to say here. He’s talking about Zionism and the plurality it can supply, and how lazily that is dismissed, rather than accusing people of anti-semitism.

      In fact, that kind of behaviour does make Israel advocates look rather bad. The public don’t respond to the claim well, because it seems to find its way into totally inappropriate situations very often indeed… whilst sometimes correct (see Gilad Atzmon, for example), it can also potentially come across as an attempt to avoid debates which aren’t really about ethnicity.

  • d.mcardle

    that’s not true OFS,I am anti Israel,well their foreign policy ! but I really like and admire many Jewish people.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.hills1 Gary Hills

    Wrong, if Israel wants to be respected and supported then it should stop being the bully and stop ignoring human rights. Its disgraceful way it behaves must be challenged at every step. Their deliberate action’s to take land that is not theirs and then leave the Palestinians in next to poverty is no way to run a nation.

    Israel as a nation thinks it only has to abide to international law when it is the victim yet is quick to dole out illegal actions. Labour should not cosy up to Israel; if it wants to be a friend then only by being a critical friend will it makes sense. But the moment it looks likes we are condoning Israel then that is the time Labour will lose all sense of values.

    Israel is a bully and has caused most of the problems they complain about. It’s not just should be about should their country exists it’s about how do they meet decency and humanity standards and on that score they have done very little.

    Ed may have Jewish routes but that is not enough, what happened to the Jews in WW2 should never be forgotten and it was vile and wrong in every sense. Yet that cruelty does not give the Jewish state the right to deny human rights to the Palestinians.

    As for being a friend few Labour people will share that view, that is something earned not given.

  • http://twitter.com/BenC42 almost anonymous

    Disappointingly (if unsurprisingly) one-sided article that reads like something out of The Onion. How can any serious article about the political situation of Israel fail to mention the occupied territories or the Palestinian people?

    My idea of a pluralist society is somewhere like the UK where there are laws against discrimination and everyone has the right to vote regardless of religion or ethnic origin. Where an atheist can be leader of the Labour Party or a Muslim can be chairman of the Conservative Party. Only the BNP advocates a “British State” which would be “the homeland of the British People” as defined by parentage (i.e. you can only be British if you parents and grandparents were British).

    Why would any democrat who supports human rights endorse the idea of a “Jewish state” that actively discriminates against indigenous peoples who are not Jewish, and forces millions of people to live in appalling conditions with no access to running water or other basic necessities, and severely restricts their opportunities for economic development (or even to grow their own food)?

    For a more balanced perspective on Israel/Palestine I recommend Channel 4’s ‘The Promise’ (now available on DVD), or the excellent documentary ‘Mixed Up in the Middle East’ – shown last week on BBC 3 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b017ct6c)

  • http://twitter.com/tommilleruk Tom Miller

    “To love Israel is not the same as loving, or even approving of, its government or its politicians. To allow yourself to be blinded by love of the country to the faults of its government is as foolish as to allow yourself to be blinded by hate for its government to the legitimacy of the country.”

    I wish people would remember this.

    As far as I am concerned, the country is currently run by right-wing lunatics in coalition with fascism. Current policies on the occupation and on peace negotiations are totally unacceptable.

    Nevertheless, this does not make me anti-Israel, and I resent the argument, levelled all too frequently against far too many, that it does.

    There is a dire need for militarist rhetoric on both sides of the national divide to be tackled. The most powerful actors are the Israeli right, and it makes sense to start with them.

  • Chris L

    What an ill informed piece of whitewashing. The fact that there are many normal liberal elements to Israeli society is far from the point. One doesn’t ‘balance out’ other human rights abuses (“well, he was a rapist, but always donated to charity”) and nor does the perfectly ‘normal’ nature of most of the domestic behaviour of Israel excuse its behaviour towards the millions of people who it has kept under military rule for the majority of its existence.

    I’ll restrict myself to criticising just one line: ‘Like the USA, Israel was born as a democracy, with liberty, human rights and the rule of law enshrined in its constitution from the start.’

    Well those familiar with Israel know that it has no written constitution – a fact much criticised by many on the left within Israel. Under the series of (frequently contradictory) ‘basic laws’ rights have been granted and rescinded for citizens depending on their ethnicity, regardless of the aspirations of Israel’s Declaration of Independent (a unilateral move).

    You’d also know that “from the start” indigenous non-Jews were governed not under civil law, but were subject to military rule (in Israel proper) until 1966.

    Yes, exactly like the USA, Israel was founded in difficult circumstances with a paper commitment to democracy and liberty. As in both cases (and many others), very large numbers of the indigenous population were then murdered or driven from their homes. Thankfully, the Palestinians got off lightly compared to Native Americans. My point is that many states – the UK especially – have done awful things, whilst still having many positives about them. Some stopped doing things quite so awful some time in the past – Israel has not.

    You also need to learn a lot more about the region if you think “It is the only place where women can vote”. If you actually were interested in the status of women in the Middle East rather than just wishing to whitewash Israeli actions, you’d know that women have been voting in Lebanese national election since 1952 – 19 years before they could in Switzerland.

  • http://twitter.com/albieoneill albie o’neill

    I can’t in all honesty say much about this article as I don’t know how good a country Israel is….what I can say is that the Israeli government is as far from the model of democracy as one could imagine. The West bank is not in Israel, Gaza is not in Israel yet these two parts of the occupied Palestinian territories are controlled by Israel. Controlled in this sense meaning not only controlling the borders and freedom of movement, but controlling the supply of water, access to education, access to land to harvest crops, access to family members. But it goes further giving lesser legal rights to Palestinians that settlers who according to international law live in illegal settlements. Fail to treat children in line with the UN Convention on the rights of the child. A modern, progressive democracy? Maybe in Israel…well maybe not because there is the small problem of not recognising the right of return for refugees. Having spent over 30 years working in the labour and trade union movement I can say with some authority that Paul Richards is talking crap.

  • http://twitter.com/albieoneill albie o’neill

    I can’t in all honesty say much about this article as I don’t know how good a country Israel is….what I can say is that the Israeli government is as far from the model of democracy as one could imagine. The West bank is not in Israel, Gaza is not in Israel yet these two parts of the occupied Palestinian territories are controlled by Israel. Controlled in this sense meaning not only controlling the borders and freedom of movement, but controlling the supply of water, access to education, access to land to harvest crops, access to family members. But it goes further giving lesser legal rights to Palestinians that settlers who according to international law live in illegal settlements. Fail to treat children in line with the UN Convention on the rights of the child. A modern, progressive democracy? Maybe in Israel…well maybe not because there is the small problem of not recognising the right of return for refugees. Having spent over 30 years working in the labour and trade union movement I can say with some authority that Paul Richards is talking crap.

  • https://twitter.com/shrimble Rhoderick Gates

    “Israel was born as a democracy, with liberty, human rights and the rule of law enshrined in its constitution from the start.” You’re wrong, it doesn’t have a constitution. Do your research