Anti-Capitalist Anti-Capitalist Meetup: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism and the Row in the Labour Party
Back in MrJayTee’s blog a couple of Sunday’s ago, I had addressed the victory of Sadiq Khan for London’s mayor and Labour’s results discussing the context in which they had taken place. This included an incredibly racist and Islamophobic campaign by Zac Goldsmith and a clear victory for Sadiq Khan. I had raised a row initiated in the Labour Party that was carried out in all of the mainstream media arguing that the Labour Party itself was inundated by anti-semites.
“This result was done in spite of a wholly manufactured “row” in the media about “anti-semitism” in the Labour Party that was really a row about criticism of Israel, the conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism, and a backhand attack on Corbyn, the BDS movement and left-wing anti-zionist activists (http://www.dailykos.com/comments/1514083/61453394#comment_61453394).).”
It seems that the row was reported in the US and afterwards several people contacted me, both on kosmail and in the ACM group to ask me to write about what the hell is going on and whether I could explain what is happening over here in Britain. This blog is my attempt to address this request. There have been many excellent discussions posted in Britain and Israeli web-sites about this and in many senses this is for me almost redundant (even though this issue is a continuing one), but I will post links where I think they will be helpful for clarification and at the end of the blog.
As an anti-zionist Jew for the majority of my adult life and someone that has opposed and fought against racism, xenophobia, and fascism for much of my life, I have been watching what can only be described as a witch-hunt against fellow travellers using a false equation between anti-semitism and anti-zionism in order to bring down a democratically elected leader of the Labour party who has worked in support of Palestinian human and civil rights.
Moreover, the attack itself has been aimed not only at Corbyn, but primarily against the left in the Labour party and outside. So it appears as though it is the Left that has a problem with anti-semitism and by extension, so does Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy Corbin was himself attacked time and time again; the group Jews for Jeremy formed during his election responded to these attacks. It has been extremely horrific to watch people that I knew had spent their lives fighting against anti-semitism, racism and fascism being accused of being anti-semites. The fact that this was a deliberate attack and that it came in the run-up to local elections and that these people’s reputations were dragged through the mud for the purposes of undermining a democratically elected leader of the Labour party makes it even more disgusting.
Anti-semitism is real and we must always fight against it. Calling someone an anti-semite and accusing them of making anti-semitic comments is extremely serious. It is not an accusation to be thrown around casually and never for political gain. Due to the fact that anti-semitism does exist; if we use the term inaccurately, real anti-semitism will not be recognised and cannot be defended against. There is real anti-semitism and it exists everywhere, but it is not being advocated by the likes of Tony Greenstein, Jackie Walker, Naz Shah, Ken Livingstone, and David Watson.
What we are witnessing is an internal witch-hunt based on false premises. People’s blog posts and their posts on social media have come under examination. Criticism of the state of Israel, criticism of Zionism, criticism of the Israeli government and military is not anti-semitism. It is criticism of the acts of a government and military, it is criticism of a political ideology and those that espouse it. But it is not anti-semitism.
As is the case of all those that identify as members of a religious group or those that belong to a persecuted minority (i.e., Roma, Sinti and Romani, people of colour in western societies) Jews are not a single group of people, we come from many countries with their own cultures and traditions, we hold different variants of religious beliefs, we hold different political beliefs and we belong to different economic classes in the countries we live.
The row in the Labour Party
For those reading the news about what is happening in the Labour party, they would clearly be concerned about what appears to be a sudden increase of anti-semitism there.
It would be absurd to say that there are not anti-semites in the Labour Party; unfortunately anti-semitism has a long history and is still a danger. There are clearly cases in which statements by members of the Labour party who have expressed anti-semitic views, but the majority of those suspended were not stating anti-semitic views and are not anti-semites. Whether it is a wide-spread problem in the Labour party -- a party which has worked to combat racism historically -- will now be examined by an independent inquiry.
Where people blame a group of people (in this case Jews) for the actions of a few or a government which claims to act for them, when people talk about “the Jews” as a unified group of people, where people talk about Jewish control over the banks and the actions of governments, where all Jews are accused of dual loyalties, where the accusation is that we are part of a group working together to undermine everyone’s security, then you are talking anti-semitism. But that is not the case here; if it were there would be no question about the suspensions and the charges.
In order to understand what is going on, we need to put the “row” into context as it is not coming out of thin air. The context we are looking at is the accession of Jeremy Corbyn to leadership in the Labour party and the fact that is he a left-wing social democrat and someone who has struggled for the human and civil rights of Palestinians.
