Friday, February 14, 2020

The New Labour Zionism(?)

In the wake of devastating losses in the 2019 general election, Labour is looking for a new leader to replace Jeremy Corbyn. Four candidates are running: Sir Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and Emily Thornberry.

One major issue the party faces, of course, is how to deal with an antisemitism crisis in the party that precipitated a collapse in Jewish support and the departure of several prominent Jewish MPs (Louise Ellman and Luciana Berger) from the party.

Today the Jewish Labour Movement membership voted to endorse Nandy, an MP and former shadow energy secretary. The voting results demonstrate a pretty strong love-hate relationship among Jewish Labour figures: Nandy got 51% and Starmer got 45%, while Long-Bailey and Thornberry both were under 2%. This is not a reflection of front-runner bias: while Starmer is considered the odds-on favorite, Long-Bailey (the spiritual successor to Corbyn) is in second-place, with Nandy and especially Thornberry considered to be much longer shots. Rather, it is a divide between those candidates who are closely associated with Corbyn and perceived as continuations of his agenda (Long-Bailey, Thornberry) versus those who are perceived as offering a departure (Starmer, Nandy).

But something even more interesting, to me at least, happened at a candidate forum JLM hosted the other day. All four candidates were asked if they are Zionist. And all four answered "yes" -- either they were, or they support Zionism. Specifically:
  • Thornberry: "I believe in the state of Israel and therefore I'm a Zionist."
  • Starmer: "I don’t describe myself as a Zionist but I understand, sympathise and support Zionism."
  • Nandy: "I believe that Jewish people have the right to national self-determination. That makes me a Zionist.
Even Long-Bailey, who is the most explicitly Corbynist of the candidates, said "I also agree with a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state... I suppose that makes me a Zionist because I agree with Israel’s right to exist and right to self determine." A little begrudging, perhaps, but far better than one expects out of a candidate who rated Corbyn "10 out of 10" as a party leader!

One might have expected that the term "Zionist" would be too toxic for prospective Labour leaders to touch. The fact that they were willing to line up behind it -- a decision which, incidentally, does not and should not preclude critical attitudes towards Israeli policy -- is quite striking.

Of course, things are never all roses. Anti-Zionist-not-antisemitic Labour Twitter was decidedly not pleased with these philo-Zionist responses:

"A minority of less than 0.5% of the U.K. population dominating our political agenda...." I have an inkling of who is being referred to here -- but maybe I just don't understand British irony?

UPDATE: Another fascinating wrinkle: Nandy was also the chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East.

UPDATE 2X: This is a good account of the JLM event, and the palpable sense among attendees that things really may have turned a corner. It also notes that the JLM crowd was especially warm to Nandy when she noted her chairwomanship of Labour Friends of Palestine.

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