Moishe Postone, a Marxist writer based at the University of Chicago and author of Time, Labour, and Social Domination, and Critique du fétiche-capital: Le capitalisme, l’antisémitisme et la gauche, was in London in May, and spoke to Martin Thomas from Solidarity about anti-semitism on the left and reactionary anti-capitalism.
I don’t feel as if I know the ins and outs of the situation in the Labour Party, so part of what I say may not be completely accurate. First of all, there is an extremely unfortunate polarisation with regard to the relationship of anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. It is a polarisation which makes political discourse very difficult. On the one hand, you have the Israeli Right, as, let’s say, exemplified by Netanyahu, who treat any criticism of Israel as being anti-Semitic. As far as I’m concerned, this is completely illegitimate.
Not all forms of anti-Zionism are anti-Semitic. There are too many people on the left, and I think it’s increasing, who argue that no form of anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic: that anti-Zionism is anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism is something else. In the world of the metropolitan left, it is really quite remarkable that the left has almost nothing to say about Syria, had nothing to say about Saddam, has nothing to say about the fact that we are witnessing a complete crisis of the Arabic-speaking world. That crisis cannot simply be blamed on imperialism. There needs to be at least an attempt at serious analysis of why every single post-colonial Arab country is characterised by the secret police, and a secret police that would do the Stasi proud. Some of them were trained by the Stasi and the KGB, in fact.
The left seems to be unable to say anything about these issues. In a sense, and this is extremely hypothetical on my part, I think the more helpless the left feels conceptually on dealing with the world, the more it zeroes in on Israel-Palestine, because that seems to be clear: the last anti-colonial struggle.
There are some leftists who will not be happy for me to say this, but retrospectively one could say that the rise of the New Left globally implied a tacit recognition that the proletariat was not the revolutionary subject. I think that there was a move away from working-class politics. The new leftists had not only separated themselves from Communist Parties and social-democratic parties; even though they sympathised with the plight of workers, I think they were tacitly casting about for a new revolutionary subject. The colonised peoples fighting for freedom became the new revolutionary subject. I think that along with that there was a curious fusion, in part because of Vietnam, of the anti-colonial struggle and anti-Americanism.
One of the differences between the massive demonstrations against the American war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the massive demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq, is that for many — not all, but many — of those who fought against the Americans, in the 1960s, there was the idea of supporting a progressive revolution. The Americans, as the world’s imperial, but also conservative force, were hindering a positive historical development. So the demonstrations weren’t only against the Americans. They were also for the Vietnamese revolution — however one retrospectively evaluates that thinking as justified or not, and whether or not one thinks there should have been further criticism of the Vietnamese Communist Party. None of that existed in the massive demonstrations against the American invasion in Iraq. There were very few people who could on any level have regarded the Ba’ath regime under Saddam Hussein as representing anything progressive, and nobody talked that way. Anti-Americanism became coded as progressive. In a funny way, it is a remnant of the Cold War, spread among people who were actually not Cold Warriors.
Israel has become fused with America in the minds of many of these anti-imperialist leftists. An enormous amount of power is attributed to Israel which it actually doesn’t have. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who are colleagues of mine at the University of Chicago, claim that the American invasion of Iraq was against American interests, but pushed by the Israelis. Of course, they never state what Israeli interests were. Really, as both those writers had connections to Washington, their book was a brief that the State Department should listen to them more than to the neo-cons that they did listen to. Israel is, in a sense, the manipulator, and Washington is sometimes just a stupid dolt which is manipulated by these incredibly clever Jews. And at that point the picture of Zionism is anti-semitic. Zionism There were leftwing critiques of Zionism from the very beginning, frequently by communist Jews. Zionism was criticised by the communists as a form of bourgeois nationalism.
