Zionism, anti-Semitism and the Left

How can political progressives who have dedicated their careers to principled opposition to racism possibly be guilty of anti-Semitism, one of history’s darkest and most ancient forms of discrimination?

The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism by Dave Rich is a lucid and sensitive exploration of how well-intentioned anti-racism can nonetheless generate specifically left-wing expressions of this most protean of prejudices.

The book could not be more timely. Dozens of Labour members have been suspended in the course of the party’s ongoing anti-Semitism row, including prominent figures such as Ken Livingstone, MP Naz Shah and Momentum Vice-Chair Jackie Walker. The long-standing association of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell with anti-Zionist movements continues to be subject to forensic scrutiny, and Jewish support for the party has plummeted.

The crisis has been aggravated by the inability of many of those accused to comprehend how their views can possibly be interpreted as anti-Semitic. Surely the left is anti-racist by definition? As one long-standing critic of Israel, George Galloway, put it in an article for the American Herald Tribune: ‘Anti-Semitism is a right wing “nationalist” curse which deems, for example, British Jews as not British at all but aliens … McDonnell is a former Trotskyite. Trotsky was a Jew. Both men are influenced by Karl Marx. Marx was a Jew. Both men are anti-racist as an article of faith. They have spent their lives fighting racism in all its forms. Given their politics, how could it possibly be otherwise?’

The left and Israel: a brief history

Rich sheds light on the often enigmatic nature of left-wing anti-Semitism through a close study of the British left’s evolving attitudes towards Zionism and the State of Israel over the past 100 years. It’s a tangled story worth summarising in some detail.

Until the 1960s the mainstream left offered solid support for the Zionist project, regarding it as a Jewish liberation movement organised according to socialist principles. Labour supported the 1917 Balfour Declaration that paved the way for the new Jewish state, and recognised Israel’s egalitarian kibbutzim and state-led economic development — their idiosyncrasies notwithstanding — as manifestations of the European socialist tradition. That support was not unreserved: the Attlee government, wary of provoking war in the Middle East, abstained in the crucial 1947 UN vote on partitioning British Mandate Palestine into two states. But for many years Labour was arguably the most pro-Israel of Britain’s political parties, a status reflected in its strong Jewish support.

By the early 1970s, however, much more critical perspectives had begun to suffuse the party, influenced by the anti-imperialist narratives developed after the Second World War by post-colonial states and resistance movements across the Middle East, South America, Africa and Asia. This emergent anti-colonialism questioned Zionism’s status as a liberation movement that offered a legitimate channel for Jewish nationalist aspiration and a refuge for persecuted European Jews, arguing that it should be seen as just another form of Western colonialism: Israel was a ‘white settler’ European outpost in the Arab world practising a form of apartheid against indigenous Palestinians.

Some anti-colonialist rhetoric was coloured with a conspirational tone influenced by the Soviet Union’s hostility to a ‘bourgeois’ Zionist movement it feared capable of fermenting unrest within its Jewish population. Soviet propaganda portrayed Israel as a Western imperialist Trojan horse placed strategically in the Middle East, led by a network of Jewish financiers. A passage from the founding charter of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) captures the essence of the anti-colonial sentiment of the time: ‘Zionism is a political movement organically associated with international imperialism and antagonistic to all action for liberation and to progressive movements in the world. It is racist and fanatic in its nature, aggressive, expansionist, and colonial in its aims, and fascist in its methods. Israel is the instrument of the Zionist movement, and geographical base for world imperialism placed strategically in the midst of the Arab homeland to combat the hopes of the Arab nation for liberation, unity, and progress.’ The PLO and its allies sought to move beyond the two-state solution envisaged by the UN partition plan to an ideal of single Palestinian state that would absorb Israel. The growing power of the anti-colonial coalition culminated in the passing of a 1975 UN resolution declaring Zionism to be a ‘form of racism and racial discrimination’.

