Friday, 8 February 2013

Liberals, liberalism, and Israel

In 2004 Jenny Tonge, then a Liberal Democrat MP, said after a visit to Palestine that, although she did not condone the behaviour of suicide bombers:  "If I had to live in that situation - and I say that advisedly - I might just consider becoming one myself."  For this admission of empathy, shared by many, she was slapped down by the then party leader, Charles Kennedy.  Last year, for stating that, "Israel in its present form is not going to be there for ever," (a fairly obvious truth: the UK for example, "lost" the larger part of Ireland in the 1920s, and may well part with Scotland in a few years time.  Other states, such as the US, seem to gain bits)  she was virtually forced to resign  from the party by Nick Clegg.

Last week David Ward, Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, after a attending a Holocaust Memorial Service, blogged that he was " saddened that the Jews . . .(are) inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new state of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza."  For this he has received a reprimand from the Liberal Democrat chief whip and been forced to issue an apology.  His offence is that he attributed the atrocities to "the Jews" rather than "the Israeli government."

Ward acknowledges that his remark could have been better phrased, but his shorthand would have passed unnoticed in most other contexts. When we speak of "the British" in India we do not imply that each and every one of us was responsible for events there.  When we say that "the Americans" led the invasion of Iraq, we do not imply that each and every citizen of the US was culpable.

As Ward points out, "There is a huge operation out there, a machine almost, which is designed to protect the state of Israel from criticism. And that comes into play very very quickly and focuses intensely on anyone who's seen to criticise the state of Israel."

Few can doubt that the Israeli-Palestine situation is one of the most intractable problems in the world today.  It arises because the second part (my italics below) of the Balfour Declaration of 1917:

"His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

 has been ignored.

Until a solution is found Israeli citizens will continue to suffer random attacks and Palestinians disproportionate retaliation and unspeakable humiliations.  These latter are well described by former hostage John McCarthy in his recently published book, " You Can't Hide the Sun," (Bantam Press, 2012). The post war history receives what seems to me even handed treatment in a Channel 4 television series called "The Promise,"  first shown in 2011 and now available on DVD.

Politics is government by discussion, and a solution to this sore on our civilisation will not be found without full and frank discussion of all points of view.  It is absurd that the Liberal Democrat party, which puts liberty as its premier value, and that must include freedom of speech and opinion, submits to pressures to curb frank exchanges of views.

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