The far-left candidate in the British Labour Party leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn, is performing very well.
He stands out from the other candidates in projecting a clear vision of the future in an age of austerity and plucks at the socialist heartstrings of many a party member – a yearning for traditional Labour values and an ideological distancing from Tony Blair’s New Labour. Indeed there appears to be a hemorrhaging of the vote for Andy Burnham, the favorite, and a swing to Corbyn instead.
While Corbyn is unassuming, articulate and a conviction politician, he is also a fully-paid up member of the Ken Livingstone generation – albeit less crude and antagonistic – and someone who exemplifies the views of the British far Left on the Israel-Palestine conflict. For example, he publicly apologized recently for the issuing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, describing it as “an historic mistake.”
Corbyn like Livingstone was born during the post-war era of British decolonization and came of political age during the national liberation struggles of the 1960s, such as in Vietnam, Rhodesia and South Africa.
This coincided with the emergence of Palestinian nationalism and the establishment of the PLO in 1964. For the nascent British New Left, it was therefore easier to identify with the Palestinians. Palestinian nationalism fitted their world outlook much more comfortably than the Zionism of the Israelis – and this was crucially before the settlement drive in the West Bank after the Six Day War.
The previous generation, the Old Left, had fought local fascist groups with the Jews in London’s East End during the 1930s and bore witness to the revelations of the Shoah during the following decade. The Old Left strongly welcomed the rise of a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel in 1948. This was in stark contrast to the views of the right-wing foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin. His near namesake, Aneurin Bevan, the founder of Britain’s much-admired National Health Service, was a passionate Zionist. It was said at the time that the further Left you went in the Labour Party, the more you became committed to Israel.
The pioneering Zionist experiment captured the imagination of the Labour Left in 1948. Barbara Castle, the fiery advocate of equal opportunities, referred to the kibbutz as “true biblical communism.”
Unlike Corbyn, Bevan differentiated between reactionary nationalist movements and progressive socialist ones.
Indeed, following Nasser’s coup in 1954, Bevan became increasingly disillusioned with the Egyptian leader. By 1956, he was accusing Nasser of “stirring the pot of nationalist passions” to the detriment of bettering the lot of the Egyptian people.
Bevan believed that no radical transformation of Egyptian society had taken place.
In an article in Tribune on August 3, 1956, Bevan wrote: “If a social movement elects to take the path of revolution, it must pursue it to the end and the end is a complete transformation of society accompanied by a transference of power from the old to the new social forces. Judged by this criterion, the movement first led by General Neguib and then by Nasser has not as yet added up to a social revolution or anything like it.”
It is hard to imagine a Corbyn or a Livingstone making such a comment today.
The belief in selective outrage – that some outrages are worthy of condemnation while others are not – defines much of the British far Left today. Whereas Bevan was willing to condemn Stalinism and the incarceration of hundreds of thousands in the Gulag, many on the British Left today turn a blind eye to the actions of authoritarian regimes. Indeed some of Corbyn’s strongest backers within the UNITE union press for “an understanding” of Stalin’s rule and yearn for the good old days of Soviet- style Communism.
Neil Kinnock, who became leader of the Labour Party after its disastrous showing in the election of 1983, was an admirer of Aneurin Bevan and the Old Left. A few months earlier, a rival group on the Labour Left, the Socialist Campaign Group, was established – which Corbyn enthusiastically joined prior to his election to parliament.
Its world outlook was framed by decolonization and a blanket anti-imperialism.
Its foundation also occurred shortly after Operation Peace for Galilee and the Sabra and Shatilla killings – a seminal event in ushering the British Left into the Palestinian camp.
Labour had split in 1981 when many right-wing figures defected and formed the Social Democratic party. This also empowered the Socialist Campaign Group on the far Left to challenge Neil Kinnock’s leadership a few years later – and in one sense to oppose the Old Left’s attachment to Israel.
Corbyn is happy to erect a protective umbrella over many extra-parliamentary elements on the far Left – Stalinists, Trotskyists and Islamists. He has been the chair of the Stop the War Coalition which first emerged during the conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan and then mushroomed on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
He is also a long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause and patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He has visited Gaza six times and expressed support for its besieged inhabitants. Yet no distinction is made between the political rulers of the Palestinians, between nationalists and Islamists, between Fatah and Hamas – they are all the same, they are all simply Palestinians. Wouldn’t Aneurin Bevan have differentiated? This casting of the actors in the conflict into black-and-white roles characterizes this polarized approach. It is a mirror image that some on the Israeli Right hold – those who are unable to discern shades of gray in between. Like many Israelis and Diaspora Jews, Corbyn preaches the need for a Palestinian state, yet this is never accompanied by a comment that he also supports the right of the Jews to national self-determination. Moreover Corbyn and his political reflections on the Israeli Right speak of “Palestine against Israel” – or vice-versa. But shouldn’t a socialist like Corbyn instead express solidarity with the peace camps in Israel and Palestine against their respective rejectionists? Corbyn confines his association with Israelis to the peripheral far Left in Israel rather than developing contacts with the mainstream Left. While he projects a convincing image to Labour Party members in the UK, he is vague and lacking in vision when it comes to the tortuous Israel-Palestine conflict. Perhaps it is easier to endorse public relations on behalf of the Palestinians than to deal with the public reality in the region that will bring about a just peace between both peoples.
Next Monday Corbyn will appear with the other candidates at hustings at a Jewish venue in London. Hopefully he will not evade pertinent questions about his stand on peace through a deceptive eloquence.
But how will he answer the question: “Do the Jews have a right to national self-determination? Yes or no?” Jewish Labour Party members will expect serious answers to serious questions.The author is an emeritus professor at SOAS, university of London. His book,
The Rise of the Israeli Right: From Odessa to Hebron will be published next month by Cambridge University Press.
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