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.
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.
According to the Evening Standard Ken Livingstone is planning to rely on Lenni Brenner’s controversial writings on Zionism in his defence within the Labour Party. It says Livingstone met and was convinced by Brenner (described as ‘an obscure Marxist writer’ and ‘bearded American historian’) in 1985 – that is, at the height of Livingstone’s association with the Workers Revolutionary Party.
His defence that his remarks are (supposedly) historically accurate is an attempt to obscure what’s really going on and a red herring . More to the point is why he chose to make those remarks when he did. They hardly constitute a defence of Naz Shah, which is what he was supposed to be talking about. This and the 2005 incident with a Jewish reporter, indicates that he has a reflex of saying something offensive to Jews when he sees an opportunity or is challenged. That is, he has a “thing” about Jews.
The article below, published in the AWL’s Solidarity newspaper in 2005 (shortly after the incident with the reporter) gives a good analysis of Livingstone’s character in general, and his “thing” about Jews in particular. In the light of subsequent events, however, I’d say the author (Sean Matgamna) is being too charitable when he opines that “It is very unlikely that he is prejudiced against individual Jews, simply for being Jewish”:
John Mann MP denounces Livingstone; Livingstone claims history is on his side
As I made clear in the previous post, I have some sympathy for Naz Shah, despite her disgraceful Facebook posts. She seems to be genuinely remorseful and anxious to reach out to, and learn from, Jewish people. I hope she is reinstated as a Labour MP, a chastened and wiser person. No such sympathy can be extended to the scum-bag Livingstone, a virulent and gleeful Jew-baiter, who should have been expelled from the Party for his remarks about Jews, Zionism and Israel in 2012. The fact that he got onto Labour’s NEC as part of the left ticket speaks volumes about the degenerate state of what passes for the “left” in Britian today.
As for his ignorant and offensive statement that “Hitler was supporting Zionism” in 1932 (see transcript, below), see Sean Matgmana’s 2006 article dealing with these sort of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, at the end of this post:
Speaking to BBC Radio London, Livingstone accused the “Israel lobby” of a campaign to smear all critics of Israel as anti-Semites, and claimed Naz Shah was not guilty of any form of anti-Semitism – something he had never encountered in his 35 years in the Labour Party.
“She’s a deep critic of Israel and its policies. Her remarks were over the top but she’s not anti-Semitic. I’ve been in the Labour party for 47 years; I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic. I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the state of Israel and its abuse of Palestinians but I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic…
“It’s completely over the top but it’s not anti-Semitic. Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews. The simple fact in all of this is that Naz made these comments at a time when there was another brutal Israeli attack on the Palestinians.
“And there’s one stark fact that virtually no one in the British media ever reports, in almost all these conflicts the death toll is usually between 60 and 100 Palestinians killed for every Israeli. Now, any other country doing that would be accused of war crimes but it’s like we have a double standard about the policies of the Israeli government.”
“As I’ve said, I’ve never heard anybody say anything anti-Semitic, but there’s been a very well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticises Israeli policy as anti-Semitic. I had to put up with 35 years of this…
“Let’s look at someone who’s Jewish who actually said something very similar to what Naz has just said. Albert Einstein, when the first leader of Likud, the governing party now in Israel, came to America, he warned American politicians: don’t talk to this man because he’s too similar to the fascists we fought in the Second World War.
“Now, if Naz or myself said that today we would be denounced as anti-Semitic, but that was Albert Einstein.”
He hit back at Lord Levy’s criticism of the leadership’s response to the anti-Semitism storms in Labour.
“After Jeremy became leader I was having a chat with Michael and he said he was very worried because one of his friends who was Jewish had come to him and said ‘the election of Jeremy Corbyn is exactly the same as the first step to the rise of Adolf Hitler to power’.
“Frankly, there’s been an attempt to smear Jeremy Corbyn and his associates as anti-Semitic from the moment he became leader. The simple fact is we have the right to criticise what is one of the most brutal regimes going in the way it treats the Palestinians.”
Of course you know the story. A man is in the market place, and he sees Death, and Death looks at him intently, recognising him.
In a panic, the man runs to his horse and gallops away desperately, taking the road to the city of Samara.
As he gallops off, Death turns to his companion. “Strange,” he said, “that was so-and-so. I was surprised to see him here, because I have an appointment with him, tonight, in Samara.”
Death is all-powerful. There is no escape when he reaches your name on the list.
Consider now, and the association is appropriate enough, the fate of poor Adolf Hitler. This heroic son of the German people understood early in life that the Jews were responsible for all the evil in the world.
He knew that the Jews were behind everything! He knew that socialism and communism were Jewish, and that the Jews were also behind finance capital.
