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.
Paul Richards is a former special adviser and writes a weekly column for Progress, Paul’s week in politics
Photo: Meir Jacob
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