This is an all too familiar script. A British politician expresses views on the conflict in Palestine. The Israeli ambassador and lobby demand an apology. The politician is given an ultimatum – apologise or you will lose your position. In this instance the "offending" politician in question, Baroness Jenny Tonge, opted for the latter as a matter of principle. She has done what few men within her own party or, indeed, the Conservatives and Labour Parties, have been prepared to do. For this, she deserves both respect and support from anyone who cares anything about justice.
For years Jenny Tonge has been hounded and reviled because of her support for Palestinian rights and opposition to Israel's violations of international law. When last we looked, Britain was still a democracy, so she is entitled to her views and her right to express them. In fact, we would argue that she (along with the 1,473 other members of the Houses of Commons and Lords) has a moral duty to speak out against Israel's human rights abuses, not only as a politician but as any decent citizen would in a democracy.
Those who do not agree with her views should challenge her in parliament if they think that their case is so strong. They must engage her with facts and evidence; the noble Baroness would relish such a challenge as she has never declined an opportunity to defend her views publicly. However, her opponents have to resort to blackmail and character assassination, a revealing choice which says a lot about the strength of their argument.
When she spoke at Middlesex University last week, this is what she actually said:
"Beware Israel. Israel is not going to be there forever in its present form. One day, the United States of America will get sick of giving £70bn a year to Israel to support what I call America's aircraft carrier in the Middle East – that is Israel. One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough. Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown."
In another context, in another year, "Israel" could easily have been substituted by "South Africa". Despite the wishes of many in the Conservative Party at the time – and possibly to the regret of some even today – the apartheid state did not last forever. As respected journalists like the Guardian's Chris McGreal and senior UN officials like Richard Falk and John Dugard allude to Israel's apartheid-like policies, the context of what Jenny Tonge said is very relevant.
Let's assume, for argument sake, that the noble lady was not speaking about apartheid and was actually referring to a one-state solution to the conflict in Palestine. What is the fuss all about? Are politicians supposed to be zombies without an original thought of their own in order to retain the party whip? As the New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan has pointed out, even Israeli war crime suspect and ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert acknowledges that Israel in its present form cannot survive.
Whether the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Community Security Trust and the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) are mortified by discussions of an alternative to the indefinable two-state solution or not, the fact is that it is now a matter of mainstream political discourse. Despite the hullabaloo, Jenny Tonge has said nothing new or even remotely outrageous warranting the sort of hysteria which has been raised against her. Maybe the Israel lobbyists view her as a soft target. Will they now have the courage to stand up and challenge Shlomo Sand, Ilan Pappe and Noam Chomsky? We can only assume that Nick Clegg and his Tory pals in the Coalition have never heard of Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and Arthur Ruppin, whose group, Brit Shalom, envisaged an Israel scenario very different from the exclusivist option now endorsed by the British government.
It is unfortunate that the Tories believe that they are doing Israel a favour by appeasing its illegal and murderous expansionism and colonisation. By assuming that they can stifle debate on this subject they are, in fact, drawing attention to it. It won't take much for ordinary people to realise that Jenny Tonge's speech contained nothing undemocratic, unreasonable or "anti-Israel". By denying students an opportunity to explore ideas critically her critics are only making them more inquisitive.
That the neo-cons in government should condemn Baroness Tonge is understandable. The politicians who cannot distance themselves from the corrupt Murdoch empire would never be able to defy Israel. They are two sides of the same coin. Our senior editor has pointed out to the media that the very people who find time to spring promptly to Israel's defence are always silent when it comes to Israel's violations of humanitarian and international law, war crimes, possible crimes against humanity, house demolitions, settlement building, military occupation, ethnic cleansing, colonisation of occupied land, land theft, attacks on non-Jewish places of worship and assassinations. Their measly platitudes about "the two-state solution" do more to confirm the existence, and influence, of a pro-Israel Lobby in this country than Baroness Tonge's use of the phrase "Zionist campaigners", which was so lambasted by the lobby and its lackeys. It is, ironically, no different from the BBC's censure of the word Palestine last year.
Alas, for the Liberal Democrats to act in the way they did demonstrates how much they have deviated from their supposed political values; they have been neither liberal nor democratic. Jenny Tonge may be bruised but she is not defeated. If she was as fickle as her detractors she would have walked away a long time ago, but this is another lady who "is not for turning".
This disgraceful assault on a British politician led by the ambassador of a foreign country calls for a principled stand by those who care about justice. The entrenched attitudes which seek to impose an unjust solution on the Palestinian people in defiance of their legal and moral rights will only prolong the conflict. Self-righteous pronouncements cannot change the fact that courageous people like Baroness Tonge are prepared to think outside of the Zionist-wrapped box. Those who care about justice will stand by her.