Director of We Believe in Israel and Labour Macher, Luke Akehurst, joins me for an open and frank discussion. He also has the honour of being the first non-Jewish guest on the podcast. Recorded at Limmud Festival 2019.

Link: https://www.webelieveinisrael.org.uk/ 

Transcript

Hayden Cohen  0:00 

Hello and Welcome to ‘The Bagel Bite’ with me, Hayden Cohen. Sorry It’s been a while but on that, a change is coming soon. Rather than drip feeding episodes, instead we’re moving to a series model. So you know when a new episode is going to be released, and for that matter, so do I. Everything up to this point, and including one more episode for Mother’s Day with Marjorie Ingall from Tablet Magazine, is going to be part of series one. And then we’ll transition to the new dawn of series two. On today’s show, we have Luke Akehurst,who is a Director of We believe in Israel, heavily involved in the Labour Party, and is generally fighting ‘The Good Fight’. Recorded at Limmud Conference 2019. Enjoy!

Hayden Cohen  0:43 

So for this Bagel Bite, I’m joined by Luke Akehurst, who is the Director of We Believe in Israel, which is a part of BICOM?

Luke Akehurst  0:53 

Yeah, that’s correct. We’re the campaigning bit of BICOM.

Hayden Cohen  0:57 

And so that’s one hat?

Luke Akehurst  0:59 

Yeah,

Hayden Cohen  0:59 

And the other hat, is being quite active in the Labour Party?

Luke Akehurst  1:05 

Correct. So outside of work, I’m the Secretary of Labour First. I guess the rude way to describe it would be a faction inside the Labour Party. It’s the faction that are not fans of Jeremy Corbyn or the tradition that he stands in.

Hayden Cohen  1:20 

We’ll get onto that in a minute.

Luke Akehurst  1:21 

Yeah.

Hayden Cohen  1:22 

I know you’ve been asked the question a gazillion times. Why are you so involved in the Jewish community?

Luke Akehurst  1:30 

Okay, so it started really, with being an ally of the Jewish Society and nationally of the Union of Jewish Students, when I was involved in student politics and student unionism. I turned up at university already broadly sympathetic to the community and to Israel because my grandfather had had Jewish friends  in his teaching career and when he was in the army in World War Two, so that had been passed down through the family, to be sympathetic. I’m not personally a person of any faith, that’s not where I’m coming at any of this. I’m a secular, political ally of the community and and of Israel. And I found at university that me as a moderate member of the Labour Party and the Jewish students had some common enemies, in terms of extremists, particularly on the far left, and I’ve kind of stayed an ally ever since. And then in 2011, I got the chance to work full time on things to do with Israel, which is an amazing thing when you get given the chance to work on a cause that you really believe in. And it’s also given me the opportunity, as someone from outside the community, to get to know a lot about the community. I mean, I’ve spoken to a ridiculous number of synagogues, like something between 150 and 200, or something like that. And, so I get a lot of, the benefits of kind of getting to know a community that’s very warm and welcoming. I don’t have to deal with so many of  the burdens, in terms of dietary requirements and things like that.

Hayden Cohen  3:03 

The Jewish community has a broad spectrum of opinions and beliefs– And that’s everything from on the Israel side, right? There’s a large spectrum. But it’s difficult for me, as someone who is pretty open, relatively knowledgeable about the thing, to navigate this all without someone wanting to shout at me every five seconds. How do you manage it? And how have you managed it for so long? How long have you been doing this for…?

Luke Akehurst  3:31 

Full time for eight and a half years.

Hayden Cohen  3:35 

How do you manage to not anger everyone you speak to?

Luke Akehurst  3:41 

I was hired because I was pretty good at navigating politics, and the internal politics of the Jewish community and the pro Israel community. And of the overlap between the two is just another set of politics to learn– another set of coalition building to do.  And the way I’ve always viewed politics, is not, to build a pure position and then exclude other people from it. It’s to look to build the broadest coalition possible. So you look for what people have in common. I’m lucky in that the organisation that I’m part of, BICOM– Britain, Israel Communications & Research Centre as the parent organisation and then We Believe in Israel, has a set of values and core policies that is deliberately quite limited, but is acceptable to quite a broad sweep of opinion. I mean, we’re basically we’re in favour of a two state solution. And we have red lines around BDS on one flank and Islamophobia on the other flank. And within that, I was given a license to build the broadest coalition possible. It kind of helps that I’m fascinated by the internal dynamics of the Jewish community. So I’ve wanted to learn how to navigate it, and how to bring people together and I think, when I was originally hired, it was probably quite a deliberate choice to go for someone who knew the community quite a bit. But that was from outside, because I don’t come with any baggage that people don’t make assumptions about where I might stand. They know that I’m pro- Israel, but I’m quite careful not to bring my personal opinions on things like settlements or whatever into the job. And I certainly don’t come with any history yet. Because I’m not a Jew at all. I don’t come with, a background of having been in a particular youth movement or affiliation with particular synagogue movement or wherever. So, it makes it easier for me to work with everyone. And I guess what’s even stranger is because I was a counselor in Hackney, I even know the bits of the community that are not particularly Zionist as well. So I know the Haredi community very, very well because, I was on the board of their main Housing Association for six or seven years and the kind of anti-Zionist Jewish far-left. I know because, if you’re in Diane Abbott’s constituency Labour Party, you tend to bump into them a bit. So I kind of have a… Obviously there are bits of the spectrum that are not positively part of my work on Israel, but I, I understand them and know them and I can talk to them if I have to.