He knew that modern art was pornography and corruption, and modern culture decadent — and he knew that the Jews were responsible, as they were for everything decadent and evil in the world. This genius understood that Jewish Bolshevism and “Jewish capital” were all one. Despite the appearance of difference and antagonism between these things, Hitler could see that all of them — communism, socialism, finance capital, cultural and artistic decadence, etc. — were really one thing. They were aspects of one tightly organised and minutely directed world Jewish conspiracy.
And so Hitler fought the Jews. He roused much of Germany against them. In the middle of the 20th century, he re-created the medieval Jewish ghetto in some of the main cities of European civilisation.
When the Jews who ruled in London, Paris, Moscow and Washington declared war on the German Reich, Hitler set out to do the job properly: he organised the killing of six million Jews.
A quarter of these were children: but Hitler refused to be deterred. He knew the extent of Jew-Zion power. He understood that sentimentality would be fatal. And Hitler — before the Jews finally got him — managed to kill two out of every three Jews in Europe.
Now, you wouldn’t think, would you, that Adolf Hitler could have underestimated the power of the Jews?
The left at the time of Hitler used to say he was a criminal maniac. But the left just didn’t understand.
And neither did Adolf Hitler. This great man understood a lot about the Jews. But he didn’t understand everything. The truth is that even Hitler underestimated the extent and power of the World Jewish Conspiracy.
It was right and also inevitable that Naz Shah was suspended from the Labour Party following the revelation of anti-Semitic Facebook posts suggesting that Israel should be “relocated to the US” and likening Zionism to al-Qaida (made, incidentally, before she was an MP).
In her defence it should be noted that (1) she made an immediate and unequivocal apology, with no attempt to claim that this was just “anti-Zionism” and (2) she has been brought up in a political culture in which saying offensive things about Jews, Israel and Zionism is considered acceptable and in which many people don’t even recognise that anti-Semitism is much of a problem: check out Ken Livingstone’s reaction, for instance.
I was going to add that Shah (unlike, say Livingstone) is young and politically unsophisticated: but that sounds a bit patronising, doesn’t it?
But I think Shah’s obviously sincere apologies (no less than four in total), together with her promise to “expand my existing engagement with Jewish community organisations” should count in her favour, and I for one hope that she is sooner or later re-instated to Party membership and the Labour whip in the Commons.
Instead of fixating upon a naïve new MP, the Labour Party and the left as a whole should be asking how it is that it’s considered OK for people like Livingstone to repeatedly insult Jews, and why it’s acceptable to denounce Zionism in a way that no other form of nationalism is demonised. The predominant leftist language of ‘anti-Zionism’ never recognised the anti-Semitic logic of refusing to recognise the national rights of Israelis and never asked questions about the ‘Free Palestine’, ‘From the River to the Sea’ slogans. It’s hardly surprising that someone like Naz Shah found herself going along with this sort of stuff.
I leave aside for now, the unfortunate fact (noted by Mehdi Hasan) that anti-Semitism is also pretty much mainstream in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in Britain.
Instead of scapegoating this young and in many ways quite impressive new MP, Labour and the left as a whole need to be examining the political culture which led to her making those Facebook posts in the first place.
Newly-elected NUS president Malia Bouattia claims to have been misunderstood and/or misrepresented regarding her comments about “Zionism”. She is now rowing back on what she said about Zionists controlling the media, amongst other things.
If she is honestly and genuinely concerned about being misunderstood, she should read and learn from this:
If you’ve spent any time discussing or reading about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I guarantee you’ve heard some variation of this statement:
OMG, Jews think any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic!
In the interests of this post, I’m going to assume that the people who express such sentiments are acting in good faith and really don’t mean to cause pain to or problems for Diaspora Jewry. For those good-faith people, I present some guidelines for staying on the good side of that admittedly murky line, along with the reasoning why the actions I list are problematic. (And bad-faith people, you can no longer plead ignorance if you engage in any of these no-nos. Consider yourselves warned.) In no particular order:
Don’t use the terms “bloodthirsty,” “lust for Palestinian blood,” or similar. Historically, Jews have been massacred in the belief that we use the blood of non-Jews (particularly of children) in our religious rituals. This belief still persists in large portions of the Arab world (largely because white Europeans deliberately spread the belief among Arabs) and even in parts of the Western world. Murderous, inhumane, cruel, vicious–fine. But blood…just don’t go there. Depicting Israel/Israelis/Israeli leaders eating children is also a no-no, for the same reason.
Don’t use crucifixion imagery. Another huge, driving motivation behind anti-Semitism historically has been the belief that the Jews, rather than the Romans, crucified Jesus. As in #1, this belief still persists. There are plenty of other ways to depict suffering that don’t call back to ancient libels.
Don’t demand that Jews publicly repudiate the actions of settlers and extremists. People who make this demand are assuming that Jews are terrible people or undeserving of being heard out unless they “prove” themselves acceptable by non-Jews’ standards. (It’s not okay to demand Palestinians publicly repudiate the actions of Hamas in order to be accepted/trusted, either.)
