Israel – a progressive cause

By Robert Philpot, March 11, 2011
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At the time of the founding of the state of Israel, David Ben Gurion said it was not enough for the Jewish state to be simply Jewish - it had to be fully democratic, offering full citizenship to all its peoples. It was a remarkable statement made at the very moment when Israel faced the first of the wars of survival which have periodically threatened its very existence.

Remarkable because, as the history of many nations, including our own, shows, the real test of a nation's commitment to democracy is not whether that commitment is made during times of peace and tranquillity, but whether it can be sustained during times of war and difficulty.

Israel's steadfast adherence to liberal democratic principles, even at the hardest of times, is one that should be admired and supported by democrats everywhere.

This is especially so because - despite welcome developments in the Middle East over recent weeks - Israel remains the only democracy in a region where monarchical autocracies, zealous theocracies and military authoritarianism are the most prevalent form of government. But while democrats of all political persuasions should give their support to Israel, those of us on the left should do so particularly.

Appreciate Israel's efforts to promote peace

Israel is, after all, a country founded on social democratic principles; and the Israeli Labor Party, which, alongside our own Labour Party, is a member of the Socialist International, was the country's dominant political force for decades.

Indeed, it is because of those social democratic principles that Israel's attributes are undeniably progressive: a free and vibrant media; a robust and independent judiciary; strong trade unions; a generous welfare state; and a commitment to free, world-class education that enables Israel to have one of the highest-skilled workforces on earth.

Contrast, too, the equal rights which women, gays and lesbians and other minorities enjoy in Israel with the second-class citizenship and persecution meted out to such groups in most, if not all, of Israel's neighbours.

Sadly, of course, this view of Israel is not shared by everyone on the British left. A small but vocal and vociferous fringe seeks to demonise Israel and its people. Too often, alongside some on the right who have long harboured a dislike of Israel's progressivism, they appear able to use their power and influence in the media to distort debate not only about the Middle East peace process, but also about Britain's own foreign policy.

This is why, alongside Labour Friends of Israel, Progress believes the debate we are jointly hosting next week, on making the progressive case for Israel, is so important. We believe that it is essential that we not only demonstrate the support for Israel that exists within the Labour Party but, more importantly, challenge those who seek to deny Israel's right to exist and show why that point of view simply has no place at all in the Labour Party.

Equally, we believe it is important to assert Israel's right to defend itself and to have its rightful security concerns, and its efforts to promote peace, appreciated, not ignored.

The calls for boycotts and attempts to exploit our courts to exclude Israeli voices from public debate in this country are, of course, simply the most obvious manifestation of this anti-Israeli fringe. The boycott movement, particularly amongst some British trade unions, is also the most self-indulgent, for it would achieve nothing beyond harming the very people on whose behalf it is apparently being mounted.

Indeed, its most practical effect would be to stifle the growing co-operation, endorsed and supported by the International Trade Union Confederation, between Israeli and Palestinian trade unions, co-operation which provides the building blocks for trust and co-operation upon which a long-term peace settlement can be built.

But while it is self-indulgent, the boycott movement is also pernicious. The impact of the attempts to isolate and demonise Israel and its people are being felt week in, week out by Jewish people here in Britain in the form of rising antisemitism. This is something the left should unreservedly condemn, not attempt to excuse.

I would, of course, like to see Israelis elect a more progressive government than they currently have - something I would also like to see the British people do, too. But, in the spirit of its internationalist tradition, the real challenge for Labour is to support shared values where we see them and thus to work with progressive Israelis and Palestinians to promote a two-state solution.

That means supporting both those Palestinians who want a state committed to freedom and democracy, not Hamas' violent, dictatorial brand of Islamism, and those Israelis who are already attempting to reach out to them.

Robert Philpot is director of Progress. 'Making the Progressive Case for Israel', organised by Progress and Labour Friends of Israel, is on Tuesday 15 March in the Grand Committee Room of the House of Commons. To register, visit progressiveisrael.eventbrite.com

    Last updated: 10:59am, March 11 2011