Forum for Debate

SCT’s Forum for Debate provides protagonists on either side of an issue or public debate  –  including think tanks, commentators, academics and campaigners – with an opportunity to set out their well-considered, rational arguments and then allow a limited number of exchanges between them. Rather than then hosting an open forum or blog, the debates are designed to encourage visitors, guided by links provided by the British Library, to seek out further information about the issues and engage in face-to-face debate themselves. The  debates could also provide material around which Speakers’ Corner Committees can organise their own local events.

The latest in the series appears below. Previous debates can be found in the archive.

Why Israel?

When the State of Israel was founded in 1948 following a resolution of the UN General Assembly the previous year, not only was its creation regarded as a necessary response to the Holocaust and a bulwark against anti-Semitism in the future, but many on the left enthusiastically endorsed the socialist principles of the Kibbutz movement which seemed to symbolise the progressivism and optimism of the new nation.

When Arab states attacked Israel in 1948 and again in 1967 and 1973, support for the new Jewish state remained strong across the political spectrum. But when Israel refused to withdraw from land it had occupied during the Yom Kippur War, attitudes, particularly on the left, began to shift.

Longstanding concern for the plight of the Palestinians displaced by Jewish immigration began to harden into opposition not only to Israeli government policy but also to Zionism, the nationalist movement which had inspired the campaign for a Jewish homeland since the nineteenth century and the political philosophy which underpins its existence today.

But why does the left appear to feel so much more passionately about Israel-Palestine than any other conflict in the region or further afield? Why is Palestinian nationalism championed as a human right while Zionism is equated with racism? Or are accusations of left-wing bias simply the special pleading of Israel’s supporters?


Eric Heinze

Queen Mary, University of London

Eric Heinze is Professor of Law and Humanities at Queen Mary, University of London where he convenes courses on Democracy and Justice, Law, Justice and Ethics and Law and Literature.

After studies in Paris, Berlin, Boston, and Leiden, Eric Heinze worked with the International Commission of Jurists and UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights in Geneva and on private litigation before the United Nations Administrative Tribunal in New York.

He has also advised NGOs on human rights including Liberty, Amnesty International and the Media Diversity Institute and serves on the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Human Rights and the British Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies.

His books include Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship (2016), The Concept of Injustice (2013), The Logic of Constitutional Rights (2005), The Logic of Liberal Rights (2003), The Logic of Equality (2003), Sexual Orientation: A Human Right (1995), and the collection Of Innocence and Autonomy: Children, Sex and Human Rights (2000).

Bill Bowring

Birkbeck, University of London

Bill Bowring is Professor of Law in the School of Law at Birkbeck, University of London and a practising barrister at Field Court Chambers, Gray's Inn.

He is also a Fellow of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex.

Professor Bowring is a founder and Executive Committee Member of the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, a founder of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, President of the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights and International Secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. He is also a Trustee of Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights and of Redress.

Professor Bowring has extensive professional practice representing applicants in the European Court of Human Rights and is the author of books on international law, human rights and the law of Russia and other Former Soviet Union countries. He also frequently acts as a court expert.


Israel - Victim of the Left's Double Standards

There are no single Right or Left policies on Israel. The Right must look back upon a bleak history of antisemitism. The Left can boast courageous campaigns against anti-Jewish persecution – though more in the past than the present.

When Fidel Castro died, many of Israel’s fiercest critics queued up to eulogise one of history’s most repressive autocrats. Those of us crying hypocrisy were accused of ‘Whataboutery’, that is, the attempt to deflect attention from Israel’s offences by pointing fingers at other states. Yet our gripe is not just that Israel is judged more harshly. Rather, Israel stands condemned while Castro is praised.

Hard-Leftists have never organised comparable campaigns against regimes – Russian, Chinese, Saudi, Iranian, Turkish, Syrian, even North Korean – vastly more ruthless than Israel. Those regimes need simply prop up political or cultural fronts against the West. Suddenly we are told their atrocities need to be ‘sensitively contextualised’.

But can the far-Left’s anti-Israel claims withstand scrutiny?

"Israel receives Western support". Western economic ties to China, Turkey or Saudi Arabia have financed exponentially mightier machines of repression. Never has the Left organised similar campaigns in response. Western support for Israel is significant but erratic. Israel can never assume adequate Western back-up if attacked.

