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Rt Hon Emily Thornberry MP, Shadow Foreign Secretary, speech to Labour Friends of Israel Annual Lunch 2017
Chief Rabbi, Ambassador Regev, Parliamentary colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is an honour to be here today.
Sir David, thank you for that kind introduction, and on behalf of everyone here, let me add my thanks to you, and to Isaac Kaye, for the support you give this lunch every year.
Thank you as well to LFI and Joan for inviting me to be here today, and for helping to organise my recent meetings in Israel.
With the weather we’ve got in London at the moment, strolling round Tel Aviv in sandals feels a long time ago. But as with all the trips I’ve made to Israel down the years, it wasn’t just the sunshine that left its mark on me, and I hope I can share some of my other thoughts from the trip during our time here today.
One of my first trips to Israel and Palestine was back in 1982. I took my new boyfriend – now my husband – Chris, to show him off to my father, who was out working with the UN, and his huge assembled family.
But like any young couple, we just wanted to spend as much time together experiencing something new. So we borrowed a UN car and criss-crossed the entire country.
And when we got back I remember going to meet Chris’ grandparents, who were Jewish. His grand-mother had suffered a stroke a few years beforehand, and never really spoke or communicated, but she seemed to like sitting listening to everyone else’s conversations.
And I remember telling her about our trip, about the Damascus Gate, about the Wailing Wall, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. About visiting Bethlehem, driving up the Jordan Valley and down to Jericho – the Umayyad Palace, and the mosaic of The Tree of Life.
Then up to the Belvoir Fortress, with its glorious views. The stronghold of the Druze above Jaffa, then up to Acre and Nahariya and Nablus. Telling her about the cafes we’d visited, the food we’d eaten, the beaches we’d walked on.
And as I jabbered on, I realised that Chris’s grandmother was weeping and I stopped. And I said to this elderly woman, living in Oxfordshire, with tears falling down her face: ‘Do you know Israel? Have you ever been to Israel? Do you have family there?’
And she just uttered the single word: ‘Yes, Yes’. And hearing about our own trip, and everything we’d seen and done, had been enough to move her to tears.
It taught me a lesson – the same lesson that the late, great Elie Wiesel tried to teach the world – that for Jewish people, you do not have to live in Israel, for Israel to mean the world to you.
And what Elie Wiesel called, the ‘need’ for Israel has been a core belief of the Labour Party, now for more than a century.
The publication of Labour’s war aims in 1917, and their explicit recognition of the need for a Jewish homeland, pre-dated even the Balfour Declaration. And as Mark Regev mentioned in his speech to LFI last year, the Labour Party pledged its support for the Zionist cause on no fewer than 11 separate occasions between 1917 and 1945.
It was therefore no exaggeration for Harold Wilson to claim that, and I quote: “It would not have been possible for a political party to be more committed to a national home for the Jews in Palestine than was Labour.”
And whether it was Arthur Henderson, Nye Bevan, Harold Wilson, Barbara Castle or Richard Crossman, some of the greatest figures in Labour history defined themselves as much as anything by their support for the state of Israel. And just as important, believed that support must always be stated publicly and proudly.
Even today, for all the outside commentary, much of it extremely ill-informed, about the attitudes of the Labour Party today on Middle East policy, it was our manifesto in June that stated our unequivocal support for a two-state solution, and a secure Israel, safe from rocket and terror attacks.
While by contrast, it was the Tory manifesto, which for only the second time since the Yom Kippur War, had absolutely no mention of the Middle East at all.
But as well as reminding people of Labour’s historic support for Israel, it is also worth pausing to examine the reasons why that support existed, because when we do, we can see that it has never been a matter of political convenience or transitory significance.
It has always had at its root two deeply-held principles central to our movement.
The first is our belief in standing up for anyone facing discrimination, persecution and prejudice, whether in this country or beyond, and standing up against those who use the politics of fear and hatred to divide our communities.
That is why the Labour movement reacted with revulsion to the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and gave our support for a Jewish state as a homeland and haven for those fleeing them.
That is why, from Stockton to Cable Street, it was Socialists and Trade Unionists who stood alongside the Jewish Community to fight the Blackshirts in the streets in the mid-1930s.
And that is why, as the horrors of the Holocaust revealed themselves, it was Nye Bevan and others that demanded the post-war Labour government work for the establishment of the state of Israel.
And that is why today, with anti-semitism on the rise across Europe, with Jews throughout the world targeted by terrorists just because of their faith, and with synagogues and Jewish primary schools here in Britain required to place security guards outside, we must continue to protect the rights of Jewish people to enjoy the most basic freedom of all: freedom from fear, persecution and violence.