Then, there is the willingness of the Labour Right to do simply anything to bring him down (and replace him with someone from either the centre or right-wing of the Labour party), the Tory party’s own crisis and their desire to win (at all costs witness the racism in the campaign of Zac Goldsmith).
The external (to Britain) factor is the rising intolerance for the Israeli government and military’s actions which have led to the strengthening of the worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) which is having success and the attempt by the Israeli government to link criticism of Israel’s policies to anti-semitism. The attempt to redefine anti-semitism to include criticism of Israel and to brand those that are critics of Israel and anti-zionists as anti-semites is part of the fightback against rising criticism. This is being spearheaded in Britain by the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) and the Jewish Labour Movement. The first group is essentially a propaganda group in support of the Israeli government; while the second group is a group of Jewish members of the British Labour party which is affiliated to the World Zionist Movement and is a sister-party to the Israeli Labour Party.
When did the row start?
Actually the row started in the Oxford University Labour Club in February 2016 with an accusation levied against the club by its co-chair Alex Chambers accusing the left in the Labour club and left students of being anti-semitic due to their support for a Palestine solidarity education week. What is not discussed in most of the articles on this is that Alex Chambers is an intern at an Israeli lobbyist group.
The next link in the chain comes when Malia Bouattia is elected the president of the National Union of students unseating the incumbent Meagan Dunn (unseating an incumbent is extremely difficult to do) making Bouattia the first black muslim president of the NUS. An ardent supporter of the Palestinian struggle, the accusations of anti-semitism begin almost immediately.
The row then shifts to the Labour party itself and the left in the Labour party, first Gerry Downing, and then Tony Greenstein; the weirdest thing about Greenstein’s suspension was that he was not told the charges against him, but they were leaked to both the Daily Telegraph and the Times who were then forced to make apologies for implying that (nay, let’s call it accusing) Greenstein of being an anti-semite. Greenstein being summoned to a tribunal with no explanation of the charges reeks far too much of Kafka’s The Trial for comfort as Greenstein himself says.
The attack finally hit a more prominent target, Bradford West MP, Naz Shah, then Ken Livingstone (the former mayor of London and Corbyn ally) jumps into support Naz Shah and winds up being suspended himself. While I honestly question whether Livingstone was helpful, his raising the Haavara Agreement (even if he got the date wrong) has, as a close friend pointed out, increased interest in something that is not often discussed in mainstream discussions, Lenni Brenner's book Zionism in the Age of the Dictators. So an error, but correct on the agreement; Hitler was not a Zionist by any means, but that was not stated by Livingstone.
The next prominent head to fall in the witch hunt is Jackie Walker (the black Jewish vice-chair of Momentum; who has played a leading role in anti-racism struggles for many years. The most recent scalp to be claimed was that of David Watson, the fundraising chair of Walthamstow Labour Party and yet another long term activist fighting against anti-racism and a supporter of Palestinian civil and human rights.
The Jewish Socialist Group has responded to the accusation that Labour has a problem with antisemitism by saying the following (please read the whole piece it is excellent):
“Antisemitism exists and must be exposed and fought against in the same way as other forms of racism by all who are concerned with combating racism and fascism.
Antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not the same. Zionism is a political ideology which has always been contested within Jewish life since it emerged in 1897, and it is entirely legitimate for non-Jews as well as Jews to express opinions about it, whether positive or negative. Not all Jews are Zionists. Not all Zionists are Jews.
Criticism of Israeli government policy and Israeli state actions against the Palestinians is not antisemitism. Those who conflate criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism, whether they are supporters or opponents of Israeli policy, are actually helping the antisemites. We reject any attempt, from whichever quarter, to place legitimate criticism of Israeli policy out of bounds (http://www.jewishsocialist.org.uk/news/item/statement-on-labou%E2%80%9Drs-problem-with-antisemitism-from-the-jewish-socialists-g).”
In order to examine whether the Labour party is inundated with anti-semitism, Jeremy Corbyn has set up an independent inquiry to be led by Shami Chakrabarti (the former head of the human rights group Liberty) with Prof David Feldman (the Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism) as her deputy. Already the Jewish Chronicle has started protesting the inclusion of Professor David Feldman as he is a member of Independent Jewish voices (IJV) as though it must be a stitch-up and only a Zionist could possibly be on the committee. It is as if there are preparing to reject the results of the inquiry before it has carried out its investigations and written the report.
