On Tuesday 21 March this year Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) issued, in their words, an “unprecedented warning” in the form of a “strategic alert”. The gist of the alert was that the ‘judicial reforms’ proposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ultra-nationalist and religious extremist coalition would “seriously harm the functioning of the IDF” (Israel’s Defense Forces), the economy, and “endanger relations with the USA”. The reforms would give the Government of Israel control over the appointment of judges and weaken the Supreme Court’s ability to undertake judicial review of legislation.
The unprecedented nature of the strategic alert is explained by the unprecedented level and nature of the protests against the proposed ‘reforms’ now entering their twelfth week. The numbers taking to the streets in Israel’s cities have been prodigious with the Jewish crowds predominately – but not exclusively - drawn from Israel’s professional elites. The INSS was in particular reacting to the increasing number of IDF reservists joining street protests and threatening not to turn up for military service. In two letters published on 16 March, some 750 Air Force, special forces, Mossad and military intelligence officers warned of imminent threats to stop volunteering for duty. The Likud Party Minister of Defence, Yoav Galant, publicly called for a halt to the reforms and was promptly fired by Netanyahu.
President Biden, throughout his political career, has strongly espoused the view of Israel as a deserving democratic outpost in the Middle East and has acted accordingly. His relationship with Netanyahu has been warm. But Washington is continuing to express ‘concern’ about the proposed drastic judicial curbs. In a telephone call with Netanyahu, Biden expressed his belief that “democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances, and that fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support”. It is some measure of the Biden administration’s former inaction that this modest and diplomatic statement, barely a fraternal admonition, has had an impact on the INSS.
This current outcry in Israel is new. It is not an extension of existing Jewish protests against violations of the human rights of Arab citizens of Israel, nor of those of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, though some protestors may be supporters of B’Tselem, Yesh Din, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) Israel’s major human rights organisations. Neither do current protests seem a harbinger of calls for a new peace initiative. But there are very good reasons why peace and human rights ought to be on today’s Jewish protestors’ placards.
Whether citizens of Israel, in Gaza or the West Bank, relations between Arab Muslims and Jewish Israelis - with Christians and Druze to a lesser extent - are at boiling point. The May 2021 evictions of Arabs from East Jerusalem and skirmishes around the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount sparked street fighting between Jews and Arabs within Israel itself. This led to a wave of attacks and counterattacks on and from Gaza and the West Bank. 250 Arabs were killed, ten synagogues left in flames, 112 Jewish homes burned, and 13 Jews lost their lives. In October 2022 alone, 32 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed. This continuing high level of violence encourages narratives of the enemy within which carry with them the ugly prospect of civil war plus a third intifada. To date averting such dangers do not feature prominently amongst the protestors’ demands on Netanyahu.
The dangers, though, were clearly spelt out in a prescient response to the May 2021 communal violence by the Catholic Bishop Declan Lang and the Anglican Bishop Christopher Chessun in the Holy Land Coordination: “unless the international community is willing to adopt a rights-based approach to its peace-making, Israel’s control of the occupied territories will become ever more entrenched, Palestinian rights further encroached upon and outbreaks of fighting increasingly likely. Israel’s security cannot be based on the permanent inequality and disenfranchisement of Palestinians.” (The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales set up the international Coordination group in the late 1990s to act in solidarity with the Christian communities of the Holy Land).
Since the 1967 war some 450,000 Jewish settlers have moved into the West Bank and 235,000 into East Jerusalem creating 279 new settlements. I once heard the late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaking passionately about peace emphasising repeatedly that “peace is in everyone’s interests”. But the truth of that is called in question if it means, without redress, you lose your land, your home, your olive groves and your schools (currently 44 Palestinian schools are due for demolition), all to make room for Israeli Jewish families. The pre-conditions for a two-State solution have disappeared.
Israel’s Minister of Defense, Yoav Galant, recently signed an agreement with Bezalel Smotrich, the ‘adjunct Minister of Defense’, giving Smotrich administrative authority over Area C, that is 60% of the West Bank - extracted for Religious Zionist Parties’ support for Netanyahu. A little over a year ago the Board of Deputies of British Jews described Smotrich, during a visit to the UK, as having “abominable views and hate-provoking ideology”. “Get back on the plane”, they wrote in a Hebrew tweet “and be remembered as a disgrace forever”. Five years ago Smotrich was advocating flooding the West Bank with settlers. Irrespective of how much control he will be able to exert over the territory, his annexationist intentions are obvious.
