How Antisemitism Poisons the Left

As all good stories begin, a tweet:

Geography might be a weakness of the Corbyn campaign, but it isn’t the worst. What appears to be is how a wide variety of sloppy and false critiques of the Israeli government have led to a glib disregard for the welfare of the Jewish people.

When the left is faced with the charge of antisemitism, its instinct is self-defence: to blame an hysterical media campaign by the right to sabotage anything that threatens it. But we need the integrity to realise that it’s far more than that. It was nice to see Owen Jones try:

There are those who imply that Jewish people are somehow synonymous with the Israeli government (a slur echoed by some uncritical cheerleaders of Israeli state policy). And some use terms like “Jewish lobby”, a classic antisemitic trope suggesting there is an organised Jewish cabal exercising behind-the-scenes influence worldwide. And so on.

But left-wing antisemitism is both broader and subtler than this – mostly because those who espouse it genuinely do not recognise their politics to be racist. However unintentional, the campaign against Israel typically operates on a logic that uniquely discriminates against the Jewish quest for self-determination, whose ‘Zionism’ is routinely vulgarised to the extent that it becomes synonymous only with the most regressive forces of ultra-Orthodox, sectarian expansionism.

This will not promote social justice. There are better ways of critiquing Israel.

Zionism as Jewish Nationalism

When Richard Dawkins is condemned for supposedly racist remarks against Muslims, he argues – rightly – that we should be free to interrogate religious texts free of any suffocating charges of racism. But the retort is that, if one works on the assumption that Islam exists as a single, essentialised body of codes to be critiqued, for example in some non-existent ‘book of sharia’, then the only logical corollary is that comparable generalisations can be made of all Muslims. Unfortunately, moreover, in much of the New Atheist mindset criticism of religion begins with its fanatics, where it is said to be most ‘real’. Through Boko Haram and Islamic State, clerical fascism becomes the body of Islam, and so the soul of Muslims. The result, whatever one’s intentions, amounts to the intellectual legitimacy of racism and bigotry.

While this doesn’t persuade me, for most of the left the concern is very well understood. But the ideology of ‘Zionism’ is rarely treated with comparable subtlety, shall we say. The ease with which poorly-defined critiques of the ‘Zio threat’ can legitimise the far right does not stop the left from borrowing from its vocabulary. Instead, and with beautiful Dawkins-esque logic, the risks of racism are reflexively dismissed as an effort to silence criticism of Israel:

Anyone is welcome to reduce their definition of ‘Zionism’ to – basically – illegal settlements and bombs. But it will amount to a libelous parody, and one for which there is no excuse.

At its most reductive, the spirit of Zionism is the closest that Jews have ever had to a national identity. Late nineteenth-century Europe was poisoned by antisemitic mass politics, recently secularised and made more vicious than ever by the pseudoscience of racial Darwinism. With Jews everywhere under siege, Theodor Herzl formulated a project to rouse his nation from its slumbering diaspora, and elected to do so by way of the ancestral home of Israel. In Herzl’s vision, moreover, Jews and Arabs would live alongside one another, each thriving under universal citizenship and total cultural independence. It was a dream, even if, unfortunately, it gravitated towards utopianism: to enfranchise Jews from the shackles of political racism.

But for Jewish revolutionaries, Zionism was a distraction from the class politics in which Jews had long made their greatest contributions to humanity. Rosa Luxemburg famously claimed that she had no place in her heart for the ‘ghetto’; a new state in Israel might liberate Jews briefly from the worst of European racial suppression, but it would inevitably find itself underpinned by the same social class system against which she battled from her prison cell in Breslau. With retrospect, her idealism carried with it stakes of impossibly high proportions. Her murder by the Weimar government in the early days of 1919 – after a failed revolution – played a significant role in destabilising the German left, the only force that might have had the momentum to stop the Nazis from seizing power.

Still, history has proven Luxemburg’s criticisms of Zionism to have been ominously prescient. Constantly obsessing over security, inequality has spread like a virus through an Israeli state founded upon the principles of collectivism; and with the typical income of an Israeli Arab family half that of the average Jewish family, it is not a coincidence that the will for peace has softened with the quiet humbling of the labour movement. A toxic mixture of racism and paranoia has elevated Israel’s populist right; in Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government sit members of the Shas movement – which opposes any freeze on settlement activity – and a justice minister from Jewish Home, which wants to annex the West Bank. It makes for a disturbing echo of the German Empire of the 1890s, when – as Geoff Eley has written – its leaders ran on fanciful adventures across Africa and Eastern Europe, its people persuaded that security and prosperity came not in social reform but in exploiting the industrial and technological superiority it held over other peoples. The tragic fate of Zionism is that, in its quest for national defence, a powerful current has mutated into the very predatory and chauvinistic forces of the Europe from which it was invented to escape.

But this doesn’t make sectarianism ‘true Zionism’ or ‘central to Zionism’ anymore than we would twin Islamic State with Tower Hamlets. Many Israelis, particularly on the left, simply refuse to abandon their national heritage to the forces currently so visibly triumphant in Jerusalem. Through the World Labor Zionist Movement and the World Union of Meretz, socialists across the world agitate for a Palestinian state and do so on behalf of the two largest left-wing parties in the Knesset. Consistent in calling for the cooperation of Arab and Jewish workers, it can hardly be condemned for refusing to pacify the proto-fascistic, Jew-hating forces ruling Gaza; in 2000, Israeli Labor leader Ehud Barak brought Palestine to within a whisker of peace – had self-appointed Arab spokesman Yasser Arafat been willing to accept it. This is to say nothing of the many academics and journalists scattered across the world campaigning for the liberal Zionism of ethnic and political peace. We have to fight alongside these people, not boycott them.