To understand what is happening, we need to separate three things which are separable but are often not separated. The first is the religion of Judaism, the second is anti-semitism, and the third is political Zionism.
Judaism is a religion adhered to by Jews; it is as simple as that. Many people that consider themselves Jews do not practice the religion itself, but have been raised both in the religion and/or Jewish culture that derives from the religion. Many Jews are secular and view themselves as Jews irrespective of being atheists or agnostics. People that consider themselves Jews live all around the world and share very little in common except for their perception of themselves as Jews and/or their belief in the Jewish religion. As a minority religion, Jews have faced significant persecution, the holocaust is only the most recent and horrific example. Persecuted for having different religious beliefs in a world historically defined by religious beliefs and being perceived as different, Jews have been expelled from various countries (e.g., Britain, Spain among others), confined to Ghettos (starting with Venice), forced into certain employments that those from other religions could not do (given the religion’s precepts against certain occupation), forced to convert to the dominant religions (e.g., Christianity).
Now let’s talk about anti-semitism. I am using what is the most common definition for anti-semitism; that is hatred against Jews or dislike of Jews simply because they are Jews. It could be a broader definition including Arabs and other semites as well, but for ease of understanding, I am using it in the way it is commonly used in nomenclature. It is a form of racism irrespective of the Jews not being a nation or a “people” or a world-wide community.
Anti-semitism is grotesque, it is dangerous, and it is not confined to those who are not Jews. One of the comments against the accusation against Tony Greenstein was that he was a Jew and hence could not be an anti-semite; in Tony’s case that is certainly true. He has fought anti-semitism and racism throughout his life; however, there are Jews (like Gilad Atzmon who has come under widespread criticism that he is an anti-semite) that detest the fact that they are Jews and are holocaust deniers – they are anti-semites.
If you do not know what anti-semitism is or have not experienced it, go visit this link and look at the comments on the twitter page of The New York Times Deputy Washington Editor, Jonathon Weisman, who was commenting on a piece by Robert Kagan on Trump which unleashed a torrent of anti-semitic and racist hate by Trump’s supporters that is simply shocking and which tells you more about the damage done by Donald Trump’s campaign in the US than anything I have seen; this campaign has allowed every racist, xenophobe, and anti-semite to come out of the closet (let’s put misogyny to the side for a moment as that is not confined to The Donald’s supporters and seems to be a significant problem throughout the US). But that is an easy one; anyone who has the slightest sensibility of understanding what racism and anti-semitism are can see that clearly. A quick hint: If you think for that Jews are united in some bizarre conspiracy to ensure their world domination, guess what, you are an anti-semite.
How about this story? The police says that this (the 2nd) attack at a Jewish cemetery is anti-Semitism, while the Community Security Trust is not certain (yes, there are kids that get drunk and destroy things, but why the hell are they in a Jewish cemetery in the first place to get drunk?). To me, this looks like anti-semitism, I do not have all the facts, but, this is something I would keep a close eye on as why would people destroy headstones in a Jewish cemetery? This makes me extremely nervous …
The chief Rabbi of Britain, Ephraim Mirvis, then got involved in this discussion about anti-semitism in the left and in the Labour party. In this article, he maintained that:
“It is unclear why these people feel qualified to provide such an analysis of one of the axioms of Jewish belief. But let me be very clear. Their claims are a fiction. They are a wilful distortion of a noble and integral part of Judaism. Zionism is a belief in the right to Jewish self-determination in a land that has been at the centre of the Jewish world for more than 3,000 years. One can no more separate it from Judaism than separate the City of London from Great Britain.
Open a Jewish daily prayer book used in any part of the world and Zionism will leap out at you. The innumerable references to the land of Israel are inescapable and demonstrative. Throughout our collective history we have yearned for a chance to determine our own future, to revive an ancient language and return to rejoice in our love for this tiny sliver of land. Zionism is a movement celebrated by people right across the political spectrum, all over the world, and requires no endorsement or otherwise of the particular policies of any Israeli Government at any time (www.telegraph.co.uk/...).”