The international context is also changing. The bilateral deals that the Trump administration brokered between Israel and the frontline Arab States are fraying. Jordan’s Parliament has voted to expel the Israel ambassador after a typically provocative speech by Smotrich in front of a map showing Jordan as part of ‘Greater Israel’. “There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian history. There is no Palestinian language,” he said in Paris on 19 March. And China’s unexpected intervention to reduce the enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a new move in the Middle East with unknown consequences. Meanwhile Netanyahu has been doing the rounds in Europe to garner support.
Here, Rishi Sunak is echoing Biden’s mild diplomacy, speaking of the importance of ‘shared democratic values”. In December 2022, he told the Conservative Friends of Israel that Britain’s relations with Israel had ‘never been stronger’. Reading the 2030 Roadmap for UK-Israel bilateral relations, signed on 21 March by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel, you can see what he means. It commits to seeking a very wide-ranging partnership including trade, development, defense and security. To say the least, it is unfortunate timing. Foreign Minister Cleverly’s roadmap gives no hint of the cliff edge ahead nor that Israel is in - the INSS’ words - “a looming crisis”.
After massive national demonstrations last Sunday provoked by the Minister of Defense’s sacking, a general strike with disruption of Tel Aviv airport and major ports shut down by striking workers, Netanyahu announced yesterday he was postponing the new legislation. It is not enough. Ultra-nationalists were already counter-demonstrating Monday night with violence threatened. Netanyahu is caught in a trap of his own making: requiring concessions to both anti-reformers, delaying until May with less drastic legislation, and pro-reform, granting his extremist National Defense Director, Ben Gvir’s demand for a new civil ‘national guard’.
Netanyahu may continue to push for a decisive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities hoping to close ranks behind his inherently unstable coalition government. Iran is fast moving towards sufficient enriched uranium to make a nuclear warhead, and fear of the threat of nuclear proliferation is shared with Western allies. But whatever his next move to prop up his political house of cards, it is unlikely to reduce conflict or be without consequences for the Middle East.
See also TheArticle 28/03/2023
The rule of law is the cornerstone of democracy. In Israel, the authoritarianism of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his extremist coalition partners seeking to appoint and curb the Israeli judiciary has brought more than 250,000 protestors onto the streets. In Britain, we seem less concerned about attacks on custodians of the law.
Last week it was Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s turn to call Keir Starmer, the leader of the Opposition, ‘a lefty lawyer’. It has become standard Conservative Party fare.
Between 2008-2013, prior to entering politics, Keir Starmer was Head of the Crown Prosecution Service and Director of Public Prosecutions. From 2010 to 2013 he was the main legal adviser to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. He was knighted in 2014. When in early 2020 he was competing to be leader of the Labour Party, Corbynistas worried that his politics were far from ‘leftist’. ‘Lefty lawyer’ may be a handy alliteration but Sunak’s language is further indication of the Conservative Party’s continuing populist mindset.
Starmer is known in the legal world for his record on human rights. The ‘McLibel’ case, a challenge to freedom of speech over a leaflet denouncing different aspects of McDonald’s corporate practice, is famous. After the case progressed through the British courts, Starmer in 2005 represented pro bono two environmental activists against the might of McDonald’s in the European Court of Human Rights. He was human rights adviser to the Policing Board of Northern Ireland and noted for his work – also pro bono - opposing capital punishment in several Caribbean and African countries. Is the promotion and executive enforcement of human rights law still being branded as ‘lefty’ repeating Boris Johnson’s ‘lefty human rights lawyers’ attacks? By that token John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis qualify for abuse as ‘lefty Popes’.
Presumably the Conservative Party is in the business of conserving. But it has become hard to believe that conservatism aims to conserve the key institutions of UK governance and our – unwritten - constitution. In an unusual moment of anger, the historian of government and broadcaster Peter Hennessy, less well known as the cross-bench peer Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield, described Boris Johnson in a BBC interview as “the great debaser in modern times of decency and public and political life, and of our constitutional conventions – our very system of government”. Yet Johnson remains popular with the grassroots of the Conservative Party.
No Government likes the constraints imposed upon it by law but dismissing with taunts of ‘fat-cat lawyers’ (yes – once used by Tony Blair), or more dangerously ‘lefty lawyers’, subverts one of the institutions by which we are all protected. It is not so much that Sunak’s playground jibes should be beneath his dignity as Prime Minister diminishing the respect he has gained for his diplomacy in Northern Ireland and Paris, but that such demeaning name-calling subtly undermines the law itself.
From where did we get the binary division of ‘left’ and ‘right’ now so entrenched in the language of politics? It dates from 1789 when the French King’s supporters began sitting to the right of the President of the National Assembly with the revolutionaries to the left, though the occupants of the House of Commons benches can hardly be described in terms of royalists versus revolutionaries. Political Parties love binaries. The national argument about EU membership gave us Remainer/Remoaner v Brexiteer as well as ‘the people’ versus ‘the elite’. More appropriately on a global scale we now speak of democracy versus authoritarianism.
