It’s hard to imagine a previous British political party conference where the views of a young Israeli Labour activist would be sought by one of the biggest radio shows in the UK.
But it’s a sign of just how much Labour’s troubled relations with Israel and the Jewish community have dominated the headlines over the past year that the appearance of Stav Cohen on LBC was hardly a surprise at all.
The 31-year-old Knesset staffer was among an eight-strong delegation from the young arm of Israel’s Labour party in Liverpool to meet and build relations with members of their sister party.
Keen to find out more about the stories that have also captured the attention of Israeli media, the visit to conference included meetings with MPs Louise Ellman and Wes Streeting, a private meeting with Labour Friends of Palestine and dinner with Labour Students.
Members of the group admitted they received a mixed response to their trip at home including “the typical ‘they hate us, don’t go” but that was dwarfed by an overwhelmingly positive reaction to such engagement.
“I wanted to see for myself what everyone was talking about in terms of Corbyn and anti-Semitism and to influence as much as possible perceptions of Israel and of the Labour Party in Israel.
“Building relations with sister parties is important to me, especially young members. Some of us are going to continue in politics and if they are going to continue too then being in touch will help both our countries. In all political parties younger members are the one’s going out into the streets demonstrating, giving out pamphlets. If we cooperate it’ll can have a huge influence on party policy.”
The group – who were brought over by the Jewish Labour Movement – were assured a baptism of fire with a discussion on anti-Semitism at Momentum’s hub being their very first engagement. It saw claims that the extent of the scourge in Labour was “exaggerated” and reduced at least one Jewish attendee to tears.
While there were “fringe” voices with “delusional” views expressed, Or Harpaz, who serves as an assistant to the deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, said their worst fears were not realised at the meeeting. “Most of the people we spoke to wanted a two state solution. They want it now, not to wait”.
The most disturbing experience, they said, came following a pro-Palestinian event when activists took pictures of them while questioning who had funded the trip. The images later appeared online alongside suggesting the Israeli government has sent “agents”.
Cohen said her most meaningful conversation came when she had the opportunity to challenge senior Labour Friends of Palestine figures including on why the word terrorist hadn’t been used by a panellist at one of their events the previous day in relation to those subjected to house demolitions in the West Bank. “The speaker referred to those who commit crimes against Israelis. Language matter here. The people we spoke to were very responsive to a lot of the things I was saying,” she said.
The group said they had received an overwhelmingly positive welcome across the conference, including a chance meeting with Sadiq Khan who enthusiastically posed for pictures. Abo El-Higo, an Israeli Arab member of the group, told the London mayor he had to visit Israel because he is the only hope for peace in the region.
Harpaz said he’d like to see a similar conference in Israel “to liven up our party” and added the sister parties “faced the same challenges – how to talk with socialist values to the public. The young generation everywhere wants change – they’re sick of how things are done and want to take the future into their own hands”.
Cohen said, despite the issues over anti-Semitism and Israel in parts of the party, said: “I don’t think it’s as hopeless as its sometimes presented I leave more hopeful than when I arrived about Israel’s status in the party and wider society.”
And she had a clear message for those who suggest Jews should abandon Labour. “I always stay stay and fight. You never leave, because someone else is going to take that seat and they may be worse than the people you’re trying to punish by leaving”.
With that it was off to join the revelry at the Labour students’ disco. It’s where the real politics takes place, I’m told.
— Jeremy Newmark (@Jeremy_Newmark) September 27, 2016