That’s something completely different from the criticisms today. Trotsky, early in his life — I think he changed his views later on — referred to the Bundists as “sea-sick Zionists”. That critique had nothing to do with Palestine or the Palestinian people. It simply has to do with nationalism. The change may have happened in the 1930s, but one marker of it was the trial in Czechoslovakia in 1952, where the Stalinists tried the entire Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party. It was 14 people. Eleven were Jewish. These were old Communists. Many had fought in Spain. They were accused of being Zionists. If you read what “Zionists” meant, it was exactly what the fascists called “Jews” — a shadowy conspiracy, inimical to the health of the Volk, and working to undermine the government which was for the people. The Stalinists couldn’t use the word “Jewish” — this was only seven years after the war — so they used the word “Zionist”. That was one of the origins of a deeply anti-Semitic form of anti-Zionism. It exploded after 1967. The USSR was furious that Israel had defeated its two major client states, and it began to suport the Palestinian movement. The anti-Semitic cartoons and statements coming out of the Soviet Union were pretty appalling. That’s where you got the idea that Zionism is Nazism — generated by the Soviet Union. And unfortunately, that Arab nationalists picked up on it is not surprising.
Carlos Latuff’s cartoon “Holocaust Remembrance Day”
The Western left started to pick up on that too. I think that was deeply unfortunate. I think anti-semitism is almost a litmus test for whether a movement is progressive or not. There are a lot of anti-capitalist movements that are not progressive. And I think that anti-Semitism is a marker. I think there is a great deal to criticise in Israeli policies, the Israeli occupation, certainly the present Israeli government. But political discussion cannot take place if the choice is between Netanyahu on the one hand, and a certain kind of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism on the other. Anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism is a world view. It is not prejudice against individual Jews. It can go with being perfectly civil, although I’ve been reading about the way some Jewish students are pilloried in terms of “you look Zionist”. Who could “look Zionist”? It means, “you look Jewish”.
I was struck by the UN Arab Human Development report of 2002, which was written by Arab scholars. It talked about the misère of the Arab-speaking world and its massive decline since the late 1970s. The decline was nearly as precipitous as that of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time other areas of what used to be called “the Third World”, have risen. It seems to me that it is not only the decline of the Arab-speaking world, but the rise of other parts, which makes an anti-Semitic form of anti-Zionism more plausible. The power of the Jews! It is the Jews who are pulling everything down. This is only a little variant on the idea that the problem is all imperialism. Well, imperialism is very important, was important, was distorting. But after all the British were in India much longer than anyone was in Syria. Or in Iraq. But I know more serious analyses of India from the left than I do of the Ba’ath. I find that politically unfortunate, and when it becomes anti-Semitic, I find it a marker of a move towards a reactionary populism. Campuses On many campuses, the hostility has spread to all Jews. It has made many young Jews very confused and they identify more with Israel than they did.
It is creating a reaction. Many of them are naïve politically, and because Israel’s very existence is being called into question, they also frequently are uncritical in terms of what is going on in Israel-Palestine. When Israel under comes such attack – because it doesn’t feel like a political attack but an existential attack – there is very little discussion. There are campaigns such as BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel], which is basically dishonest. [Norman] Finkelstein picked up on this quite a while ago. Some people are confused, and BDS tries to promote the confusion. People think it is against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza period, but it is not. Because if it were, then it would not be a boycott of all Israeli academics, most of whom are very opposed to the settlements and Netanyahu. It is significant I think, that at the height of the Vietnam War, or the Iraq invasion, or other American adventures, there never was a call for a boycott of all American academics, ever.
The West takes the model of South Africa; many Palestinian militants think the model is Algeria; and there is no analogy. I don’t mean a moral analogy, I the mean analogy falls down because of demographic and political facts. There was in South Africa, only a small minority of white South Africans. There are as many Israeli Jews as there are Palestinians. So the Algerian or South African tactics are not going to work. But you have an extremely unfortunate marriage, as it were, between the Israeli right, which is becoming further and further right, and what I regard as the Palestinian right.