"Israel is a racist, apartheid state". Hard-Leftists generally criticise racism only in Western democracies. Elsewhere they have overlooked and even supported obscenely racist regimes. Soviet, Russian and Chinese ethnic repression has devastated millions, incalculably surpassing Israel at her worst, with no comparable Leftist response. While Israel certainly hosts extremist nationalism – as do several far less threatened Western democracies – Israelis overall are certainly aware of Palestinians’ historical grievances. But a security situation involving threats from Hamas, Hizbollah, Iran, Islamic State, Syria, Al Qaeda and others is not solved at a wishing well. Analogies to South African apartheid ignore not only the two states’ vastly different security situations but also the historical origins of their respective situations.

"Israel is committing genocide". The eerie relish and historical amnesia with which many Leftists equate Jews with Nazis no longer startles. And yet even genocide has never been a deal-breaker for the radical Left. The Palestinian UN mission has repeatedly, with more than a hint of racism, spearheaded moves to exempt genocides in Darfur and DR Congo from scrutiny – and remained unchallenged on the Left.

"Israel is brutal". Even the worst Israeli conduct cannot compare with atrocities committed by Left-tolerated regimes, most of which, moreover, have faced no active, physical incursions comparable to those against Israel.

"Communist regimes pursued the right ideals in principle". The radical Left condemns Western and Israeli democracies for promising freedom and equality in principle whilst subordinating disempowered groups in practice. It beggars belief that far worse betrayals become an asset when committed by regimes tolerated on the Left.

"Israel, as a democracy, must be held to a higher standard". One can only argue that democracies command a superior ethics by consigning non-democratic cultures to an inferior one. If we were to brand all non-democracies as ethically inferior, however, we would have to boycott a fair few before turning on Israel.

"Russia, China, or Cuba have committed abuses, but we must balance the negatives against their achievements". Hard-Leftists undertake no such ‘balancing’ for Israel, whose accomplishments, for example on LGBT rights, are spat upon as ‘pinkwashing’, while mere lip-service is paid to anti-gay violence and repression inflicted by Left-tolerated regimes.

Israel can legitimately be scrutinised alongside all states involved in complex conflict situations. To dismiss all such discrepancies as deflection, however, is the greatest deflection of all. Hypocrisy cries out from every anti-Israel ‘Apartheid Week’ or ‘Die-In’ when we witness little more than a wrist-slap for Left-tolerated regimes that have waged internal repression and inter-ethnic destruction to far greater degrees.


A Democracy Denied to Palestinians

I specialise primarily in the former USSR and this title strongly reminds me of the intense debates of the last decades: “why Russia?” – does Russia have a special, even a messianic, role to play as a spiritual counterpoint to the West?

Or “why Britain?” – especially in the context of Brexit and the likely disintegration of the United Kingdom.

To me, the existence of the state of Israel, founded the year before I was born, is a fact. The real question is “whither Israel”? Its future may be as one of two states in former Mandate Palestine, or, as Edward Said concluded, as one state with equal rights for all its inhabitants.

Neither will be easy, especially within the context of the Netanyahu government’s policy of creating facts on the ground through the construction of illegal settlements and settler-only roads in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Wall or Separation Barrier whose violation of international law was determined by the UN’s International Court of Justice in 2004.

I subscribe to the left-wing (and small circulation) Israeli daily Haaretz (founded in 1918). On 14 June 2017, its correspondent Shemi Chalev wrote:

Israel started to develop openness and transparency and to experience a healthy change of government in the first decades after the Six Day War, but it was hobbled by the denial of basic rights to millions of Palestinians that were now living in the territories it conquered.

The combination of increasingly harsh security measures and political oppression of the Palestinians, together with the transfer of hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers who now lived in the same place but in a starkly different reality, made Israeli democracy bleed, infecting it with dangerous viruses with long incubation periods but deadly effects nonetheless.

I agree, and am a Trustee and long-time supporter of Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights, founded by the children of Israelis who despaired at Israeli government policy in the aftermath of victory in the 1967 war.

I first visited Israel and Palestine in 1987, at the time of the First Intifada, to undertake a mission of inquiry on behalf of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.

I had been in full time practice as a barrister since 1976. My chambers was founded in 1974 by an Iranian Jew, Nuri Norell, and most of the ten founding members were Jewish. I have been a Labour Party activist since 1966, and a follower of the great Jewish rationalist Baruch Spinoza and his disciple Karl Marx.

Landing in an El Al plane at Ben Gurion airport I was surprised to hear the music of Russian revolutionary songs. These were the songs of the halutzim (pioneers), and expressed the socialist spirit of the kibbutzim movement. This is now hard to find in Israel.

