Under Labour, the debate on Israel is only just beginning

We will need to find a way to have a conversation both within the community and with the government about the Jewish state in which not all mainstream Jews take the same position


Attorney General Richard Hermer KC makes his way to Number 10 for his first day as a cabinet minister on 6 July (Photo by Alex McBride/Getty Images)

July 08, 2024 16:00

Not much that happened on election night came as a surprise. The results were much as expected. But there was one exception. While I was sitting, sometime after 1:30am, in the BBC Radio 4 studio commenting on results, the news came through that Jon Ashworth was set to lose his seat in Leicester South. Which he duly proceeded to do. An independent candidate, running primarily on the Palestine issue, had taken out one of the leading stars of the Labour campaign.

Few seem to have seen it coming. I’m told that shortly after Rishi Sunak called the election, there had been some concern among Labour organisers. But this had then receded.

It shouldn’t have. Not only did Ashworth lose, but a number of other less well-known colleagues did too. And other major figures – most notably Wes Streeting and Jess Phillips – came quite close to defeat. The new justice secretary Shabana Mahmood did win, but her vote was halved.

And Jeremy Corbyn, of course, won his seat.

It’s an indication, should it have been needed, that the election result means that supporters of Israel are now on trickier political terrain.

Sir Keir Starmer has changed the Labour Party. And one way he has changed it is to deal firmly with hard-left antisemites.

I believe he was sincere about it, but he could also see that it was essential to a Labour victory. As indeed it proved to be. But this does not mean that the new government will be the reliable friend of Israel that the outgoing government proved to be. Nor even – and this important to understand – will it be the reliable friend that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were.

Palestinian rights have become a major left cause, Muslim voters (who feel very strongly on the matter even if they originate from Pakistan) are a serious part of Labour’s coalition, and the leadership will be concerned about the loss of seats and votes.

There will also be a human-rights focus, which will make their reaction to issues different to the Conservatives.

This will certainly be the case on issues such as arms sales. But it will also affect their position on boycott campaigns.

Harder to call still will be their reaction to aggressive Gaza campaigning. They are likely instinctively to be against tough laws on protest, which the Tories favoured.

Yet the fact that Labour politicians are often the subject of such aggression might assist them to understand the problem and might lead them to be tougher. Equally, it might weaken their stance in the mistaken apprehension that this might appease.

Taken together, all of this makes the political position much harder to predict. And to navigate. Take, for instance, the appointment of Richard Hermer KC as attorney-general.

Hermer is a committed Jew, a member of Alyth Gardens, and someone with all the usual family and emotional commitments to Israel. Yet at the same time, he clearly dissents from the policy of the Netanyahu government, has expressed concerns about its legality and has opposed attempts to outlaw boycotts – although it is important to point out that he also supports Israel’s right to defend itself and understands the appalling nature of the Hamas attack.

It would be both wrong and politically foolish to simply attack Hermer because he doesn’t always agree with Israel. And it would be absurd, actually grotesque, to suggest he is antisemitic or a “self-hating” Jew.

Instead, we will have to engage in something we haven’t really needed to do before. We will have to have a nuanced public debate within the community and with the government in which not all mainstream Jews take the same position and in which we accept that the government will criticise, or even act against, Israel without being opposed to its existence.

Relations with the government and within the community will simply become trickier and less reliable. The prime minister will have to manage a party with quite a few MPs who are relatively unsympathetic to the Zionist cause.

We will have to start a programme of education and a discourse that wasn’t really needed before. In the new environment, there is plenty to hope for. But we will not be able to take anything for granted.

July 08, 2024 16:00

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