For me, the signal event was when [Israeli prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated [in 1995, by an Israeli right-winger]. The right-wing campaign against Rabin was appalling and vicious, and Netanyahu was at the head of that. After Rabin was assassinated, it was assumed that Labour would be swept into power on a sympathy vote. Instead a Palestinian group began a campaign of suicide bombs. That elected the first Netanyahu government [in 1996]. The two work hand in glove. Each side thinks that ultimately, in the long run, it is going to prevail. But in the meantime, politically, they are united. It is a united rightwing front.
Jon Lansman, writing at Left Futures, shows how Labour’s commitment in 1944 to a Jewish national state in Palestine wasn’t due to Zionist agitation or imperialist self interest but the effects of the holocaust; an important and well-researched piece:
Who is responsible for the Middle East conflict? And how do we help resolve it? We can do worse than to begin by looking at Labour’s own history.
On this day [ie 30 May] in 1944, Labour’s annual conference was taking place in London. A week before D-Day and two weeks before V1s started hitting London, the Allies were making progress through Italy and were bombing targets in France in preparation for the invasion. And amidst all that, Labour delegates were focussed on “The International Post-War Settlement“, on how to build a post-war world.
They knew about the Holocaust though they had not yet really understood its magnitude. And in building a new world, they were prepared to contemplate some drastic measures. I recently purchased a copy of the NEC statement which was agreed at the conference. It included, in a section headed “Palestine”, the words I found profoundly shocking when I first read them:
There is surely neither hope nor meaning in a “Jewish National Home”, unless, we are prepared to let Jews, if they wish, enter this tiny land [Palestine] in such numbers as to become a majority. There was a strong case for this before the War. There is an irresistible case now, after the unspeakable atrocities of the cold and calculated German Nazi plan to kill all Jews in Europe. Here, too, in Palestine surely is a case, on human grounds and to promote a stable settlement, for transfer of population. Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in. Let them be compensated handsomely for their land and let their settlement elsewhere be carefully organised and generously financed. The Arabs have many wide territories of their own; they must not claim to exclude the Jews from this small area of Palestine, , less than the size of Wales. Indeed we should re-examine the possibility of extending the present Palestinian boundaries, by agreement with Egypt, Syria or Transjordan.”
And so, without opposition, Labour’s conference committed itself to not only ethnic cleansing, but to a Greater Israel extending even beyond the boundaries that it currently occupies in 2016. It did so not because it was persuaded by the “Zionist lobby”, not in order to serve British imperial interests (which had been the only objective of the Balfour declaration in 1917), but because of the Holocaust, and the refugee problem that they expected.
This nevertheless shocking commitment to ethnic cleansing should be seen in the context of an earlier section of the report in a section headed “Frontiers“:
All Germans left outside the the post-War German frontiers, unless they are willing to become loyal subjects of the state in which they find themselves, claiming no special privileges, should go back to Germany. Indeed they will be well advised to do so in their own interests, for, in the early post-War years at any rate, there will be a depth of hatred against Germans in the occupied countries, which it is impossible for us or for Americans to realise.
Germans in many of those areas may have to face the choice between migration and massacre.
The organised transfer of population, in the immediate post-War period, may, indeed, be one of the foundations of better international relations in a later phase. Nor would this be a new departure. Between the Wars the transfer of population between Greece and Turkey was an undoubted success.
In any case, there will be a vast problem of repatriation and resettlement in Europe, when tens of millions of refugees, slave labourers and prisoners of war return to freedom and their own homes. Compared with this, the transfer even of substantial national minorites, German and other, to the right side of the post-War frontiers will be a small affair. “
Shocking as it may be to those of us who observe from a safe distance the fall-out from the ethnic cleansing that did in fact take place in 1947 in Palestine and the conflict that followed, it was seen as a relatively “small affair” in the context of the end of World War II. Ethnic cleansing had allegedly been an “undoubted success” in Greece and Turkey in spite of the deaths from epidemics in transit and the resulting poverty and hardship on arrival.
Churchill who had promised “that we British will never seek to take vengeance by wholesale mass reprisals against the general body of the German people” – with the backing of Labour’s leaders and conference – agreed with Allied leaders to back the ethnic cleansing of 12-14million Germans across central and eastern Europe after the war.
