The road to Jerusalem, it has so often been said, runs through Cairo. Writing from a regime prison cell in the months after Palestine’s “unity intifada” of 2021, the Egyptian revolutionary Alaa Abd El-Fattah modified this historic injunction: “The road to Jerusalem looked like it ran through Cairo — but what is certain is that it must pass through Gaza. Jerusalem is not too proud to ask for Gaza’s help. Maybe Cairo should now show a little humility and do the same.”
Here we have a lyrical articulation of a simple political truth: that the freedom struggle of the Palestinian people and the wider fight for democracy in the Arab world are one and the same. Only through the violent suppression of popular sovereignty across the region have the military dictatorships, the petro-monarchs, and the settler-colonial project in Palestine survived.
As Alaa’s mediation suggests, this interconnected struggle is not one-way traffic, a matter of the Palestinians waiting for the Arab peoples to triumph over their autocratic rulers (American clients, more often than not). On the contrary, the Palestinian people often lead the way, generating space for struggle beyond the borders of their historic homeland, in places where the conditions of possibility for mass politics seem to have been crushed. A few weeks ago, it was a march in solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza that saw Egyptian democrats surge back into Tahrir Square for the first time since the revolution.
Palestine is never very far from “domestic” politics in the West, either. But in the past eight years, its presence in British political life has overwhelmingly been as an object of controversy. A tremendous amount of ideological work has gone into presenting the popular cause of the Palestinian people as an extreme, fringe obsession. There was, Britain’s elites insisted ever-more hysterically, something odd, alien (and, of course, racist) about the obsession of the hard left and its leader with this faraway land.
So effective was this campaign that some comrades came to see Palestine as a liability. Better to place a cordon sanitaire around the toxic foreign policy and focus on our plans to transform the railways. As it turns out, this was a disastrous misunderstanding that only emboldened our enemies and paved the path to defeat.
Along the way, though, the construction of the Palestinian people’s cause as its opposite — a minority rather than a mass concern, a sectional rather than a popular issue — started to stick. In the eyes of the Labour right and its stenographers, delegates proudly waving Palestinian flags at party conference in 2018 were the ultimate emblem of Corbyn’s minoritarian obsessions. It helps, of course, that this is also precisely how Palestine has been construed by the British security state and its “counterterror” programs in the past fifteen years: as an exemplar of extremism.
No wonder, then, that the British establishment is increasingly panicked that this latest chapter of the Palestinian people’s struggle, in all its horror in Gaza, has provided unexpected openings for popular politics in the belly of the beast. Across successive weekends, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in London and across Britain, in the largest protests since the Iraq War. Opinion polls are consistent in showing that the political class, holding slavishly to the hawkish, genocide-abetting line of the masters in Washington, are on an island — speaking for only about 3 percent of the population in strongly opposing a cease-fire.
In other words, the elite mystification that sought to upend reality and marginalize the Palestine solidarity movement has been shattered — by both the clarity of public opinion and the numbers on the streets. As in Egypt, the universality of Palestine asserts itself inexorably, where masses stand with the Palestinian people as part of a movement aimed at ending Western complicity in their violent dispossession. But really this is to get things backward: it is them opening the way for us.
Since the defeat of Corbynism, the speed of the Left’s banishment to the margins of British politics has been bewildering — our leaders are cowed, and the institutional legacies of our historic advance depressingly thin on the ground. In that bleak context, the sheer size, social breadth, and ideological strength of the movement that has sprung up for Palestine in recent weeks should offer some perspective. It might serve as a reminder that the closest the Left came to mass appeal during the New Labour “wilderness years” was through leading a mass antiwar movement. There were two slogans for the largest protest in British history: “Don’t Attack Iraq” and “Freedom for Palestine.”
More importantly, the seas of black, red, white, and green make plain — for us and our enemies — the reality that the left-populist surge in Britain wasn’t an aberration or a matter of pure contingency: rather, our politics is rooted in actually-existing social constituencies. Together with the Left of the labor movement, that makes for a real base upon which mass political projects can be built. Only twice during his leadership of the Labour Party has Keir Starmer been forcibly reminded of this: fleetingly during the “Enough is Enough” campaign last year, and in recent weeks. That the adept authoritarian blockage of the Left does not sweep away its underlying social source of strength is a bitter reality for the small-minded functionaries of the Labour right to confront.
This explains their tendency, of recent weeks, to double down with more repression, heightened censorship, and increasingly absurd claims about the marginality of hundreds of thousands of people. Insisting that supporters of a mass, popular cause — on the streets calling for a cease-fire in line with the majority of the population — are in fact a minority of hateful extremists is a form of anxious projection. So too is the suspension of Andy McDonald: this is the paranoid style of the British establishment, which know that its politics of reflexive servility to the Americans is built on quicksand.
From the West, action against the complicity of our governments has an indispensable role to play in the struggle to liberate Palestine. That is the most important thing, and the first purpose of an emerging mass movement. In Cairo a few weeks ago, the chants quickly turned from Palestine to calls for “bread, freedom, and social justice.” There are no such revolutionary horizons in Britain, but the significance of it being Palestine that offers us a glimpse of mass politics again cannot be overstated.
Not only the Egyptians: we, too, should be grateful to the Palestinian people. We stand with them, but it is the steadfastness of their popular struggle for universal freedom and dignity that shows the way.
Ed McNally is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford and a trade union political officer.
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