Don’t say “the Jews” when you mean Israel. I think this should be pretty clear. The people in power in Israel are Jews, but not all Jews are Israelis (let alone Israeli leaders).
Don’t say “Zionists” when you mean Israel. Zionism is no more a dirty word than feminism. It is simply the belief that the Jews should have a country in part of their ancestral homeland where they can take refuge from the anti-Semitism and persecution they face everywhere else. It does not mean a belief that Jews have a right to grab land from others, a belief that Jews are superior to non-Jews, or any other such tripe, any more than feminism means hating men. Unless you believe that Israel should entirely cease to exist, you are yourself Zionist. Furthermore, using “Zionists” in place of “Israelis” is inaccurate and harmful. The word “Zionists” includes Diasporan Jews as well (most of whom support a two-state solution and pretty much none of whom have any influence on Israel’s policies) and is used to justify anti-Semitic attacks outside Israel (i.e., they brought it on themselves by being Zionists). And many of the Jews IN Israel who are most violent against Palestinians are actually anti-Zionist–they believe that the modern state of Israel is an offense against God because it isn’t governed by halakha (traditional Jewish religious law). Be careful with the labels you use.
Don’t call Jews you agree with “the good Jews.” Imposing your values on another group is not okay. Tokenizing is not okay. Appointing yourself the judge of what other groups can or should believe is not okay.
Don’t use your Jewish friends or Jews who agree with you as shields. (AKA, “I can’t be anti-Semitic, I have Jewish friends!” or “Well, Jew X agrees with me, so you’re wrong.”) Again, this behavior is tokenizing and essentially amounts to you as a non-Jew appointing yourself arbiter over what Jews can/should feel or believe. You don’t get to do that.
Don’t claim that Jews are ethnically European. Jews come in many colors–white is only one. Besides, the fact that many of us have some genetic mixing with the peoples who tried to force us to assimilate (be they German, Indian, Ethiopian, Italian…) doesn’t change the fact that all our common ancestral roots go back to Israel.
Don’t claim that Jews “aren’t the TRUE/REAL Jews.” Enough said.
Don’t claim that Jews have no real historical connection to Israel/the Temple Mount. Archaeology and the historical record both establish that this is false.
Don’t accuse Diasporan Jews of dual loyalties or treason. This is another charge that historically has been used to justify persecution and murder of Jews. Having a connection to our ancestral homeland is natural. Having a connection to our co-religionists who live there is natural. It is no more treasonous for a Jew to consider the well-being of Israel when casting a vote than for a Muslim to consider the well-being of Islamic countries when voting. (Tangent: fuck drone strikes. End tangent.)
Don’t claim that the Jews control the media/banks/country that isn’t Israel. Yet another historical anti-Semitic claim is that Jews as a group intend to control the world and try to achieve this aim through shadowy, sinister channels. There are many prominent Jews in the media and in the banking industry, yes, but they aren’t engaged in any kind of organized conspiracy to take over those industries, they simply work in those industries. The phrase “the Jews control” should never be heard in a debate/discussion of Israel.
Don’t depict the Magen David (Star of David) as an equivalent to the Nazi swastika. The Magen David represents all Jews–not just Israelis, not just people who are violent against Palestinians, ALL JEWS. When you do this, you are painting all Jews as violent, genocidal racists. DON’T.
Don’t use the Holocaust/Nazism/Hitler as a rhetorical prop. The Jews who were murdered didn’t set foot in what was then Palestine, let alone take part in Israeli politics or policies. It is wrong and appropriative to try to use their deaths to score political points. Genocide, racism, occupation, murder, extermination–go ahead and use those terms, but leave the Holocaust out of it.
In visual depictions (i.e., political cartoons and such), don’t depict Israel/Israelis as Jewish stereotypes. Don’t show them in Chassidic, black-hat garb. Don’t show them with exaggerated noses or frizzled red hair or payus (earlocks). Don’t show them with horns or depict them as the Devil. Don’t show them cackling over/hoarding money. Don’t show them drinking blood or eating children (see #1). Don’t show them raping non-Jewish women. The Nazis didn’t invent the tropes they used in their propaganda–all of these have been anti-Semitic tropes going back centuries. (The red hair trope, for instance, goes back to early depictions of Judas Iscariot as a redhead, and the horns trope stems from the belief that Jews are the Devil’s children, sent to destroy the world as best we can for our “father.”)