“The largest forced migration in history” was “accomplished largely by state-sponsored violence and terror” including being herded into camps including former Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz or Theresienstadt, victims being subjected to beatings, rapes of female inmates, gruelling forced labour and starvation diets.
Estimates of those who died in transit vary upwards from 500,000 though the German government clings to earlier estimates of 2million. This included those who died of disease or malnutrition which included a high proportion of children and the elderly. What’s more, other minorities were expelled on the back of this forced migration: Hungarians from Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, Romanians by the USSR. And that is on top of the forced repatriation of Soviet POWs.
Labour was right to expect massacres from populations that had suffered German brutality under occupation. And the League of Nations and post-World War I treaties had utterly failed to protect ethnic minorities subjected to the racism of right-wing nationalist governments right across central Europe in the new ethno-centered nation states Western leaders had created in the dismemberment of the old empires. On the altar of “self-determination”, Allied leaders had handed multicultural cities and towns across Europe to be ruled by strident ethnic nationalists.
By 1944, they didn’t want to make the same mistake again. Not in Europe, and not with the Jews. And so it was they that created Israel. Of the Allied leaders, it is true that both Bevin and Attlee were persuaded by the complexities of managing inter-communal conflict in the Mandate of British Palestine (rather than by Ernie Bevin’s antisemitic prejudices though he had them) to abstain on Israel’s creation. In addition to the pressure of US diplomats on countries like Haiti, Philipines and Liberia, it was the three votes controlled by Stalin (cast on behalf of the USSR, Ukraine and Belarus) which ensured that the two-thirds majority for resolution 181 was achieved.
And so what of the role of Zionism? For all the diplomacy and organisation of the World Zionist Organisation for half a century, it was not that which led to the creation of Israel. It was the Holocaust, the plight of the survivors seeking safe refuge, and the guilt of the American, British and other Allied leaders who did not wish to take them in (though many would have been satisfied with that).
So they did for the Jews what they were not prepared to do for the Kurds, nor for the Roma. And the Jews, a majority of whom in almost all countries had not supported Zionism prior to the War, rejoiced at the prospect of a safe place to live. And who with the knowledge of their circumstances cannot understand that?
And the Palestinians understandably saw and still see the loss of their land as a catastrophe. The Nakba. And who that reflects on their circumstances and what they have experienced since cannot understand that?
If there is to be peace, justice, democracy and equality in Israel/Palestine, both of those realities need to be acknowledged. Only truth can bring reconciliation.
I have just received a leaflet from the Birmingham branch of Socialist Resistance, advertising a meeting entitled ‘Fight antisemitism – Fight Zionism’. The speaker is Roland Rance, and one side of the leaflet carries a statement supposedly (*) from him:
Roland Rance, a socialist Jew and anti-Zionist writes:
The current controversy over alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party comes from a convergence of several different forces: apologists for Israeli, always keen to denounce supporters of Palestinian rights; the Labour right, looking for any stick with which to beat Corbyn and the left; and the Tories and their press supporters, desperate to prevent a Corbynled Labour victory. It is no coincidence that this issue burst into public during an election campaign marked by outright racism and Islamophobia.
These attacks are rooted in a continuing campaign to change the meaning of the term anti-Semitism, to include anti-Zionism, or even opposition to Israeli policies and practices. We must be clear on this: anti-Semitism, like all forms of racism, has no place on the left, or in society as a whole. Zionism is itself a racist ideology, and anti-Zionism is a legitimate political position. We should also bear in mind that an increasing number of Jews oppose Zionism and very many Zionists (probably the majority) are actually not Jewish, but fundamentalist Christians.
The targets of the current attacks (some of whom are themselves Jews) are not antisemites. Some of them may have been guilty of clumsy phrasing or thoughtless responses; but they are not anti-Jewish racists. Most of the attacks are based on comments on social media, some dating back years; it is evident that there has been a systematic trawl through people’s previous activities.
We must resist this. We call for free speech on Israel, and an end to the witch-hunt. We oppose racism, whether directed at Jews, at Muslims, or at any other community. And we stand firmly alongside the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation and justice.
