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How the Holy Land came to divide Britain
The conflict in Gaza presents a headache for Labour
I went to the Bring Them Home rally last week with a friend, a British-Israeli. As we queued to get through security, a woman was handing out Union Jacks and asked us in an apologetic way whether we’d like one, explaining that ‘you don’t have to’. We both felt it impolite to refuse but I find flag waving literally too embarrassing, so I just held it awkwardly in its packet by my side, until the flag fell off the pole so I was left walking around with a little stick.
Unlike the quite carnival-like atmosphere of the previous day’s pro-Palestinian event, which I watched out of curiosity, this was very sombre and slightly anxious. It also felt very British, despite the Israeli flags on display. The speakers talked about their love of Britain, their loyalty to the royal family and, in one case, a feeling that they don’t recognise their home when people are able to openly show support for Hamas.
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I went because I felt horror at what happened on October 7, and a discomfort that many people don’t share that same disgust. If a similar mass murder happened in England, and I saw people around the world celebrating it - or, at least, saying that Britain had it coming because of its colonial past - I would be crushed.
But I wasn’t really there because of the Middle East, which feels like an unsolvable problem which Britain can do little to change, but more because it saddens me to think that some of my countrymen don’t feel safe sending their children to school because of their religion.
I suppose the gentiles who attended the rally were more likely to be Tories, and most of the people signing the October Declaration, including me, seem to be. In fact, like almost every issue since the great realignment, attitudes to Israel and Palestine now strongly align along party lines. As Matt Goodwin points out, only one in ten Labour voters now sympathise more with Israel.
Yet it wasn’t always the case — indeed the decline of Tory Arabism is one of the notable trends of recent years, as William Atkinson recently wrote about for ConHome. He cited the example of Crispin Blunt, ‘a man used to ploughing a lonely furrow’, and who is now one of the few pro-Palestinian Tory MPs around.
While Blunt accuses the Government of ‘aiding and abetting war crimes’ by supporting Israel, ‘the pro-Israel tendency amongst Tory MPs is stronger – and the Arabist tendency weaker – than ever before.’
There was a new pro-Palestinian Tory grouping set up this year by Lady Warsi, and also a very small number of Tory MPs with large Muslim populations, like Steve Baker, who seem keen on representing their constituents’ interests. But they are rare, and in contrast Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) claims around 80 per cent of Tory MPs as supporters.
As Atkinson points out, this pro-Israeli tendency can’t be down to electoral calculations: ‘On the (not unreasonable) assumption that Jewish voters are more sympathetic to Israel and Muslim ones to Palestine,’ Atkinson writes: ‘basic numeracy would see MPs throw in their lots with Britain’s almost four million Muslims over its 300,000 or so Jews. Twenty-six seats had a Muslim population of more than 20 per cent based on the 2011 census. Only one – Finchley and Golders Green – can say the same for Jews.’
It is also historically not the norm. Among Tories, Atkinson writes, ‘Inter-war attitudes ranged from apathy to the Balfour Declaration, to linking Zionism with Bolshevism, to open anti-Semitism. After Israel’s creation, Arabist tendencies remained strong amongst former and future ministers, with Anthony Nutting, Ian Gilmour, and Dennis Walters all helping establish the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding in 1967.’
Certainly at the time of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War many Tories were hostile to Zionism, bitter over atrocities such as the King David Hotel bombing, and this era even saw an anti-Jewish riot in the-then very Tory Liverpool. Opposing the Israeli independence movement, Transjordan’s Arab legion was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir John Bagot Glubb.
In contrast the Guardian supported Israel at its birth, a move related to its religious origins, the paper being founded by Unitarians, a Protestant sect who were vehemently Zionist in the 19th century and had once been persecuted for ‘Judaizing’ by denying the divinity of Christ. Today the Guardian is perhaps the most pro-Palestinian of all major British publication, and even seems to regret its earlier support for Israel.
Some anti-Zionism in the mid-20th century was motivated by casual upper-class anti-Semitism, among people who regarded Jews as upstarts, a view which was only shamed out of the population by the horror of the Holocaust.
