Lansman: the left should stop using the word “Zionism”

May 3, 2016 at 1:38 pm (anti-semitism, conspiracy theories, history, John Rees, left, Middle East, palestine, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", zionism)

Mapam campaign poster 1944
Mapam (left-Zionist) poster 1944

Jon Lansman, long-standing Labour leftist and founder-member of Momentum, has written a piece for Left Futures blog, arguing that the left’s habitual use of the word “Zionism” is unhelpful and counter-productive.

The latter part of his article is good. But much of the article – inconsistently with the latter part – seems to suggest no more than a change of language (don’t say Zionist – say Israeli nationalist).

The problem with that becomes clear when he quotes Jacqueline Rose’s suggestion that instead of saying Zionism equals apartheid, people should say: Israeli nationalism equals apartheid. Would it be acceptable, by analogy, to say: German nationalism (necessarily) equals the Holocaust?

And the upshot of ‘Israeli nationalism equals apartheid’ is no different from the upshot of ‘Zionism equals apartheid’, i.e. boycott Israel.

Rose was one of the instigators of the academic boycott. There’s a lot of articles explaining what’s wrong with her politics on the Engage website.

Lansman also buys into the Rose/Lerman line of drawing a distinction between good (or potentially good) diaspora Jewry and bad Israeli Jewry. Hence his claim that “British Zionists are a world apart from Israeli Zionists”. But still, it’s a thoughtful article that reaches at least one correct conclusion: the left should stop using the word “Zionism” as a pejorative.

Why the Left must stop talking about ‘Zionism’

By Jon Lansman

There is every justification for talking about the rights of Palestinians, for campaigning against the profound injustice that has been done to them and for criticising the actions and policies of the Israeli government but there is no defence for antisemitism, whoever makes the accusation. As the Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) has rightly argued, “accusations of antisemitism are currently being weaponised to attack the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party with claims that Labour has a “problem” of antisemitism.” A group of Jews also wrote to the Guardian this week to add that:

The tiny number of cases of real antisemitism need to be dealt with, but we are proud that the Labour party historically has been in the forefront of the fight against all forms of racism.”

But one of them, David Rosenburg, a leading member of the JSG, also argued on the same day that in spite of efforts to “to deconstruct the ‘problem with antisemitism’“:

Ken Livingstone’s crass intervention yesterday was a massive setback for those efforts, and a free gift to those manipulating the issue for right wing purposes….

My plea to fellow anti-racist, anti-Zionist, socialist activists is: don’t waste any of your precious time today trying to rationalise, defend or explain away Livingstone’s comments, but concentrate on challenging the terms of the debate as set by the right-wing alliance that are exploiting this whole issue.

  • Concentrate on how to persuade and split off those who are genuinely worried about rising antisemitism from those exploiting the issues;
  • Concentrate on showing how the Left can demonstrate that the fight against antisemitism is tied up with the fight against all racism including Islamophobia;
  • Concentrate on exposing how those feigning sympathy for Jews are implicated in racism against others; and
  • Concentrate on ways to ensure free speech and rational debate about the realities of what Zionism and Israeli policy is enacting daily against the Palestinians.

So how do we achieve that? I would argue that it is time for the Left to start talking in a new language – one that expresses our views about Israel, about the policies and actions of its government and about the rights of Palestinians without alienating any of those who might agree with us. It is not necessary to abandon any non-racist criticisms of Israel, however robust they may be, in order to do so.

Why is a new language necessary: because British Jews, most of whom support a Palestinian state (71%), and see the expansion of settlements as a major obstacle to peace (75%) and feel a sense of despair when they are expanded (68%) generally see themselves as “Zionists” (59%) with more who also “possess some traditionally ‘Zionist’ attitudes“) – all figures from The Attitudes of British Jews towards Israel). Zionism takes many forms, and British Zionists (at least those who are Jewish) are a world apart from Israeli Zionists. In Israel, tragically, a plurality of Jews (48% versus 46%) believe “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel” and disagree that “a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully with each other” (45% to 43%) – data from Pew Research Center.