Hayden Cohen  6:17 

I now have a long list of questions in my head of stuff to unpick.  I’m going to just start with one. This isn’t, always everything that I’ve been curious about why We Believe in Israel, is that not a bit defeatist? Is that not going well? We accept that the people that don’t believe in Israel. Yeah, I’m a poet, right and performance poet, words are quite important. Why was that chosen as the name of the organisation?

Luke Akehurst  6:40 

Okay, so I came in, as a consultant to BICOM before I worked full time on this. During the period where the name was being developed and I wasn’t part of the discussions about it. But I’ve, spoken to the people that were. And people sometimes look at the name and think, oh, that it must be a really religious organisation. I mean, it makes it very easy to recruit people of faith, whether they’re Jewish or Christian, because they just kind of go “Well, yeah, I believe in Israel better sign up’.

Hayden Cohen  7:06 

I believe

Luke Akehurst  7:06 

I better sign up to this. That wasn’t actually where it was coming from. It was actually people coming from a relatively left position in the community that argued for the name because they wanted to make it clear that it originally wasn’t intended to be a movement. It was intended to be a conference, that catalysed grassroots activity– and then the movement and the network came after the conference as a response to what the delegates asked us for. But they wanted to be able to get people to the conference on the basis that you didn’t have to support everything that Israel did. So this is not I support the Israeli government, or I agree with everything that Israel does.  It is I believe in the concept of Israel. I believe in the foundational values, in the bedrock stuff, of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their own land. And then within that, we can include in that movement, anyone that self defines as a Zionist as a supporter of Israel. I’m very very conscious the whole time not to exclude anyone on the basis of a political party, their support in the UK, particularly as I, outside of work have a an affiliation with a particular party.  I’m really conscious of everything that I write, every campaign that I run has to work– whatever political party you support in the UK.  And it has to work whatever political party you would theoretically support in Israel, as well. And it’s like, if we end up with a campaign or something, or a message, that only works for one bit of the spectrum. Well, that’s probably for another organisation to pursue.  We need to stick to the stuff that there’s a consensus around.

Hayden Cohen  8:39 

Right. But then, there is an element of that spectrum, right? So, I come from the perspective of the two types of people who have issue with, and I’m going to say Jews/ Israel, even though recognise they’re two very different things. There are those who come from a position of– they really do I don’t know very much. And there are those who– just are out and out anti-Semites, if you just scratch a little bit beneath the surface. What I’m more interested in– In terms of your overlapping Venn diagram of being very active in the Labour Party, I think that’s fair to say, you know, you’re on the National Executive.

Luke Akehurst  9:20 

I was, yeah.

Hayden Cohen  9:20 

Yeah, yeah. You’re on the

Luke Akehurst  9:22 

At one point, a future member of the National Executive.

Hayden Cohen  9:25 

Exactly. So you were on National Executive Committee.  Just to give a bit of context to our listeners, that might not know the internal workings of the Labour Party. The NEC is the big time right? They are responsible for practically everything of the internal workings of the Labour Party.

Luke Akehurst  9:41 

So when I was on it, there were only six members in those days elected across the country. And I was one of those six. So like, I was one of the… For a very short period of time, I was one of the six

Hayden Cohen  9:52 

It counts.

Luke Akehurst  9:52 

Most popular people in the Labour Party. I’m probably one of the six least popular people in the Labour Party at the moment.

Hayden Cohen  9:57 

No. No. I don’t think that’s true. So you’ve got that Venn diagram–How do you then build that relationship back? Because there’s been so much bad blood, right? What happens?

