British Parties Rewind the Clock

Hacktivist group Anonymous posts antisemitic cartoon by notorious Carlos  Latuff suggesting that Israel and the United States use accusations of  antisemitism to muzzle criticism of Israel

By Jonathan Cook

BRITISH POLITICS are lurching backward when it comes to Israel. Gains won over many decades that made it possible to critique Israel and its belligerent rule over Palestinians, are being undone almost overnight on both sides of the supposed political divide.

A rash of recent incidents illustrate how quickly the rot has set in: 

  • Both the rightwing ruling Conservative party and the leftwing opposition Labour vehemently denounced a street protest in November against Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s hard-right ambassador to the UK, a champion of its illegal settlements and denier of Palestinian history. 

Senior politicians from each side of the aisle claimed the protest was anti-Semitic and, in a moment of peak cognitive dissonance, an attack on free speech.

  • Shortly afterward, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer shared a platform with Hotovely in support of Israel. He blurred the distinctions between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, referring to Israel as a beacon of democracy in defiance of his own party’s recent motion declaring it an apartheid state. Starmer denounced all activism that favors boycotts, even those targeting Israel’s illegal settlements.
  • And then, in a move promoted by senior figures in the party as “tackling anti-Semitism,” the Conservative government announced efforts to outlaw Hamas “in its entirety,” including its political wing, and threatened anyone offering its leaders a platform, a jail sentence of up to 10 years.

Notably, Labour’s frontbench team supported the designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization, even though it represents a huge chunk of Palestinians living under belligerent Israeli occupation.

The significance of this all-out, bipartisan assault on the rights of Britons to stand in solidarity with Palestinians, must be put in a historical and political context as the hard-won victories over decades are now being quickly reversed. 

Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, activists began to challenge the media’s widespread presentation of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as benevolent and enlightened. The realization that the occupation was ugly and brutal was finally driven home by Israel’s policy of “breaking the bones” of Palestinians who participated in the mass, non-violent uprising against the occupation that began in 1987. 

That trend coincided with the increasing visibility of a boycott movement against Israel, like the one that targeted apartheid South Africa. Similarly, there was a growing awareness that Israel had been aided by vigorous lobby groups that sought to shield it from criticism in major Western capitals.

After Israel stymied the Oslo peace talks in 2000 and then savagely suppressed a Palestinian uprising, the focus shifted to Israel itself. Questions were raised for the first time about whether there might be inherent political, legal and moral problems with a state declaring itself “Jewish”—defining itself in ethnic and religious terms. 

This long, slow process culminated in 2021 with reports by two major human rights groups—one Israeli (B’Tselem), the other international (Human Rights Watch)—that classified Israel as an apartheid state. 

For a brief moment, it looked like the debate about Israel had finally attained a degree of lucidity in the UK. But inevitably there have been countervailing pressures. 

Working with the British establishment and the billionaire-owned media, pro-Israel groups scored a major success against Jeremy Corbyn, after his election as Britain’s Labour leader in 2015. A stalwart champion of anti-racist causes, Corbyn was pilloried as an anti-Semite for backing justice for the Palestinians. His successor, Keir Starmer, suspended him from the party.

On the back of that campaign, pro-Israel groups were able to push through a new definition of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance—one originally advanced behind the scenes by the Israeli government—that switched the focus away from protecting Jews from hatred to protecting Israel from criticism.

Decades of small victories in support of justice for Palestinians soon unraveled. 

The result? Israel’s apartheid character, its vigorous lobby and support of a boycott are all off the table. But worse, both major British parties are once again reluctant even to criticize the occupation.


That was underscored in November when both parties fervently denounced a protest against Israel’s ambassador Hotovely outside the London School of Economics. After giving a lecture, she was hurried to a waiting car as onlookers shouted “Shame on you!” and “Free Palestine!” 

There was good reason why the protesters were outside the LSE. Hotovely holds extremist views even by the standards of Israeli politics.

Her appointment as ambassador to the UK last year was so controversial that many hundreds of British Jews took the unprecedented step of openly opposing it. In October, Na’amod, a Jewish anti-occupation group, staged a silent protest at an event marking Hotovely’s first year, holding placards saying “racism isn’t kosher” and “stop hosting Hotovely.” 

Before she became ambassador, Hotovely had served as Israel’s first settlements minister. Like the rest of the Israeli right, she sees these illegal, Jewish-only colonies as a weapon to dispossess Palestinians and deprive them of any hope of Palestinian statehood. 

Hotovely is openly Islamophobic and denies the history of the Palestinian people. She supports hardline racial purity groups, such as Lehava, that try to stop relationships between Jews and non-Jews. And she flaunts a religious Jewish supremacism that claims title to all of historic Palestine. In a 2015 speech, she rejected a two-state solution, saying: “This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologize for that.” 

