Belated death of a British illusion – recognition of a Palestinian state

Published — Thursday 23 October 2014

The “recognition” of a Palestinian state by the UK Parliament on Oct .13 has been scorned as gesture politics. The criticism is not without substance, but this was a gesture with no small symbolic significance, underlining as it did the moral abhorrence with which Israel’s conduct is now viewed even by its oldest ally.

The recognition was anything but a mere gesture in the eyes of the leading UK Zionist organizations that lobbied MPs furiously to vote it down. British Zionists feel an especial sense of outrage toward the Labour Party, for it was a backbench Labour MP who proposed the vote.

Historically, the British Labour Party vaunted its Zionist credentials. Britain’s Labour prime minister in the 1960s, Harold Wilson, published a large book in praise of Israel. And for the British left in general, Zionism was long a pre-eminent progressive cause, with few even noticing the existence of the Palestinian people, let alone their claims on justice.
Progressive opinion did much to blind the British public to the realities of Palestine, endorsing an image of Israel as the Middle East’s only democracy, a place where egalitarianism was flourishing mightily. In the 60s, idealistic young Britons — by no means all of them Jews — went to work on Israeli kibbutzes, wholly unaware that some of these Zionist co-operatives were built on the ruins of ethnically cleaned Palestinian villages.
For decades, Zionist propaganda successfully promoted Israel as an exceptionally noble enterprise. Now much about the Jewish state is in doubt, including even its very foundational myth. In books such as The Invention of the Jewish People, (2008), the heretical Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand, has called into question the received view of the Jews as a specific religio-ethnic people who were expelled from Palestine by the Romans and who in the 20th Century reclaimed the land that is theirs by divine right. Sand maintains that a spurious racial unity was invoked on behalf of a miscellany of groups in order to justify the appropriation of Palestine.

Much that Sand has written will always be a matter of dispute — such are the gaps in the historical record. However, in his latest book, How I Stopped Being a Jew, published last year in Israel and now published in the UK, he addresses anomalies in the picture Israel has presented to the world that are not open to dispute.

In this polemic, Sand is scathing about the duplicity that attends the issue of Israeli national identity. It is not widely understood that Israeli nationality is an elusive concept. With the palpable purpose of preserving Israel’s exclusively Jewish character, the term “Israeli” does not feature in the country’s population registry. Constituting itself as the state of Jews everywhere, Israel offers formal citizenship to Jewish people throughout the world, while vouchsafing only highly qualified, not to say discriminatory, citizenship to Arabs and others. Israel’s non-Jewish residents cannot be, or become, Israeli citizens in the sense that persons of, say, Pakistani heritage can be British citizens. Sand describes Israel as an ethnocracy. Certainly, it is far from being a democracy in the sense that the definition applies to the UK or France.

Sand also has mordant things to say about the way Israel tendentiously remembers only the suffering of the Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany, indulging in a sort of moral self-aggrandizement. Zionism has effectively erased the memory of the several million non-Jews, Roman Catholics and others, who were likewise exterminated by the Nazis. To respect the larger truth, he suggests, has not suited the Zionist narrative, the claim that Jewish people were unique victims of Nazi barbarity with a justification for establishing a nation state in Palestine beside which the rights of its indigenous Arabs counted for nothing. Writing as much in sorrow as in anger, Shlomo Sand nurses a vision of the inclusive secular democracy that Israel might be. Such was the utopia that many British leftists imagined they were celebrating. Among other things, the UK Parliament’s recognition of a Palestinian state signal the end of the long era during which British progressive opinion was beguiled by a phantom, seeing in Israel only what it wanted to see.


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