Don’t use the phrase “the chosen people” to deride or as proof of Jewish racism. When Jews say we are the chosen people, we don’t mean that we are biologically superior to others or that God loves us more than other groups. Judaism in fact teaches that everyone is capable of being a righteous, Godly person, that Jews have obligations to be ethical and decent to “the stranger in our midst,” and that non-Jews don’t get sent to some kind of damnation for believing in another faith. When we say we’re the chosen people, we mean that, according to our faith, God gave us extra responsibilities and codes of behavior that other groups aren’t burdened with, in the form of the Torah. That’s all it means.
Don’t claim that anti-Semitism is eradicated or negligible. It isn’t. In fact, according to international watchdog groups, it’s sharply on the rise. (Which sadly isn’t surprising–anti-Semitism historically surges during economic downturns, thanks to the belief that Jews control the banks.) This sort of statement is extremely dismissive and accuses us of lying about our own experiences.
Don’t say that since Palestinians are Semites, Jews/Israelis are anti-Semitic, too. You do not get to redefine the oppressions of others, nor do you get to police how they refer to that oppression. This also often ties into #8. Don’t do it. Anti-Semitism has exclusively meant anti-Jewish bigotry for a good century plus now. Coin your own word for anti-Palestinian oppression, or just call it what it is: racism mixed with Islamophobia.
Don’t blow off Jews telling you that what you’re saying is anti-Semitic with some variant of the statement at the top of this post. Not all anti-Israel speech is anti-Semitic (a lot of it is valid, much-deserved criticism), but some certainly is. Actually give the accusation your consideration and hear the accuser out. If they fail to convince you, that’s fine. But at least hear them out (without talking over them) before you decide that.
I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, but it covers all the hard-and-fast rules I can think of. (I welcome input for improving it.)
But wait! Why should I care about any of this? I’m standing up for people who are suffering!
You should care because nonsense like the above makes Jews sympathetic to the Palestinian plight wary and afraid of joining your cause. You should care because, unfortunately, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has correlated to an uptick in anti-Semitic attacks around the world, attacks on Jews who have no say in Israeli politics, and this kind of behavior merely aggravates that, whether you intend it to or not.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a real minefield in that it’s a clash between oppressed people of color and an ethnoreligious group that is dominant in Israel but marginalized and brutalized elsewhere (often nowadays on the exact grounds that they share ethnoreligious ties with the people of Israel), so it’s damned hard to toe the line of being socially aware and sensitive to both groups. I get that. But I think it is possible to toe that line, and I hope this post helps with that. (And if a Palestinian makes a similar list of problematic arguments they hear targeted at them, I’d be happy to reblog it, too.)
Do go ahead and criticize Israel.
Don’t use anti-Semitic stereotypes or tropes.
Don’t use overly expansive language that covers Jews as a whole and not just Israel.
Don’t use lies to boost your claims.
Do engage Jews in conversation on the issues of Israel and of anti-Semitism, rather than simply shutting them down for disagreeing.
Do try to be sensitive to the fact that, fair or not, many people take verbal or violent revenge for the actions of Israelis on Diasporan Jews, and Diasporan Jews are understandably frightened and upset by this.
Malia Bouattia, the new President of the NUS, stood on a supposedly “left wing” platform consisting largely of identity politics, simplistic, reactionary anti-imperialism and undifferentiated hostility towards Israel and most of its people in the name of supposed “solidarity” with the Palestinian cause.
Normally, student politics are not of much interest to us at Shiraz, but the politics behind Bouattia’s victory are of significance to the left – and a warning of what can happen when the serious class struggle left fails to vigorously oppose identity politics and reactionary anti-imperialism.
Bouattia made headlines last year after opposing a motion to the NUS executive condemning Isis and supporing the Kurds, claiming that to do so would be “islamophobic”, “racist” and “imperialist”.
This brought criticism from Kurdish and left wing students, but when the press picked up the story, she responded by whipping up a storm against the proposer of the motion, Workers’ Liberty supporter Daniel Cooper (see Cooper’s statement on this below).
The left majority on the NUS executive has repeatedly discredited itself by taking ridiculous positions – to take one example, voting down support for Palestinian workers fighting Israeli bosses in Israel’s settlements, on the grounds that this would supposedly legitimise the occupation…
On the issue of free speech on campus, which has been a major issue this year, the majority NUS left has been on the wrong side, promoting the idea that suppression of views they don’t approve of, and the promotion of so-called “safe spaces”, is the way to challenge oppression and backward ideas.
NUS has campaigned against the government’s Prevent programme, but done so by promoting the thoroughly reactionary Islamist campaign Cage. It has helped promote a “left” politics where the idea that Germaine Greer (or indeed, following their rape scandal, the SWP) should be banned from speaking and/or organising on campus, is combined with a sympathetic attitude towards an organisation, Cage, whose central leaders admire the Taliban.
Almost everyone in NUS is in favour of support for the Palestinian struggle. But the unthinking, absolute “anti-Zionism” which all too often shades into a form of political anti-Semitism, does a disservice to the Palestinian cause and can only set back any prospect of a just peace (not that Bouattia & Co want peace – see the video at the top of this post).
