Jeremy Corbyn's cautious support for Palestine as Labour leader

Jeremy Corbyn's cautious support for Palestine as Labour leader
Analysis: As Israeli politics shifted further right, the UK's Labour party has moved to the left. What will Labour look like under the leadership of a known critic of Israel?
4 min read
29 September, 2015
Corbyn made no mention of Palestine during his conference speech [Getty]

On the eve of his first speech as Labour leader at the party's annual conference, Jeremy Corbyn attended a meeting organised by pro-Palestinian activists.

Labour Friends of Palestine is seen as a counterweight to the party's pro-Israel lobby.

It includes some of Labour's most well-known MPs, including Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham, Deputy Leader Tom Watson and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development Diane Abbott.

The list also includes Corbyn, who has been a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause since his earliest days in parliament.


On Tuesday night, the Islington North MP will follow a tradition of Labour leaders and attend a reception hosted by Labour Friends of Israel after his conference speech.

Corbyn's reception at the pro-Israel lobby meeting is another matter. Although, like Corbyn, Friends of Israel are supporters of a two-party state, the group includes one of the new Labour leader's most vocal critics during the Labour leadership race, Liz Kendall.

And the differences on Middle East policy are marked.

[Click to enlarge]

During the Labour leadership race, a panel debate was organised by several Jewish groups.

Kendall said she would oppose the international Boycott Sanctions Divestment (BDS) campaign with "every fibre of her being".

Corbyn took a more nuanced view towards relations with Israel. He spoke with with a characteristic conciliatory manner that it was important for Labour to "establish relationships with all sections of society in Israel".

As national chairman for the Stop the War Coalition, Corbyn is part of a tireless campaign against Israeli aggressions and human rights abuses, and he supports the BDS movement.

Corbyn has taken part in many demonstrations in support of Palestinians, condemned the blockade of Gaza and the separation wall in the West Bank, and the "harassment and humiliation of Palestinians going about their everyday life".

He has also called for a complete freeze on illegal Israeli settlements and earlier this year wrote that he did not support Britain arming Israel.

New UK policy

If elected prime minister, his views would no doubt shape a new course for UK foreign policy and guide Britain on a more unorthodox path of closer cooperation with Palestinian groups and their allies.

Even one anti-imperialist statement is unabashedly blazoned on the party's red-background website.

"I have always campaigned against neo-colonial wars that are fought for resources on the pretence of fighting for human rights," one statement reads.

"We need an understanding of our past and our role in the making of the conflicts today, whether it be the Sykes-Picot Agreement or our interventions in the Middle East post-9/11."

This rhetoric sets a new course in British politics, where many politicians have been keen to toe a pro-Israel line or at least keep their criticisms of the state muted.

Even in his own party - where sympathies run deeper for the Palestinian cause than in the rival ranks of the right-wing Conservative Party - he has broken from a long tradition of accommodating Zionist activism.

In the early years of the party, Labour found support from often oppressed British Jews. "They handed you your Labour Party membership just after your circumcision,” was one famous line from the TV play, Bar Mitzvah Boy

Socialism and Zionism

Labour Party members could identify with the socialist and secular nature of some strands of the Zionist movement, and sympathise with European Jews who yearned for a state of their own after years of discrimination.

Labour's cabinet during the build-up to the establishment of Israel in 1948 was almost unequivocally in favour of a Jewish state. 

The only real differences emerged about whether there should be bi-national one-state solution or separate Israeli and Palestinian states.

After Israel fought off a number of Arab armies in the 1948 War, Israel's reputation as a plucky underdog captured the imagination of British socialists, as did the idea of the kibbutz - communal and collective farming communities - which became the backbone of agricultural life in Israel.

The myth soon spread that the Jewish colonisers were responsible for bringing life to barren Palestinian land.


However, there were obvious inaccuracies in this, and a right-ward shift in Israeli politics soon emerged.

Even during the most right-wing administrations in Israel's history, UK Labour have been unrepentant supporters of the state - particularly under the leaderships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Britain's UN representatives have repeatedly abstained from resolutions condemning Israeli aggressions and opted out of a vote to recognise Palestine as non-member observer state.

Outside parliament there has been a groundswell in support for the Palestinian cause and increased criticism of Israel's human rights violations.

Young, energetic and passionate, these activists mirror the revolutionary change undergoing Labour, with party membership increasing at its fastest rate in 64 years during the leadership race.  

But Palestine did not get a mention in Corbyn's keynote speech at the Labour Party conference, although other countries in the region - Syria, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - did get a look in.

Whether Corbyn will follow up with his trenchant criticisms of Israel as party leader is difficult to tell, although his new fan base will believe it is a moral duty that he must follow.