Political Parties have problems putting ‘clear blue water’ between them. Johnson-style bluster, obliterating any nuance in different political visions within the Opposition plays to the back-benches and is amplified in social media and Sun, Express, Mail and Telegraph. The Opposition are then turned into a monolithic enemy. But today’s political divisions are not adequately expressed by terms such as left versus right.
Right and left labels are even less appropriate when they are applied to religious believers. Catholics, for example, are held to be ‘right-wing’ if they hold pro-life, anti-abortion, views. Worldwide there are c. 1.3 billion Catholics, many of them may hold such views; this is a large number of people to designate as politically ‘right wing’. They may, as well as being protective of life in the womb, also have a strong commitment to peace, elimination of capital punishment, trade unionism, the environment, and ‘the preferential option for the poor’ - including refugees and economic migrants. These views are hardly right wing.
Just one individual example. Amnesty International was founded in 1961 and in its early years campaigned exclusively in support of prisoners of conscience. It later broadened its mandate to promote all the human rights enshrined in the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. Between 2007 and 2008, under pressure mainly from their US section, a woman’s right to choose was proposed as an addition to their UN ‘s list. The movement was split pretty evenly on the issue.
In response, the late Bruce Kent, an internationally known peace-campaigner, went to see Amnesty UK to ask them not to go down the road of adopting access to abortion as a human right (which Amnesty did unequivocally in 2018). He pointed out that two of the key founders of the organisation, Sean Mcbride and Peter Berenson, were Catholics, and the result would probably be the loss of Catholic members. Bruce as General-Secretary of CND in the 1980s had been a great supporter of the Women’s Peace Camp resisting the placement of cruise missiles at Greenham Common. But, while very sympathetic to the concern for pregnant women’s health and safety, he did not view abortion as a fundamental human right.
The 1980s were the last decade of the Cold War and CND was both under surveillance by British Security Services and infiltrated by them at Board level. So not right-wing but a dangerously popular ‘lefty’ then? Up to a point Lord Copper. There are few as courageous and honest as Bruce Kent but there are many others who do not fit into the crude political stereotypes that they are alleged to inhabit. You wouldn’t guess that from the parliamentary Punch and Judy of Prime Minister’s Questions.
Instead of answering questions with bluster and aggression, in a poor imitation of Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak would do well to douse what Lord Hennessy called the ‘Bonfire of the Decencies’. He described respecting those decencies as the ‘good chaps’ theory of governing. It needs to be revived if we are to conserve the best of Britain.
Rishi Sunak is promising that the Home Office’s - in his words - ‘Stop the Boats Bill’ (the Illegal Migration Bill) will be unveiled within weeks and placed on the government legislative timetable. It is destined for the courts. This year, aspects of Suella Braverman plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda go before the Court of Appeal. We already have a sample of the Home Secretary’s preferred language, a foretaste of how she hopes to deal with legal challenges. An email sent to Conservative Party members in her name blames “an activist blob of leftwing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour Party” for the failure to stop the growing number of little boats heading for Britain. We are yet to hear that her denial of any knowledge of the email being sent has resulted in anyone being disciplined or sacked for failing to get clearance.
We may be on the brink of a slippery slope. The Prime Minister should resolve now to respect our own Judges - along with solicitors and barristers - and to acknowledge their important role in a democracy, not least one whose constitution is unwritten.
See TheArticle 14/03/2023
How has it come about that, when it comes to choosing a leader of a political party, a politician’s views on same-sex marriage seem to be a deal-breaker? The controversy caused by Kate Forbes, once front runner for leadership of the Scottish National Party (SNP), saying she believed that “marriage is between a man and a woman” did not come out of a clear blue sky. It has deep roots and prompts an important discussion about religious belief and politics.
It is worth recalling the initial slow change in social attitudes after July 1967 when the bill decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults over 21 was given royal assent. The bill at the time excluded Scotland, Northern Ireland and the armed forces. And there were setbacks such as Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28 banning in 1987 ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ in schools.
Government provision of civil partnerships in 2004 and the 2010 Equalities Act summarising and simplifying previous anti-discrimination law were major landmarks in achieving equal right for people in same sex relationships. The compatibility of religious belief and practice with the Equalities Act is normally established in the calm and clarity of a courtroom. But since Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation and the instant withdrawal of prominent Forbes supporters, sexuality issues have been manipulated politically in the media by partisan contestants for her position as leader of the SNP. As a result, the ensuing debate has been reduced to clashes on the frontline of the culture war between ‘woke’ and ‘reactionary’ belligerents. Calm and clarity are not the first words that come to mind.
