Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The state they’re in

By denying the right of Israel to exist, anti-Zionists on the British left are in danger of pandering to anti-semitism, believe Jane Ashworth and David Hirsh

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

When British Jews gather to worship, sing songs or educate their children, they have to be guarded by armed police and community security people. Cars are discreetly placed across entrances to impede suicide bombers. Attacks on Jews and synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are still at a much lower level in the UK than other racist attacks, but they are growing year-by-year, and anti-semitic attacks peak at times when the Middle East is in the news.

Anti-semitic worldviews and narratives have also been making a comeback within and around the labour movement. There have been a number of angry controversies about the legitimacy of Israel, about the use of particular kinds of metaphors and images and about the role of Jews in relation to global imperialism and the Bush regime. Jews have been held responsible for taking the world into unjust wars – in which they themselves are unwilling to fight – and for forcing the great powers to alienate Muslims by supporting Israel. The integrity of Labour activists and progressive journalists has been called into question. Either the ‘Zionists’ – that is the epithet thrust onto people who think that Israel has the right to exist – are guilty of conspiracy, racism, imperialism, genocide and taking over other people’s countries, or there is a problem of anti-semitism on the left.

Some recent incidents, like the nighttime stripping of the Trade Union Friends of Israel stall at TUC Conference, are fairly trivial and may only be evidence of isolated cases of hysteria. Some, like the Labour general election campaign pigs and Fagin posters, are open to other than anti-semitic interpretations. But Ken Livingstone’s warm embrace, on behalf of London, of Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an openly anti-semitic cleric, shows a disregard for the importance of anti-semitism. The campaign for a boycott of Israeli artists, teachers, musicians, writers and researchers, which had some short-lived success in the Association of University Teachers, similarly refused to recognise the significance of singling out only Jews and the Jewish state for special punishment.

During the David Irving defamation trial in 2000, in which he denied there were Nazi gas chambers and claimed that the Holocaust had been invented by Jews and Zionists, there was a widespread mood of ambivalence, disquiet and cynicism. Holocaust denial has re-emerged recently with a call on the government to recognise the conflict between Israel and Palestine as being similar to the industrialised rounding-up and killing of millions of Jews, gays, Roma, Poles and Russians by the Nazis.

Each example of anti-semitism should sound alarms, but add them together and a serious structural problem begins to emerge. There is a problem of anti-semitism in British society and parts of the left peddle a particular version.

These days, nearly all anti-semitism is expressed in the language of anti-Zionism. Now, skinheads in Berlin affect a concern for Palestinian rights; Tory grandees and Republican isolationists worry that the existence of Israel is pulling the world into new global wars; open racists like David Irving and David Duke parrot George Galloway’s arguments for opposing the war in Iraq; Hizb’ut Tahrir and other fundamentalist groups make openly anti-semitic propaganda. It seems that everyone is now an ‘anti-Zionist’.

It is in this context that genuine friends of Israeli-Palestinian peace and those of us who want to support the Palestinian struggle for statehood operate. We, therefore, have a particular responsibility to be clear in our own minds where the boundaries lie between legitimate criticism of some of Israel’s oppressive actions and the demonisation of Israel, ‘Zionists’ and Jews. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves in the history of anti-semitism, in the way that anti-semitism operates now and has operated in the past and, especially, in the way that it has infected parts of our own left tradition.

It is sobering, therefore, that many people in the Palestine Solidarity Movement take the opposite view. Many deny that anti-semitism is a problem nowadays, particularly in relation to ‘real’ racism. Jews are not ‘oppressed’ and Jews do not suffer from social exclusion or particular poverty, they say. Anti-Zionists may sometimes get a little over-enthusiastic, they admit, but this is caused by Israel, by those who try to silence all criticism of Israel as anti-semitic. Besides, it is not real racism; it will disappear when the Jewish state is destroyed and there is justice for Palestinians.

The anti-Zionism that worries us is not the same as criticism of Israel. Israel is occupying and settling Palestinian land. In order to sustain this occupation, it uses racist violence and humiliation against the people that live in the West Bank. The occupation and some of Israel’s actions should be, and are, criticised by a large number of Israelis, Jews, and people around the world who are bothered by injustice. It is not those who protest against the injustice of the wall and the checkpoints, which control every stretch of road in the West Bank, who we worry about. It is not the just Palestinian aspiration to independence and statehood that worries us.

The anti-Zionism that worries us does not object to the policies of Israeli governments in the way that we might object to our own government’s policies. Rather, it understands those policies to be the necessary outcome of the existence of Israel. No other Israeli policy is conceivable to the anti-Zionists. So they do not criticise what Israel does. Rather, they criticise Israel’s very existence.

We are worried by the anti-Zionism that asks Israeli Jews – who are nearly all descended from victims of anti-semitism in Europe, in the Middle East and in Russia – to give up any aspiration to the possibility of self-defense by becoming the first nation in the world to voluntarily disband. If they refuse to do so, then the anti-Zionists would support the military conquering of Israel and its destruction as a nation state. Israel, and Israel alone for the anti-Zionists, must be incorporated by force into some larger political form.

We also worry when people are so much more enthusiastic in their anti-Zionism than they are in their criticism of regimes and movements that carry out much greater human rights abuses than Israel. Why do they seem unable to muster similar enthusiasm for criticism of China’s occupation of Tibet, for criticism of Saudi Arabia’s gender apartheid or for criticism of ethnic cleansing in Darfur? The list of more serious human rights abusers than Israel is long.

Left anti-Zionism inflates Israel into a symbol for all that is wrong with a world dominated by US imperialism. The details of the Roadmap or other actual, real-life political developments are rendered insignificant because the conflict is understood only though this symbolism. It is Manichaeism: the world is a great struggle between heroes and villains, only to be resolved by a great revelation and final undoing.