The leaflet also carries this cartoon by the, err, “controversial” cartoonist Carlos Latuff:
So there we have it: according to Socialist Resistance, antisemitism “has no place on the left” and, indeed, as proof of that statement, it simply does not exist on the left! All allegations of antisemitism come from “apologists for Israeli … the Labour right … and the Tories”.
None of the individuals recently accused of antisemitism are guilty, and anti-Zionism cannot ever be antisemitic. As a result of these false allegations, free speech itself is now at stake!
In other words, “nothing to see here, comrades, move on!”
* in fairness to Roland Rance, I note that the wording of the leaflet seems to be loosely based upon a much longer and more nuanced article by him on the Socialist Resistance website, that does very reluctantly admit that in one or two isolated and extreme cases antisemites have “infiltrated” the left and the pro-Palestinian movement. It’s a politically weak and evasive article, but nowhere near as bad as the appalling drivel put out under his name, by his comrades in Birmingham.
This should be of immense concern to all of us who care about Israel and hope for an eventual just peace in the Region: Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon explains his resignation at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv
Israel’s defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a former IDF chief of staff and veteran of the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, has resigned with these words:
“I fought with all my might against attempts to harm the Supreme Court and Israel’s justices, trends whose outcomes greatly harm the rule of law and could be disastrous for our country.”
The latest confrontation between Netanyahu and Ya’alon, which took place at the beginning of the week, was over the public backing Ya’alon gave senior IDF officials to express their opinions. His remarks followed Netanyahu’s criticism of comments made by IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The rift between Ya’alon and significant parts of the Likud central committee and party voters widened over the past year over the obstacles the defense minister placed in front of efforts regarding construction in the settlements.
“The rupture between Netanyahu and Ya’alon is real and serious, not political spin. Netanyahu owes a lot to right-wing voters who marked Ya’alon as a red flag,” a Likud source said.
“In general, Israeli society is a healthy society, and the majority of it is sane and aims for a Jewish, democratic and liberal country,” Ya’alon said. “But to my great sorrow, extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the Likud Party and are shaking the foundations and threatening to hurt its residents.”
“Sadly, senior politicians in the country have chosen the way of incitement and segregation of parts of Israeli society instead of unifying it and bringing it together. It is unbearable to me that we will be divided among us out of cynicism and lust for control, and I expressed my opinion on the matter more than once out of honest concern for the future of society in Israel and the future of the next generations.”
Netanyahu had been negotiating to bring the Labor party into his government before veering sharply to the Right and reaching an agreement to bring in Avigdor Lieberman’s fascistic party– with Lieberman as the new defense minister.
Syrians gather on the rubble of a building in the aftermath of a Russian airstrike in Dair al-Asafeer village, rural Damascus. Inset: Putin (Photo: AP)
Jonathan Steel, the former Moscow correspondent of the Guardian, is one of a group of foreign correspondents (Robert Fisk and Patrick Coburn being two other notables) who use their professional reputations to boost Putin, Assad the Iranian regime and Hezbullah. Naturally, they are much beloved of the “anti-imperialist” liberal-left, conspiracy theorists everywhere and the so-called Stop The War Coalition.
Steele once accused Muslims who opposed Islamist rule in Tunisia of ‘Islamophobia’. He’s also written a spirited defense of the ‘tragically misunderstood’ Robert Mugabe and has even urged the West to make nice towards the regime in North Korea. Not surprisingly considering the ideological package he shows fealty towards, he’s also warned darkly of the Zionist influence on the U.S. media.
Like Fisk, Coburn, Tariq Ali and Seymour Hersh, Steele is a contributor to the London Review of Books, which seems to favour their brand of pro-Putin apologia in its political coverage. An article by Steel in the 21 April 2016 issue of the LRB, though superficially objective and even scholarly, in fact gave pretty much uncritical support to the official Russian version of events in Syria.