The new NUS President is representative of all these problems. Her record is defined not so much by being a leader of struggles as a spokesperson for these kinds of political ideas and positions.
Workers Liberty made many of these points (perhaps slightly more tactfully worded) in a statement, adding:
We remind the movement of this because we believe that Bouattia behaved like a petty and unprincipled factionalist, putting her resentment at her bad luck, her prestige and the chance to attack a political grouping she doesn’t like above the massive issue of the Kurdish struggle. Although the NEC eventually, two months later, passed a motion about Kurdistan, NUS circles spent far more time and energy on the row than on supporting the Kurds. So much for anti-imperialism!
We have little confidence that an NUS led by Malia Bouattia would be more habitable for political minorities and dissenters, more democratic or more serious about political debate and discussion than one led by [the “right wing” incumbent] Megan Dunn.
Workers Liberty, however, decided to give Bouattia critical support against Dunn:
Bouattia and co are more left-wing than Dunn and co on a whole series of class struggle-type issues. In the context of a Tory government attacking all along the line, and important battles against them – junior doctors, other strikes, anti-academies fight, Labour Party struggle – breaking the grip of the old right over NUS is of no small importance. That is why our position is to vote for Malia Bouattia above Megan Dunn – not because we can in any real sense endorse her candidacy, let alone her politics. (Although it is secondary, we also think NUS electing its first black woman, and first Muslim-background, President would be positive.)
Daniel Cooper’s statement on his motion on Iraq, ISIS and the Kurds
Didn’t you go to the press about the NUS Black Students’ Officer, the row about Kurdistan and ISIS?
No. I have had a number of requests from newspapers to comment and I have turned them all down, the ones from the Sun and Daily Mail very rudely. This is because I am a socialist, anti-racist and feminist and have no intention of helping any right-wing campaign. I also have my own experience of being witch-hunted by the political right and the press: in late 2012 and early 2013 there was a major national campaign against me for publicly declining to take part, as ULU Vice President, in a pro-war/pro-imperialist “remembrance” ceremony (see here).
I condemn the press, right and far right attacks on Malia Bouattia, many of which are disgusting examples of racism and sexism.
After I published my report of the September NUS NEC meeting, it was covered by some (left-wing) blogs and then noticed more widely. At that point the story was picked up and repeated, naturally in distorted form, by the right-wing online student paper the Tab, and from there by the mainstream press. It is absurd to suggest I am responsible for this, unless you think people on the left should never publicly criticise each other in case the right makes use of it.
Didn’t you accuse Malia of not condemning ISIS?
No. Read the report. I never said anything of the sort. I objected to Malia opposing the motion on Iraq proposed by me, Shreya Paudel and Clifford Fleming, and responded to her claims that it was Islamophobic and pro-imperialist. Some people have claimed I misrepresented Malia. The only justification I have heard for this is, firstly, that I did not state that Malia condemned ISIS. That is because it was so blindingly obvious: before the right-wing attacks on Malia, the idea that anyone on NUS NEC would not condemn ISIS had not even occurred to me. And, secondly, that I failed to report that Malia offered to support a different motion on Kurdistan at the next NEC if it fitted with her politics. Whether or not I should have reported this or not, it is hardly decisive! Does anyone seriously believe that if I had stated either of these things it would have prevented right wingers distorting and making use of what I wrote?
Why didn’t you talk to Malia about the motion before the meeting?
Firstly, I am under no obligation to consult Malia, who has different politics from me, about what motions I want to submit to the NEC.
Secondly, I did. I specifically sent Malia the motion after it was submitted (she will also have received it as normal in her NEC papers) and asked for her views. She responded saying that she would have liked to be consulted before the motion was submitted, but when I replied and asked for her views on the actual contents of the motion, she did not reply.
Malia and her political allies could have moved amendments in advance, through the normal process, or moved parts to delete particular lines or elements on the day. They didn’t.
I would add that we had submitted a very similar motion to the previous NEC in July (it fell off the agenda for lack of time), so the general contents were available to consider and discuss for even longer than normal, and Malia had ample opportunity to move her own motion about Kurdistan in September. Again, failing that, she could have amended mine.
Isn’t “resolves 5” of the motion (“Encourage students to boycott anyone found to be funding the IS or supplying them with goods,training, travel or soldiers”) Islamophobic? Doesn’t it effectively propose that MI5 spies on Muslim students?
Resolves 5 was a point that Roza Salih, NUS Scotland International Students’ Officer, wanted in the motion. In general (not always), I am opposed to be boycotts as I believe they are ineffective and strip agency of people on the ground to bring change. I also think that there are indeed issues about seeking to establish who ISIS supporters are. I considered removing this line after Roza proposed it, but then didn’t. I should have. If anyone had emailed me stating their opposition to it (or replied to my emails asking for opinions!) I would almost certainly have removed it.