Luke Akehurst  10:10 

I would like to think, that in the future, once we’ve had the EHRC report.  And the Labour Party has really had to come to terms with antisemitism. I’m not going to say coming into the party, because I think it was always there in a small minority, but coming into positions of influence in the Labour Party and becoming a lot louder and infecting the day-to-day life of the party and the party becoming like a– hostile environment for Jewish members. I would hope, that when the parties come to terms with that– Part of that, will be, the most left wing segment of the party, in terms of its belief in economic and societal change. The people that actually when I say socialism, I actually mean social democracy. I mean like, not changing the economic system, but making life a lot fairer for ordinary people, like are having a more egalitarian society, but without actually turning the economic system upside down. But there are people that literally want socialism in in their lifetimes. They want a different economic system. I don’t understand, why part of that set of beliefs, currently has to include extreme antipathy to Israel and not having a balanced position on the Middle East conflict

Hayden Cohen  11:24 

Is it not is a combination of America and in depth anti-semitism, it’s both isn’t it?

Hayden Cohen  11:28 

So it’s Leninist/ Anti-imperialism basically.  It is basically theory that Lenin wrote in the pre-World War one, about imperialism– being the highest stage of capitalism. And then they see America and Britain as imperial powers. And they remove all the agency of the Jewish people in terms of their search for self determination and just view Israel as kind of a colonial outpost.  To think, that it would be possible, that people would absorb all the lessons about, anti-Semitic/ anti-Zionism and that might be in future, be people that I would still disagree. I’d still think they were a bit crazed. In terms of their economic policy, but they could have dropped, the obsessional hatred of Israel, and that they could pursue all the stuff about a different economic future, but with a balanced position on Israel and the Palestinians. At the moment, part of the package that you buy for a lot of people that sign up to the most left wing segment of the Labour Party, often little parties outside of it, is that it’s just seen as comes as part of the package to be anti Israel. And I think that that’s really tragic. There’s a noble exception, which is the group that now calls itself Workers Liberty, that used to be Socialist Organiser, they kind of have the very left wing economic politics with– They wouldn’t call themselves Zionists, but they would say they respect that most Jews are Zionist. So it is possible, to be very, very left wing and have views that are respectful of Zionism and and certainly Okay, on combating antisemitism.   But it’s sadly kind of rare. So I think that that’s where we are with that set of people. In the interim, until they actually do the ideological soul searching to move on rather a long way. I’m kind of in the game with both hats on, trying to beat them. By weight of numbers. I’m trying to beat them in national political discourse, by mobilising all the people in the country. With the We Believe hat and I want the voice of people that have a rational position on Israel, which is most people, to be a lot louder.  And to beat them in terms of the noise that the media and politicians here. And then with my ‘outside of work hat’ on inside the Labour Party, I want sensible people to join the Labour Party so that we get leaders who don’t come from that extreme anti Israel tradition. I mean, I also want them not to come from from all the other with all the other baggage of being extremist because one day I’d like to see a Labour government electable and doing good things for people that desperately need social change in this country.

Hayden Cohen  13:50 

I’m going to be a little bit rude here when I say this, but ‘Do you think that might be slightly delusional at this point? So if you have a look at, the numbers and you have a look at you know, we’ve got Got leadership election coming. I wouldn’t be willing to put a bet on anyone other than Rebecca Long Bailey winning it, who is for listeners that don’t know Corbyn 2.0,  I mean, I think that she’s definitely of the mould of Corbyn.

Luke Akehurst  14:13 

Yeah, so so I think Long Bailey, she’s not as bad as Corbyn. She’s not carrying as much ideological baggage. She’s probably an easier person to deal with. I think there may be a greater understanding of the Jewish community there because she’s the MP for Salford. So she has slightly more, knowledge, of the community. It’s the people that are backing her and the continuity that worries me is less, where she might want to go ideologically, and in terms of policy, it’s that she’s backed by the whole machinery that put Corbyn in and sustained him and they will be just looking to hold on to the levers of power inside the party and promote people, some of whom have very malign views. Is she beatable? Well, you said about not putting a bet on, Ladbrokes and Paddy Power have got Keir Starmer as the favourite.

Hayden Cohen  14:57 

Really?

Luke Akehurst  14:57 

Yeah,

Hayden Cohen  14:58 

Wow.

Luke Akehurst  14:58 

I mean, that’s my reading of the situation. I might not have said that 48 hours ago. I think, she’s coming under scrutiny for the first time in her political career. Her allies are coming under scrutiny. Things she said about, her political track record are coming under scrutiny.

Hayden Cohen  15:12 

Keir Starmer? he’s quite…. He’s on the right of the party? Isn’t he?

Luke Akehurst  15:17 

He’s certainly not a Corbynite. I mean,

Hayden Cohen  15:19  

(Laughs)

Luke Akehurst  15:20 

Umm, yeah, they would be back. Yeah

Luke Akehurst  15:22 

Yeah. He’s not backed by them.