A few years earlier the essential elements of this narrative had begun to be adopted and developed by the British ‘New Left’, a fresh form of progressive politics that sought to widen the ‘Old Left’ focus on class to a broader set of identities including race, gender and sexuality. For the New Left ‘Western settler colonialism’ created a fundamental rift between occupiers and occupied that could not be transcended by appeal to a common class interest. The inexorable logic of this position recast the Zionists as imperialist adventurers rather than participants in the international labour movement. New Left intellectuals were prepared to overlook reactionary elements within the resistance movements they supported on account of their opposition to the West. As a passage in the journal International Socialism argued: ‘From the standpoint of Marxism and international socialism an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim Palestinian peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports Zionism (even critically).’

Rich organises New Left anti-Zionism into two broad streams. The once prominent Marxist strand hoped that anti-colonial nationalist movements would act as the vanguard for an international workers uprising an increasingly prosperous Western working class had failed to deliver. Bourgeois ideologies such as Zionism would be swept away by a Middle Eastern revolution led by ‘a united Jewish and Arab proletariat’. This thesis misunderstood the essentially nationalist nature of the conflict, and was soon superseded by a liberal anti-colonialism asserting the claims of Palestinian national identity through a universalist grammar of human rights and anti-racism.

Rich suggests that this rights-based approach, the template for contemporary anti-Zionism, gained currency in British progressive circles through the agency of the Young Liberals, more or less forgotten today, but influential in 1960s counter-culture. The group’s decade-long involvement in the growing Anti-Apartheid Movement led it to draw comparisons with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in 1970 the Young Liberals became the first organisation attached to a mainstream British political party to pass a conference motion condemning Zionism as racist. Prominent Young Liberal veterans such as Louis Eaks and future Labour Cabinet minister Peter Hain went on to play crucial roles in the development of the British anti-Zionist movement. Eaks edited the widely distributed pro-PLO Free Palestine journal and established Palestine Action, an anti-apartheid style pressure group which undertook Parliamentary lobbying, secured mainstream news coverage for the Palestinian cause, and produced the influential 1976 BBC TV documentary The Right to Return.

These and other initiatives began to make waves within British student unions previously sympathetic to Israel, culminating in the hardline 1974 ‘No Platform’ policy adopted by the National Union of Students that attempted to block the right of ‘openly racist or fascist organisations’ — including pro-Zionist Jewish societies — to meet on campus. By the 1980s student activists schooled in the New Left worldview — including Jeremy Corbyn — began to enter mainstream politics. A rights-based anti-Zionist perspective — more or less as presented by Palestine Action and Free Palestine — became influential within the Labour Party, signalled by the passing of a 1982 conference motion endorsing a PLO-style single state solution, a position went on to secure institutional expression within the party through the establishment of groups such as the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine (LMCP).

The movement gained fresh momentum at the turn of the millenium, securing an important new platform through its integration with anti-war organisations formed to oppose Western military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, for the first time, engaging significant support from sections of Britain’s Muslim community. The Stop the War Coalition, founded by veteran pro-Palestinian activists including Corbyn and Galloway, joined with the Muslim Association of Britain, an Islamist group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, to organise a series of hugely successful protests in the early 2000s, including the famous London march of February 2003 that, with more than a million participants, was the largest demonstration in British history. Rich notes that it is often forgotten that the walkers marched under two slogans that day: not just ‘Stop the War in Iraq’ but also ‘Freedom for Palestine’, the freedom envisaged being the replacement of Israel with a new Palestinian state.

When anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism

One of the primary virtues of Rich’s book is his wariness of drawing facile comparisons between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, taking care to present anti-colonialism as a complex, subtle worldview. But in the course of charting the development of contemporary anti-Zionism his analysis makes clear those elements of the case against Israel that risk crossing the line into anti-Semitism.

The one state solution and Jewish national aspiration

The one state solution favoured in anti-colonialist discourse appeals to the progressive internationalist sentiment that Israelis and Palestinians should — following the South African model— be able to set aside national differences and live together in a democratic state governed by secular law.