It takes, moreover, scant regard for human dignity to claim that either the emotional or practical needs for Zionism have passed away. Right-wing antisemitism was steadily rising over the two decades to 2014, since when it has suddenly spiked; 7,000 Jews fled France for Israel last year, and in 2015, with the attack on the kosher supermarket following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the figure is likely to be more than double that. These are not wealthy conspiracists in league with American imperialism but victims of an antisemitism for which the left, their traditional allies, has shown disgracefully little concern. For these Jews, ‘Zionism’ is not some fanciful expansionism; it comes from a brewing vulnerability that only the Israeli state has even offered to secure.

The fact that Zionism has mutated is an argument against regressive nationalist politics – it is not specific either to Zionism or to the Jewish aspiration for self-determination that it embodies. It is a positive step that some Jews, mostly in Europe and mostly secure, feel safe without a Jewish nation to protect them – but that does not give them the right to make pronouncements about Israel’s legitimacy on behalf of those who do not. Like the religious politics Dawkins is keen to satirise, Zionism has within it the potential to emancipate as well as suppress; and, like religion, the best – and, I would suggest, only – way of critiquing it begins with the recognition that there are as many forms of Zionism as there are reasons for the Jewish nation’s existence, as well as its expansion.

Zionism and Colonialism

A typical feature of mainstream ‘anti-Zionism’ comes from Garry Leech of Stop the War Coalition, who has tasked himself with explaining why arguing for the dismantling of the Israeli state is ‘not anti-semitic’. After conceding that the earliest Jewish settlers in Palestine were indeed fleeing a terrible and ubiquitous menace, he writes:

By all rights, Palestine, like its neighbors, should have become an independent nation following World War Two, but the Western-backed Zionist project prevented this from happening. In accordance with the Balfour Declaration, Britain and the United States sought to ensure the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Under British rule, the Jewish population in Palestine had increased from 11 percent in 1922 to 32 percent in 1948, with many having arrived following the end of the war… Jewish groups supported the partition plan but Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states opposed it on the grounds that it violated the principles of national self-determination in the UN charter under which Palestinians should have the right to decide their own destiny. The plan was not implemented. Nevertheless, the Jewish population in Palestine unilaterally announced the creation of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948.

For Leech, the self-determination of the Palestinian Arabs requires that Palestinian Jews be denied theirs: there cannot be two states, thriving side-by-side, but a single entity in which the Jewish demography is put firmly into the political minority where it belongs. But this is a justified position because Zionism has always been, he asserts, in essence a brutal form of settler-colonialism sponsored by the West to control the Orient. It cannot exist in any other way; the relationship of Zionism to any Jewish national identity is immaterial.

To make this argument, history has to be rewritten. The British government’s white paper of 1939, limiting Jewish immigration after a revolt by the region’s Arab population, receives no mention; nor does the bitter resentment with which the British Labour government of the 1940s oversaw partition. Most of the Empire’s ruling class in the early 20th century was deeply antisemitic – Winston Churchill, forever distrustful, penned his thoughts on Jewish Bolshevism in his introduction to the racist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But ‘anti-Zionists’ invent the history of Israel in other ways; I have seen fabricated ‘quotes’ from Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism who advocated peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews, to make him out to be some land-obsessed deviant out to drive Arabs from the Levant. Then there are the infamous maps that purport to show some kind of inevitable and unstoppable colonial ‘advance’:

Hint on the first map, just to get you started: ‘Palestinian’ was purely a geographical definition. It referred to both Arabs and Jews, and as a Mandate also included the East section of the River Jordan which was both almost entirely Arab, and included the majority of the land. The Jews lived in the white section, but a lot of the green section was uninhabitable desert and the entire map was owned by the British imperial government. The purpose of this map is, in other words, to disguise the racist blurring of ethnicity and politics under the guise of ‘anti-Zionism’.

It strikes me that it might be possible to question the founding of the Israeli state from a position not of antisemitism, but of one simply hostile to the free movements of peoples; it might, for example, be possible to raise legitimate criticism of the settling of New England. Though just as it would be more than a little weird to hear the contemporary left inveigh so virulently against the long-dead Pilgrims, the implication of persistently restating the uncertain grounds of the founding of the Jewish state becomes that it should no longer exist. The Jews must be refused an attempt to establish a state as they please.

If there is any way that one could argue for the dismantling of Israel without fabricating the history of Jewish self-determination, I would be very interested to hear it.

Quids in for Corbyn

In the space of a few weeks, the Corbyn campaign has mobilised tens of thousands of activists, many of whose politics has never amounted to more than some vague hatred of an establishment they never expected to influence. These are people who have never needed to scrutinise their own prejudices; when they were marginalised, they could feel content to dismiss all criticisms – even from the left – as an ignoble plot to defame the quest for social justice. This is how the Palestine solidarity campaign has convinced itself that antisemitism is basically a fabrication by mainstream politicians to shut down criticism of Israel, and so also why reactions to Corbyn’s associations with antisemites has meandered so arbitrarily between denying and justifying them.

At a time of rising antisemitism, silence amounts to legitimation. Corbyn is right to speak against an academic boycott but he has to do more: at the outset, anti-semites have to be expelled from the party and he has to shun all associations with Hamas – unless he makes the bizarre decision to invite the Israeli far right to the negotiating table too. Alliances with Jewish – and Zionist – internationalists have to be forged. It is not enough to make abstract condemnations while thousands of his supporters are allowed to isolate Jews from mainstream debate.