Like Didi Herman at Critical Legal Thinking, Professor of Law at Kent Law School and a Jew who used to describe herself as an anti-zionist but does no longer, I therefore think the Left should stop talking about “Zionism” or “Zionists”. As Herman argues:

Zionism has become a dirty word for many on the left. It has become synonymous with Israel itself, the racist practices of the Israeli state.”

Herman quotes Jacqueline Rose, a Professor of English Literature (whose views on Israel have – completely unreasonably – been described as an “anti-semitic anti-Zionism” by Avner Falk) arguing that “Zionism emerged out of the legitimate desire of a persecuted people for a homeland” and, in spite of her opposition to what she calls “the ‘blood and soil’ form that zionism eventually took in Israel” she also says:

I am not happy, to put it at its most simple, to treat Zionism as an insult. A dirty word”

There is, Herman argues, “a stark reluctance amongst left scholars… to take the history and psychology of Jewish communal survival seriously” and continues:

The identification of a generic Zionism with nothing but racist practice in Israel entrenches an understanding of zionism not just as a dirty word, but as a pariah form of thinking unrelated to any other (except apartheid thinking).”

Far better she says to “use ‘Israeli nationalists’ or ‘Israeli fundamentalists’ or better yet ‘Netanyahu’s regime’ “:

These alternatives won’t provide an easy shorthand in the way ‘Zionism’ does, for example, ‘Israeli nationalism = apartheid’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but I suppose that is my point — easy options often sacrifice understanding for rhetorical force.”

Abandoning use of the term “Zionist” will not be enough on its own. There needs to be clarity, guidance and even training about what is appropriate. Unfortunately, we will not be able to have a rational debate about how to change the terms of the current debate unless we are also able to open our minds to the possibility, regardless of who points it out or their motive for doing so, that people on the left may also demonstrate some prejudice of their own.

So consider this by John Rees of Stop the War whose comment was shared on the Young Jewish Left closed Facebook page — copied because “it needs some comment“:

Was rung up this evening by some semi-educated BBC producer asking if I’d come on and debate a troll on the issue of ‘Is the left anti-Semitic?‘ I said that as a follower of the most famous political Jew of the 19th century and the most famous political Jew of the 20th century, and as someone who learnt my anti-Zionist politics from a Palestinian Jew called Ygael Gluckstein, it was an insult to even ask me that question. And that as someone who has opposed the fascists, especially when their main target was Jews not, as it is now, Muslims I’m not participating in a debate whose purpose is to demonise the left.”

Julia Bard, another leading member of the JSG who signed the Guardian letter, commented:

I can see why he might not have wanted to participate in the debate on the terms offered, but to imply that being a follower of Karl Marx or Tony Cliff, who were Jewish, somehow immunises him against antisemitism, comes perilously close to “Some of my best friends are Jews.”

And to assert that because the Left is committed to anti-racism, no one within it is susceptible to a powerful racist ideology with centuries-long roots in European culture, would suggest that socialist movements (or at least those with the correct line) are populated by paragons of political virtue who have no need to think about or change their views on anything. Does anyone (including John Rees) actually think this? If so, we’ve got more of a problem than I thought.

Come on, comrades. You have nothing to lose but your counter-productive slogans.


  1. Steven Johnston said,

    “I would argue that it is time for the Left to start talking in a new language – one that expresses our views about Israel, about the policies and actions of its government and about the rights of Palestinians without alienating any of those who might agree with us. It is not necessary to abandon any non-racist criticisms of Israel, however robust they may be, in order to do so.”

    Oh dear…no one on the left should care about the rights of Palestinians, Israelis, French etc, we care about the rights of the working classes!
    The government of Israel is not one we support, just like we don’t support the government of any nation on this Earth.
    Please, we don’t take sides on this dispute, it all boils down to money, there will never be any peace there whilst we have capitalism.

