Not so long ago enthusiastic support for Israel was essential for ambitious Labour MPs who wanted to get ahead.
Now, in Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has by far the most pro-Palestinian leader it’s ever had.
Corbyn’s lifelong support for Palestine has become the basis for the outrageous accusations of antisemitism hurled at him from the right.
The assault is more than a disagreement over foreign policy. Labour’s long-standing support for Israel and its role in the Middle East says something fundamental about the party itself.
In fact, Labour declared support for the idea of a state of Israel three months before the Tory British government did in 1917.
This support was expressed in the language of solidarity with the Jewish colonisers in Palestine. These were people who had fled antisemitism and persecution in Europe, and hoped to set up a new state—Israel—in Palestine.
Labour supporters of this project—Zionism—apparently saw the colonies as a budding progressive society.
That the creation of this new society meant the dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs was downplayed.
Yet this support for Israel was also tied up with support for the British Empire.
Palestine became part of the Empire when the winners of the First World War divided up the Middle East among themselves.
Zionist colonisers got support from Britain by promising to act as a loyal population against the Arabs who had been promised independence.
Palestine was hugely important to the British Empire. The Empire was hugely important to the British state. And managing the British state is the Labour Party’s ultimate goal.
So Labour politicians enthusiastically supported both the Empire and Zionism.
Once Britain left Palestine, friendly relations with the new state of Israel continued.
With Israel soon to become a key ally of the US in the Middle East, Britain—and Labour—backed it to the hilt.
Not even the Six Day War of 1967—when Israel seized control of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem—broke Labour’s support.
Left wing Labour MP Eric Heffer even urged Israel to hold on to the land it had taken. Those on the Labour left were once some of Israel’s strongest supporters.
This began to change gradually. Israel was viewed increasingly as the oppressor of the Palestinians by a layer of party members.
Yet Labour’s leadership became increasingly pro?Israel—especially under Tony Blair. Blair fully supported the US’s and Israel’s wars in the Middle East. But a mass anti-war movement cemented support for Palestinians among swathes of Labour’s membership.
Corbyn has spent his lifetime in that movement. Yet he now struggles to defend his support for the Palestinians from accusations of antisemitism.
Some of his allies want him to accept a definition of antisemitism that says it’s antisemitic to call Israel racist. Members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet have said that a Labour government would maintain a “strong” relationship with Israel.
They’re not just trying to fend off the right’s attacks now. They’ve also got their eye on the possibility of a future Labour government.
To most of them it is unthinkable that a Labour government would damage the British state by breaking from Israel entirely. This is the biggest pressure on Corbyn—and the biggest threat to his support for Palestine.