But an abstraction that resonates with European liberals is viewed rather differently by most Israelis and Palestinians, two essentially — and increasingly — conservative societies with strong national identities often inspired by uncompromising religious worldviews. Certainly, from the Jewish perspective, the one state solution would mean the end of Israel and its replacement with a Palestinian state that, according to many demographic studies, would in a matter of years have an Arab majority, especially if its establishment included some recognition of the Palestinian right of return. For many Jews the denial of their desire for national self-determination is straightforwardly anti-Semitic. For all its imperfections the traditional two state solution at least recognises both the common Israeli and Palestinian aspiration to nationhood.

A new South Africa?

Parallels between Israeli security policy and South African segregation often have a disturbing resonance, but a straightforward equation with apartheid can be made too easily.

Most comparisons made with apartheid focus on stark differences in the respective situations of Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War. Whereas the settlers are protected by Israeli civil law and can vote in Israeli elections, the Palestinians are subject to Israeli military law and represented by the circumscribed and ineffective Palestinian Authority. Israel claims the severe restrictions it imposes are necessary to control the movements of violent extremists, but for Palestinians they constitute a form of ‘collective punishment’ that makes everyday life intolerable, including severe curbs on travel, curfews, and of course the notorious security barrier demarcating the borders of the West Bank. Israel’s critics make the further claim that the Arab minority within Israel has to contend with other forms of discrimination, including preferential treatment for Jews regarding land ownership laws and the allocation of public spending.

But while acknowledging the force of many of these charges Rich highlights clear differences with apartheid South Africa that complicate neat comparisons. Unlike apartheid-era black South Africans, for example, Israeli Arabs enjoy the same rights as Jews to vote and to democratic representation, there is no segregation of public spaces and services, workplaces and universities are open to both Arabs and Jews, and Arabs are free to volunteer to serve in the Israeli army. Jews are sensitive to uncomplicated accusations of apartheid that fail to acknowledge such differences.

The Holocaust, Zionism and Nazism

Another concern is the reluctance of some anti-Zionists to acknowledge the specifically anti-Semitic character of the Holocaust. An anti-colonialist revisionist perspective of the Shoah has become increasingly influential according to which it is situated in a lineage of genocides committed in the course of the history of European imperialism, including the slave trade and the destruction of the native cultures of North America and Australia.

Powerful as they are, some of these narratives tend to underplay the peculiarly anti-Semitic nature of the Holocaust, which for most historians, and certainly the Jews, was the culmination of centuries of persecution of European Jewry. For Israel’s supporters, this revisionism is at least in part motivated by a desire to deny the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise: if the Holocaust was not essentially anti-Semitic, the necessity for an Israeli state is diminished.

Provocative parallels drawn between Israel’s treatment of West Bank Palestinians with Nazi atrocities against the Jews cause further unease. Some anti-colonialist literature portrays Zionism and Nazism as sibling ideologies, suggesting both make common appeal to notions of racial supremacy to legitimate genocide. The theological concept of ‘the chosen people’ is frequently interpreted as a Jewish analogue to Nazi claims for the superiority of the Aryan race.

At their worst such speculations can foster the kind of open anti-Semitism expressed by factions within the Islamist groups with which the anti-Zionist left has lately associated itself. Subscribing to the New Left view that anti-colonialist national movements are necessarily progressive, liberal progressives have often turned a blind eye to the deeply conservative nature of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, regarding them as successors to secular nationalist forerunners such as the PLO. But whereas the PLO Charter, for all its fiery rhetoric, was couched in the liberal language of ‘human rights’, ‘secularism’ and ‘democracy’, the Hamas Covenant envisages an Islamist Palestine governed by Sharia law, celebrates suicide bombers as ‘martyrs’, and cites passages from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic hoax created by Tsarist secret police. In some of the demonstrations organised by Stop the War and the Muslim Association of Britain, Islamist marchers dressed as suicide bombers, associated the Star of David with the swastika, and distributed literature claiming Israeli soldiers harvest the bodily organs of Palestinians, a unsubtle reference to medieval blood libels.

Zionist conspiracies

Perhaps the most notorious form of anti-Semitism, because it can be so difficult to detect, is the ancient, and ever evolving, suspicion of secret Jewish power networks. Rich writes: ‘[A]nti-Semitism differs from other forms of racism because it uses conspiracy theories to claim that Jews are a powerful, controlling influence in society. Whereas racism tends to depict non-white people as dirty, poor, diseased and even subhuman, anti-Semitism accords Jews massive power, wealth, political influence and media control.’