Hayden Cohen  15:22 

Right

Luke Akehurst  15:22 

But basically there’s a kind of binary divide– There’s like, Are you organisationally, part of the Corbynistas? are you, the rest of the Labour Party? and so there’s about six candidates that are the rest of the Labour Party, but Starmer is the one that is running strongest. When you have other people that are very gonna do very credibly, like Jess Phillips. I think realistically, Starmer is the one that could stop them. So I think, I think it’s gonna be quite tight. I think you kind of need to understand the end trails of the current membership and how it might change. So the current membership, there’s over 400,000 Labour Party members–  only 100,000 people are on the Momentum mailing lists, which is enough to win low turnout elections for the National Executive or whatever. We don’t know yet, if it’s enough to win in a leadership election. There’s another 200,000. So the last leadership election 300,000 vote for Corbyn and 200,000. Vote for Owen Smith. We don’t know whether all of the 300,000 that voted for Corbyn are transferable to another candidate who’s a lot less charismatic, yet just hasn’t got the get up and go that he had. I know. That’s a strange thing to say about Corbyn, but he had a unique, compelling appeal to people’s kind of anti-politician which Long Bailey doesn’t have. And my sense, just following what I’ve seen, go on in my local party is that the hard left lost a lot of people over the Brexit debate. Your average Labour Party member is very pro-European. You’re not talking about about potential labour voters and what’s right to win an election here– We’re talking about card-carrying members of the Labour Party are very pro-European. There were people that were moving just as they were turned off by the factionalism including the antisemitism.  And, then they will have lost some people just like they did in 1983, the shock, most labour members unless they’re completely irrational, they want a Labour government they’re not knocking doors for fun, they want a Labour government

Hayden Cohen  16:39 

Really?

Luke Akehurst  16:40 

 and and if you hit in the face by

Hayden Cohen  17:20 

Do you actually think they want a Labour government because

Luke Akehurst  17:22 

Most Labour members

Luke Akehurst  17:23 

So there’s a minority that are just interested in, being ideologically pure. But if you go out in the rain, particularly the younger people who , didn’t have the experience of going through the 1980s, and having to learn these lessons before. They don’t just take it all for granted. They don’t know as much about electoral maps or polling or demographics or stuff as someone, an old git like me, that’s been around. He was a teenager in the 80s that go on the journey of having people on the doorstep tell them why they won’t vote Labour then sit through the election night and watch your dreams all evaporate. A lot of people will rethink after that.  And I can see peeling away from the left, just anecdotally, you can see it on social media people that you thought were– were wedded to it saying, ‘Actually, we need to think about this again’. So I’m not, absolutely don’t underestimate the scale of the task. But I mean, this is a pretty unique opportunity for the “I’m not gonna say it’s not the right of the party” of the broad sweep, of mainstream labour to get back in.

Hayden Cohen  18:25 

So what would you say to someone like me, right, I was the branch secretary of my local Labour party a few years ago.  Pretty much a year to the day I left, I canceled my direct debit, I’d had enough. The fight had gone. And, now I’m, I have this debate going on in my head.  Right. I’m like, well, do I rejoin to then try and reclaim the party that I once called my political home? Or am I just returning to To an abusive relationship?

Hayden Cohen  19:01 

Well I’m. I have a slightly different answer for Jewish audience or non Jewish audience. For non Jewish audience, I’d just go get your act together and join. Don’t be ridiculous. If you want to change it, you got to be part of it, have a sense of agency, stop seeing politics as something that’s done to you– You want a better Labour Party, you need to be inside it. I’m not going to say something as strident as that to a Jewish audience, because I can’t tell people that they have experienced racism, in many cases, either online or in some cases direct to their faces in party meetings, that they have to go back in and face it.  The primary duty is on us, as the non-Jews to sort that out. So I’d kind of say for Jewish people that feel able, to come back in even if it’s just like as a member on paper to have a vote and maybe not go to meetings until it’s feels a safer environment, or even want to do the halfway house to join the Jewish labor movement and have Vote that way.

Hayden Cohen  20:01 

But I’m actually seriously considering that, because that would just be hilarious. Because I can be like, well, I’ve got a vote. And I’d love the fact that it’d be the Jews, that would take down one of the far left candidates.   There’s some beautiful poetry in that.

Hayden Cohen  20:19 

Yeah. So, the plus side if you just joined JLM, I mean, I’d encourage everyone to join JLM, if they shared Labour’s values and they are Jewish and they’re a Zionist anyway. Because it’s a great organisation. And actually, one of the few chinks of light in this horrible period we’ve had, is the renaissance of JLM, and all the young Jewish people have got involved in it.