This does not need to threaten the left’s revival. But, in all likelihood, Corbyn is about to launch his bid for government – and if we don’t acknowledge our own prejudices, the right will do so on our behalf.


Destroying Hamas

If the maximalists and ultra-nationalist Israeli occupiers of Palestine are the enemy, then so too is Hamas. There will never be peace until religious fanaticism is purged from the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River; and it has to be fought, unconditionally, now. Focusing all of our political energies on forcing the IDF into a unilateral retreat will damn Gaza into becoming the sovereign playground of thugs and theocrats. No one who wants peace, no one motivated by any platitude for social justice, can allow that to happen.

Politicians lie. David Cameron does it, regularly; should his claim that NHS waiting times have halved since 2010 be taken as a sacred pledge to Marx and to medical socialism? No? Would it even if it had been true? Political parties have spent decades courting the trust of their electorate only to collapse under their own vapidity.

So why, when its leader Khaled Mashal wistfully imagined that he’d one day ‘possibly give a long-term truce with Israel’, did Hamas suddenly become the ardent opponent of war in the Levant? As ever in his struggle to exchange myth for myth, Mehdi Hasan captures – indeed embodies – that dollhouse marriage of gullibility and intellectual dishonesty perfectly:

2) Israel wants a ceasefire but Hamas doesn’t

Al Jazeera: “Meshaal said Hamas wants the ‘aggression to stop tomorrow, today, or even this minute. But [Israel must] lift the blockade with guarantees and not as a promise for future negotiations’. He added ‘we will not shut the door in the face of any humanitarian ceasefire backed by a real aid programme’.” Jerusalem Post: “One day after an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire accepted by Israel, but rejected by Hamas, fell through, the terrorist organization proposed a 10-year end to hostilities in return for its conditions being met by Israel, Channel 2 reported Wednesday.. Hamas’s conditions were the release of re-arrested Palestinian prisoners who were let go in the Schalit deal, the opening of Gaza-Israel border crossings in order to allow citizens and goods to pass through, and international supervision of the Gazan seaport in place of the current Israeli blockade.” BBC: “Israel’s security cabinet has rejected a week-long Gaza ceasefire proposal put forward by US Secretary of State John Kerry ‘as it stands’.”

Genocide, in other words, is simply the awkward and slightly embarrassing mistress of a noble peacenik. Meshaal has forgotten why he wanted all the Jews dead, and so should we.

Well now. As one of diplomacy’s little rules, if an organisation rises to prominence citing the apocalyptic fantasies of a seventh-century epileptic charging that ‘Muslims fight Jews and kill them’ because ‘Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it’, which, instead of scuppering, it reinforces by firing hundreds rockets at Israeli civilians during peacetime while disseminating—

—ahem, somewhat questionable television for nurslings, then its cries for peace, bread and land should probably be interrogated a little more intelligently.

To this, of course, it is glibly argued that Hamas can be put to one side. They are a red herring in a war in which power lies almost exclusively in Bibi’s court. ‘As always, mighty Israel claims to be the victim of Palestinian aggression,’ began Avi Shlaim in 2009,

but the sheer asymmetry of power between the two sides leaves little room for doubt as to who is the real victim. This is indeed a conflict between David and Goliath but the Biblical image has been inverted – a small and defenceless Palestinian David faces a heavily armed, merciless and overbearing Israeli Goliath. The resort to brute military force is accompanied, as always, by the shrill rhetoric of victimhood and a farrago of self-pity overlaid with self-righteousness. In Hebrew this is known as the syndrome of bokhim ve-yorim, “crying and shooting”.

To be sure, Hamas is not an entirely innocent party in this conflict. Denied the fruit of its electoral victory and confronted with an unscrupulous adversary, it has resorted to the weapon of the weak – terror. Militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad kept launching Qassam rocket attacks against Israeli settlements near the border with Gaza until Egypt brokered a six-month ceasefire last June. The damage caused by these primitive rockets is minimal but the psychological impact is immense, prompting the public to demand protection from its government. Under the circumstances, Israel had the right to act in self-defence but its response to the pinpricks of rocket attacks was totally disproportionate. The figures speak for themselves. In the three years after the withdrawal from Gaza, 11 Israelis were killed by rocket fire. On the other hand, in 2005-7 alone, the IDF killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children.

Leaving aside the implicit – and rather obscene – requirement that Hamas kill a few more Israelis to prove themselves, here it is. Iron Dome can smash all their rockets in a breath. Whatever the ‘not entirely innocent’ organisation might mean, or want, or do, is entirely ancillary to the acquisition of Palestinian self-determination; if we only bite our lips and share in their essential hatred of the Israeli occupation, and in the meanwhile let them be, then freedom will come to the territories and Hamas wither and die.

I’ll admit this much: puritans and vainglory won’t save the world. Socialism in Palestine is a fantasy, and not all bargains with those who would make better enemies have to end in Faustian triumphs for the Devil. The fiscally incompetent Louis XVI did not bring despotism to the American Revolution; instead, irony doomed him to a nationalist revolution that first took his head and then beat back the rest of Europe under the banners of fraternity. And what of the Irish – did the German Empire’s support for the Easter Rising undo their fight withthe British? Who could seriously denounce the Finns had they managed to fend off the Soviet empire with Nazi arms? Terrible regimes may lift a people off the ground – but it is only the people who will choose their destination.

