An open letter to UK Labour leader Keir Starmer
congratulations on your victory. I hope you keep the broad policy direction of the last five years and I wish you the very best of luck in bringing Labour to power, after which I hope you will lead the country in the radical new direction we so badly need.
I have to say, however, that I didn’t vote for you. There was a decisive moment for me in the campaign when the Board of Deputies of British Jews presented candidates with ‘Ten Pledges for Labour leadership’. Ostensibly intended to deal with Labour’s ‘antisemitism crisis,’ it was transparently clear to myself and many others that they actually formed part of the ongoing campaign to silence anti-Zionist and pro-Palestininan voices within the party (number 6, for instance, being the pledge to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism fully and without caveat– a definition that effectively includes anti-Zionism). Your acceptance of these made my support unthinkable. And on the day your win was announced, the Times Of Israel reminded us that you had previously told Jewish News: “I said it loud and clear – and meant it – that I support Zionism without qualification.” As I considered what your leadership would mean for Labour – and for me as a Party member with a strong connection to the Palestinian issue – it seemed that I was faced with an uncomfortable choice.
My dilemma was brought into focus by a news report from Israel in the Middle East Monitor accompanied by a picture of a house just outside Jerusalem. It is a very striking aerial photograph, showing the house separated from its neighbours by high walls and barbed wire, overseen by security cameras. Access is by a narrow walkway, also closed off. The inhabitants of the house can see nothing of the outside world. It is as if they are prisoners, and – effectively – they are. This grim scene is compounded by the fact that all around the house – on the other side of the walls – is what looks like a comfortable housing estate, complete with swimming pools. You will be unsurprised to hear that the family in the house are Palestinians, whilst the neighbours who caged them in this way are Israelis.
The background to this case makes it very clear that the difference in treatment stems entirely from the ethnicity of the house’s inhabitants, and I think that in itself this could constitute evidence for Israel being ‘a racist endeavour’. But I believe it has a greater significance. It seems to me that it symbolises the effect of Zionism on the Palestinians over the last hundred years. The whole point of that ideology, and the state it created, is to distinguish relentlessly between Jews and non-Jews; to privilege the former and discriminate against the latter. The Palestinian family in our example has been singled out for isolation by concrete and razor wire – but discrimination against Palestinians more generally has been, and is, of every type and at every level.
Troubling because it means the leader of my party subscribes to an ideology which was rooted in the racism, colonialism and ethnic nationalism of the nineteenth century in which it was born, and the practical application of which (i.e the creation of Israel) has showed their pernicious influence at every stage. Keir, you say that people have different ideas about what Zionism is. Might I suggest you consult its victims? They will quickly enlighten you, describing a settler-colonial project which – like all the others – was marked by the racist attitudes of Europeans towards indigenous non-European people. They will tell you that the creation of a Jewish state in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish country was illegitimate. And they will describe all the details of the particular version of apartheid which has been developed to ensure that they are quite literally second class citizens.
As a Labour Party member I like to think that my party stands with the oppressed, not the oppressor. That indeed, was one of the reasons why I joined. And at home I dearly wish for the sort of social transformation that a Labour government could bring. But my politics is rooted in values, and chief among these are an opposition to all forms of racism and discrimination, and an insistence on equal rights which I am not prepared to compromise. It is these principles have shaped my attitudes to Palestine/Israel. However, my party now has a leader who has pledged his unqualified support to a country and a system which is utterly at odds with those same values.
There is a further problem. According to Israel’s apologists, saying all this makes me a racist, and from everything you have said both before and after being elected leader, I think it is highly likely that you will agree with them. It is, I must say, a truly Alice In Wonderland situation when Israel’s relentless practice of institutionalised ethnic discrimination is deemed not to be racist … but calling it out is.
So it seems that in the Labour Party I face the prospect of being deemed a racist if I speak my mind on Palestine/Israel. And to be absolutely clear, I believe that the idea of a state ‘for Jews’ is wrong. It is, after all, completely at odds with the principles that are supposed to underpin liberal democracies, and instituting anything of a similar character in Europe would be unthinkable (at least, for anyone except the very far Right). I fail to see why an idea which is anathema in Europe should be endorsed elsewhere. And if the idea was wrong, the choice of an overwhelmingly non-Jewish territory made its realisation inherently unjust. It was bound to be a disaster – and it has been. Unless and until Israel re-constitutes itself into a single state with equal rights for all its inhabitants, I would argue that it should not expect any support from the Labour Party. And whilst I reluctantly accept that there is a long history of pro-Zionism in the party and can accept the idea of Zionists being Party members, my own view is that this as a moral error which is incompatible not just with socialist values but with general liberal-democratic ones as well.
Based on your acceptance of the BoD’s ‘Ten Pledges’, your recent letter to that body and your Times of Israel interview, I suspect that in your mind all of this makes me one of the antisemites who must be ‘torn out’ of the party. That will be the Party’s decision. But I have a choice to make as well. I have to consider whether, under your leadership, the Labour Party will be an appropriate place for someone with my values, and whether it is an institution I can continue to support.
I am therefore looking for reassurance. A good starting point would be an unequivocal statement that members will be free to hold and express anti-Zionist views, that Labour regards such views as legitimate, and that under your leadership the Party will energetically defend the right to freedom of thought and freedom of speech on Palestine/Israel.
I look forward to hearing from you,
Dr Ian Wellens