Liberal Jewish community leaders were appalled at the prospect of Hotovely becoming ambassador. Jeremy Beecham, a Labour peer, warned that her appointment would “do nothing to win friends in the UK—or indeed any other reasonable country.” 

How wrong that assessment looks now. Hotovely has been embraced as a respected ally by both the Labour and Conservative parties. 

Home Secretary Priti Patel expressed “disgust” at the protest, equating it with anti-Semitism: “Anti-Semitism has no place in our universities or our country. I will continue to do everything possible to keep the Jewish community safe from intimidation, harassment and abuse.”

It should hardly need pointing out that protesting against the racist views of an Israeli government official has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, or making the Jewish community unsafe. 

Patel’s assumption that Hotovely represents British Jews—and the implication that she is in the UK to help protect them—is itself anti-Semitic. An attack on Hotovely is not an attack on British Jews because Israel does not represent British Jews. The British government does. Israel represents Israelis.

And yet Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow home secretary, echoed Patel: “Anti-Semitism has no place in our society.” Lisa Nandy, the Labour shadow foreign secretary, called Hotovely’s treatment “appalling.” 

Days later, Labour leader, Keir Starmer, offered more support to Hotovely, joining her at an event staged by Labour Friends of Israel, a lobby group inside his party that uncritically supports Israel. 


His speech’s main themes were reminiscent of those nearly 40 years ago and were also in open defiance of a motion passed by his own conference two months earlier declaring Israel an apartheid state and demanding sanctions against Israel’s settlements. Starmer claimed credit for Labour’s colonial tradition that led to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain’s promise to aid European Jews in colonizing and dispossessing the native Palestinian population. He noted, “From our earliest days—even before the Balfour Declaration—we backed the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.”

Echoing Hotovely, Starmer appeared to deny the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the new Israeli state in 1948. He spoke of the founding generation that oversaw those systematic expulsions as “comrades in the international struggle for equality, peace and freedom,” and glibly dismissed Israel’s destruction of hundreds of villages in 1948. He mentioned only the planting of forests, over Palestinian homes to prevent any return, as making “the desert flower”—a piece of historic Zionist spin only the Israeli right still clings to.

Ignoring the work of B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, as well as his party’s motion, Starmer instead celebrated Israel as a “rumbustious democracy,” with a “commitment to the rule of law.” That would be news to Israel’s large internal Palestinian minority. Hotovely’s party’s 2018 Nation-State Law formally gives them second-class rights. 

Israel’s 15-year blockade of Gaza and intermittent destruction of its infrastructure under the Israeli army’s Dahiya doctrine of sending the overcrowded enclave back to the “Stone Age,” was reduced by Starmer to a “humanitarian crisis” that Israel was supposedly going to “tackle.” 

Those who prioritized the struggle to liberate Palestinians from Israel’s occupation were in the grip of a “Manichean view” preventing them from being “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine and pro-peace.” What they were instead, Starmer strongly implied, was “anti-Semitic”—a word littered throughout his speech.

Ironically, that supremacism was precisely the reason the two leading human rights organizations classified Israel as an apartheid state and the conflation put Starmer firmly in the camp of the most fanatical wing of the pro-Israel lobby, which seeks to silence Israel’s anti-Zionist critics in the party, by suggesting they are secret anti-Semites. 

Such a conflation is the driving force behind a continuing purge of left-wing Labour members, accused of anti-Semitism, many of them Jews who supported Corbyn. 

In his speech, Starmer stated: “Anti-Zionist anti-Semitism is the antithesis of the Labour tradition. It denies the Jewish people alone a right of self-determination.” 

That statement rightfully elicited angry responses from left-wing British Jews, such as journalist Rivkah Brown. She called the Labour leader “an anti-Semite,” explaining: “In his not-so-subtle conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, he implies that all Jews want a nation-state, and those of us who don’t must hate ourselves.” 

It did not end there. Echoing his earlier argument against “anti-Zionist anti-Semitism,” Starmer accused those behind the boycott movement of “targeting alone the world’s sole Jewish state.” He thereby implied that it was anti-Semitic for Labour delegates to vote—as a majority did—in favor of a boycott of the settlements as a non-violent way to punish Israel for refusing to engage with peacemaking.

Meanwhile, the rightwing Conservative government began a fresh crackdown on Hamas, one of the two largest political movements representing Palestinians, declaring it a terror organization “in its entirety”—that is, including its political wing. 

This latest move slams shut the door on efforts to emulate the peacemaking of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. A peace was accord signed in 1998, only after Blair enticed all parties, including Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, to the negotiating table. 

After he was appointed peace envoy to the Middle East in 2007, Blair met Hamas leaders in a bid to replicate that success. 

But for today’s Conservative and Labour parties, putting pressure on Israel to make any kind of political concession to the Palestinians now seems off the agenda.

Jonathan Cook is a journalist now based in the UK and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. He is the author of Blood and Religion and Israel and the Clash of Civilisations (available from AET’s Middle East Books and More).


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