The difference here isn’t simply that Hamas rule Gaza. It is that they exist to deny its freedom. True, it was once elected, as though that in itself vindicates any crime; but then it seized power in a violent coup, claimed direct control of all state services (except, ironically, banking), barred anyone not appointed in the name of a mosque backing Hamas from many professions, amongst them teachers, smashed the labour movement and silenced the opposition. This is how it always happens: flicking through Oswald Mosley’s autobiography the other day, I came across a passage – just before he promises to improve upon the legacy of Caesarism and Bonapartism – in which he states ‘writers cannot both be fascists and reactionaries’ because ‘fascism… can be described as revolutionary but not reactionary’. No doubt he believed that imagined golden ages could be restored to their full health, that it is no paradox to look for liberation in the past against the shackles from modernity; all the same, he would never have recognised the delusion until after many thousands or millions had been bloodied and murdered in its name, and probably not even then.

I typically have a great deal of respect for Shlaim, who is wonderfully moral when denouncing an occupation that has condemned two parties to martial servitude since 1967. But he has thoroughly miscalculated one crucial fact. The first people on whom Hamas declared war was their electorate: it is Gaza, and not Israel, whose peace they will deny, and they will remain even if they are granted a state to call their own. And by the time their intentions are understood it would be too late.

This is why it so terribly unsettling – though I won’t say ‘tragic’ just yet – that Western clemency towards Hamas climaxes just as its domestic support hits a nadir. A month after polling is released revealing 88 percent denouncing Hamas for the Palestinian Authority, during which interim period Fatah and Egypt demand the Islamists leave, their alliances with Assad and Iran battered over (though admittedly surviving despite) Syria, John Kerry calls for a ceasefire in which the party who have spent their eight years of unilateral power pelting home-cooked rockets at Israeli citizens (of which almost one hundred fell on the day before Operation Protective Edge even began) is presented as Gaza’s only legitimate representative on the international state. It simultaneously proposed that Hamas receive a chunk of some $50 billion humanitarian aid to the Territories, aid which could be spent very fruitfully on the tunnels Israel has spent weeks trying to destroy. A deal needs to be made between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, immediately, and all support given to whatever remains of the secular national movement in Gaza.

The fact that those remains are insufferably dilute does not make despair inevitable. For one, there is probably at least a patter of reality to the claim that Yasser Arafat’s corruption led some Gazans into Hamas’ embrace; granting the PLO decades of international and domestic consensus as the singular voice of the Palestinian Arabs, allowing an estimated $400 million to fall into its private pockets, will do that. The Camp David discussions in 2000, showing general antipathy towards Palestinian claims in Jerusalem, may have deserved to fail – but Ehud Barak’s broader proposal, which he then updated with significant concessions a few months later, showed insight into the sincerity of the Israeli left and could well have bought the Arabs a state of their own. If an alternative secular movement can be built in Fatah to carry Palestinian nationhood, then rivalry (and by implication, shows of unity) would actually mean something in the fight against corruption and for self-determination.

In the West Bank, Fatah have shown that they do at least offer a democratic space from which a Palestinian state could evolve. Fatah are not fine lefties, but so are they far from authoritarian conspirators; their years of American training and aid comes from a shared (and very legitimate) fear of Islamist radicals. If they were simply a front for the US, they would have made peace by now. Sure, they have a front trade union federation in the GPWU – but so is there at least one autonomous leftist trade union federation, the PGFTU, who’ve managed to organise plenty of strikes against the PA. You think we need ‘grubby allies’ – a trade-off, expediency for peace? Take Fatah. History has admitted far worse foundations in the wars for peace, and for bids into the equality of nations.

Give Gaza what they deserve, and what every moralist claims to want for them: the dignity and autonomy to account for their own aspirations for themselves and for Israel. That means casting away the frivolous caricature of every Palestinian as a Hamas operative or willing fellow-traveler, an idea thoroughly embedded in the racism according to which populist leftists think the organisation’s questionable exploits irrelevant at best, and justifiable at worst. The right-wing press have made the same claim since the last intifada and they, for all their bitter protestations, cannot wait for Hamas to grab a track of land next to the Meditarranean and pronounce it a Caliphate. Nothing would give them greater pleasure than for all their racism to be countersigned by the left getting what they want and Israel rolling back into the Strip.

All religious nutjobs share a common cause, differing only in Gods and degree: Jewish Home, Shas – they want Eretz Israel cleansed of Arabs, and Hamas want all the Jews dead. It is time, right this moment, to side with all working people who oppose them. Only then will there be peace.


The Battle in Front of One’s Nose

I do hate how guttersnipes mistake self-righteous cynicism for irony – but I suppose everything looks palatable from the sewers. In today’s Observer, Henry Porter argues that gun-flared violence in the United States is so rampant that it must forfeit its national sovereignty to the international community – if, of course, it is justified in Syria. He informs us:

After the celebrated Liebeck v McDonald’s case in 1994, involving a woman who suffered third-degree burns to her thighs, Starbucks complies with the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s recommendation that drinks should be served at a maximum temperature of 82C.

Although it was brave of Howard Schultz, the company’s chief executive, to go even this far in a country where people are better armed and only slightly less nervy than rebel fighters in Syria, we should note that dealing with the risks of scalding and secondary smoke came well before addressing the problem of people who go armed to buy a latte. There can be no weirder order of priorities on this planet.

That’s America, we say, as news of the latest massacre breaks – last week it was the slaughter of 12 people by Aaron Alexis at Washington DC’s navy yard – and move on. But what if we no longer thought of this as just a problem for America and, instead, viewed it as an international humanitarian crisis – a quasi civil war, if you like, that calls for outside intervention? As citizens of the world, perhaps we should demand an end to the unimaginable suffering of victims and their families – the maiming and killing of children – just as America does in every new civil conflict around the globe.