Hayden Cohen  20:37 

I joined JLM, but I didn’t want to.– And it’s nothing to do with JLM.  It’s to do with the fact that I had my politics, and I had my religion, and those were two separate things. And yes, one influenced the other, but there were two separate spheres. And because of, what was brought in by since Corbyn came into power in the Labour Party, I’ve had to merge those and I didn’t want to.  I’ve been forced to merge them.

Luke Akehurst  21:05 

It shouldn’t, because it shouldn’t be anyone’s business in the Labor Party what your faith or your ethnicity or your culture is, actually should it’s like, they ought to judge you.– Are you a good Branch Secretary?

Hayden Cohen  21:14 

I was an amazing Branch Secretary.

Luke Akehurst  21:17 

And do you? Yeah, do they agree with you about re-nationalisation of the railways or whatever. But instead, you’ve got this bizarre system/ bizarre situation, where people’s prejudices about Jewish influence and nearly all the tropes and stuff that come into play, and it kind of forces Jewish people to act together inside the party as a block, and as an act of self defense. But to go back to what was said. So the advantage of just joining the JLM, rather than the party is the money you pay only goes to the JLM, not anywhere near the Central Party. The disadvantage is, you’d only get a vote that way in the leadership election, and there are elections to the National Executive Committee that are coming up this year that are going to be crucial for who gets to deal with the antisemitism

Hayden Cohen  22:01 

Are you standing?

Luke Akehurst  22:03 

We haven’t finalised the list but I would kind of like to. Partly because I think I’m probably the person, that runs, that most stridently articulates the argument and that’s sometimes useful for the other eight. It’s a block of nine seats. And it’s sometimes it’s useful to have me as a lightning conductor to do the the tough stuff and everyone else can be a little bit fluffier.

Hayden Cohen  22:24 

So can I? And I’m asking this with respect of all the work that you’ve done, and I’m caveating that. Do you think it would be more helpful if there was someone who was, had shared same similar opinions to you on the Jewish community in Israel? Who wasn’t perceived as being on the right of the party? And that might be an unfair question.

Luke Akehurst  22:24 

Okay. So…

Hayden Cohen  22:30 

That might be an unfair question

Luke Akehurst  22:51 

I try to think where it’s difficult because we

Luke Akehurst  22:56 

Inside the party, we don’t have a good election. system for electing these committees like National Executive.  We don’t have a nuanced proportional or single transferable vote electoral system, that would allow people to run as..– People are running as individuals and on their reputation and stuff. But, it’s very binary, like you’re really you’re not going to get on. Very difficult to get on the National Executive unless you’re either on the hard left slate or the rest of the party slate, which by default, becomes a bit further to the right than it should be. And there is a spectrum of people in the middle.  Actually, a good example is– Alex Sobel, who you probably know well from Leeds, who is not as far to the left of me as he thinks he is. Actually, we probably agree on quite a few things.  He identifies as being from the soft left tradition in the Labour Party. So he identifies as being on the left of the Labour Party, but nothing to do with the Corbynists. And that strand of opinion, should have representation on the NEC but it’s kind of difficult for them to get it, because they’re caught in this binary squeeze. Would I run in Labour party leadership elections? I’m not really running around the issue of Israel and stuff that shouldn’t be what it’s about who knows I’m running on a far broader ticket of what it means to be a Moderate Social Democrat. What it means to be realistic about how Labour wins elections– Where it does come into it does come into it is less that Israel stuff, where there are people that run on the same ticket as me that are very pro-Palestinian, but all of us are united in wanting to deal with the anti-semitism. And all of us, feel that the the hard left, the Corbynistas are not, with a few notable exceptions are not sufficiently tough on that issue.   Because they’re caught in this bind, where they start expelling people for breaches of the IRA definition that chucking out lots of their core activists, because it’s so close to the heart of their movement. It presents them with acute dilemmas. When I say about people on my side of the party that I disagree with about Palestine like: Lisa Nandy. Okay, some people would say she’s soft left.   Broadly, she’s not a Corbynista.  Ben Bradshaw is an out-and-out Blairite. Both of them, are heavily involved in Labour Friends of Palestine, neither of them have ever been accused of anything antisemitic. And in fact, I think the Jewish community would perceive both of them as pretty helpful.

Hayden Cohen  25:09 

I can remember, the pre 2015 days, there were people who were in the PLP, the Parliamentary Labour Party– Who were members of both– Labour Friends of Palestine, and Labour Friends of Israel,

Luke Akehurst  25:23 

They still are,

Hayden Cohen  25:24 

right.

Luke Akehurst  25:24 

Yeah, like quite a large number, like a couple of dozen.

