Israel: a progressive cause by Robert Philpot

Published: 13 May 2011
Briefing Number 284

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Summary:  This Briefing reproduces an article setting out why Israel is a progressive cause.  It concisely highlights liberal values of Israeli society and explains why they should be acknowledged and supported by people on the left, outside the country.  The article is by Robert Philpot, the director of UK organisation ‘Progress’ (, and progressive, left-of-centre thinktank. The article first appeared in a British Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, on 11 March 2011.

Israel: a progressive cause

by Robert Philpot

The Jewish Chronicle (, 11 March 2011

At the time of the founding of the State of Israel, DavidBen Gurion said it was not enough for the Jewish state to be simply Jewish – it had to be fully democratic, offering full citizenship to all its peoples.  It was a remarkable statement made at the very moment when Israel faced the first of the wars of survival which have periodically threatened its existence.

Remarkable because, as the history of many nations, including the UK, shows, the real test of a nation’s commitment to democracy is not whether that commitment is made during times of peace and tranquillity, but whether it can be sustained during times of war and difficulty.

Israel’s steadfast adherence to liberal democratic principles, even at the hardest of times, is one that should be admired and supported by democrats everywhere. 

This is especially so because – despite welcome developments in the Middle East over recent weeks – Israel remains the only democracy in a region where monarchical autocracies, zealous theocracies and military authoritarianism are the most prevalent form of government.  But while democrats of all political persuasions should give their support to Israel, those of us on the left should do so particularly.

The progressive attributes of Israeli society
Israel is, after all, a country founded on social democratic principles; and the Israel Labour Party, which, alongside the British Labour Party, is a member of the Socialist International, was the country’s dominant political force for decades.

Indeed, it is because of those social democratic principles that Israel’s attributes are undeniably progressive: a free and vibrant media; a robust and independent judiciary; strong trade unions; a generous welfare state; and a commitment to free, world-class education that enables Israel to have one of the highest-skilled workforces on earth.

Contrast, too, the equal rights which women, gays, and lesbians and other minorities enjoy in Israel with the second class citizenship or persecution meted out to such groups in most, if not all, of Israel’s neighbours.

Sadly, of course, this view of Israel is not shared by everyone on the British left.  A small but vocal and vociferous fringe seeks to demonise Israel and its people. [We believe that this is no longer a “fringe” phenomenon, but has been endorsed in the liberal “mainstream” in recent years – Beyond Images]. Too often, alongside some on the right who have long harboured a dislike of Israel’s progressivism, they appear able to use their power and influence in the media to distort debate not only about the Middle East peace process but also about Britain’s own foreign policy.

This is why, alongside Labour Friends of Israel, Progress believes that making the progressive case for Israel is so important.  We believe that it is essential that we not only demonstrate the support for Israel that exists within the Labour Party but, more importantly, we challenge those who seek to deny Israel’s right to exist and show why that point of view simply has no place at all in the Labour Party.

Equally, we believe it is important to assert Israel’s right to defend itself and to have its rightful security concerns, and its efforts to promote peace, appreciated not ignored. 

We need to promote shared values, not pursue self-indulgent boycotts

The calls for boycotts and attempts to exploit our courts to exclude Israeli voices from public debate in this country are, of course, simply the most obvious manifestation of this anti-Israel fringe.  The boycott movement, particularly amongst some British trade unions, is also the most self-indulgent, for it would achieve nothing beyond harming the very people on whose behalf it is apparently being mounted.

Indeed, the most practical effect would be to stifle the growing cooperation, endorsed and supported by the International Trade Union Confederation, between Israeli and Palestinian trade unions, cooperation which provides the building block for trust and cooperation upon which a long-term peace settlement can be built.

But while it is self-indulgent, the boycott movement is also pernicious. The impact of the attempts to isolate and demonise Israel and its people are being felt week in, week out, by Jewish people here in Britain in the form of rising anti-semitism.  This is something the left should unreservedly condemn, not attempt to excuse [Most pro-boycott campaigners vigorously deny that they are motivated by anti-semitism, and claim to be ‘pro-jewish, just anti-Israeli government’ – Beyond Images].           

I would, of course, like to see Israelis elect a more progressive government than they currently have – something I would also like to see the British people do, too.  But in the spirit of the internationalist tradition, the real challenge for Labour is to support shared values where we see them and thus to work with progressive Israelis and Palestinians to promote a two-state solution. 

That means supporting both those Palestinians who want a state committed to freedom and democracy, not Hamas’ violent, dictatorial brand of Islamism, and those Israelis who are already attempting to reach out to them.

Some related Beyond Images Briefings

Briefing 263: Support Israel: if it goes down, we all go down.... by Jose Maria Aznar (19 July 2010)

Briefing 173: Rejecting militant Islam, accepting Israel: Muslim women speak out (10 May 2006)

Briefing 162: Israel’s democratic and humanitarian values: illustrations from the midst of conflict (9 December 2005)

Briefing 87: Israeli society: resilience, dignity and democracy, by Hirsh Goodman (25 April 2004)