So, is a rejection of Zionism a slap in the face to every Jew and inherently anti-semitic? I would argue no. The first thing that we need to understand is Rabbi Mirvis’s conflation of political Zionism and religious Zionism. Religious Zionism essentially is the idea that after the Messiah comes, the Jews who have been scattered all over the world will be allowed to return to the holy land. That is a different kettle of fish from the political ideology of Zionism. By the way, not all Jews believe either in religious Zionism and opposition to political Zionism has always existed in the Jewish community. The issue to me is that Rabbi Mirvis is actually defining a Jew by their endorsement and support of Zionism. Does lack of support for Zionism make one an anti-semite as Mirvis argues? This prompted a response which I was proud to sign:
“He joins in the sensationalist allegations of antisemitism in the Labour party, where the headlines’ decibel level is in inverse proportion to the evidence supporting them. Ignoring the more serious anti-Muslim racism in electoral politics, Rabbi Mirvis attacks the Labour party by launching a defence of Zionism which turns it from a political ideology (that can be supported or opposed) into a religion that is beyond question. We British Jews reject this categorically.
Mirvis attacks as “antisemitic” those who separate Judaism from Zionism. Yet most Jews who perished in the Holocaust were indifferent to Zionism and many opposed it. In the last municipal elections in Europe’s largest Jewish community, in Poland, just before the second world war, Poland’s Jews voted overwhelmingly for the secular, anti-Zionist, socialists of the Bund, while Zionist parties got derisory votes. Is Rabbi Mirvis recasting those victims of the Holocaust posthumously as enemies of Judaism and therefore as antisemites? (www.theguardian.com/...).”
Several excellent points are made in this article by Elise Hendrick which deserves repeating here and which relate to the issue of the legitimacy of those speaking for “the Jews.” Since those that consider themselves Jews differ on so many things, how does someone get to claim they speak for “the Jews.”
“Zionist organisations present themselves as the sole legitimate representatives of all people of Jewish descent, everywhere (and have done so ever since they were a tiny, marginal, right-wing sect in the Jewish community). When the representatives of Zionist groups present themselves as Jewish community leaders, no one asks when and where they were elected, or to whom they are actually accountable. when Israel is presented as ‘the state of the Jewish people’ rather than (accurately) as that of the Zionist movement, the assertion is taken as read. It is on these assumptions that Zionists claim the right to set the agenda in all matters related to Jews, including antisemitism. Put simply, Zionists use Jews as rhetorical human shields for the Zionist regime.
Refuting each of the above assumptions is trivial. None of the Zionists who appear in the media as representatives of the Jewish community as a whole has ever stood for election by that community. It does not matter how the community feels about these ‘representatives’, for they have no institutionalised means of sacking them. In much the same way, the State of Israel, which claims to represent all Jews everywhere does not give most Jews – who don’t even live there – any say in the Zionist regime’s policies. In both cases, the tacit assertion is that Jews are a politically monolithic and intrinsically connected to a state other than their state of birth and residence. In a word, the Zionist claim of standing to represent all Jews is antisemitic (screamingvioletsmag.co.uk/...).”
This brings us to the final part of the discussion, what is Zionism? Is opposition to Zionism anti-semitic?
Zionism is a political ideology whose roots lay in the rise of late 19th century nationalist movements. Accepting that anti-semitism cannot be fought in the countries where they were living, Zionists advocated the formation of a nation state for Jews scattered around the world. The aims of the first Zionist congress in Basel where the following (1897):
“Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in EretzIsrael secured under public law. The Congress contemplates the following means to the attainment of this end:
1. The promotion by appropriate means of the settlement in Eretz-Israel of Jewish farmers, artisans, and manufacturers. 2. The organization and uniting of the whole of Jewry by means of appropriate institutions, both local and international, in accordance with the laws of each country.
3. The strengthening and fostering of Jewish national sentiment and national consciousness.
4. Preparatory steps toward obtaining the consent of governments, where necessary, in order to reach the goals of Zionism (www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/...).”
From its beginnings, there have been differences among those supporting Zionism as the answer to anti-semitism. The location of the future Zionist state was one such issue which divided early Zionists, that is, whether to insist on the holy land or to accept any territory which made the creation of a nation state possible. Like all political movements, there were also political differences among Zionists which reflect those beliefs; these differences that are still relevant are reflected in the different political parties in Israel today.
One significant problem was the creation of such a state, the old line of “a land without people for people without a land” certainly did not apply to the holy land in which people had been living for millennia. An additional problem was that the majority of Jews of the time did not support the Zionist project; this was, and is, due to political differences among Jews and their view of how to eliminate anti-semitism. The creation of a settler state was not consistent with beliefs of the Jewish Bund and among other Jews of the hard left which had far more followers. The Bundists believed in fighting anti-semitism and fighting for socialism in the countries in which they lived. Even amongst the members of the Bund, there were differences between those that later joined the communist parties and those that were socialists. It was only the holocaust which launched Zionism into being the dominant political ideology among those that considered themselves as Jews.