A few trivial points of interest:

  • On the figures: the current annual death toll from firearms is indeed 32,000, but just under 20,000 are suicides with a further number whose cause is either undetermined or unintentional. That makes for 11,000 firearm-caused homicides or about a fiftieth of the rate in Syria.
  • The murders share no ideology in the US; in Syria, they are designed to prop up a crime family.
  • The US has the resources to end its violence. Its federal government spends around $69 billion on domestic security to prevent and punish these crimes; the Syrian regime commits them on a scale as great as its resources will allow.
  • Consequently that crime family gasses children; the US, for all its previous faults, is condemned by the likes of Porter for slowly seeking to extend justice to Assad’s regime.

But Porter’s comparison is a bit of sick narcissism, uninterested in the most blatant of facts. Deaths only matter if in attacking them he can cater to the tale of British cultural sophistication and its sense of moral superiority, betraying as he does so its most celebrated pretense: an understanding of irony. Orwell knows it just a tad better: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

Gun control laws are severely needed in the US. Since the Second Amendment does not – and cannot – specify the type of weapons that civilians can own, and that short of missiles there would be no way that they could seriously fight back to a potential US government or a force capable of overthrowing it, there’s logic to controls that would reduce the homicide rate without threatening the principle to self-defence. And it could work – following the tepid rules introduced in 1996, it declined by a third.

If there is cause for “intervention”, a term which Porter dryly mocks, this is it: force of argument, reason and persuasion. Unlike Syria, the US has a democratic process, however flawed – which means that, ultimately, these are decisions for the American people and its political representatives. If Porter does not see the moral and intellectual importance of such a distinction, his career is a waste.

One does not need to agree with intervention in Syria to see that the days of Cowboys and Indians are rather long gone.


Phrase of the Day: Armchair Isolationism

In his plea to look serious, Obama has would-a-been Presidents rallying to his cause. First, McCain appears on Fox News to put down its obligatory anti-Muslim bigotry currently masquerading as counter-jihadism:

(With thanks to Harry’s Place.)

Second, John Kerry has been speaking – some words so blunt one has to question whether Obama approved them – against what he feared to be the lingering political undercurrent of “armchair isolationism”:

“This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to a slaughter,” Mr Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.

“We have spoken up against unspeakable horror. Now we must stand up and act.”

Mr Kerry made an impassioned case for punitive strikes against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons after President Barack Obama put off military action to first ask Congress for approval.

What Kerry calls “armchair isolationism” is quite important: it requires no effort on the part of the person sitting in the armchair, making it much more effective than the “armchair general” metaphor that reactionaries like to jump on.

It goes rather well with what Daniel Finkelstein has called in his blog the tendency of an “omission bias” where we instinctively presume that doing nothing is better than doing something, if the outcomes are uncertain:

Basketball referees are taught that there are four types of calls — correct calls, incorrect calls, correct non-calls and incorrect non-calls. It is better to make a correct call than an incorrect one, obviously. And if you fail to call an infringement when you should, you will be criticised.

But every referee knows that it is far better to make such an omission than to make a call in the dying moments of a game and be wrong. So what happens? In sport after sport, the referees blow their whistles far more in the earlier parts of the game than in the closing stages, thus penalising those infringed against. Omission bias.

Yesterday morning the Conservative MP Adam Holloway, opposed to taking action in Syria, provided as his chief argument that the outcome of intervention was impossible to predict. And he is quite right. In fact, he pierced to the heart of almost every foreign policy dilemma. The outcome of action is always hard to predict.

Kerry has had a morally dubious edge in his history, of course, having once boasted for shooting a member of the Viet Cong from the riverbank. As if that were not rather distasteful in itself, this would feature in the same presidency campaign he ran based on a platform of opposition to the Iraq war. I have seen people oppose both wars; I have seen others support the overthrow of Saddam but remain horrified at the prospect of napalm in the jungle. Kerry’s revisionism was more the twisting of rotten carcass than a breath of fresh air, his trade-off between principle and populism outperforming even Ed Miliband.

All the same – swiftly navigating away from that tangent – it’s encouraging to see that both the left and right of American politics seem willing to confront Assad. It seems that McCain will have advised the President on more than he did to the Senate, whom he recommended vote for action principally to maintain American credibility. Elsewhere, he has been more willing to emphases the need for a Syrian policy against Assad as necessarily being concomitant with an active one to support the more moderate rebels facing off terrorist groups.

In a way, it’s a long overdue slap down to the old Kissinger-esque assumption that a foreign policy of humanitarianism cannot also be one of realpolitik pragmatism. McCain, and to a lesser extent Kerry, have recognised that a war against sectarian jihadists satisfies both outlooks.


Not In My Name: Why I Left the Labour Party

In 1939, in order to be excused from joining the war, Mussolini sent Hitler such a ludicrously long list of materials he needed that the Fuhrer simply waved them away. The hope was to jump in a few months later, win the war, and then claim the credit from the good old Berliner fascist.

I thought about that as I watched the horror on Ed Miliband’s face as he realised that he had defeated a government hoping to launch strikes against Assad; that rather than appearing to be the firm leader having forced concession after concession from a war-monger, whom he could then criticise for his efforts while satisfying the undercurrent in his party longing for an intervention, he had forced Britain to abandon the very principle of aiding the Syrians through military measures. He wanted to have his cake, eat it, and then serve up the excrement to the unsuspecting British public.

