Protesters hold up placards featuring the faces of some of those believed to be being held hostage in Gaza by Hamas, as they hold a rally outside the London offices of the Red Cross, on Nov. 09, 2023, in London, England. The protesters, in collaboration with the Hostages and Missing Families Forum in Israel, are calling on the Red Cross to try and visit the 241 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
LONDON — The headlines here are strangely similar to the ones in the U.S.: Trump on trial, the Beatles’ last song, the end of the actors’ strike, and the 2024 elections in Britain and America.
And Gaza: looming over all of it like a thunderhead.
The Israel-Hamas war is tearing up the timetable, warping politics on both sides of the pond, pulling at fraying threads in the major parties of both nations.
Pandering to their evangelical base, Republicans accuse Biden of being less than all-in for Israel.
The party of Jewish Space Lasers can hardly claim the moral high ground. Ousted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and failed speaker candidate Tom Emmer both had suggested that George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer would “buy” the midterm elections for Democrats.
No ancient stereotypes here: It’s the merest coincidence that all three of those guys are both Jewish and rich.
In the U.K., every sentient being assumes Labor will beat the Tories like a rented mule in the next election. But Labor’s antisemitism scandals of the past few years will surely be a campaign issue.
Jeremy Corbyn, the previous Labor leader, caused a ruckus when he said he’d meet with Hamas and Hezbollah.
“Red Ken” Livingstone, a popular former mayor of London, claimed Adolf Hitler supported Zionism.
Corbyn and Livingstone were pushed out, but the damage was done. British Jews, generally Labor voters, were appalled. Some left the party.
Mindful of this — and the coming election — sitting Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer is proceeding cautiously. Like Joe Biden, he won’t demand a ceasefire in Gaza, calling for a “humanitarian pause” instead.
Also like Joe Biden, he knows endorsing Israel’s right to defend itself is critical to his electoral success.
At the same time, he must acknowledge Palestinians’ legitimate claims to their own state and deplore the death toll in Gaza.
While Labor needs Jewish voters, it also needs Muslim voters — and some of them are not happy. A slew of local elected officials and a member of Starmer’s leadership team have resigned from the Labor Party.
Americans strongly support Israel; the British public tell pollsters they’re almost equally sympathetic to both sides.
Biden, Starmer, and U.K. Prime Minister Sunak all say they support getting aid to Gaza without demanding Israel stop bombing. But they come to their positions in different contexts.
The U.S. has a much larger Jewish population, around 7.5 million compared to the U.K.’s 370,000, and, suspicious of other regimes in the region, has always given Israel lavish military and monetary aid.
So-called “Christian Zionists” unrelentingly push American lawmakers to back up Israel no matter how many illegal settlements it allows, no matter how many Palestinian teenagers it shoots.
Jesus lived there.
Britain also has a fierce and complex attachment to the Holy Land, from the 12th Century Crusades when the Christian nations of Europe tried to take Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers, to 1917 when the British government proclaimed support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” promising to “use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.”
But the Balfour Declaration also said, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.”
The Jews got a state; the Palestinians did not.
And here we are.
The U.K. has often been accused of “Arabism,” favoring the people of Palestine, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.
The British Empire was all over the Middle East during the 19th and 20th centuries, as exemplified by T.E. Lawrence, the British army officer who famously wore Bedouin dress and supported the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
The Emirate of Transjordan (now the Kingdom of Jordan) was a British protectorate and Egypt was what was called a “veiled protectorate,” occupied by the British from 1882 to 1956.
Some say that sympathy has dissipated.
Mark Regev, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.K. and adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, claims things are different now. The Tories have increased trade with Israel and muted official criticism of illegal settlements.
But lest Netanyahu’s government get too comfortable, huge pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Belfast, and Leeds show many Britons are not prepared to give Israel a pass on Gaza.
The marches on Nov. 11, Armistice Day, infuriated Conservatives, including the prime minister, who spluttered that supporting Palestine on the day dedicated to honoring the British war dead, was “provocative and disrespectful.”
Home Secretary Suella Braverman (until she got fired Monday morning) is an authoritarian extremist, although maybe not as bloodthirsty as Republican Florida Rep. Michelle Salzman, who called for all Palestinians to be exterminated.
Braverman demanded that what she called the “hate marches” on Remembrance Weekend be outlawed.
She’s not big on civil rights or free speech and accused the cops of being left-wing enablers when the head of the Metropolitan Police refused to ban the marches.
Braverman, a woman with the sandpaper personality of Ron DeSantis and a Trumpian penchant for cruelty, says homelessness is often a “lifestyle choice” and wants to ship asylum seekers to Rwanda.
This weekend’s march, attended by hundreds of thousands, proved her wrong. It was peaceful, with very few arrests.
The King laid his wreath at the Cenotaph and people across the nation observed a two-minute silence.
But Braverman’s attempt to gin up rage worked in one respect: Right-wing counter-protesters, many Islamophobic and antisemitic but all fans of hers, tried to tangle with the marchers calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, but mostly mixed it up with the police, ending up getting arrested.
The marchers waved signs and heard speeches, almost entirely without incident, then went home.
Braverman got kicked out of the Cabinet.
A good day for democracy.
Update: This column has been changed to reflect Suella Braverman’s firing as Home secretary.
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