Hayden Cohen  25:26 

This shouldn’t be an issue there really.  Because it’s just about showing solidarity, understanding that, you know, there’s both sides going on here, and I don’t.  I just think it’s a shame that we’ve seen.  Everyone seems to have to pick a side. It’s just so depressing. You know? Like why do you have to.  If you are of the Labour Party, there are certain things that everybody believes right? You know, you believe in a welfare state, and a safety net for those who are most vulnerable. Those are things to agree on, right? I don’t. Are we going to get back to?  It does feel a bit Kumbaya when I get that, but I quite a bit of a Kumbaya.  Are we, do you, think there is ever a time when we’re just gonna go ‘Ugh, oh, those few years were terrible, but now the Labour Party is back and raring to go? Or do you think the Labour Party’s just gonna fade into obscurity? And something else is gonna have to come on and replace it?

Luke Akehurst  26:25 

So no, I don’t think it’s going to fade into obscurity because the country needs a center. Yeah, it needs an opposition party.  It might be out power for a long time, but we’re not going to be a one party state. The Conservatives are going to do things that people disagree with. And the other big thing that happened in the election other than a comprehensive rejection of Corbynism– Was the Liberals had the opportunity of a lifetime with Brexit as a big issue. Pleasant enough leader. They come out of the electorate one seat smaller, there is no alternative vehicle The thing that every Labour MP took that not that there’s many of them left. But the thing that the 202 or whatever Labour MPs took away from the general election is– You leave the Labour Party, you’re basically out you’re out of politics at the next election. So there’s not going to be breakaways or splinters or realignment. There are some people listening to this, that are Tories, and they might be happy with it. Not every not even every Tory, but some Tories would be happy with the idea of a perpetual Tory government. Fine. I’m not. I want a more socially just society. I want a different kind of society to the one that the Tories are offering. How am I going to achieve that? The only vehicle in town for the foreseeable future is the Labour Party. So you either allow the Labour Party to carry on being rubbish, and just kind of give up on politics and you know, take up golf or something instead. Or you get stuck in, and try and change it and turn it back into a Labour Party that can win elections. By the way, when I say back, I absolutely don’t think that we can rerun 1997, I mean, the world has moved on, we don’t have a Tony Blair figure. We don’t have the society, that created that landslide Labour victory in 97. whatever comes next needs to be solutions for now, for the 21st century, for two decades into it.

Hayden Cohen  28:16 

So I just want to bring it back a little bit. So if if there is someone who will and you probably get this all the time in your job, they say to you, “Well, Israel’s an apartheid state. a racist state. What is the kind of line that you can take to go? “No….”, Well, how do you address that?

Luke Akehurst  28:40 

if there’s someone that is happy, is actually prepared to read and engage? I’ll give them the link to Alan Johnson’s pamphlet, ‘The Apartheid Smear’– BICOM publication from a couple of years back, which comprehensively debunks the whole thing.

Hayden Cohen  28:55 

I’m guessing that’s not the Ex-MP?

Luke Akehurst  28:57 

 No, Alan Johnson, Professor Alan Johnson, Senior Research Fellow at BICOM. If it’s quicker than people made that apartheid allegation. You got to be clear about which side of the green line you’re arguing about. So there’s a situation, inside the green line, in pre 1967 Israel where it is very easy to debunk it.  Because yes, there are discriminations and inequality is the same as there are between races and in the UK, but the Israeli constitution. Sorry, I’m wishing the constitution but yeah, the Declaration of Independence talks about the rights of all pre existing inhabitants. There are things that were features of apartheid, they’re just a million miles away from Israel. So there isn’t segregation on public transport, in parks, in hospitals, in the staffing of hospitals, in shops, in most strands of employment, there are some bits that are separated out like education is in different streams according to religion, but that seems to be something that the different faiths all want. And everyone has a vote, so Arab citizen Get to help pick the Knesset they get to sit in the Knesset, the third largest group in the Knesset is the Joint Arab List.  You can hold senior roles in the Israeli state, up to ministerial level, you name it all of these things that were not open to the majority, non-white population in apartheid South Africa.  You then have a situation in the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, according to what you want to call it, where lives are a lot more segregated between Israelis in settlements and Palestinians in the PA controlled areas. But, quite a lot of that segregation, is for security reasons, because people used to be able to mingle more freely before the Second Intifada, and then people are physically more separated in order to prevent terrorist attacks. So, if that was a permanent situation, then Israel’s got a difficult question to answer about the apartheid allegation. If it’s like Israel is going to rule over the West Bank inperpetuity, and not give votes to the Palestinians.  That’s no more apartheid than, British occupation of southern Iraq or the Helmand Province.

