Opinion

Pro-Palestinian, Without the anti-Semitism: Post-Corbyn Labour’s New Foreign Secretary

Lisa Nandy disentangles pro-Palestinian views from kneejerk anti-Zionism and disdain for Jews. That counts as remarkable for a Labour party emerging from its toxic, electorally disastrous Corbyn era

Colin Shindler
Colin Shindler
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Lisa Nandy during the Labour leadership hustings in Nottingham, England. Feb. 8, 2020
Lisa Nandy during the Labour leadership hustings in Nottingham, England. Feb. 8, 2020Credit: Jacob King,AP
Colin Shindler
Colin Shindler

In normal times, the election of the leader of Her Majesty's opposition would be front-page news in Britain. In the age of the coronavirus, Sir Keir Starmer's election as Labour party leader was more of a media whimper. 

Yet it spelled the end of the far Left's control of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and signals a shift to more rational policies – not least on anti-Semitism and Israel. Indeed, during the campaign for the leadership, most candidates criticized the party's inability to deal with anti-Semitism, distanced themselves from Corbyn's inadequate and tarnished approach and even proclaimed themselves as "Zionists" - because they accepted the existence of the State of Israel. 

Starmer himself publicized his wife's Jewish family and her extended family members living in Tel Aviv. But it was his surprise appointment Sunday of Lisa Nandy – his rival in the leadership contest – as shadow Foreign Secretary that was most intriguing. Nandy, viewed widely as an articulate and principled politician, is the chair of the parliamentary group Labour Friends of Palestine. 

Keir Starmer, who won the leadership of the Labour Party, speaks on Brexit during a Labour Party event in Harlow, near London. November 05, 2019
Keir Starmer, who won the leadership of the Labour Party, speaks on Brexit during a Labour Party event in Harlow, near London. November 05, 2019Credit: AFP

A long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause, especially focussing on the treatment of minors, she worked with refugee children before entering the House of Commons in 2010. 

Lisa Nandy's appeal is that she could disentangle pro-Palestinian views from disdain for Jews. That may seem unremarkable in other contexts, but Nandy is challenging the idea originating on the far Left, and which became core Corbynista dogma, that the 'canard' of accusing the party or leader of racism was merely a devious technique to attack Corbyn's support for the Palestinians.

Indeed, Nandy has explicitly condemned the distortion and weaponization of the idea and terminology of 'Zionism'. That was all too much for some on the far Left; for refusing to follow the script on anti-Semitism, she was criticized for not doing enough for the Palestinians. 

And her repeated and stringent condemnation of anti-Semitism in Labour impressed many party supporters alienated by the Corbynistas, as did her refusal to serve under him in the shadow cabinet. Nandy produced her own seven-point plan to deal with the plague of anti-Semitism in Labour.

At the party leadership hustings at the Jewish Labour Movement, a century-old group resurrected to fight the myopia of the far Left when it came to Jews, she beat Starmer 50.9 percent to 45.3 percent, winning its official endorsement. 

It will be fascinating to watch how Nandy navigates the Israeli-Palestinian issue from now on. Most UK Labour politicians tend to offer support to both sides of the conflict, but clearly there has been a tilt towards the Palestinian cause during Netanyahu's tenure and the collapse of the Oslo peace process.

The nuanced approach of Lisa Nandy therefore poses a threat to the "all leftists are anti-Zionists are anti-Semites" caricature often espoused by the hard right in Israel and their supporters in the wider world. She has opposed BDS, supports a two-state solution and an end to the Gaza blockade.

She opposes what she sees as the extreme imbalance of the Trump Mideast peace plan. In a recent broadcast, she termed it "reckless," and tweeted back in January that the "UK must respond robustly to this unworkable and inflammatory plan and stand with those who believe in a viable and sovereign nation state for Palestinians." 

Nandy’s thoughtful views surely draw from her fascinating and very politically engaged family background. Her grandfather was the Liberal MP, Frank Byers, who was one of the post-war intake in 1945 – someone who bore witness to the Shoah and embraced the establishment of Israel.

Her father is the left wing academic, Dipak Nandy, who came to Britain from India in the 1950s. At a time when racism was prevalent in British society, he was one of the intellectual pioneers of race relations in the UK. She herself has visited Israel and the West Bank on several occasions. 

Yet when the Palestine Solidarity Campaign – whose logo is a Greater Palestine without the Green Line – asked all the Labour leadership candidates to commit to "UN resolutions recognizing [the Palestinians’] collective right to self-determination and to return to their homes," Lisa Nandy willingly endorsed it.

The "return to their homes" is clearly a reference to UN Resolution 194, which promotes the "right of return" – to which there is a wall-to-wall opposition in Israel from Left to Right. For the Palestinians, it is psychologically foundational, and cements their historical narrative. For the Israelis, it is understood as the drip-drip destruction of the Hebrew republic. 

Lisa Nandy has a choice of directions in which she can proceed. She could folow Corbyn's superficial approach, which entailed refusing to act as an honest mediator in the conflict and perpetuating the megaphone war. Or - and this seems closer to her expressed political tendencies so far - she could instead bring together the peace camps of both sides and reject the rejectionists. 

Nandy does not possess the ideological baggage of Corbyn, accumulated over 40 years, of banal statements and superficial actions. She has shown that it is possible to be pro-Palestinian without being mindlessly anti-Zionist – just as there are those who are pro-Israel without being blindly anti-Palestinian. 

Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a protest to oppose war with Iran and the presence of western troops in Iraq. London, January 11, 2020
Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a protest to oppose war with Iran and the presence of western troops in Iraq. London, January 11, 2020Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

The Israel-Palestine conflict has for several decades now been an ideological surrogate for the tussle between Right and Left in the party, between Blair's New Labour and its opponents. The Corbynistas’ accidental, and disastrous, takeover of the party was in part a reaction to New Labour and by default to its pro-Israel policies.

Keir Starmer is clearly interested in drawing a line under Corbynism and to distance himself from past party conflicts. It is clear that the Corbynistas are on the retreat following their abysmal failure in the 2019 election – the worst result since 1935 – and Starmer has largely locked them out of his new shadow cabinet.

Starmer has publicly declared that his success will be measured by whether UK Jews feel comfortable returning to a Labour party now clearly anchored in its traditional values. Lisa Nandy's success will be measured by her even-handedness and her willingness to espouse the cause of Israeli-Palestinian de-escalation, if not reconciliation, without requiring a dilution of her genuine and passionate call for a just future for the Palestinians.

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London