I have, as a consequence, left the Labour Party.

The Looming Legacy

“We have absolutely abandoned any idea of nationalist loyalty,” Clement Attlee told the Labour Party conference at Southport, in 1934. “We are deliberately putting a world order before our loyalty to our own country. We say we want to see put on the statute book something which will make our people citizens of the world before they are citizens of this country.”

True to his word, Attlee visited the volunteer British Battalion of the International Brigade in Spain, in 1937, who conjured the “Major Attlee Company” in his honour. The most inspiring moment, though, struck in 1939 when the Republican government in Spain was close to collapse, Barcelona nearly overrun; the British public, resting in that awkward winter between Chamberlain’s announcement of “Peace For Our Time” and Hitler’s invasion of Bohemia and Moravia, had less stomach for war than in two decades; and there was expected to be a general election in a years’ time. And in spite of all that weighing in on his political capital, Attlee stood at a podium in Whitechapel to unveil Picasso’s Guernica as an attempt to raise funds for the Republican war effort. The goal was to persuade working-class Londoners, for whom the entry fee was only a pair of shoes, of the urgency facing their Spanish comrades.

b4570989b7313010_clement-atlee-speaks-before-picassos-guernica-at-the-whitechapel-gallery[1]

Clement Attlee unveiling Picasso’s “Guernica” at Whitechapel, 1939.

By a soft rhyming of history, to paraphrase the late Seamus Heaney, just as Attlee was forging alliances against fascism his predecessor was joining it for tea. First Hitler, and then Mussolini, the pacifist George Lansbury paid visit to all the leaders of Europe in 1937 believing them “children of one Father”. Reminiscing shortly before his death, Lansbury remained determined that “Christianity in its purest sense might have had a chance”; he saw no reason to doubt the charitable commitment that Hitler had made to a World Peace Conference, intended to be under Roosevelt’s chair. Lansbury’s failed nomination to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1940, the year of his death, was tragically fitting – it seemed to admit with a sigh of regret that, though the dove is peaceful, he cannot change the nature of the lion.

In his will, Lansbury gently requested that his ashes be scattered at sea because “although I love England very dearly … I am a convinced internationalist.” Neither his idealism nor Attlee’s pragmatism compromised their humanitarian impulses, different schools of the same subject. Neither undermined that basic instinct to which national barriers, languages and economies were simple trivialities. Though both saw that the better world could be much better realised as a webbed community, only Attlee understood what the Tory benches meant when they shouted, “Tell that to Hitler!”

The Wretching Legacy

Nostalgia isn’t any good for anyone. The historian betrays his discipline if it livens him up too much; I am not attempting to draw a bland parallel between the Republican government and the rebel forces fighting Assad. The civil wars in Spain and Syria both began as struggles for pluralism, morphing into proxy wars from foreign powers with the liberal democracies sitting idly by – but we will never know how the Spanish war may have evolved if Attlee had won parliament over to his cause of ending the “farce of non-intervention”, as he called it. Would the Republicans have won? Or is it possible that, had Britain and France sent troops to aid the Republicans, the Germans would have doubled their efforts and in so doing brought war and ultimate defeat to the allies?

We can never know of course, and these sorts of questions don’t tend to be especially fruitful. But counter-factuals aren’t wildly different to the speculations filling the columns of every “expert” on Syria right this second; our ignorance, admitted or not, says nothing of our intentions. We must not presume that simply because one believes bombing Assad will help the secularists and the millions of displaced civilians that he is right to do so, just as those who oppose the methods he proposes must not be condemned to the hysteria of isolationism or “anti-imperialism”.

I’m a bit of a puritan, you see – motive is everything. A right action performed for the wrong reason is morally frivolous; equally, I’ll forgive a mistake made by an honest man.

Consider: after Cameron agreed to publish the legal case for war, and then the Joint Intelligence Committee’s evidence for Assad’s responsibility, and then to work through the UN as far as the Security Council would allow, and then for a second vote after the UN reported its findings, why still did Ed Miliband vote against the government?

Did he fear that strikes against Assad’s weren’t worth the “collateral damage”, or that we should find a more humane route of assisting the moderate rebels whose goals nevertheless remained our own? Was it the imminence of a jihadist bloodbath if he falls? Did Miliband, instead, call for open European borders for Syrian refugees and billions of pounds of international aid to be sent to those who remained?

All of these positions would have been honourable. I, ill-informed teenager that I am, do not think that they stand up to reason: but it is far better to make a mistake if you remain committed to remedying it. If, in other words, you have principles.

With this in mind, allow us to consult what explanations Miliband emailed to his party members:

  1. We must let the UN weapons inspectors do their work and report to the UN Secretary Council;
  2. There must be compelling and internationally-recognised evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks;
  3. The UN Security Council should debate and vote on the weapons inspectors’ findings and other evidence. This is the highest forum of the world’s most important multilateral body and we must take it seriously;
  4. There must be a clear legal basis in international law for taking military action to protect the Syrian people;
  5. Any military action must be time limited, it must have precise and achievable objectives and it must have regard for the consequences of the future impact on the region.

The only man of importance still uncritically recycling Assad’s narrative, Vladimir Putin, holds a veto on the Security Council; I will not believe an ex-teacher from Harvard cannot see the moral farce of a man both selling tanks to its only non-Soviet ally, to kill children, and advising on the principles of judicial legitimacy. As he well knows, no serious politician could bring this program into the Commons. Miliband has whipped his party into the stables of Moscow, by accident, and is now telling his passengers to enjoy the sights.