Hayden Cohen  31:07 

Right, There’s been two recent elections in Israel. And it’s really been between two parties–Both of which didn’t wasn’t really talked about. You know what  mean? This issue wasn’t really talked about it. So, you say that it’s not done as a permanent solution, but if you’re not talking about it, then you just let it go on in perpetuity. Right? And so for someone like me, who is I’m sympathetic to Palestinians in so far as, these are people who are suffering, how do you get around the fact that, there are Palestinians who suffer? And the Israeli government? I’m being very careful with my language, the Israeli government has a part to play in the resolution of that?

Luke Akehurst  31:53 

Yeah, I think there’s a failure of leadership on both sides. I don’t think Abbas. I mean, he is a very old guy. He is not going to be around forever. He doesn’t seem in a great hurry to reach a solution. In fact, the internal debate in Palestinian society is more about reaching a solution between Hamas and Fatah than it is reaching a solution with the Israelis. And I don’t think whatever his other qualities, which he’s not been the worst Prime Minister in the world, even as someone that probably wouldn’t vote for him.  He has many qualities. I don’t think Netanyahu has had pursuit of a peace deal at the top of his agenda. But yeah, I mean, you talked a bit about Palestinian suffering– Even if there was no material suffering for the Palestinians, if they had a really nice western style, life. They had all the prosperity that they wanted. They had total economic equality with his with Israelis, if they don’t have self government. That is a problem for me, as a Zionist. As a Zionist, I believe in the self determination of all peoples. I can’t believe in that just for the Jews. Because that would make me a racist,  wouldn’t it? If only believed in it for Jewish people, I didn’t believe in it for other peoples that saw self determination. So ,if they feel that they need in a state, at some point, they’re going to have to have a state or at least be given the choice of whether to have one or not. And there is this problem that can be brushed under the carpet by Netanyahu or maybe even brushed on the carpet or GaNS for a decade longer or two decades longer. But at some point, you reach the fundamental crux of the thing. What makes us real great is that as a Jewish and democratic state, you can’t maintain both of those in perpetuity if you rule over another set of people in perpetuity, because if you’re going to maintain the democratic principle, you’d have to enfranchise the West Bank Palestinians and then birth rates and stuff might mean that you lose your Jewish identity because one day they become a majority in the state or if you want to maintain your Jewish identity, but can continue to hold All the land in Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, then you can’t give the franchise to those people and it at some point, you can’t claim to be democratic anymore. It’s only sustainable while it’s while there’s some recognition, that this is temporary, and there’s a final status.

Hayden Cohen  34:16 

But haven’t,

Luke Akehurst  34:17 

 has got to be reached.

Hayden Cohen  34:18 

It seems like both the Israeli government and the Palestinian government have almost given up on the two state solution. Have I misread that?

Luke Akehurst  34:27 

I think they’re happy just to have it on the back burner that there’s no political appetite on either side to do very much about it at the moment.  And, we need the international community to put it back up the agenda. But I think they have to do that through carrots rather than sticks. I think they have to incentivise the two sides, to come to a lasting deal rather than kind of punish Israel, particularly as it is usually one sided.  It’s usually Israel is a proposal to punish. We’ve also got to be realistic that the situation looks different on the ground– That if you are an Israeli, you’re looking at the risk that you do a deal. And then you end up with a big version of Gaza– firing rockets from up in the hills in the West Bank down onto Tel Aviv and on to the airport. Or if you’re Palestinianleadership, there’s a risk that you get your statehood, and then Hamas come and kill you in the night and take it over like they did in Gaza.

Hayden Cohen  35:21 

And that’s it right? We’re sitting in comfortable chairs, in the UK, and chewing the fat, right, where we’re not actually living there

Hayden Cohen  35:28 

 Yeah, Yeah. And it’s whenever you go there, most of the Israelis, I talked to, ‘theoretically’, believe in a two state solution, but they’re like, not until we’re sure about the security safeguards.

Hayden Cohen  35:38 

Which is reasonable, right?

Luke Akehurst  35:40 

Yeah. Because it’s their families. They’re at risk.

Hayden Cohen  35:43 

Right.