Contemporary anti-Zionists may not be guilty of the kind of lurid imaginings conjured in Nazi or Soviet propaganda, or some Islamists — with their suggestions that Zionists engineered the Iraq War and 9/11 -– but the left has developed a set of conspiracy theories of its own. For Rich the seeds of leftist speculation about Jewish plots were sown by Marx’s 1843 essay On the Jewish Question, which argued that the financial elites oppressing the working classes were made up primarily of wealthy Jews. Marx writes that ‘the empirical essence of Judaism’ consists in ‘huckstering’ rather than religion, and that, like capitalist relations of production, the now redundant Jewish identity will simply dissolve in the post-revolutionary socialist society. Speculations about concentrations of Jewish power were widespread amongst left-wing commentators as recently as George W Bush’s Presidency, when it was frequently suggested that a shadowy neoconservative Jewish establishment dictated US foreign policy.

An anti-Semitism without anti-Semites

Rich argues that it is the very intensity of the left’s focus on anti-racism that can give rise to and blind it to sentiments which can be interpreted as anti-Semitic. Progressives tend to imagine anti-Semitism as an issue for the racist far-right, as another instance of a blanket xenophobia against minorities. But Rich shows how it is possible both to be a sincere opponent of fascism and yet still fall prey to anti-Jewish stereotyping.

Rich navigates this exceptionally fraught and emotionally charged terrain with great sensitivity. But on occasion Rich’s focus on making plain the nature of leftist anti-Semitism leads him to understate or omit some important elements of the Israeli-Palestine conflict that motivate Israel’s critics.

For example the case for the one state solution is not always driven by ideological anti-Zionism or credulity about the realities of the conflict. Indeed, a sober understanding of ‘the facts on the ground’ informs a powerful pragmatic argument for the necessity of a single state as the only conceivable democratic option left on the table. All recent efforts to rehabilitate the two state solution have run aground on the seemingly insurmountable challenge of resolving the issue of the settlements: there are now more than 600,000 Israelis in the West Bank, living in settlements the size of towns and small cities, connected by a formidable infrastructure. Given the current dominance of Israeli politics by Jewish religious nationalists, who view the occupied territories as the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, and their increasing influence within the Israeli military, it is questionable that even a reforming Israeli government would have the political or military means to relocate the settlers.

Indeed it seems increasingly likely that any rehabilitation of the two state ideal will need to be led by the settler movement itself. Initiatives such as One Homeland, Two States, for example, a group led jointly by reformist settlers and West Bank Palestinians, acknowledges the necessity for some kind of confederal arrangement according to which both Palestinians and Israelis would have some access to the whole of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, rather than being confined within the strictly demarcated borders envisaged by the traditional two state solution.

Rich also rather skirts over the hardships imposed on West Bank Palestinians that prompt comparisons with apartheid. He writes: ‘For individual anti-Israel activists, imagining themselves to be heroically tearing down a new Israeli apartheid allows them to bask in the reflected glory of their illustrious forebears.’ That is too dismissive. The severe measures governing the lives of Palestinians living behind Israel’s walls and fences — the checkpoints, the collective punishments, the night raids, and the continuous appropriation of Palestinian property on the grounds of ‘security’ — fuel suspicions that the restrictions have as much to do with the desire of hard-line Israeli nationalists to force Palestinians off the land as with security concerns, a sentiment indicated by a recent Pew survey of Israeli opinion.

Rich also overlooks the debt contemporary anti-Zionism owes to revisionist Jewish historians writing from within Israel itself, whose contribution to the debate complicates the picture of an Israel besieged by a hostile external anti-colonialist movement. But no book can be expected to negotiate such an explosive conflict without raising some questions or avoiding offence. Dave Rich’s study is the first offering a detailed assessment of a crisis likely to continue to beset the left for some time, and it is a fine one.

The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism, by Dave Rich, is published by Biteback Publishing.

This review first appeared on Sceptical Scot and Medium.