Sexual ethics have played a significant role in religious education in the past and still do. People with religious beliefs can hardly complain that issues of sexuality are newsworthy, it is a perennial interest and people of goodwill passionately disagree about it. But does that mean holding socially conservative views based on religious belief should automatically exclude people from high political office? The Equalities Act was intended to protect the rights of minorities whose sexual identities differ from the majority but also to protect the rights of religious minorities.
Here are some observations which try to put the problem in historical context. We now inhabit an ethical terrain in which the terms human rights and civil rights have proliferated unhelpfully in popular usage. They have come to trump other ways of talking about and legislating what is the right thing to do. Not everything we might reasonably hope for in a democratic society is a human right or even a civil right.
Campaigning for gay rights was about the removal of discrimination. A success was Tony Blair’s 2004 legislation creating civil partnerships in the UK affording same-sex partnerships the civil rights equal to those of heterosexual marriage. In later legal tidying up, the provisions of the 2004 Act became available to those in heterosexual relationships who, for one reason or another, (because of the patriarchal connotations of traditional marriage) did not wish to be married.
Peter Tatchell’s successful campaign for same-sex marriage used the brilliant slogan “Equal Love” and was rewarded by the 2013 Same-Sex Couples Act that did away with State prohibition of same-sex civil marriage. The 2013 Act gave recognition to the equal value of same-sex love and thus to the human dignity of the couples in same-sex relationships felt to have been inadequately expressed by the initially special minority provision called civil partnership. But religious organisations were not obliged to religiously marry same sex partners. It was not a human right.
The 2004 and then 2013 Acts, subject to the permission of Local Authorities, enabled religious organisations to register marital relationships and perform same-sex marriages as well as civil partnerships. The latter was a major change in the concept of marriage. No longer an exclusively heterosexual institution it became a challenge to traditional Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinking and scripture on marriage, a change in both definition and meaning. It inevitably was, and is, profoundly divisive.
The concept of ‘equal love’ is a mainstay of Christian theology and in February 2023 the Church of England General Synod voted to allow priests to bless same sex marriage and civil partnerships. The Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA), though, described it as “schismatic and unbiblical behaviour”. Alongside the no less conservative leaders of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference) the GSFA represents over 70% of the Anglican Communion round the world, mainly provinces in the southern hemisphere. Heaven above knows what they would call approval of the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill.
So we come to the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the undeniably courageous Kate Forbes speaking openly about what her Christian - ‘Wee Free’ Presbyterian – beliefs demand. In interviews she has described how she would vote according to her conscience but honour the present and future democratic will even if she personally disagreed with it. A window into her soul best kept closed? Refreshing openness and truthfulness in a politician or foolish candour? Forbes does not have the good fortune to be a German politician. In 2017 the then Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed a free vote on the same-sex marriage Act, voted against it herself, and when resigning four years later enjoyed 80% approval. Throw in a little misogyny and Forbes may have forfeited the role of first Minister to Humza Yousaf who has contrived to miss voting on such issues.
Can Scotland trust Kate Forbes to honour the democratic will? The most compelling argument made against her is that whatever she now says no-one can be sure that as First Minister her strong Christian principles wouldn’t later unacceptably influence her policy judgements. Acceptance depends on trusting her word. Strange then that her truth-telling should be distrusted but a serial offender against truth, the untrustworthy Boris Johnson, was elected leader of the Conservative Party and remained popular even when the threat of a Corbyn government receded.
We live in a democracy. Those who are unwilling to set aside a candidate’s religious views are free not to vote for them. But the question remains do views on sexuality influence political judgement more strongly than other views? After all, socially conservative views on sexuality do not imply or mean conservative views on all other social and political issues. For example, views on climate change, inequality, defence, health and social care need probing before a candidate is judged either way. Again, why is this minority position on sexuality a deal-breaker? Is this about making faith a private matter, excluding religion from public debate?
Forget woke and not woke. It is time to step back, reject the social media lynch mob, and start listening to each other. Writing in The Observer 26 February Kenan Malik’s proposes that in a secular democracy strong religious views can be safely compatible with the top job in, say, the Treasury and Foreign Office but problematic for a Party leader responsible for the totality of policy. Pure conjecture of course but interesting. Yet when we reach a point where someone convicted of raping two women, described as a ‘transgender woman’, is sent to an all-female prison for assessment, it is arguable that Scotland needs someone running the SNP with some old-fashioned ideas, or at least some common sense.
The first leadership debate on STV on 7 March will have been an opportunity for participants to listen to religious views and treat them with respect. In the words of the Scottish Catholic Bishops “religion is not a problem for legislators to solve but instead makes its own vital contribution to the national conversation”.