The second principle that has always driven Labour’s support for Jewish people and the State of Israel is our basic internationalism, and the way we have historically reached out and felt a spirit of solidarity with other movements across the world built on the same socialist values and beliefs on which our own party is founded.
And we felt that spirit of solidarity with the pioneers in the Moshavim and Kibbutzim, who made the deserts bloom.
We felt it when we saw the fledgling State of Israel using collective action to ensure that its millions of new immigrants were fed, housed and given work.
And whatever differences we have had over the years with successive Israeli governments, whatever protests we rightly make about the denial of rights to individuals in the Occupied Territories, we have always felt a kinship in Israel’s commitment to provide their own people with access to public education, health and social services, to the pursuit of full employment, to democratic freedoms, to gender equality, and to the rights of the LGBT community.
And in those respects, I will be the first to agree that the rest of the Middle East has much to learn from Israel.
Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Salman says it wants to be a modern, liberal nation, and proves the point not by appointing a woman to run its Supreme Court – as Israel has just done with Esther Hayut – but by granting women the right to drive cars.
Look at the position of the LGBT community. This summer, Tel Aviv welcomed 200,000 people to celebrate Pride under the Rainbow Flag. While in Cairo in Egypt, this same summer, just the act of waving that flag at a rock concert saw dozens of young LGBT people identified by President Sisi’s secret police, rounded up in dawn raids, taken into detention, where many of them still lie.
Take workers’ rights, where just a fortnight ago, Israel’s schoolteachers exercised their legal right and went on strike to demand higher pay. In the very same week, Mahmoud Salehi was returned to prison from a hospital bed in Iran, where he’d been kept shackled and handcuffed. What was his crime? The simple act of trying to organise a strike and launch a trade union.
But as I have said, like many of you here today, and millions of Israelis too, I have profound differences with the current government of Israel.
And in that context, I want to pay tribute to our friends in the Israeli Labor party, with whom I had the pleasure to spend time on my trip to Israel earlier this month: those wonderful women warriors for social justice and the left – Stav Shaffir, Michal Biran and Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin; Isaac Herzog, who leads opposition in the Knesset to the Netanyahu government; and Avi Gabbay, who is working to assemble a coalition which will replace that government after the next election.
Theirs is a positive vision of how a Labor-led government can build a more peaceful, more prosperous and more progressive future both for Israel and its neighbours.
A constant rejoinder to all those who somehow believe that opposition to the policies of an individual Israeli government can ever justify a hatred of the nation and its people, or a boycott of its products, its culture or its academics, or a denial of its right to defend itself from military assault and terror attacks. That sort of bigotry against the Israeli nation has never been justified and it never will be.
That is why it is so important to remember the centenaries of Labour’s War Aims and of the Balfour Declaration, because they enshrined the existence of the Jewish state and the rights of its people, as a formal principle of our foreign policy, and committed us to defend the rights of Jewish people wherever we see them attacked around the world.
And those principles will remain a cornerstone of foreign policy under the next Labour government.
But even before we reach that stage, we must continue to champion those principles within the Labour Party and oppose with all our might any attempts to undermine them.
And on that note, I can only repeat to you what I said at the weekend to London’s Regional Labour Conference.
I talked about meeting Jewish voters at the last election on the doorstep or in the street, who told me: ‘I agree with your policies, and I don’t like the Tories, but I can’t vote Labour, as long as your party allows anti-semitism to go unchecked’.
And there is only one answer to that: We Will Not.
There can be no place in our party for anyone who holds anti-semitic views or who denies the right of Israel to exist, and any people who hold those views must and will be drummed out of our party.
Because as I said to that conference on Saturday, it would be a crying shame if when voters next go to the polls, we fail to win councils like Barnet or seats like Finchley and Golders Green, not because we don’t have the right policies or the right candidates, but because large parts of those communities feel that we are not doing enough to tackle the bigotry and prejudice that they face.
But instead if we can demonstrate that zero-tolerance approach to anti-semitism, not just in words but in action, then I hope we can get back to having a conversation with those Jewish voters about the other issues on which we all agree.
And one of those issues which I am sure unites us all is the need to establish lasting peace and security in the Middle East: an issue which was the major focus of my visit to Israel and Palestine earlier this month.
That visit confirmed to me what a long way there is to go before Israeli citizens can feel safe in their homes and on their streets, or before Israel can feel safe at its borders.
