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The UK Labour party’s pro-Palestine position was won through the struggle of the student movement 

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On December 12 the British public will go to the polls for one of the most polarizing elections in a lifetime. On one side will be the incumbent Conservative party of the empire apologist and serial womanizer Boris Johnson. On the other side is the Labour party led by the septuagenarian jam maker Jeremy Corbyn. Since his shock promotion to leader of the party leader in 2015, and even more surprising election result in 2017 (reducing the Conservative majority to a hung parliament) Corbyn’s domestic policy has been defined by a commitment to more public spending and a pledge to decarbonize the economy by 2030.

Corbyn has some of the most progressive views of any European politician when it comes to Palestine – and he now stands close to becoming PM of the United Kingdom, a UN Security Council member. His success partly rests on the vitality of the hundreds of thousands young people who came of age in the aftermath of the Iraq war and during the financial crisis of 2008. The combination of this foreign policy disaster and economic depression made them prime supporters for the antiwar and anti-austerity candidate Jeremy Corbyn. What has not often been commented upon however is the ability for Corbyn’s Labour party to locate Palestine as a moral foreign policy cause of this generation and affix it to their material fight against neoliberal austerity. Indeed, the genealogy of this relationship lies in the radical street politics of the British student movement between 2008-2011.

The roots of the contemporary British student movement for Palestine can be found in the 2009 protests against Israel’s brutal invasion of the Gaza strip in January of that year. Over 20,000 protestors marched on the Israeli embassy in London which was heavily guarded by mounted police whose reaction to the mostly Arab and Muslim protestors was brutal. Over the ensuing weeks a seismic shift began to take place vis-à-vis university students position on Palestine – it was becoming a central issue of campus activism. This new cause found a praxis through the 1960s protest tactic of occupations.

On 13 January 2009, students of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London occupied the Brunei gallery issuing a list of demands in connection to the war on Gaza and the universities connection to the arms trade sparking a wave of similar actions across the country. By March 6th, at least twenty-seven UK University campuses had held occupations, from Plymouth on the south coast to Cardiff in Wales and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Student demands from occupation to occupation varied, but they often included the call for educational scholarships for Palestinian students, expressed support for Palestinian students right to education and calls for boycotts of Israeli goods, granting much needed boon to the emerging BDS movement in the UK. 

The achievements of the occupation extended well beyond the concessions secured in relation to the students immediate demands. The techniques and skills students built during the occupations for Gaza would be central for the student movements role in spear heading the anti austerity movement in the UK. Just a year after the occupations, young people across Britain were in revolt again enacting a wave of occupations and protests, finding their voice in the power of a new mass movement of the 2010/2011 student protests. The Gaza occupations trained the future foot soldiers in frontline direct-action tactics which would form the spearhead of the anti-austerity movement. Although the student component of this movement was unsuccessful in its goal of preventing the trebling of tuition fees, many of those who were involved graduated from University with the injustices of Palestine and neoliberal restructuring emblazoned on their minds as they stepped out into the world. Furthermore, the introduction of Palestine into the consciousness of the student movement resulted in wave after wave of BDS successes on campuses with deeper calls for decolonized curriculums and a positioning of Palestine as fundamental to progressive student politics. In 2017 an Al Jazeera undercover reporter known as “Robin” covertly filmed a senior official from the UK’s NUS conspiring to oust the organizations president Malia Bouattia through conversations with individuals in the Israeli embassy. Bouattia was the first Muslim, woman NUS president and is a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights and her success in the NUS elections as a vocal supporter of BDS is testament to the lasting saliency of Palestine for students.

Since his election in 2015 Corbyn has been subject to coups from the right wing of the party and a concerted campaign of vilification by the Westminster lobby press and commentariat. According to reports by Middle East Eye, Corbyn and his leftist anti-imperialist faction of the party has not been spared the clandestine activity of Israeli diplomats. Recordings seen by the online news source stipulate that Israeli diplomats have actively sought to establish organizations and youth groups to promote Israeli influence within the Labour party and undermine Corbyn’s leadership. With little friends in the mainstream media or the corridors of power in Westminster, Crobynism has relied on the grassroots energy of Momentum which has played a crucial role in propelling the Labour party to 480,000 members and consistently aided in maintaining the core values of the current Labour party are brought to doorsteps across the country – many of Momentums key strategists are drawn from the ranks of the class of 2010/2011 student movement.

Brexit, a potentially asymmetric trade deal with the US, the National Health Service, falling living standards and the environment will dominate this UK election. However, the Labour party’s positioning on Palestine will also be a major factor within its foreign policy platform. During the 2018 Labour Party conference, the delegation hall was filled with Palestinian flags waved enthusiastically by members. During a course of a debate concerning the Palestinian right of return, Colin Monehan, an impassioned CLP member from East London, stated in a thick cockney accent:

“In 1948 the Palestinian people suffered the tragedy of the Nakba,  when the majority of Palestinian people were forcibly displaced from their homes and there has to be a recognition of that. That tragedy that the Palestinians suffered cannot be written out of history, it cannot be downplayed and it must not be ignored”

The party conference voted overwhelmingly in support of the right of return and a complete block on arms sales to Israel. It was the Labour party which oversaw the Nakbah, over eighty years later they have an historic opportunity begin the slow process of addressing their complicity in this calamity. However, if a Labour government is to be part of a just solution and a lasting peace, it must locate and in turn center its most critical and indefatigable voices on Palestine. More often than not these are found strategizing on University campuses and on the front lines of British taking the fight for Palestine to the streets. 

