“My Lords, I was in Gaza six weeks ago,” began Baroness Tonge, when she spoke at the House of Lords in January 2009. “Now, as a result of the impotence of the international community, not just in Gaza, but…over 40 years of occupation of Palestine by Israel, those institutions that I visited are rubble and many of the children with whom I played are dead.”
Jenny Tonge, then a member of the UK’s Liberal Democrat party, was a dangerous British politician as far as Israel was concerned. She not only dared to use strong language while referencing Israeli actions in the occupied territories, she also demanded action from her government.
For this, she was subjected to the same, predictable verbal abuse by Israeli officials and media, by the pro-Israeli British lobby, and even by some of her peers. However, calling Tonge ‘anti-Semitic’ was never going to be convincing. The formidable woman has spent years of her life serving her community—as a doctor, MP and spokesperson for Health for Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords—and has amassed far too much credibility to be shaken by defamatory accusations.
Moreover, very few will agree that calling for “the immediate—and I mean immediate—establishment by the United Nations Security Council of an independent fact-finding commission to Palestine to investigate all breaches of international law” constitutes anti-Semitism in any way.
But for those who insist that Israel is above any criticism, the mere suggestion that Israel should be investigated for alleged war crimes is an unforgivable act. Any hint of criticism can easily be misrepresented to equal the questioning of the very existence of the state, and casually labeled as racism.
The Baroness is not easily intimidated, however. Speaking at Middlesex University on February 23, she stated that, “Israel is not going to be there forever in its present form,” a reference to the country’s current racially-based political identity as a ‘Jewish State,’ which leaves native Muslim and Christian Arabs vulnerable to institutional racism and discriminatory laws.
Many others have already warned from the increasingly anti-democratic nature of Israel, especially with the rise of religious and ultra-nationalist parties. Leading scholars, Nobel Laureates, acclaimed anti-Apartheid figures, and former US presidents have all made similar calls, targeting the skewed nature of the Israeli political establishment, which grants rights to people of Jewish lineage while denying basic civil rights to all others.
Tonge was not targeting any race, but rather the small, yet powerful cliques that have long infested both British and US politics in areas concerning Israeli and the Middle East. “One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough,” she said. “Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown” (The Guardian, Feb 9).
In stating the obvious, Tonge irked British politicians, including members of her own party, who speak of ‘peace in the Middle East’ while actively undermining any real efforts to achieve such peace. Ed Miliband, leader of the Labor Party, said there was “no place in politics for those who question the existence of Israel.” Tonge, in fact, had done no such thing. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, stated, “I asked Baroness Tonge to withdraw her remarks and apologize for the offense she has caused. She has refused to do so and will now be leaving the party.”
Since his sudden rise to close to the top of British political hierarchy, Clegg has moved substantially from his original stance regarding Palestine and Israel. In his article in The Guardian on December 21, 2009, he had articulated a strong position against the Israeli blockade on Gaza, and asked: “And what has the British government and the international community done to lift the blockade? Next to nothing. Tough-sounding declarations are issued at regular intervals but little real pressure is applied. It is a scandal that the international community has sat on its hands in the face of this unfolding crisis.”
Once in the government, Clegg changed his position. Tonge, on the other hand, remained consistently audacious, regardless of position or perks. Her stance in 2012 mirrored other stances she has taken in the past. In 2006, she uttered what few before dared to even speak in private: “The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party,” she said (BBC, Sep 21, 2006.) Then, as in now, her comments were manipulated by the media to imply something entirely different from what she had clearly intended. Her exit from the party was a testament to the will of this strong British woman, but also to the power of the very Israeli lobby she often criticized.
It is important to remember that Tonge’s battle is not a skirmish within the ranks of the political elites. Rather, it’s a war of narratives, where Israel and its ‘friends’ insist on silencing any meaningful debate on Palestine-Israel. The other side, encompassing Tonge and numerous others, is slowly encroaching on Israel’s well-guarded discourse, and making serious inroads.
A recent episode in the war of narratives involved Gunther Grass, German author of the widely acclaimed anti-Nazi novel, The Tin Drum. Grass has now done what many others, especially in Germany, never dared to do. He criticized Israel for its aggressive posturing towards Iran. Israeli officials responded by calling the man every bad word in the book of defamation.
The typical ‘storm’ created by Israeli responses has, however, not managed to enact a typical response this time. Nicholas Kulish wrote in the New York Times that judging by the ‘outpouring’ of comments by German politicians and media, “it would appear that the public had resoundingly rejected (Gunter’s) work…But even a quick dip into the comments left by readers on various Web sites reveals quite another reality” (April 13). According to Kulish, “Mr. Grass has struck a nerve with the broader public, articulating frustrations with Israel here in Germany that are frequently expressed in private but rarely in public.” He adds that “charge of anti-Semitism aimed at Israel’s critics is widely viewed as a blunt instrument that silences debate, and in the process prevents Mr. Grass from making a point…”
While Israel does occasionally succeed in silencing critics, the tried and true tactic of the past is becoming less effective. In the final analysis, neither Tonge nor Gunter have actually lost to the lobby. In the world of ideas, only the credibility of one’s views actually makes a difference. The rest is hasbara.