In addition to reporting on the situation in Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus and Gaza, my special focus was the partial forcible closure by Israel of the women’s centre In’ash El Usra in Al Bireh, near Ramallah, and on the legality of the Kitziot prison camp in the Negev desert on the Egyptian border. Here more than 2,000 Palestinians were imprisoned under indefinitely renewable six-month administrative detention orders, outside the Occupied Palestinian Territories and contrary to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.

That visit was the start of my enduring interest in human rights, international law and humanitarian law.

On it, I also met the courageous individuals who founded HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual in 1988 and B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories in 1989 and advocates like Lea Tsemel and Israeli scholars at Hebrew and Tel Aviv Universities.

I have returned many times. In the following years I represented at the Strasbourg Court Kurds against Turkey and Chechens against Russia. But the plight of the Palestinians in the OPTs and the future of a democratic and socialist Israel are close to my heart.


Many modern states emerged in blood and turbulence. Bill rightly reminds us that the same holds, sadly, for Israel. The question posed, however, is about Leftists’ stance towards Israel as compared to other states.

The Left-wing journalist Seamus Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, never misses a chance to blast Israel – which he’s blamed for violence as far away as India. Yet he frequently applauds the machines of comprehensive Russian and Chinese de-humanisation, with little reproach from a ‘radical’ Left that stakes out similar positions. We may never know those Leftists’ ultimate reasons for boycotting Israel, but concern about brutality per se has never seriously counted among them.

Bill emphasises engagement with Israeli dissidents. Why, then, for decades, have Leftists never orchestrated such massive, passionate campaigns in support of dissenters running far greater risks in Russia, China, Cuba, or Iran?

In the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, China sponsored thousands of cultural events throughout the West, with over 800 in Britain alone. I can recall only two Left-organised boycotts in London during those months: one against an Israeli violinist, the other against an Israeli string quartet (alongside, of course, the usual repertoire of Israel-bashing on university campuses).

If Leftists care about dissent, how have they acted upon the views of Palestinian and Muslim opponents of anti-Israel boycotts, who have long seen through the political deflections pervading boycott campaigns? Far harsher regimes – never seriously challenged on the ‘radical’ Left – systemically stifle those voices.

Many Muslims would prefer a less hypocritical, more economically and culturally productive relationship with the Jewish state. Such ties might go some way towards de-militarising the region. Yet for all the Left’s boasts of giving voice to the voiceless, somehow those Muslims never quite end up on the speakers’ lists at Momentum rallies.


Eric refers to “the Left”, “Hard-Leftists” (who never conducted various campaigns), and “the far-Left” (whose various anti-Israel claims do not withstand scrutiny).

I confess: I am on “the Left”. My public school, where I spent four angry years in the 1960s, turned me into a Marxist. There was one Jewish boy in my class, subjected to the usual anti-Semitic abuse. As another outsider (the only boy on “the Left”), I was in solidarity with him and he has remained a friend. I was especially angry, and still am, about the British Empire, “on which the blood never dried”. I think Eric is on “the Left”.

I am however an anomalous “Hard-Leftist”. In fact I spent the 1990s taking cases to the Strasbourg Court against Turkey. From 2000, I have taken hundreds of cases against Russia and was expelled from that country twice, in 2005 and 2007.

The President of my colleagues in the now banned Turkish Progressive Lawyers Association (CHD), Selçuk Kozağaçlı, has spent a year in prison. My European Association of Lawyers for Democracy (ELDH) organised a solidarity conference in Ankara in January and will hold a further conference in Izmir on academic freedom. I am active in the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign against Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbas.

There are many more on “the Left” like me.

Eric lists seven “hard-Left” claims, which in fact I do not make. I campaign against Western support for China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – and fought against actual apartheid in South Africa where I was an election observer in 1994.

I fight against racism in Russia (Chechens and Jews) and China (Uyghurs). The USSR committed genocide against the Crimean Tatars. Turkey has brutalised Kurds, Russia brutalised Chechens. I campaigned for victims of Stalinism in the USSR.

And as I outlined in my opening statement, I also proudly campaign for Palestinian (and Israeli) human rights.


Enlightenment philosophers saw ethical judgment as the product of a rational calculus. For Kant, all ethically sound choices derive from one universal formula.

Hegel, and then the Marxist Left, challenged that view. Hegel acknowledged personal choice but refused to reduce ethics to fundamentally private deliberation. Ethical and political reasoning must take historical and cultural contexts into account.