However, a letter in the present issue of the LRB from former International Marxist Group member Brian Slocock puts Steele in his place with regards to the real human cost and the true political objective of Putin’s bombing campaign; a letter from one Omar Naqib on Steele’s claim that the US and French military campaigns in Syria had ‘no basis in international law’ is also worth reading:
Jonathan Steele seems intent on downplaying the extent of civilian casualties resulting from Russia’s intensive bombing of Syria (LRB, 21 April). He cites an article published in the German news magazine Focus on 5 March, which reported that a leaked Nato document characterised the Russian bombing as ‘precise and efficient’. ‘Precise and efficient’ at doing what? Steele doesn’t tell us, but the Focus article does: it tells us that the Nato document calculates that only 20 per cent of Russian sorties were directed at Islamic State targets, then goes on to quote the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights to the effect that Russian operations resulted in more than 1700 deaths, including those of 423 children.
Steele draws on another source – Airwars – for data on the victims of coalition bombings, but passes over its monitoring of Russian operations. In a report entitled ‘Reckless Disregard for Civilian Lives’, Airwars estimates that from 30 September to 31 December, ‘between 1098 and 1450 non-combatants died in 192 separate Russian events.’ Russia has, it says, ‘systematically targeted civilian neighbourhoods and civilian infrastructure – including water plants, wells, marketplaces, bakeries, food depots and aid convoys … Russia and the coalition report carrying out a similar number of armed sorties. Yet civilian fatalities from Russian strikes were six times higher … more civilians appear to have been killed by Russia in the three months to 31 December than from all credibly reported coalition civilian fatality events since August 2014.’
Carrying the body count forward to February this year, the Violations Documentation Centre (the statistical source of choice for serious Syria-watchers) produces a final figure of 1989 civilian deaths, 486 of them children, as a result of the Russian bombing campaign.
Jonathan Steele writes that before obtaining UN Security Council backing, the United States and France’s initial military campaigns in Syria had ‘no basis in international law’. In fact both governments notified the Security Council that they were acting in defence of Iraq, which had requested their assistance to eradicate IS safe havens in northern Syria. The US also claimed it was acting in self-defence even though, unlike Iraq, it had never been attacked by Islamic State.
Although controversial, there is growing recognition in international law that states can (and do) use force in self-defence against terrorist groups operating out of countries whose governments are unwilling or unable to neutralise the group themselves. In justifying its operation, the US referred to the Assad government’s inability to tackle IS.
This right is by no means universally accepted, but a key indicator of whether a right exists in international law is how other states react when a government asserts the right in question: the only countries that objected to the legality of the US and French campaigns were Syria’s allies, Iran and Russia.
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.
I am Dr Hatem, the director of the Children’s Hospital in Aleppo.
Last night, 27 staff and patients were killed in an airstrike on Al Quds Hospital nearby. My friend Dr Muhammad Waseem Maaz (pictured), the city’s most qualified paediatrician, was killed in the attack.
He used to work at our Children’s Hospital during the day and then he’d go to Al Quds Hospital to attend to emergencies overnight.
Dr Maaz and I used to spend six hours a day together. He was friendly, kind and he used to joke a lot with the whole staff. He was the loveliest doctor in our hospital.
I’m in Turkey now, and he was supposed to visit his family here after I returned to Aleppo. He hadn’t seen them in four months.
Dr Maaz stayed in Aleppo, the most dangerous city in the world, because of his devotion to his patients. Hospitals are often targeted by government and Russian air forces.
Days before Dr Maaz’s life was taken, an airstrike hit only 200 metres away from our hospital. When the bombing intensifies, the medical staff run down to the ground floor of the hospital carrying the babies’ incubators in order to protect them.
Like so many others, Dr Maaz was killed for saving lives. Today we remember Dr Maaz’s humanity and his bravery. Please share his story so others may know what medics in Aleppo and across Syria are facing.
The situation today is critical – Aleppo may soon come under siege. We need the world to be watching.
Thank you for keeping us in your thoughts,
March With Medics Under Fire
Saturday 7th May at 2pm, Trafalgar Square, London.
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.