But a certain type of Tory had a genuine soft spot for Arab culture. Explorer Richard Burton had political views that would make him mega-cancelled today, yet this hyper-linguist also had a deep love for and fascination with Arab civilization. However, the most famous example was T.E. Lawrence, described by Orwell as ‘perhaps the last right-wing intellectual’.
This wasn’t that unusual, and Aris Roussinos recently quoted Martin Amis’s memoirs where he wrote home from Oxford recalling that ‘I met an incredible reactionary yesterday who supports the Arabs vs. Israel’.
There are still a few Tory Arabists left - aside from Blunt, one might also mention Alan Duncan, Rory Stewart, Desmond Swayne and Nicholas Soames. But they are something of a dying breed, and Michael Gove - a speaker at last Sunday’s demonstration – is more typical of the modern party.
One lesser reason for this decline might just be that Arabic is very hard to learn, and like most modern languages its study is in decline (most of our ambassadors in the Middle East can’t even speak it). Indeed, perhaps the most gifted conservative intellectual in Britain today is Abdal Hakim Murad, born Timothy Winter, who got a double-first in Arabic from Pembroke College.
But the main reasons for this shift have been Americanisation, and more importantly, demography.
Atkinson writes: ‘As is habitual with modern Toryism, it was Margaret Thatcher who most changed the party’s attitude to Israel. Whereas Edward Heath and Alec Douglas-Home had refused to arm Tel Aviv during the Yom Kippur War, the Finchley MP became the first British Prime Minister to visit Israel. She viewed it as Britain’s best Cold War ally in the Middle East. Between sheltering an Austrian Jewish girl as a teenager and serving as Finchley’s MP, Thatcher also retained a lifelong affinity for Jews and Israel.’ In this, like many other ways, Thatcher was making the Tory Party more Atlantic and American.
Yet American conservatives themselves had also also changed their stance on the Middle East considerably. During the last flare-up between Israel and Hamas, I cited an article by Jeet Heer, who pointed out that the American Right was once sympathetic to the Palestinians, and that Regnery would publish books championing Arab Culture, while in 1956 the National Review called Israel ‘the first racist state in modern history’.
The Left and Right swapped sides in part because of the Cold War, although Heer also argued that conservatives admire strength, and that their perception of a weak Jewish state changed following the spectacular victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Perhaps; the Left certainly became far more interested in victimhood, and in ideas of decolonisation and racial justice, often displaying a fondness for liberation struggles which were brutally violent and intolerant.
There was also the rise of Christian Zionism, with Evangelicals more Zionist than American Jews, even though Christians accounted for as much as 30% of the Palestinian population at the start of the 20th century, and Arab Christians do not tend to be very pro-Israel. Some conservatives are also motivated by Holocaust guilt, and the idea that the Right in particular has to rid itself of anti-Semitism, which accounts for the rising popularity of the term Judeo-Christian from the 1970s. US Evangelicals tend to be very pro-Jewish generally, although the feeling is not reciprocated. Today the political divide over the Holy Land is now even more pronounced in the US, where Democrat voters have hugely shifted in their sympathies, going from about +35 for Israel to +11 for Palestine in just twenty years.
This shift in progressive opinion on Israel has coincided with the Great Awokening, the radicalisation of viewpoints on issues like race and gender, fuelled by social media and universities. It also partly reflects demographic change among Democrat voters.
I’m not really convinced, as many are, that the academic callousness we’ve seen towards Israeli suffering is motivated by hatred of Jews, and Phillippe Lemoine is probably correct in stating that ‘antisemitism is far more common among right-wing critics of Israel than among left-wing critics of Israel’ — at least among whites.
Leftists who hate Israel are in my view less driven by anti-Semitism as we’ve traditionally understood it and more by postcolonial theory, and it is just unfortunate that the conflict in the Holy Land feels like the closest thing to a colonial struggle left as theory imagines it.