But it’s worth noting that in Bouttia’s speech in the NEC meeting she did not state why she believed the motion to be Islamophobic.
It’s only after the meeting that I have been informed that this particular point was contentious. I am still confused about why, then, it was not amended or deleted from the motion in the meeting itself, rather than opposing the whole motion outright.
I understand that, in a society such as ours, in which anti-Muslim feeling is wide-spread, this point in the motion might be misconstrued. However, it was clearly never intended in this way, by Roza or by me.
I am also curious as to how most of those that opposed the motion, especially on the left, square this with their support for boycotts of Israel.
Why are you attacking the NUS Black Students’ Officer?
I’m not attacking her as a person, much less because she is BSO. I’m expressing a political criticism of a position she took and arguments she made, because I disagree with them.
Why did you single out Malia in your report?
Because she was the person – the only person – who spoke against the motion. There was one speech for and one against – Shreya Paudel and Malia. I moved for another round of speeches, but Toni Pearce, as chair, over-ruled me. That is why that section of my NEC report focuses on Malia’s arguments (plus the tweet from Aaron Kiely celebrating the motion being defeated).
Why did you call Malia a Stalinist?
Again, read the report! I said the political approach she argued in opposing my motion – putting flat opposition to everything US imperialism does above questions of democracy, liberation and working-class struggle, in this case the democratic liberation struggle of the Kurds, as well as Iraqi socialists, feminists and labour activists – was informed by the legacy of Stalinism. I stand by that. That is the real political disagreement here, and one that few if any of my critics seem willing to engage with.
Why have you done this now?
Actually I submitted a similar motion about Iraq in July, for the obvious reason that I was concerned about what was happening in Iraq and Syria. (I have worked and still work closely with Iraqi Kurdish socialists in London.)
Please note: between the two NEC meetings, an almost identical motion to the one defeated at the NEC was passed, I believe unanimously, at NUS’s Scottish Executive Committee, where it was proposed by Roza. I’m not sure, but I think some people voted one way at the Scottish EC and another at the NEC. That’s ok if they genuinely changed their minds because of the arguments, but not ok if they were doing what they thought would make them popular (at both meetings!)
I resubmitted a motion in September because, far from going away, the issue had got bigger and more urgent. That is surely the point of being on NUS NEC: to raise important issues and try to agitate and mobilise people about them.
Support the Kurdish struggle!
That is the absurdity of all this: hardly anyone in NUS, in the leadership or on the left, has done anything to support the Kurdish struggle and other democratic, feminist and working-class struggles against the odds in the Middle East. While hundreds if not thousands of Kurdish students in the UK have taken action to protest against genocide and extreme oppression, their national union is failing them. And in this debate, the voices of Kurdish left activists have been largely ignored.
Right-wing attacks on student activists and officers, particularly attacks on black activists motivated by racism, must be opposed, condemned and fought. At the same time, the fact is that Malia and others on the NEC did the wrong thing when they voted down the Iraq motion at the NEC.
I’d urge everyone to read this interview with Roza Salih about the Kurdish struggle, and get active to support it.
If anyone would like me to respond to a different argument or objection, please feel free to drop me an email: email@example.com
Last Friday’s Guardian carried a piece by Education editor Richard Adams headlined “Ofsted Inspectors upgrade Birmingham school in ‘Trojan horse’ scandal to good”.
The piece begins “The school at the centre of the Trojan horse scandal has been given a clean bill of health by Ofsted inspectors, two years after allegations of an Islamist plot to infiltrate education made national headlines.”
The inattentive reader could be forgiven for thinking that it has now been shown that there was no Islamist plot and the allegations against senior teachers and governors at the school have been disproven. It is only when you read on, that it becomes apparent that Adams is writing about the school as it now is, under a new leadership team, the previous Islamist leadership having been removed. Even so, Adams feels it necessary to throw in one of his typical weaselling half-truths: “allegations of a city-wide plot were never substantiated and are thought to be a hoax.”
It’s time the facts of the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair that have been established beyond reasonable doubt (sources can be checked on Wikepedia, from which I’ve drawn extensively) were set out clearly, if only to counter the torrent of downright lies, half-truths and obfuscation that continues to emanate from Mr Adams, the SWP and elements within the NUT.
The ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ letter was leaked to the press in early March 2014. It is an anonymous document, purporting to be from an Islamist in Birmingham, advising a fellow Islamist in Bradford, on how to take over schools and impose an Islamist agenda. Early on, most informed commentators expressed the opinion that the letter was probably a fake, created by someone who wished to draw attention to alleged Islamist influence in Birmingham schools.