Luke Akehurst  35:44 

And then I think we also have to be, conscious of- we’re judging it by our standards.  Within the context of the region, when right next door you have the Syrian civil war, and other an unstable states. Actually, this does look like something you can lecture for.  Yeah, it’s not top of the list of priorities, about number four or five– Israel security concerns is–  How do we deal with the long standing problem of whatever the Palestinians get a state or not? Because it’s kind of livable. It’s like, life is not great for the Palestinians. When I go to Ramallah, it’s not appalling either. It would be possible to live a reasonably livable life. You know, there are shops, there are cars, there are schools, there are– Not enough jobs, but it’s not hell on earth. I mean, there are bits of Hebron that pretty horrible, but and when you get into the refugee camps, which are not camps, they’re kind of slums that existed for 60 or 70 years, whatever the people are attracting.   Life is grim. But it’s not as grim as Palestinians that live in Syria, for instance, who have a lot of women died or Yeah, the camps have been shelled.  And Yeah,

Hayden Cohen  36:49 

I don’t know, Is it not depressing, though? It’s kind of like top Trumps grimness.

Luke Akehurst  36:54 

Yeah, but we’re talking about, we’re judging this by the standards of the very privileged position we have….

Luke Akehurst  37:01 

 As people living in a– “Let’s hope it stays that way post Brexit, we’re very stable political entity”. And we’re looking at the Middle East.   And war is a thing that happens repeatedly there. Terrorism is a thing that happens repeatedly there.  Denial of it, is not just the Palestinians that don’t have a state, the Kurds don’t have a state. All kinds of other minorities don’t have states and are subject to persecution. So this doesn’t make it perfect. But it is kind of “We need to bear in mind that Israel is trying to be”– A modern, liberal, democratic country, and to large extent, succeeds in that, but in the context of a region ,where that’s extremely rare to have a state with democratic values and with any respect for human rights.

Hayden Cohen  37:50 

So I’m kind of wanting to wrap up. I know there are non Jewish listeners. What would you say, Is the greatest form of allyship, that someone who isn’t Jewish, can give?

Luke Akehurst  38:09 

Not being a silent bystander. You don’t need to agree with everything that Jewish people think about their connection to Israel or whatever.  Jewish, we can’t even agree with each other about what they think about,

Hayden Cohen  38:20 

(Laughs)

Luke Akehurst  38:21 

about Israel. I would say, Please don’t do negative things that make things worse like boycotts. If you feel a desperate urge to get involved in the quest for Peace in the Middle East; Then have a look at the Board of Deputies and the stuff they have around Invest in Peace, and all the kind of great projects that exist in the Middle East that trying to bring people together. Yeah, so there’s stuff that exists across both sides, as well as there is stuff that’s Israeli based and Palestinian based, but the board has like a pretty comprehensive

Hayden Cohen  38:48 

Okay.

Luke Akehurst  38:49 

Listing of things that you can get involved in that are positive.  And that don’t involve either making Palestinians feel bad about their identity or making Jews feel bad about their identity and their connection to Israel. And Then we come to the broader question of antisemitism. The most depressing thing in the Labour Party has not really been the small minority of people perpetrating the antisemitism. It’s been the wider group of people that have kept their heads down. Yeah, you’re at a meeting or even a social event. And someone says a trope. Yeah, they start talking about Rothschild conspiracies or whatever. And the Jewish person actually says, “Oh, that’s so offensive. I’m probably gonna have to go home” or “not come to the next meeting”. This is I can’t cope with this. This is just like– Yes, old fashioned antisemitic tropes shouldn’t be the Jewish person has to stand up and call it out. Maybe you, as the non Jewish person can take the flack for them. It’s probably not a good idea to scream anti Semite people because then they just kind of go into lockdown, but saying what you’ve just said, Is it a trope? with antisemitic connotations? We shouldn’t have that kind of language, in this workplace or in the Labour Party or wherever. I think that–That’s probably the useful thing that people can do not to be silent. And that requires you to educate yourself a bit about what does contemporary anti semitism look like. Because to be able to spot it, you have to read the IHRA definition, and you have to read some of the history and to understand which things are particularly hurtful to Jews some of it is obvious like comparing Israel to Nazis or to be obvious that that’s incredibly hurtful some of the stuff like around blood libel, I’d never heard of blood libel for I worked during this I’m glad I’d never heard of it is gross. Yeah, that’s it. That’s the accusation like–Jews or Israelis reveling in the killing of non Jewish children,

Hayden Cohen  40:36 

No Jews, Jews, not Israelis, Jews. Yeah

Luke Akehurst  40:38 

Yeah. But you need to kind of learn and understand and like understand where that came from in kind of Christian antisemitism and stuff in order to

Hayden Cohen  40:46 

William of Norwich from the 14th century.

Luke Akehurst  40:48 

Yup

Hayden Cohen  40:48 

Yeah.  One thing that that no one can ever accuse you of Luke is not speaking up– Luke. Akerhurst has been a pleasure as always. Thank you very, very much.

Luke Akehurst  40:58 

Thanks.

Hayden Cohen  40:59 

And that’s that See you next time Baglers.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai with additional editing by Ronni Bloch

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