Not a single Labour MP voted with the government on Thursday. Not one. Their amendment failed; and so when the government’s motion was proposed to the house, it became a choice between the principle to support military intervention and to rule it out entirely. Ed Miliband grabbed his opportunity, and he reaped his rewards.

Unapologetic – and unhumbled – by his party’s victory over Cameron, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander appeared on the BBC to say:

If [Cameron] was now to return to the Commons, and say, “Well, actually, the President of the United States has decided to go to the Congress, I’ve changed my mind about what Parliament was saying and about what the British people were saying,” I think that would weigh very heavily on the ability for him to convince the public or parliament that his judgement was sound. [Emphasis mine.]

If the decision were a principled one, Alexander would not be invoking public opinion into the vindication of his leader’s decision; and it’s beginning to make sense that the Shadow International Development Secretary, Ivan Lewis, would happen to be the architect of Miliband’s project for old-school Tory paternalism, “One Nation”.

And this when the need for international solidarity has never been so great. The working-class electorate in Britain is – as Marx defined it, at any rate – shrinking, and labour power passing overseas. This is especially true of the Arab world whose economies are based heavily on undercutting European manufacturing, leading to artificially depressed wages and living standards. In times of war, we have an opportunity to alleviate some of that suffering that now has pushed northern territories of Syria into the open embrace of clerical fascism. Instead, Labour does nothing.

There’s some hysteria out there that Miliband has allied himself with the isolationism of UKIP – but that is rather to miss the point. One can be a patriot and an internationalist, because it’s possible, as Orwell put it, to wish for the best for those who bring colour into your daily life but to contextualise them as one school of art among many. One cannot, however, be a populist and an internationalist, because the moment you put vote-counting before international solidarity then you cease to truly believe in the equality of nations, and instead leave it dependent on the arbitrary whims and fantasies of mob rule.

An Abdication From Giving A Shit

For once, Miliband has it right that the vote on Thursday is not an invitation for “soul-searching” (hopefully not to excuse himself from the doctor’s invitation to Syria). But what’s a party without its members?

Looking back it’s odd to think that it was Tony Benn’s speech at the Oxford Union last year – a man who has otherwise not said anything sensible for two decades – that confirmed my faith in the Labour Party. When asked why he stayed a member of a party so mutated by its “Thatcherite tendencies” he responded, in a tone of slightly self-righteous victim-hood, that Labour was nothing if not a coalition. The best that one could hope for was that those closest to sharing his views would lead the party forward.

But LabourList revealed the results of a rather telling poll on the day of the vote, one which deep down I knew I was losing as I voted:

And what reasons did the readership provide for this landslide hostility to punitive strikes?

81.8% of LabourList readers said that Labour should only support action backed by the UN (as opposed to Miliband’s position, which involves evidence presented to the UN and debate by the Security Council, but doesn’t imply support from Russia/China is needed for military action). Only 18.2% said that Labour should back action without the UN.

I wish the likes of MPs Tom Harris, Ben Bradshaw and Megg Mun all the best of luck, anamolies though they are: they recognised the importance to support Syrian civilians, whatever form that should take. But I cannot overcome the apathy to greet Putin, Assad, Nasrallah and Khamenei dining on Friday to celebrate Britain’s moral lethargy, Asma even on a diet (because of all the children she’s been eating).

It is regrettable, it is sad, but decisive: the Labour Party, whose worst leader was said to be the Ramsay MacDonald who still had the guts to abandon the Fabians when they refused to condemn the Boer War, has fallen to those Western narcissists who have stolen the name “socialist” and extracted its heart. It is a wicked twist of fate for those of us now reluctantly named “liberal interventionists” that Blair, who abolished Clause IV from Labour’s constitution, would appear to be the last internationalist of Labour leaders; that the stumbling Red Ed should choose party politics over the death of non-English speaking children, for whom he clearly shares no more affinity than the electorate he is hoping to court.

The deeply humanitarian principles of the party have either melted away or slipped into the manifesto: the would-be program of a “grown up” political party. One has only to ask, I suppose, why it was able to last for so long.

And the gong has been struck; it is the sound of the disenchantment of socialism.


“They are afraid of art.”

If you’re looking for insight into Saudi culture – optimism included – you might enjoy this interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the writer and director of Wadjda:

I am really looking forward to watching this film – about a Saudi girl’s determination to buy the bike of which her relatives deprive her. A few things stand out for me:

Al-Mansour states, explicitly, that her objectives were never intended to be political, or even polemical. Although she is conscious of the inevitable stirring she will cause in her home country – once it finally reaches the TV sets, cinemas being illegal – her central image is the innocence of childhood, not its corruption; by its nature it contends with something universal to the memories of all other Saudi women. Why is this significant?

It’s together with Al-Mansour’s rather warm appreciation of the ironic that I think justification for optimism might be found:

The post-9/11 Saudi government – suddenly conscious, as if surprised, that Wahhabi Islam might encourage jihadism – has introduced some token reforms to its systems to appease the White House, which though churned turgid by clerical conservatism might anticipate “giant steps” yet to come. Now, one wouldn’t expect subtle developments in how Saudi women view themselves to be recorded – not if, as she implies herself, women feel as invisible as they are.

But here we have a writer – of a comparatively “liberal” background, admittedly – who sees no real importance to a film exploring instances in which humour stands independent from the primitive, totalitarian background that produces it. Does this point to something wider, something shifting? Al-Mansour’s first film depicted a criminal who wore a burka to escape the law, for example, very much in contrast to the likes of Persepolis in which a girl comes of age under the regressing forces of the Islamic Revolution. Tragedy and satirical detachment arise from pessimism, decline; but comic irony is the signal fire of reformism and the nuance of cultural consciousness.