  2. Jim Denham said,

    John Rees’s complacency on this subject is long-standing and due to his Cliffite training: for proof that he and his ilk are part of the problem, see this (originating from Rees’s ‘Stop The War Coalition’):

  3. kb72 said,

    Good piece by Lansman. The most egregious example of “Zionist” equal to “Jew” was

    ” a Labour councilor and the former lord mayor of Bradford, Khadim Hussain, was suspended from the party after sharing a Facebook post that said “[y]our school education system only tells you about Anne Frank and the six million Zionists that were killed by Hitler.””

    “Zionist” should be ditched except in an historical context eg talking about Herzl, George Eliot’s Zionism etc.

    • Makhno said,

      ““Zionist” should be ditched except in an historical context eg talking about Herzl, George Eliot’s Zionism etc.”

      Agreed. Or possibly when referring to contemporary Jewish migration to Israel, as this is where it’s relevant.

      The actions of the current Israeli state with regard to Palestine have little or nothing to do with the concept of Zionism and everything to do with being an extant state with a right wing, chauvinistic, government. To have to give a special “concept” to this pretty much global phenomenon is what smacks of anti-semitism with the overuse of the word “Zionist”.

      I should imagine its use began through a need for the more idiotic sections of the pro-Palestinian left to have a go-to curse-word for anyone who disagreed with them. The problem with this is that it has become so entrenched and intertwined with use of the word by the far right to the extent that the boundary is blurred.

      At best its use is inaccurate, anachronistic and irrelevant. At worst it’s just anti-semitic.

      (as a sidebar, as someone who welcomes immigration, I find it hard to understand why I should have a conceptual problem with Zionism)

  4. Steven Johnston said,

    I just don’t get with the left is so nationalistic about Palestine. If you look at the area pre-1948, 100% of the land was owned by 0.2% of the population!
    Yet in the Palestinian areas is it safe to be gay, do women have equal rights etc? I doubt it very much, they support a cause, a country/state that is very reactionary and that does puzzle me. Left-wing women would certainly not put up with the lot of women in the occupied territories. They can’t blame the Israelis for that.
    When you ask then what about the working class is Israel, do you hate them? That is when their argument looks shaky, because they can’t say no, as that would make them anti-working class, yet if they say yes where does that leave their pro-Palestine stance?

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      Steven, you know the left think the Jews run the planet and beyond. The left are original thinkers that is why Corbyn and McDonnell are passing their time away collecting public money before moving into political oblivion. Ms Abbott will say a few words on their demise. Maggie killed the real left and all sorts of pretend lefties have emerged who support mad Islamic fascists. The working class are on hold and forgotten because of those leftie idiots.

  5. jschulman said,

    I still find myself more in agreement with this:

    • Jim Denham said,

      At least Lansman is grappling with the problem: Machover doesn’t even recognise that the problem exists: he’s useless and should be discarded by serious Marxists.

      • jschulman said,

        Which problem are we speaking of?

        Machover is one of the more important Marxists to ever write on Israel/Palestine. You’ll find far more writers for New Politics, Against the Current, etc. that take him seriously on that topic than a self-defined Zionist like Sean Matgamna.

      • Jim Denham said,

        Jason: the “problem” is left anti-Semitism. Frankly I don’t care how many writers at New Politics, etc, take him seriously whereas few have heard of the working class intellectual Matgmna: I know who’s counsel is more pertinent to the present issue of anti-Semitism within the left and the labour movement.

  6. jschulman said,

    Maybe that’s a problem in the UK but frankly it’s not much of a problem in the U.S. Only on the very fringes of the Palestinian solidarity movement do I see anything that I would flat-out call anti-Semitic.

    And being a working-class intellectual doesn’t make you innately better than anyone else from any other class background.

    • Jim Denham said,

      It’s certainly a problem here, Jason (eg Galloway and Livingstone); and being published by journals like new Politics and Against the Current is not evidence of any kind of intellectual superiority over someone like Matgamna.

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