The more that conservatives see Israel as a fellow civilised – ie western – state, the more our opponents view the conflict through the lens of colonialism, which is not really fair. The best argument for Israel’s existence, and one people are largely ignorant of, is not that the Jews once owned the land, or suffered at the hands of genocidal Europeans, neither of which are the fault of the Palestinians. It is that almost as many Jews fled from Arab states as Arabs from the Holy Land; millions of Israelis are Mizrahim and have always lived in the Middle East. Indeed, the largest migration to Israel came not from Poland or Romania but Iraq.
Aside from Ashkenazim, who look visibly European, it is otherwise difficult for a western visitor in Israel to tell Jews from Arabs; if Israel is a colonial state, do these Israelis just ‘go back’ to Baghdad, which a century ago was one-third Jewish? It’s an unreasonable and inhumane thing to suggest that they have no right to statehood and security. (A right to statehood I also support for the Palestinians).
Perhaps, without the emergence of Zionism those Middle Eastern Jewish communities might have continued to enjoy a healthy existence, but history certainly doesn’t suggest it. Conservatives believe the world to be a dangerous place, and so the only way of ensuring one’s survival is a defensible state rather than be dependent on the goodwill of either the majority or a benevolent ruler — something which will never last forever.
The shift is also motivated by what Arnold Kling called the civilisation v barbarism axis. Kling talked of the ‘three-axes model of political communication’ and wrote: ‘A progressive will communicate along the oppressor-oppressed axis, framing issues in terms of the (P) dichotomy. A conservative will communicate along the civilization-barbarism axis, framing issues in terms of the (C) dichotomy. A libertarian will communicate along the liberty-coercion axis, framing issues in terms of the (L) dichotomy.’
On the Holy Land, Kling wrote, ‘Along the conservative civilization-barbarism axis, the focus is on the way that Israeli values align with American values. Conservatives emphasize the nihilism of Palestinian terrorism. To support Israel is to defend civilization. To support the Palestinians is to promote barbarism. Along the progressive oppressor-oppressed axis, the focus is on the political and economic adversities faced by the Palestinians. Progressives see Israeli policy as responsible for much of the Palestinian suffering. To support the Palestinians is to stand up for an oppressed people. To support the current policies of Israel is to back the oppressors.’
These feelings will have been strongly reinforced after October 7. Hamas are absolutely barbaric, and the analogies that sprang to mind were of Bronze Age raids or Comanche attacks in America’s south-west. It’s viscerally horrifying.
Political divides in a two-party system tend to reinforce themselves, so that as soon as one party starts to dominate one voting demographic, its opponents will represent another. Much of the modern Right is also defined in opposition to the Left, rather than having any coherent worldview.
The Tories have therefore also grown more pro-Israel as the Labour Party has increasingly become reliant on Muslim voters in some constituencies, a block that is significant in dozens of seats and which became most pronounced under Jeremy Corbyn’s rule. In the last election British Jews voted overwhelmingly for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, while Corbyn is much loved by the North African community in his constituency, and one café near me in Finsbury Park is covered with pictures of the man.
Again, this is not historically the norm. George Eaton wrote in the New Statesman that ‘For a sense of the historical complexity of Labour’s relationship with Israel, recall that much of the party’s left was once Zionist. In 1946 the future leader Michael Foot and future New Statesman editor Richard Crossman wrote a pamphlet entitled A Palestine Munich? that accused the Attlee government of betraying Jewish statehood.
‘As late as 1980, Tony Benn wrote in his diary: “I am against the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] recognition, not because I am anti-Palestinian but because the annihilation of Israel is the PLO objective, and they are associated with terrorism.”’
But the make-up of both parties has changed considerably since, so that for Labour the war in the Holy Land could prove a headache. More than 300 Muslim MPs and councillors have already written to Keir Starmer calling for a ceasefire, and the depth of feelings on the Left – from Muslims and non-Muslims – about the Palestinian question should not be underestimated. And the more that passion expresses itself, the more alienated conservatives are likely to feel by their opponents.
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