The author of the letter claimed responsibility for installing new headteachers at four schools in Birmingham, and identified 12 others in the city which would be easy targets due to large Muslim attendance and poor inspection reports. It suggests encouraging parents to complain about a school’s leadership with accusations of sex education, forced Christian prayer and mixed physical education, with the aim of obtaining a new, Islamist, leadership. It was also suggested that once successfully taken over, schools should apply for Academy status so as to have a curriculum independent of the Local Education Authority. The author described the plan as “totally invisible to the naked eye and [allowing] us to operate under the radar”.
Despite widespread doubts about the provenance of the letter, Birmingham’s education commissioner Sir Mike Tomlinson stated his belief that what the letter described was happening “without a shadow of doubt”. Read the rest of this entry »
Jeremy Corbyn’s brother recently made headlines by tweeting that “#Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for #Palestine”. That the tweet took place in the context of a heated discussion about how the Labour Party is coping with increasing allegations of anti-Semitism is not the point.
The point is that the word “Zionist” has become toxic on the British Left, and I have a problem with this. On one of the Sunday morning radio shows, Jonathan Freedland was asked about this. He quoted the Israeli author Amos Oz who said that “Zionist” was like a family name. There always needs to be a first name, such as “Religious Zionist” or “Socialist Zionist”. But Freedland himself, when asked, said he’d rather not use the label “Zionist” to describe his own views as it would just cause confusion. There are really two approaches to dealing with political labels that become toxic.
One is to accept reality and abandon them. The other is to be defiant and embrace them. And there are consequences in the real world to choosing one or another of those options. For example, a generation ago, right-wing politicians in America would label every attempt at social reform, no matter how modest, as “socialism”. (They still do, but with less success.) As the Cold War raged, the word “socialist” had become toxic. We on the American Left would argue that by openly calling ourselves “socialists” we were giving breathing space to liberals, and changing the political discourse in the country. Little did we realize that within a few years, an openly socialist politician would be a serious contender for the Presidency.
Still, there are terms we’ve been forced to abandon. Most leftists I know don’t call themselves “communists”, for example. While we can all claim to embrace the ideas expounded by Marx in the Communist Manifesto, most of us accept that it would cause more confusion than it’s worth to try to claim the word for ourselves. This is helped by the fact that up until 1918, most socialists called themselves “social democrats”, and that the Bolsheviks took on the rarely-used “communist” label to distinguish the new parties they were creating. It was a label we could discard because we had a perfectly good alternative. But this is not the case with the word Zionist.
As Freedland and most others would agree, a Zionist is a person who supports the Jewish people’s right to a national homeland. One could be a Zionist and oppose the current right-wing government in Israel. One could be a Zionist and support an independent Palestinian state, side by the side with Israel. One could oppose the occupation and still be a Zionist. In fact, one could even argue that if you really believe the Jewish people need a state of their own, and want it to survive, you must also support reaching an agreement with the Palestinians to share the land which both peoples claim. There is no other future for the Jewish state that I can imagine.
As a Zionist, I therefore support genuine peace and reconciliation between the two peoples — and a two-state solution to bring an end to the conflict. I am happy to embrace the label “socialist Zionist” and the tradition that represents — the kibbutz movement which for decades was a model democratic socialist society, the struggle by left Zionists including a party I was proud to be a member of (Mapam) against racism and for peace, against religious coercion and for social justice for Jews and Arabs. I could, I guess, go along with Freedland and just call myself “a socialist who supports the right of the Jewish people to their own country” — but why not just embrace the label of “Zionist” instead?
This article appears in the latest issue of Solidarity.
My friend and comrade David Osland recently posted the following article at the left-Labour blog Left Futures; whether you agree or disagree isn’t really the point at the moment: the point is the comment that Left Futures editor Jon Lansman (another good comrade) felt it necessary to post below Osland’s piece:
Labour and antisemitism: let’s keep the problem in perspective
Anybody else remember the New Statesman’s ‘Kosher conspiracy’ cover from 2002? Given that this influential British political weekly has recently waxed sanctimonious over a supposed surge in antisemitism in the Corbyn-led Labour Party, it’s worth recollecting that its own track record on this score isn’t completely spotless.
The illustration – a Star of David piercing a Union Jack – promoted an article suggesting that Zionists hold undue influence over media coverage of the Middle East. And no, adding a question mark didn’t get NS off the hook. The then-editor apologised for his decision to publish it.
Anyone who has been in politics for any length of time will be well aware of multiple occasions on which the left has, with various degrees of justification, faced condemnation for alleged antipathy to Jews.
Those who know their labour history may recollect the controversy over the Passfield white paper restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1930, which cost Labour much support among British Jews.
Or let us consider the analysis of the Boer War emanating from the Independent Labour Party and the TUC, which blamed the conflict – and imperialism in general – on the wicked ways of Jewish capitalists.