Icons of Feminism

I recently stumbled across this incredible series of portraits capturing the rare sight of women fighters in the Syrian civil war:

Syrian Woman Turned Revolutionary

Fadwa, 20 years old, widow with 3 children: “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.”

Amal, 30 years old, married, housewife with 3 children: “I’m sincere to God, that is all I need and want, the rest will come with time.”

White middle-class wankers of Marxist cliques have this tacit presumption – that they can be revolutionary at work and then go home to a Waitrose ready meal and Britain’s Got Talent. Hypocrisy is as old as it is everywhere pervasive.

This is, in fringe Western language, no less true of the orthodox communities in the Arab Spring. Aristotle saw the political community as the macrocosm of the household; he would have despaired to see far right Muslims protest for change on the street and then return to a family as stoic as footsteps on the surface of the moon. Or perhaps not. Anyway – what we can be certain of is that hunger for the vote is a far cry from cultural revolution. As we’re seeing in Egypt, and even more so in Iraq, those who were once oppressed are using their votes to settle sectarian scores and force others to live their nightmares. The activists – or whatever we wish to call them – are disproportionately male. They crave power in worlds public and private. For all the irritant definitions of any “patriarchy”, these political upheavals have left the fabric of masculinity unapologetically content.

In such a context I’m not entirely sure what the most enlightened response to these all-women fighting forces ought to be. No one is pleased with perpetual warfare, or for the disintegrated communities from which these women have formed new lives.

What these women represent is that no “patriarchy” is inevitable, I think. 20 year-old Fadwa tells us, “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.” Women are able to protect their families just as men can, and it emerges from the social wreckage that fascists have traditionally been best-equipped to exploit. We shouldn’t find this remarkable, but I suspect most would. The union of gun and child is so utterly disturbing that it smashes any conventions of effeminacy.

In one of Max Weber’s rare moments of concision he quipped that “the person who attempted to walk by constantly applying anatomical knowledge would be in danger of stumbling”. The nuance of ideology bows before the primacy of instinct. It’s why, whenever we race to term someone an “icon” to a movement, we should do only if they exemplify that to which his or her followers aspire. Veneration, after all, implies emulation; and to emulate an ideologue is to emulate their arguments. It’s ideological constipation. Not only does this abandon our critical reasoning of their deficiencies, leading to the most conformism of dogma, but it also assumes the perpetuity of resistance, and thereby a defeatism in which the individual strives for struggle rather than victory. An icon, in other words, should embody a movement’s dreams – not the movement itself.

Nelson Mandela is justly iconic for civil rights figures, black and white and every other gradient. Some Western liberals in the 20th century who considered themselves anti-racist did – much like those today who affirm that “Arab democrat” is a primitive paradox – argue that Mandela was a black man in a white man’s game. For them, anti-imperialism also meant anti-democracy in the most absurd phrases of cultural relativism. Obviously, that was a racist belief even if its conviction in opposition to colonial rule. The reason for Mandela’s iconic status, in other words, is that he represented democratic politics in promoting an equal share in this philosophy. If you think that’s self-evident then you’ve just proved my point – that an icon should be no more, and no less, than a tautology: a black man is born equal to a white person. The truest of truisms.

No less true of women, is it not? What the women in the women’s militia represent is that when the old rules fragment, socially as well as politically, sex is entirely irrelevant to a person’s potential. Inevitable biological differences aside, we’re left with that other obvious tautology that women are people like men and neither anything more nor less. Just as these women represent some of the most utterly desolate communities of Syria, so should an icon also be found from above. But who could possibly serve such a purpose?

I think it a lovely irony that in rejecting feminism Thatcher should have set in stone her legacy as a feminist icon – but before you send an armed guard to castrate this patronising male blogger, hear me out. Thatcher should have been thoroughly ashamed of her refusal to aid female Parliamentarians. Even today, only a quarter of our MPs are women. Now it’s in my humble opinion that you shouldn’t promote equality – and cut down sexism – by superficial politics like all-women short-lists. That will not solve gender gaps in salaries and leaves lad cultures unscathed, unabashed and altogether uncaring in their ignorant trance.

And yet – in many respects Maggie represented a lot to which the female feminist ought to aspire. By breaking their every convention she denied the existence of the ideal woman. She does not have to be liberal; she does not have to be working class; she does not have to be sympathetic to the vulnerable or pass maternalist charity to whomever beggar she greets. All of these are desirable, but they are just as desirable for a man as for a woman. Maggie neglected feminism because of her own success; with triumph ends ideology. Thatcher was a bitch – but so are an awful lot of men.

Mandela was not a black man in a white man’s game; Thatcher was no woman struggling through a man’s world; and the Syrian women do not believe in a conscious battle against any conceptual patriarchy. Take this final image:

On her head, in the place of the traditional woman’s headscarf, Em Joseph dons the keffiyeh of the Arab man. When Thatcher used her curious propensity to sexuality to navigate her way through her colleagues’ stubborn attitudes, she was accused of cheapening women’s activism and accepting male instincts. But was she? Or was she not, like Em, reminding people that conventions can be twisted by women just as much as they can be by men?

Whatever happens to these few Syrian women, I can only wish them the best of luck. Great icons – better than the self-indulgent paranoia of some radical feminists whose minds are like Shakespearean theatrics on steroids.


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