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Corbyn, Castro and the fraternal toleration of 'flaws'

    For all his flaws", said Jeremy Corbyn, Fidel Castro was "a huge figure of modern history, national independence and 20th-century socialism" who had been an "internationalist and a champion of social justice". His ally Ken Livingstone added that while Castro "initially wasn't very good on lesbian and gay rights,on the key things that mattered… people had a good education, good healthcare, and wealth was evenly distributed."

    In a video interview Mr Corbyn added, with a little smile, that Castro had "outlasted 10 American presidents". He might have added, had he thought of it, that was three more than General Franco had managed and (thanks to Franklin Roosevelt's unique and now impossible four election victories) double Stalin's tally.

    But then anyone with any sense of modern history watching Corbyn or Livingstone talking about the dictator, who for nearly 50 years ruled Cuba alongside his brother and a small group of comrades (and who was succeeded by his brother and a small group of comrades), will have known what "for all his flaws" or "the key things that mattered" meant.

    They meant that actually Castro was pretty much vindicated in what he did, that insofar as he didn't run a Western style liberal democracy, he was probably right not to, and that to bang on about it would be a sign of hostility to the forces of progress and human advancement. Although Corbyn used, once again, his famous, "I condemn human rights violations and I condemn them everywhere" formulation, I could not find a single instance of him in over 45 years actually choosing to criticise the Cuban regime for such violations.

    I mentioned this earlier in the week when I spoke at a fundraiser for Amnesty Israel - the Israeli branch of Amnesty International - organised by the human rights lawyers at Doughty Street Chambers. The other speaker was Amnesty Israel's head, Yonatan Gher, small, ebullient, friendly man.

    I could not find a single criticism for such violations

    Gher had talked about the work of Amnesty Israel and the paradox of working in almost the only country in the region that permitted Amnesty to exist and operate freely, but where so many regarded its criticism of human rights violations as practically treacherous. Only recently, he said, an MK had openly described Amnesty as "traitors".

    In many ways, Gher was doing the most difficult thing you can do in a country which doesn't routinely imprison its critics. He was telling people what they least wanted to hear, telling them about the beams in their own eyes, from cases of discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and of human rights abuses carried out within the occupied Palestinian territories. And although he would not be "disappeared" or physically harassed by the authorities for acting in this way, nevertheless there were many who wanted him to stop and couched their criticisms in terms designed to put him beyond the pale. When you hear the word "betrayal" used about someone expressing an opinion or raising a difficult question, you are witnessing an intention to silence.

    My point about Castro was, that for too many people, human rights are a kind of added bonus which you would quite like to see observed in ideal circumstances, but which are not as important as say, the economy, or defeating the enemy or social order. They are a dessert, not the main course. "For all his flaws" means "it isn't really that important". They are not one of "the key things that mattered".

    But more than that, where the sinner is someone who in other ways you identify with, admire, want to succeed, then the motivation to ignore or minimise their failings becomes great. Where they are almost family, the temptation is very hard to resist. Then a defensive pattern is often observable: first deny (it didn't happen), then compare (the critic is not so great himself) and then to "whatabout" (why not mention Saudi Arabia instead?)

    But there is an old cliché which is true for all that it is repeated down the years. What keeps an open society open and a just society just is precisely the activities of organisations like Amnesty and the conscientious desire to right the wrongs that they highlight. In that sense the people who stay truest to the ideals of a nation like Israel are those awkward ones who seek always to do better. Those, paradoxically, that truly betray the values of such a polity are those who shout "traitor" when told things they don't like.

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