In short, there never was a pre-Corbyn ‘golden age’ in which Labour did not stand accused of at least sporadic antisemitism. If there is any evidence whatsoever that the situation is qualitatively different now than it was when Labour was led by Wilson, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown or Miliband, then I haven’t seen it produced.
Fast forward to the present day, and Labour is of course entirely right to throw the book at anyone making social media wisecracks about big-nosed Jews supporting Tottenham Hotspur, circulating paranoid ramblings about the evil machinations of a transnational Jewish bourgeoisie, or proven to have joined rousing renditions of songs such as Rockets Over Tel Aviv.
Let us even accept that there may well be thousands of Labour Party members have at some point indulged in asinine antisemitic banter or misguided rhetoric. After all, no mass organisation with 400,000 members can possibly be immune from some of the ugly prejudices that still scar British society.
One survey, published just over a year ago, found that almost half the population clings to one or more anti-Jewish stereotype. That such attitudes find resonance among a small number of Labour supporters is saddening, but as unsurprising as it is ineradicable.
As things stand, two activists including a former parliamentary candidate have been suspended after publishing antisemitic Tweets. A third activist who published antisemitic material on a website has also been expelled, albeit on other grounds.
At least two of three did not initially join under Corbyn. And in any case, it is hardly the leader of the opposition’s job to individually vet individual membership applications.
In addition, an unspecified number of students, perhaps a few dozen, are under investigation for allegedly making antisemitic statements at a Oxford University Labour Club. Serious complaints deserve serious consideration; I’m with those who want to see the results inquiry published in their entirety.
But as Jon Lansman has remarked in The Jewish Chronicle, the two young men at the centre of the furore are well known in Labour left circles, and the suggestion of racism on their part is difficult to credit.
Yet even if the OULC findings are as damning as the anti-Corbynistas clearly hope they will be, the full extent of documented antisemitism will stretch to fewer than one Labour Party member in 10,000.
It is also worth making a distinction between antisemitism in the strong sense, a theoretical artifice built around the idea of a shadow Jewish world government, and the weaker sense of simply making anti-Jewish remarks.
Intemperate and/or plain offensive comments by students or local members unaware of the complexities of the Israel/Palestine debate are not in the same league as essentially duplicating the arguments advanced in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
If some Labour Party members do cross red lines, that is more likely to flow from lack of understanding of the issues, motivated more by anger at the injustices faced daily by Palestinians and the frequently brutal actions of the Israeli government than adherence to the nutty ideas contained in that notorious Czarist forgery.
In particular, there needs to be an educational effort to end the conflation of what the state of Israel does and the moral responsibilities of the Jewish community in Britain.
But anybody who prioritises serious debate over gratuitous Corbyn-bashing would do well to explain these things patiently, rather than seeing antisemitism where actually there is ignorance.
Vicki Kirby (pictured above), Labour’s candidate for Woking in 2014, was suspended from the Labour Party following a string of antisemitic tweets. Since then it seems that she was allowed to rejoin the Party and appointed as Woking CLP’s vice chair. This news comes at a time when Labour faces particular scrutiny over the way it deals with antisemitism following the (brief) readmittance of the crank Gerry Downing and allegations over antisemitism in Oxford University’s Labour Club. Wes Streeting, Labour MP for Ilford North, responded to Kirby’s reinstatement on LBC:
I simply can’t understand how or why someone who has expressed these sorts of views has been allowed to remain a member of the Labour Party at all … frankly if this was any other form of racism she would have been kicked out … I’ve had messages from Party members who’ve cut up their membership cards, I’ve had constituents in Ilford North write to me asking what on earth is going on with the Labour Party, is there still a place for Jews in the Labour Party.
Yesterday evening, the Jewish Labour Movement wrote to the WokingConstituency Labour Party informing them of our intention to affiliate to the CLP under the provisions within the Labour Party Rule Book, with the specific intention of bringing forward a vote of no confidence in the CLP Vice-Chair at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Jewish Labour Movement is a Socialist Society, and has been affiliated to the Labour Party since 1920. One of our core values is to fight antisemitism, racism and all forms of discrimination and racial hatred. We would much prefer not to have to have that fight within our own Party.
We welcome the decision by the Party to suspend Vicki Kirby pending a full investigation, and will continue to pursue our affiliation to the Woking CLP. We hope that through this process, and through an honest and open debate within the Woking CLP, party members can decide whether or not our Party should be a space for these kinds of views.
To Party members who have expressed their support for Jewish Labour activists over the past 48 hours, we say thank you. To those Jewish Labour activists considering leaving the Party, we say stay.
We are not giving up on the Party of Barnett, Silkin, Mikado, Freeson, Shinwell, Lever Edelman and other towering figures of the Jewish left. We ask that you join with us in ensuring that the Labour Party does not give up on us.