Lisa Nandy is the best candidate for Labour leader. That’s what I said last week and since then, she’s been endorsed by the Jewish Labour Movement (good) and backed calls for the Israel-ending ‘right of return’ (less good). So was I wrong to back Nandy?
I’m not so sure. My argument for Nandy wasn’t of the Liz-Kendall-should-be-queen-of-everything variety. It was an acknowledgement that good governance requires an effective opposition. It reflected my view that Nandy is the candidate best placed to hold the Conservative government to account.
But, yes, it was also a contention that Nandy’s speeches and proposals for addressing anti-Jewish racism were strong and impressive. They struck me as having the strongest chance of bringing Labour’s anti-Semitism under control. I was by no means wide-eyed about Nandy and her pro-Palestinian politics. For the past six years she has been the parliamentary chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, an organisation which had to apologise in 2017 for tweeting: ‘Labour two-state solution will end the occupation — our solution will be the final solution’.
She advocates unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state without requiring the Palestinian Authority to make peace with Israel first and used the Arabic term ‘Nakba’ (‘catastrophe’) when referring to the 70th anniversary of Israeli independence. During a 2014 debate on Palestinian statehood, she told MPs: ‘The UK, not Israel, determines our foreign policy’, which, given its most generous construction, is a sloppily-worded hostage to fortune in a party that can’t afford them on these matters.
Nandy’s support for the Palestinian cause should be no barrier to repairing relations between Labour and British Jews. Indeed, someone so involved in the Western pro-Palestinian movement — a movement not unacquainted with anti-Semitism — could go much further as Labour leader than her opponents. There are deep wells of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism denial in the party. Nearly three-quarters of members believe the anti-Semitism scandal was ‘invented or wildly exaggerated by the right-wing media and opponents of Jeremy Corbyn’. Who better to challenge these paranoias and prejudices than the figurehead of Labour pro-Palestinianism?
If she’s to do that, Nandy will have to decide what pro-Palestinianism means to her. At the Jewish Labour Movement hustings, she described herself as a ‘Zionist’ then a few days later endorsed a number of pledges from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, one of which was the ‘right of return’, a demand that Arab residents of the British Mandate of Palestine displaced when the Arab powers declared war on the nascent State of Israel in 1948 should be allowed to return. Given the ages of anyone displaced seven decades ago, it would not be impossible for Israel to accommodate this demand and in 2008 Ehud Olmert offered to accept 10,000.
Except, the United Nations defines Palestinian refugee status to include ‘descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children’, inflating the number from the 700,000 originally displaced to more than five million registered today. This hereditary definition of refugeehood is exclusive to Palestinians and covers those who have resettled in neighbouring countries like Jordan. Rather than resettle the original refugees and their accompanying children, as the UN strives to do with every other nationality, the Palestinians have been kept in limbo for more than 70 years. Suggest that Syrian refugees return one day to Syria and you’re likely to be called some very unpleasant names; insist the same of Palestinians and you’re likely to be called a humanitarian.
The migration of millions of Palestinian Arabs to Israel would end Israel as a Jewish state, something advocates of the ‘right of return’ surely know only too well. The displacement of 700,000 Arabs in the Israeli War of Independence was a tragedy, as was the corresponding displacement of 850,000 Jews driven out of Arab and Muslim countries — the Jewish nakba. Those who loudly demand an Arab right of return to Ashkelon are decidedly more hushed on a Jewish right of return to ‘al-Khalil’ or for that matter Algiers. Only one group and every generation thereafter is awarded refugee status. Only one group is without a state, you might say. Only one group has rejected every offer of statehood put to them, I would respond, and so we could go on until the coming of the messiah.
The enemy of the Palestinian people is not Israel but the ideological impossibilism of their Western patrons and propagandists. Pro-Palestinian organisations and politicians outside the disputed territories are not honest with those with whom they profess solidarity. Instead of working to convince them to accept a viable state alongside Israel, they pander to the worst of Palestinian rejectionism. And, in ways subtle and not so, kindle the vain hope that 1948 can somehow be undone.
In lending her voice to talk of a ‘right of return’, Nandy isn’t only telling Jews that their highly-successful, near miraculous, reclamation of their homeland should be dismantled, she’s also being cruelly dishonest to the Palestinians she claims to support. The ‘right of return’ will not happen and the longer people like Nandy maintain their pretence to the contrary, the longer the statelessness of the Palestinians will continue.
Nandy is not a perfect candidate for Labour leader but just look at her opponents. Rebecca Long-Bailey is the continuity candidate to a man who oversaw the worst outbreak of anti-Semitism in any mainstream Western party in recent times. Sir Keir Starmer declines to call himself a Zionist — and he has extended family living in Israel. Long-Bailey is a creature of the unions and as leader would be hobbled by them just as Ed Miliband was. Sir Keir has so ostentatiously grovelled to the left that, even though they expect a betrayal as leader, the spectre of crippling in-fighting could prove a major disincentive to him. Neither of these candidates would enjoy the room for manoeuvre that Nandy would to overhaul structures and change cultures.
Whether it is her pro-Palestinianism or her wish to lead Labour, Nandy has to reconcile her values with the ethics and practicalities of achieving them. Demonising the other side and comforting your own with soothing lies will get you nowhere, as Labour learned in December’s election. Nandy should recognise the damage she has done by backing a ‘right of return’ and seek to repair matters with a speech making a moral case for Israel and a pragmatic case for Palestine. Her remarks should stress the importance of Israel to the vast majority of British Jews, its use as a convenient punching bag by anti-Semites, and the consistency of supporting Israel and the Palestinian cause and challenging anti-Semitism while doing both.
Her speech should do one more thing: be her last on the matter, at least for some time. She needs to address the hurt and confusion she’s caused but she also has to reassure the general public that the vagaries of Middle East peace would not be a priority for her Labour party. Peace matters but the road to Bishop Auckland does not lie through Haifa or Hebron. Labour has tried being a party of protest (again) and the voters have rejected it (again). It must be the party of working people and their priorities.
I still say Nandy has the best chance of making Labour relevant again and, if she means what she says, of tackling the party’s anti-Semitism. Labour has let so many people down. Nandy has to be better so Labour can be better.