It’s the image which will sum up Labour’s 2018 Conference for many in the Jewish community: a sea of flags pointedly showing one-sided solidarity with one half of a complex conflict. For many, it was nothing short of chilling.
Not because Palestinians do not deserve a state, or British Jews don’t empathise deeply with their plight. It’s not because they are unwilling to criticise Israeli policies or don’t want to see an end to the conflict.
Rather, it is precisely because they do, but know such a one-eyed Corbynite approach will never lead to the negotiating table. Waving the flag of the other party to the conflict, a liberal democracy that leads the way in gay and women’s rights in the region, would have been inconceivable in such a partisan atmosphere. Such was the fervour around Palestine in Liverpool that it was the only international issue to be prioritised for its own debate, attracting 188,000 votes from constituency Labour parties compared to Yemen, which got barely 850.
It’s true the that, with one vile exception, the debate was conducted using language that didn’t cross the line that it all too often does on the left. Rhea Wolfson deserves credit for how she chaired the session and challenged the language of denial and conspiracy when it reared its ugly head. But, amid calls for an arms freeze, an end to the ‘blockade’ and calls for a probe into deaths on the Gaza border, there was not a single mention in two hours of Hamas or terrorism, or a single demand for action by the Palestinian leadership.
Corbyn, in his keynote speech, rightly mentioned Yemen and Saudi Arabia before the Palestinians. He touched on the basics: a “secure Israel” alongside a Palestinian state, but couldn’t resist offering a list of what he saw as Israeli transgressions. Again, his calls for Palestinian action and compromise were conspicuous by their absence. But it was his pledge to recognise Palestine the moment he gets through the door of Number 10 that received the biggest ovation of the entire speech, including when he challenged Theresa May over Brexit. This was the conference when Labour conference-goers firmly pitched their tent as ‘Palestine firsters’. The question now is whether the demand for a freeze on arms sales is a prelude to something stronger in future years.
Of course it’s not hard to see why so many are attracted to the shiny objects Corbyn held out, from free childcare to workers having a stake in the businesses to which they devote their time. Much of what he said would be welcomed by many British Jews. But as the faithful piled out of the Liverpool auditorium, reaching for superlatives and rushing to buy a copy of the speech at the end of what commentators described an upbeat gathering, some Labour Jews must have been wondering if they had been at an entirely different conference. “It’s been terrible,” one weary Jewish delegate said of the week.
It was not just on the Middle East that many will be left disappointed. On antisemitism, opportunities to follow the rhetoric of zero tolerance and being an ‘ally’ on antisemitism were undermined by actions at every single turn.
In an interview in Liverpool, Corbyn pointedly failed to describe the notorious mural that featured heavily in the antisemitism scandal as antisemitic, despite having previously said its content was, and even seemed unable to offer a hint of empathy for Luciana Berger who was given extra security at the conference.
Len McCluskey, the Unite chief, told a fringe meeting that Corbyn would eventually be proven right over the international definition of antisemitism. MP Chris Williamson continued to act with apparently impunity, sharing platforms with suspended and expelled activists.
All this in the space of just a few extraordinary tough few days in Liverpool. It’s hardly the mark of a leadership that is going out of its way to build bridges – and stood in stark contrast to the uncompromising message from Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry and the verbal embrace of Tom Watson.
As Watson told LFI, it will be a very long journey to build bridges. This conference will have done very little to start that process.