Leftists by no means accept, for example, that there’s sexism only when men declare women subordinate, or racism only when whites literally proclaim blacks’ inferiority. Rather, they ask how prejudices persist despite people insisting they’re not racist or sexist deep down. Racists and sexists are not ‘just a few bad apples’, but symptoms of fundamental social malfunctions.

What matters to Leftists are underlying processes, then, not pat formulas or personal assurances – except when it comes to Israel. When Corbyn, Galloway, Livingstone, Walker and countless foot-soldiers (and that’s just in Britain – they’ve loads of fellow-travellers abroad) make inflammatory remarks or share platforms with groups calling for death to Jews, suddenly ‘critical theory’ reverts from Hegel to Pollyanna: ‘They’re good people deep down – any antisemities are just a few bad apples’.

The French left-wing philosopher Alain Badiou has declared that, by definition, it’s not possible for a Leftist to be antisemitic.With Israel, an entire Leftist trajectory reverses. No need for history or context: suddenly a formulaic, universalist maxim yields the definitive answer. And to avoid Badiou having to spell it out: if Leftist antisemitism is conceptually impossible, once again Jews are manipulating truth.

It’s neither for whites to decide they’re not racist nor for men to decide they’re not sexist; miraculously, however, Leftists pronounce themselves free of anti-Israel bias. Examining deeper social patterns is homework for them to assign to others; others assigning it to them are ‘Zionist propagandists’.

Must distinctions be drawn between anti-semitism and criticism of Israel? Of course. But anyone who believes that distinction is properly reflected in anti-Israel sentiment across most of the globe is choosing wilful ignorance – as are Leftists who purport to resolve their hypocrisy by spouting pat formulas ‘condemning all forms’ of discrimination.

Some practising vegans disagree with vegan precepts and some devout Roman Catholics reject the Catechism. That doesn’t mean there are no discernible doctrines of veganism or Catholicism. Bill rightly reminds us that hostility towards Israel among those who support far more brutal regimes was never an inevitable path for the Left. In recounting his life of ‘anomalous’ activism, Bill confirms that he is an exception to that norm.

But this debate's question was about the motives behind that norm, not whether some Leftists have renounced it. That question remains unanswered. The duty remains on the anti-Israel Left to respond.


In his Response to my Opening Argument Eric appears not to have read what I wrote. Or he chose not to read it, because he wants to create a “Leftist” straw-man. This straw-man is not (I hope) named Bill Bowring, although I count myself and am considered to be a socialist activist. Eric does name Seamus Milne, with whom I have little in common.

There is, as Eric knows, a broad activist socialist and human rights movement. ELDH, of which I am President, is active in 20 European countries including Turkey (where many of our members have been persecuted and imprisoned, and in some cases killed), and Russia (where most civil society organisations are branded “Foreign Agents” and several of my close colleagues have been murdered).

I have been twice arrested in Russia and expelled, because of my work campaigning for the rights of Chechens who have suffered extraordinary violations of human rights at the hands of Russia. In September 2016 I was the subject of an hour long smear programme on the national Russian TV channel NTV, because I dared to continue to take up the war crimes committed by Russia in Chechnya.

I have been involved since the early 1990s in campaigning for Kurdish human rights including taking many cases to Strasbourg. Since 1982 I have fought for human rights in Northern Ireland, and since 1983 I have actively campaigned for the rights of Basques.

More recently I am involved in denouncing the illegal annexation by Russia of Crimea and persecution of the Crimean Tatar people. With Russian colleagues I am taking up the case of the Rohingyas, subject to dreadful persecution in Myanmar.

These are all campaigns of “the Left”.

It is very odd then that Eric (apparently) accuses me of viewing Israel in isolation.

But as I have tried to make clear, I grieve for Israel. Theodor Herzl in 1895 in Der Judenstaat argued for a state for the Jewish people where they could escape anti-semitism, persecution and discrimination: in Argentina or in Palestine.

Israel’s tragedy is summed up by Hagar El-Ad, the Director of B’Tselem, introducing their new Report “Getting Off Scot-Free: Israel’s Refusal to Compensate Palestinians for Damages caused by its Security Forces”. El-Ad writes:

“…no legal obfuscation can hide the facts: the occupation has entered its fiftieth year. Maintaining it necessitates continued implementation of a cruel, violent policy that has a daily impact on millions of people who are denied a say in their future.”

I am sure Herzl would have wept for the Israeli state of which he dreamed, under its present regime perpetuating illegality, discrimination and suffering. Israel should have been so much better.

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