In British Politics, Pro-Palestinian Activism Is Now Considered Criminal

When British students demonstrated this week against a far-right Israeli politician, Tzipi Hotovely, the country’s politicians lined up to denounce them as violent antisemites. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has added its voice to this authoritarian chorus.

Current Israeli ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely gives a press conference in 2015 as Israeli foreign deputy minister. (Menahem Kahana / AFP via Getty Images)

Britain’s Conservative government is currently facing several overlapping crises, from the ongoing pandemic to a fresh standoff with the European Union and a self-inflicted controversy about political sleaze. Boris Johnson himself is right at the center of all these controversies, supplying his opponents with plenty of ammunition to use against him. A parliamentary report on Britain’s pandemic response published in October this year found that Johnson’s negligence was responsible for “many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided.”

At a moment like this, you might expect Britain’s main opposition party to have a laser-like focus on the government and its many failings. But this is Keir Starmer and his allies that we are talking about, after all. With the Tories looking vulnerable, Starmer’s front-bench team still found the time to link arms with senior Conservatives in defense of Tzipi Hotovely, a far-right Israeli politician whose anti-Palestinian views are well documented.

Starmer, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy, and its shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds bitterly denounced protests against Hotovely at the London School of Economics (LSE). Some Labour MPs even called for the protesters to be arrested.

The obsession of Britain’s frontline political class with demonstrating its commitment to anti-Palestinian racism is both staggering and sinister. The current Labour leadership is fully complicit in enforcing this bigotry as part of the mainstream political consensus. It is no exaggeration to say that you will find more critical commentary about politicians like Hotovely in Israel itself than in British public life.

“All of It Is Ours”

First of all, let’s discuss Hotovely’s particular track record, which made her appointment as Israel’s ambassador to the UK so controversial. She has repeatedly said that Israeli should never permit a Palestinian state to come into being, no matter how truncated it might be in size or sovereignty. When Benjamin Netanyahu appointed her as his deputy foreign minister back in 2015, she laid claim to the whole of the occupied Palestinian territories:

We need to return to the basic truth of our rights to this country. This land is ours. All of it is ours. . . . We expect as a matter of principle of the international community to recognize Israel’s right to build homes for Jews in their homeland, everywhere.

Yoel Hasson, an opposition MP from the Zionist Union coalition, urged Netanyahu to sack Hotovely after she said it was “my dream to see the Israeli flag flying on the Temple Mount.” Hasson depicted her as a threat to Israel’s own security: “The messianic deputy minister continues to inflame the entire Middle East.”

Hotovely’s prejudice also extends to Jewish people outside Israel. In 2017, she launched a bitter attack on American Jews for not giving her government enough support. Hotovely described Jewish Americans as people who lead “quite convenient lives” and “never send their children to fight for their country” — the kind of rhetoric that we usually hear from the ultranationalist, antisemitic right.

In 2019, Hotovely denounced the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BOD). The BOD had declared its support for a “secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state” in a manifesto. This is the kind of diplomatic bromide that pro-Israel groups in Europe and North America often come out with. In practice, such groups usually oppose the application of any pressure on Israel that might oblige it to withdraw from the occupied territories, and the BOD is certainly no exception to that rule.

However, the mere mention of a Palestinian state by an impeccably pro-Israel organization like the BOD was enough to send Hotovely into a splenetic rage. She accused the Board of “working against Israeli interests”:

There was no prior consultation regarding this document with the government of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, nor with our ambassador, nor with any other political authority. In every meeting between Jewish organizations around the world and politicians — the prime minister, foreign minister, or myself — we emphasize that the idea of a Palestinian state is one that the state of Israel completely opposes. We have a rule regarding international election campaigns, and it’s that we do not take a stand on the domestic affairs of the Jewish community. But an organization that supports the establishment of a Palestinian state is clearly working against Israeli interests. It is important to say explicitly: a Palestinian state is a danger to the state of Israel.

Hotovely’s opinions and rhetoric are so extreme that even the conservative pundit Melanie Phillips criticized her appointment as Israel’s UK ambassador in 2020. For those unfamiliar with her work, Phillips is right-wing in much the same way that Jupiter is large or Pluto is cold. But she thought that Hotovely’s presence on the British stage might prove disastrous, since she would be “laden with divisive political baggage” and could not make the case for Israel in a way that a British audience would find convincing.

Made-up Stories

The Board of Deputies still invited Hotovely to address its members in December 2020, despite her vitriolic attacks on its manifesto. She took the opportunity to describe the Palestinian Nakba as “a very strong and very popular Arab lie” and “a made-up story.”