“There is a long and honourable history of Jewish opposition to Zionism. The first Zionist Congress, in 1897, had to be moved to Basel, which had a minimal Jewish population, after the rabbis in Munich – where it was originally scheduled to meet – threatened to excommunicate any local Jew who assisted or supported it. The 1917 Balfour Declaration (introduced by the same man who twelve years earlier had introduced Britain’s first immigration act in order to exclude Jews fleeing Tsarist pogroms) was opposed as antisemitic by the only Jewish cabinet member. In the last free elections in Poland before Nazi occupation, the anti-Zionist Bund won a clear majority of the Jewish votes in both national and municipal elections (socialistresistance.org/...).”
As a political ideology and movement which settled on the holy land aka as Palestine to colonise, it was inevitable that the people living there had to be removed from the land in order to establish that state. It should come as no surprise that the native population of Palestine was not thrilled to lose their homes and land in which they lived for millennia in favour of colonial settlers coming from Europe. The creation of Israel has meant the dispersal of Palestinians around the world, their being forced to live in refugee camps in nearby countries with which there is nothing shared but the fact that they are Arabs. Israel’s creation and expansion has required the continual oppression of Palestinians that have not left and that oppression continues in order to maintain the existence of Israel.
Zionism is a political ideology and movement. Like all political ideologies and movements (think of socialism, communism, fascism, liberalism, conservatism) criticism of ideology and actions is normal and opposition will exist.
What is the problem then? The problem arises in the conflation between anti-semitism and those opposed to, or critical of, Zionism and the Zionist state. And this derives from the identification of the Zionist project with the Jewish people or religion which is historically inaccurate and which in itself has fostered anti-semitism due to the oppression of the Israeli government, military and population against the Palestinians.
This brings us to the current struggles which we are facing. Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians has led to even unquestioning Zionists to condemn the situation. This week, now former defence minister General Ya’alon resigned from his post and quit Likud (and was replaced by Avigdor Lieberman) and Ehud Barak (the former leader of the Israeli Labor Party) raised their concerns about rising extremism and violence and mentioned the “f” word (that is, fascism); we are not talking about anti-zionists here, neither Ya’alon nor Barak are certainly not abandoning their beliefs in Zionism. There seem to be a couple of things that have perturbed people; specifically the murder of an incapacitated Palestinian by an Israel soldier who was then applauded by some Israelis. Barak has raised concerns about a proposed new law which strips immunity from Members of Parliament (unsurprisingly a similar law has been passed in Turkey by Erdoğan and his party to prosecute Kurdish members of Parliament as “terrorists”). Discussing rising fascism in Israel seems to be ok there, so why is this a problem outside of Israel? Is this an internal Jewish discussion of some sort that I am missing?
The fact is that the oppression of Palestinians cannot be silenced anymore. The continued seizure of land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Gaza being an open-air prison, political oppression, and the murders of innocents cannot be ignored. The actions of the Israel government, military and population against have led to significant criticism even among those that call themselves Zionists. The success of the Boycott, Sanction and Divestment movement is clearly a basis of concern. Advocacy of BDS in France is now illegal (although there has been no imprisonment of BDS supporters). In Britain, David Cameron has come out against boycotts and the Leicester City Council has been taken to court due to its boycott of Israeli goods.
This is part of the reason that the campaign to link anti-zionism with anti-semitism has increased; this is also part of the reason why those criticising Israel are facing accusations of anti-semitism. While this is clearly evident in Rabbi Mirvis’s article quoted above, a decent knowledge of history demonstrates that political Zionism is not an integral part of Jewish identity.
The existence of differences in opinion even among Zionists (think AIPAC vs J Street’s Liberal Zionism) and shifting perspectives on Israel among American Jews demonstrate that Zionism and Israel no longer have unconditional support. In point of fact, in the US, unconditional support for Israel can only be found among Christian Zionists in white evangelical religious groups. In many senses, Hillary Clinton’s perspective on Netanyahu and Israel resonates far more strongly with Christians than it does among Jews. The existence of groups such as Jewish Voices for Peace,Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, the Jewish Socialist Group, Independent Jewish Voices, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, among many other Jewish political groups in the world, Europe, the US and in Israel itself, should certainly make you stop and think that there is not a group called “the Jews” and that perhaps it is not that simple as those that claim to speak and act in our name.
Some additional readings: