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A Kuffiya for Tony Benn


Long before the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment campaign inched slowly from the fringes of global solidarity with Palestinians to take center stage, Tony Benn had been advocating a boycott of Israel with unrestricted conviction, for years. 

“Britain should offer its support for this strategy by stopping all arms sales to Israel, introducing trade sanctions and a ban on all investment there together with a boycott of Israeli goods here and make it a condition for the lifting of these measures that Israel complies with these demands at once,” Benn wrote in his blog on April 19, 2002, under the title “A STATE OF PALESTINE NOW”. The ‘strategy’ of which Ben spoke was for Arafat to declare a state, and for ‘friendly nations’ to recognize it. 

Yes, the title was all in caps. It was as if Benn, a principled British left wing politician, had wanted to loudly accentuate his insistence that the Palestinian people deserved their rights, freedom and sovereignty. He was as bold and courageous as any man or woman of true values and principles should always be. He remained uncompromising in matters of human rights and justice. This international warrior left a challenging space to fill when he passed away at the age of 88, on Thursday, March 13.  

Following the news of his death, British media was awash of reports about Benn and his long legacy of being a stubborn politician and uncompromising advocate for human rights. Frankly, there was less emphasis on the latter and much more on the former, despite the fact that Benn understood politics was a platform to quarrel with moral dilemmas. The parliament was a platform to serve the people, not to conspire with other politicians for the sake of one’s party. For some politicians, it is all about winning elections, not using office to carry out a morally-grounded mandate to serve the people. Benn was different, thus there was the love-hate relationship Britain had with him. 

True to form, British media immediately conjured up a few buzzwords by which it attempted to define Benn’s legacy. He had ‘immatured with age,” was one of them. It was a remark made by Benn’s fiercest rival in the Labor Party, Harold Wilson in reference to Benn’s becoming more of a radical left-winger as he grew older. Some in the media simply love axioms and catch phrases, for it spares journalists the pain of exhaustive research. Wilson and his camp invested heavily in assigning Benn the responsibility of the successive defeats experienced by the Labor Party at the hands of the Conservatives. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher and then John Major had won four elections in a row, and between them changed the face of British economy and quashed major labor unions. But blaming Benn for splitting the party is unfair to say the least. 

Compare Tony Benn’s legacy with that of Tony Blair. The first was principled to the core, boldly challenged US hegemony in the world, and fought hard for Britain’s poor, working class and against unhindered globalization that made states vulnerable to the inherent disparity of the global economic system. 

Blair stood for the exact opposite: a self-serving politician, devoid of any morality, and was rightly dubbed Bush’s poodle for heeding to the US military adventurism, mainly in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Benn, even from the point of view of those who disagreed with him, was always seen, and shall always be remembered as a man of high values. Blair had been districted by his own peers even before he was forced to concede office. One can imagine that Israeli media is the one likely to remember Blair with much fondness. 

Although Benn seemed guided by the same high moral values that accompanied him throughout the over 50 years in which he served as an MP in the British parliament, when he retired in 2001, he seemed ready to take on even bigger challenges. His task morphed from that of a fierce politician at home, fighting for the very definition of the Labor Party, to an internationalist, taking on the most difficult of subjects, and never bowing down. 

Following the US-British so-called ‘war on terror’ – designed around economic and strategic interests – Benn rose to greater prominence,  not as another TV celebrity ‘expert’, but as a fierce opponent to the US and his own government’s wholesale slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Since then, the man never stayed away from the streets. He spoke with passion and mesmerized audiences in his beautiful, immaculate English. Most important about the timing of Benn’s courageous stances was the fact that back then, all public discourses related to the wars were saturated with fear. But, whenever Benn spoke, he pushed the narrative up to higher degrees of audacity.  

I listened to him once speak at Trafalgar Square in London. He wore a Kuffiya, the traditional Palestinian headscarf. He spoke of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, as if their peoples were his own. Thousands of us applauded with so much enthusiasm. It was as if his words alone were the salvation that would free Arab nations from the bondage of military occupation and war. But at times, words live in a sphere of their own where they multiply, and when repeated often enough, can change the world. 

“The main responsibility for the appalling crimes being perpetrated against the Palestinians must be equally shared between Jerusalem and Washington for successive American governments have funded Israel, armed Israel and used their veto at the Security Council to protect Israel from being forced to comply with what world opinion wanted,” he said in 2003, in an interview with Egypt-based Al Ahram. 

True, Benn was not the only British politician who spoke with such candor about the shared responsibility of crimes committed against Palestinians, but few went as far as he did. 

The next time there is a rally for Palestine, there ought to be an empty chair with a Palestinian Kuffiya, and the name of Tony Benn. It is a Palestinian tradition to honor its heroes, even those with a splendidly beautiful British accent. 

- Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, UK. His latest book is “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London).

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