Hotovely then received another invitation from a student debating society at the LSE to speak at an event last week titled “Perspectives on Israel and Palestine.” The circumstances of the protest against her presence on campus have already been the subject of wild fabrications in the British press. This was the account of the protest issued by the Community Security Trust (CST):

The ambassador spoke without significant disruption, completed her talk and left the event as scheduled. The students who attended all left safely. Contrary to some claims, the ambassador was not forced out of LSE, chased away or prevented from speaking.

The CST went on to claim that some of those protesting outside the event had engaged in “extremist chanting” and “created an atmosphere of unacceptable intimidation,” without saying what those “extremist” chants were or why they should be considered intimidating. Earlier this year, the CST described the chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as “genocidal” and associated it with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, which gives us a fair indication of what the group deems extremist. In any case, there was clearly no physical violence at the protest — just a group of people verbally registering their disgust at an attempt to normalize Hotovely and her views.

This did not stop the Jewish Chronicle from publishing an editorial with the headline “On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a Jew hunting mob on the streets of London,” which claimed that Hotovely had been targeted by “violent racists on the hunt for a Jew to attack.” The only morally appropriate response to this editorial should be uncompromising fury at its trivialization of Nazi crimes. Instead, Britain’s leading politicians lined up to denounce the protesters on the basis of the Chronicle’s fairy tale.

It was hardly surprising that the Conservative home secretary Priti Patel called for a police investigation while casually defaming the protesters as antisemites. As well as being a deeply authoritarian figure, Patel is an unusually strong supporter of Israel. In 2017, Theresa May sacked her as a minister for holding unauthorized meetings with Israeli representatives in a bid to shift British foreign policy. Other members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet issued similar statements attacking the protest.

The Labour front-bench team was not willing to let Patel and her colleagues steal a march on them. Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy, and Nick Thomas-Symonds all weighed in. Starmer claimed that the protest was “totally unacceptable” and had been characterized by “intimidation and threats of violence.” Nandy also said that it was “completely unacceptable.” Thomas-Symonds echoed Patel’s call for police action, conflated protest against a far-right Israeli politician with anti-Jewish bigotry, and doffed his hat to Hotovely — all in a single tweet:

A backbench Labour MP, Diana Johnson, added her two cents: “This is absolutely appalling and I hope that arrests are made.” Johnson did not explain what crime she imagined the protesters to have committed.

Tzipi Hotovely has since embarked on a tour of Britain’s right-wing media, with publications like the Spectator and the Mail claiming that she was “barracked,” “intimidated,” or even “attacked.” Also in the Spectator, the Jewish Chronicle’s deputy editor Jake Wallis Simons presented the student protesters as tools of the Iranian government and doubled down on the Kristallnacht analogy.

For its part, the Guardian published a lengthy report on the protest which foregrounded Priti Patel’s call for a police investigation. It also quoted from an Israeli embassy statement referring to “the violence we witnessed” without clarifying that no such violence had taken place. The article did not supply any information about Hotovely’s extensive back catalog of anti-Palestinian outbursts, even though the journalists would only have needed to check their own archive for confirmation. If the Guardian was reporting on protests against Matteo Salvini or Marine Le Pen, it would presumably include some basic information about their respective political histories. Hotovely, on the other hand, gets the kid-glove treatment.

Across the full spectrum of mainstream opinion in British politics and media, there appears to be a consensus that it is fundamentally illegitimate to protest against a figure like Hotovely. The Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer has described Hotovely as “an unabashed Islamophobe and religious fundamentalist who denies the existence of the Palestinian people” and “embodies much of what is ugly and distressing about Israeli politics at this time in its history.” But the gatekeepers of Britain’s public sphere couldn’t care less about that. There’s only one thing that concerns them in relation to Hotovely: her ability to deliver a speech whenever she likes without having to worry about the distant echo of hostile chanting.

The reckless and abusive conflation of support for Palestinian rights with hostility to Jewish people is hardly unique to Britain. Also this week, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, claimed that “left-wing antisemitism” was rising in the United States and compared it to the climate crisis. His examples of antisemitism included Sally Rooney’s support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and the refusal of some left-wing Democrats in Congress to support additional military aid to Israel.

However, the British variety of anti-Palestinian racism is especially virulent and pervasive, for reasons that have far more to do with domestic political concerns than anything that happens in the Middle East. Many of those most active in propagating and enforcing such racism don’t particularly care about Israel — they just see it as a convenient stick with which to beat their left-wing opponents. But the effect, so far as Palestinians are concerned, is just the same as if these cynical opportunists wholeheartedly shared all of Tzipi Hotovely’s opinions. There is absolutely no excuse for anyone to deny the reality of what is staring them in the face.