Conversely, the Palestinians have come to symbolise all victims, and their struggle has become the defining struggle against imperialism. Symbolic Zionists and victims replace real Jews and Palestinians in the left anti-Zionists’ imagination.

Some on the left seem to think that the only role that Muslims are able to play in this global showdown is to transform themselves into human bombs. They imagine glorious and tragic deaths as the only option left open to Muslims. The anti-Zionist imagination is filled with hopes for a symbolic victory over imperialism rather than with the actual struggle for a real Palestinian state alongside Israel. But painting Israel as an inhuman demon damages this real-world aspiration.

Terrorism may express anger and desperation but it, as the Palestinian leadership often points out, is not in the Palestinian national interest. The heroes of Palestine are not those who encourage teenagers to end their lives with a dramatic act of hatred and revenge. The real heroes are those Palestinians who find ways to educate the young, to look after the sick, the hungry and the desperate, to make links with anti-racist Israelis, and to invigorate the peace process. Real Palestinian heroes also engage in the political fight against those who want to build a new Palestine that is free of Jews, where women are barred from public life, where homosexuality is punished by death and where the rulers will be men of power who claim the right to speak on behalf of God.

We worry about the anti-Zionists that declare Jewish nationalism and only Jewish nationalism to be essentially racist. The reality is that Jewish nationalism, like all nationalism, contains an inter-woven tapestry of different threads and traditions. Some of these are right wing, some are ultra-nationalist, and many more are routine mixes of romance, desperation and abstract notions of nationhood mixed with a nod in the direction of a better tomorrow. Historically, many Israeli nationalists, thought of themselves as socialists. They wanted to build a new kind of state where Jews would work for themselves and would neither exploit nor be exploited.

Anti-Zionists, however, use a simple shorthand: Zionism equals racism. The effect of this is to encourage and to license people to treat those Jews who think that Israel has the right to exist as though they were racists. And the vast majority of Jews do support the right of Israel to exist. Many think of Israel as protection from a future genocidal threat. In this way, anti-Zionism sets itself up for a fight with Jews.

Anti-Zionism is not motivated by anti-semitism. It is motivated by concern for the oppressed. But it nevertheless creates a movement and a worldview that singles out Jews as being a central force for evil and imperialism in the world. Naturally, such movements are beginning to spawn people who are indeed motivated by anti-semitism. And this is where anti-Zionism begins to borrow from older forms of anti-semitism. It insists that Israel’s privileged role as the partner of American imperialism is protected by Jewish influence amongst the neo-conservatives and in American public life more generally. This easily sounds like, and becomes like, the Jewish conspiracy that was the myth at the heart of the ‘protocols’. It still sounds like it, and becomes like it, even if the word ‘Jew’ is replaced by the word ‘Zionist’.

Israel did not come into existence because of the utopian nationalist longings of early Zionists like Herzl. It came into existence because Europe tried to sweep itself clean of Jews. European fascism and anti-semitism transformed Israel from an idea into a reality. It is particularly unpleasant, then, when some anti-Zionists argue that Israel is a colony of European settlers representing European ideals of ‘progress’ and racism.

We learnt these lessons as children (when we read the Silver Sword), as teenagers (when we watched Cabaret and read Isherwood) and as grown-ups (when we read Jewish writers of fiction and twentieth century histories). It would be reasonable to expect products of such a liberal education to have a self-awareness that sets off alarm bells when anti-Zionism functions as a racist conduit. We might have expected political people to notice the racism of the movement around them. That this self-awareness or safety mechanism does not cut-in is testament to the power and pervasiveness of the anti-Zionist story.

Engage, an organisation dedicated to combating anti-semitism on the left, co-ordinated the campaign against the boycott in the AUT. Engage realised that a boycott is more likely to promote anti-semitism in the UK than it is to help Palestine. Engage was particularly disturbed by the boycotters’ analogy with apartheid South Africa. Like the analogy with Nazism, it is not intended to illuminate the problem of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but rather to demonize Israel. The boycotters’ argument was simple and effective. That Israel is an apartheid state is ‘demonstrated’ by an emotional speech giving a few nasty examples of Israeli institutional racism. We know what to do with an apartheid state: we boycott it. Discussion finished. It relies on the certainty of our hatred of apartheid and it links this with a half-accurate nostalgia of a victorious campaign.

In South Africa, the fight against apartheid was the fight to remove the white monopoly of political control and to create a new democracy – in effect to make a new type of country with a new political class. In Israel, the task is to force a negotiated withdrawal to the 1967 borders and to create a Palestinian state. The analogy relies on ignorance.

Writing for Engage, John Strawson explained the difference: ‘The whole argument about South Africa in the apartheid years was that it was quite exceptional. The racial classification board declared your race at birth, which would decide where you would live, what school you would attend, what job you could have, what wages you would earn, whether you could vote and what papers you carried. This does not happen in Israel, where Palestinians do have the vote and do participate in elections in all parties. Higher education is quite integrated. There are discriminatory laws, there is social discrimination and there is equivocation for equal rights on the designation of the state as ‘Jewish’. However, this is not apartheid South Africa where any organization opposed to the regime was banned and criminalized.’

The pro–boycotters have declared their intention to mobilise again in the universities. Some boycotters will be Jewish, some will certainly not be anti-semitic, but they will rely upon anti-semitic justifications. They will find amongst their friends and allies people who hate Israel more than they love Palestine. And they will find amongst their opponents anti-racists who will not tolerate their threat to create an anti-semitic current within the British labour movement.

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Jane Asworth & Dr David Hirsh

Jane Ashworth is project director of Engage and Dr David Hirsh is editor of Engage and a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London

Add comment

Sign up to our daily roundup email