Nick Rodrigo

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6 Responses

  1. tony greenstein on November 19, 2019, 8:11 am

    unfortunately this analysis is hopelessly optimistic and seems to draw straight lines from actions and activities and protests that cannot be logically justified. Its analysis leaves a lot to be desired.

    In stating that ‘The techniques and skills students built during the occupations for Gaza would be central for the student movements role in spear heading the anti austerity movement in the UK.’ There is no evidence for this. The tuition fees protest in 2010/11 grew anew out of a wholly different set of circumstances. I know because my own daughter was arrested invading Millbank, the Lib Dem HQ.

    However that struggle, a massive one at the time faded although one of its effects was the decimation of the Lib Dems in 2015 and 2017.

    Likewise Nick Rodrigo passes over what has happened since 2015 in the Labour Party where Corbyn has been the subject of a fierce fightback by the Labour Right. Unfortunately contrary to what he say Momentum has effectively been a partner in this supporting the witchhunt of socialists and accepting the IHRA definition of antisemitism

    • Nickrodrigo on November 19, 2019, 6:58 pm

      Thanks for the reply to the article Tony, I believe for anyone reading your comment, in addition to this article, would benefit from a healthy exchange.

      You can actually draw a straight line from the Gaza occupations of 2009 to the Millbank protests and ensuing occupations across London universities and beyond. As someone who took part in both, the organizing committees and structures were almost replicated (at least in the case of SOAS, which was really the vanguard occupation along with UCL). Without these spaces as incubators for radical politics at the time, the style and format of the early student protests would not have been possible. I witnessed this first hand, and would urge you to purchase “Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation” by Matt Myers to delve deeper into some of these points made. I am of course not for one moment saying the movement for Palestine sparked the anti austerity movement, but they are connected through a radical praxis which started on campuses.

      The Labour Party’s position on Palestine (including Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry’s) is far from perfect, which is why I conclude that the student wing must be put front and center, the point on IHRA is, however stands and I believe this issue is something that as a non-Jew I have little space to substantively comment on. I do however believe your recent piece adequately addresses this. Hopefully Mondoweiss readers can read them both in conjunction.

      In conclusion, Labour’s movement on Palestine has not emerged out of a vacuum, and is connected to the material reality of a generation sick of war and intervention in the Middle East, part of which includes unfettered assistance to Israel – this sense of injustice seamlessly fits with opportunities denied to them by a state hell bent on arms trades and the concentration of power in the hands of the few.

      In solidarity.

    • Mooser on November 19, 2019, 9:06 pm

      “fightback by Labour Right”

      That should be a humorous oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, the take-off point for a Monty Python skit.

      • echinococcus on November 19, 2019, 10:16 pm

        You’re onto something there, Mooser.
        An oxymoron, no, but it’s been a highly redundant phrase for some 70+ years.

  2. Misterioso on November 19, 2019, 9:48 am

    Righteous Jews step forth in support of the indigenous Palestinians:

    “Israeli public figures call for European ban on West Bank settlement products”
    The JC News, November 18/19

    “Politicians, diplomats and academics urge European Union to go a step further, after the European Court of Justice ruled settlement products must be labelled.”

    “Thirteen Israeli public figures have signed an open letter calling for the European Union to ban the import of goods man in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

    “The European Court of Justice ruled last week that items must be clearly labelled if they are manufactured in the settlements, which are considered occupied territory by the international community.

    “’We believe that accurate labelling of settlement products is an important step but is insufficient,’ the letter to the Guardian newspaper reads.

    “The letter was signed by 13 notable Israelis and public intellectuals, including Avraham Burg, the former Knesset speaker and head of the Jewish Agency and former Attorney General Prof Michael Ben-Yair – as well as Israeli ex-ambassadors Ilan Baruch, Prof Eli Barnavi, Erella Hadar and Dr Alon Liel.

    “Other signatories include former MK Mossi Raz and Israel Prize recipients Prof David Harel, Prof Yehoshua Kolodny, Alex Levac, Prof David Shulman and Prof Zeev Sternhell.

    “’We call upon the European Union to ban the import of Israeli settlement goods. Israeli settlements are the leading cause of human rights violations against Palestinians, and settlement expansion is destroying the possibility of a two-state solution,’ it continues.

    “’By banning goods that originate in Israeli settlements, Europe would help support the differentiation between Israel per se and settlements in the occupied territories.’

    “’We believe that the occupation is morally corrosive, strategically short sighted, and thoroughly detrimental to peace. The international community has taken insufficient action in addressing this reality.’

    “’Europe continues to support the occupation financially by allowing trade with Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. It should be clear that continuing to sell goods that support the erosion of democracy in Israel and the denying of rights to Palestinians is unacceptable.’

    “’As Israelis who care about the future of our country, we ask the European Union to ban the import of settlement goods in order to support a just future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.’”

  3. pabelmont on November 19, 2019, 8:37 pm

    Seems to me, an American, like the very pie-in-the-sky that UK needs. Like the Bernie (or Lizzie) pie-in-the-sky that the USA needs. My hopes are high for both countries, peoples, and we’ll see soonest for the UK. Good luck.

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