None of it was unfamiliar to me – the random stabbings and indiscriminate car rammings, the tunnels and rocket attacks – but I do think that if more people in Britain understood what it is like for ordinary Israelis to live with that constant undercurrent of fear, there would be better understanding of why the security situation is so fundamental to any progress.
And by the same token, my visit confirmed to me how far we have to go to complete the ‘unfinished business’ of Balfour’s Declaration and protect the rights of “non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
That commitment will remain unfulfilled for as long as the Israeli Government continues its occupation of the West Bank, for as long as it continues to back the expansion of settlements, for as long as the people of Gaza face a dire humanitarian crisis, and for as long as the Palestinian people are denied a state of their own.
So the next Labour government will make clear to the Israeli government that it must cease settlement-building. We will work for a solution to the tragic plight of Gaza – one that seeks both to end the blockade, while also protecting the people of Israel from Hamas rocket attacks. And we will recognise the State of Palestine, because it is in the interests of Israel, the Palestinians and peace.
But recognition of a Palestinian state is just a starting point. The next Labour government will be strong advocates of a two-state solution: one that brings the people of Israel lasting security and peace, and protects them both from domestic terror and external aggression; and one that brings the people of Palestine a viable, democratic and prosperous state.
To achieve that, the challenges before us are partly political.
That is why the next Labour government will support the Arab Peace Initiative and the efforts of all those in Israel, Palestine and the Arab world who are willing to make the hard compromises and concessions required to bring this 70 year conflict to an end.
And make our opposition clear to all organisations and nations who continue to condone, fund or direct terror attacks against the Israeli people, or who continue to seek Israel’s destruction.
The challenges we face are also economic.
That is why the next Labour government will work both to encourage UK investment in Israel, and in Palestinian-run ventures in the West Bank and Gaza. And it is why our international aid budget will continue to support the economic development of Palestine.
But the challenges we face are also cultural.
And our own experience from Northern Ireland tells us that peace has to be built from the bottom up, not just the top down.
Earlier this month, I visited the inspiring MEET project in Jerusalem, and talking to the young Israelis and Palestinians there, I was reminded once again that – whether they live in Haifa or Hebron, in Jerusalem or Jericho, in Beer-Sheeva or Bethlehem – the peoples of this beautiful region share the same concerns, the same fears, and most importantly the same hopes – for a future that is better than the blood-stained past.
Our task is therefore to support all those who are working to build the foundations upon which a sustainable peace can be built.
That is why the next Labour government will oppose all those who, as a matter of ideology, seek to entrench separation and division between the communities.
Because peace can only be built by showing people what they have in common, not by reinforcing what divides them.
It is why we will make clear to the Palestinian Authority that officially sanctioned anti-semitic incitement, and the glorification of suicide bombers, particularly to children and young people, must come to an end.
Because peace can only be built by teaching children on all sides not to hate, but to love.
And it is why we will put support for peacemakers and peacebuilders at the heart of our approach. It is for that reason I have been proud to support LFI’s campaign in favour of an International Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace.
I congratulate you, and all the Labour MPs who worked with you, in securing a pledge from the government to invest 3 million pounds over the next three years in coexistence work. And we will continue to champion that work when we are in government, because peace can only be built by bringing people together, not driving them further apart.
In closing, friends, I want to share a final memory from my recent trip to Israel, indeed from my final day there, visiting two Kibbutzim on the border with Gaza. At Kibbutz Erez, I talked to Alon and Yitzhak, two men who had spent their entire lives living there.
We talked about the past, about how they remembered visiting Gaza long before the blockade and shopping in its markets.
Then we talked about the present – how they and their children live in fear of rocket attacks; the roof of the nursery their grandchildren attend reinforced against weaponry that could kill them as they play. But also how conscious they were of their Palestinian neighbours living in grinding poverty with no hope of relief in sight.
But as bleak as that was, we then talked about the future. And what struck me most was their optimism and their open-heartedness.
I heard no words of hate, of anger or of despair, just a hope and a belief that the future for their children and their grandchildren and those of their neighbours in Gaza might be better than the past.
Last year, I had the honour to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres – a hero of the left, of the state of Israel, and of the cause of peace. “Optimists and pessimists,” he once famously said, “Die the exact same death, but they live very different lives.”
I know that the road ahead will be hard. It will be full of set-backs and challenges. But let us face it like Shimon Peres, let us face it like Alon and Yitzhak, let us face it with hope and courage and faith, let us face it with the confidence that things can and will get better, and let us face it as friends together.