Anti-semitism, Palestine, and the Left

Updated: Feb 12

Neil Faulkner argues that BoD’s ten-pledges for Labour represent an attack on the socialist principle of solidarity with the oppressed rather than a plan to tackle racism.

23 January 2020.

Nazi graffiti on Jewish gravestones in France: the real enemy leaves a calling card.

All five contenders in the Labour leadership election have signed up to the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ set of ‘ten pledges to end the anti-semitism crisis’[1].

The ten pledges amount to a blueprint for a purge of socialists from the Labour Party. This could only undermine any serious struggle against racism – not just anti-semitism, but every other kind of racism.

Attacks on Jews are real. Anti-semitism is real. Every day in the last week of December, another attack was reported on Jewish New Yorkers.[2] This culminated in a machete attack on five people attending a Hannukah celebration in the home of a Jewish rabbi on 29 December.[3]

In the same month, an Israeli student was beaten unconscious and 100 Jewish graves were daubed with swastikas in France, a teenage student was strangled by three men shouting anti-semitic abuse in Berlin, and a rabbi was hospitalised in London after being attacked by two youths shouting ‘Kill Jews!’[4]

Anti-semitism may not be the predominant form of modern racism – it is Islamophobia and ant-migrant racism – but there is a growing current of neo-Nazi and Islamist attacks on the Jewish community.

Socialists are not carrying out these attacks. Yet ‘the anti-semitic crisis’ identified by the Board of Deputies is a reference to the Labour Party, and its ‘ten pledges’ are designed exclusively for internal Labour Party use.

The ten pledges

The Jewish Chronicle reports as follows:

The Board of Deputies has demanded each of Labour’s candidates for leader and deputy leader sign up to its ten ‘pledges’ in order to ‘begin healing its relationship with the Jewish community’ after the crisis of anti-semitism under Jeremy Corbyn.

Marie van der Zyl, the Board’s President, said she hoped the new leader of the opposition would address anti-semitism in Labour ‘promptly and energetically’.

Upon launching its set of pledges on Sunday, the Board condemned the outgoing Mr Corbyn. Jew-hate ‘became a matter of great anxiety for the UK’s Jews’ under his watch.

The remaining pledges are:

· Prevent re-admittance of prominent offenders

· Provide no platform for those who have been suspended or expelled for anti-semitism

· The full adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-semitism ‘with all its examples and clauses and without any caveats’

· To deliver anti-racism education programmes that have been approved by the Jewish Labour Movement, which would lead training

· To engage with the Jewish community via its ‘main representative groups and not through fringe organisations’ such as Jewish Voice for Labour

· To replace ‘bland, generic statements’ on anti-Jewish racism with ‘condemnation of specific harmful behaviours’

· For the Labour leader to take personal responsibility for ending the ‘anti-semitism crisis’[5]

Let us say at the outset that Jewish Voice for Labour – the organisation labelled ‘fringe’ in The Jewish Chronicle report – has written an open letter to the Labour leadership candidates attacking this attempted interference in the internal affairs of the party. JVL members conclude with these apposite words:

We would respectfully ask you to assure members that, as leader, you would abide by the party’s agreed policy with respect to rights for Palestinians, opposition to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories, and an end to the siege of Gaza, and that you will stand by the caveats recommended by the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee in 2016 which protect free speech on these principles of human rights.[6]

JVL is an organisation of Jewish socialists in the Labour Party who oppose Zionism and support the Palestinian struggle against Israeli oppression. Their slogan is that of all decent socialists: ‘Always with the Oppressed; never with the Oppressor’.

Despite this, all five leadership candidates have signed up to the ten pledges. We would have expected this of the four right-wing candidates. What is shocking is that Rebecca Long-Bailey has signed up.

Implementation of the pledges would mean that the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-semitism, especially if operated by an external body (such as the Board of Deputies), could become the basis for a purge of socialist internationalists inside the Labour Party.

The IHRA cites pretty well any sort of criticism of the State of Israel as possible evidence of anti-semitism. For example, the IHRA states that: anti-semitism might include ‘denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour’.[7]

An attack on the Left

The Labour Party does not have ‘an anti-semitism crisis’ – except for the one concocted by the Tories, The Daily Mail, the Blairites, and the BBC. Occasional examples of anti-semitism in an organisation of half a million people – inappropriate language in online posts, sharing of anti-semitic conspiracy theories, conflation of Jewish people generally with Israeli Zionism, and so on – do not amount to a ‘crisis’.

Anti-semitism is no more a problem in the Labour Party than in any number of other large civil-society organisations. A far bigger problem inside the party is not anti-semitism, but a more general anti-migrant racism. After all, support for immigration controls is party policy, is it not?

And as soon as we bring the Tory Party into the frame – where a recent poll found no less than 56% of members consider Islam to be a threat to British values, and where, I strongly suspect, there are far more closet anti-semites than in the Labour Party – we realise that the attack on Labour is politically motivated distortion.[8]

Anti-semitism no doubt exists in corners of the Labour Party. Socialists believe that racists should be exposed and expelled. The party has disciplinary procedures for doing this.

No serious political organisation can allow an external body to carry out a purge of its members. All serious political organisations have their own internal disciplinary procedures in line with their own politics. Anything else would be a grotesque violation of natural justice.

What is really at issue here is not anti-semitism or any other form of racism. The issue at stake is support for Israel.

The Labour leadership’s craven response on the ‘anti-semitism’ question has allowed the Right to weaponise it by conflating anti-semitism and anti-Zionism. The vast majority of activists in the Right’s sights are not anti-semitic in any way at all: they are socialist internationalists who stand in solidarity with Palestine.

If you do not run, they cannot chase you. But the Labour leadership ran, the Right gave chase, and the Labour Left seems to be running faster all the time – to the point where Rebecca Long-Bailey, who is supposed to be the left candidate in the leadership election, has signed up to the concept of a pro-Israeli purge, which, if carried out, could lead to thousands of socialists being expelled from the Labour Party for pro-Palestinian solidarity.

Flight or fight was the choice, and flight placed the Labour leadership in the position where mainstream commentators such as BBC presenters Laura Kuennsberg, Andrew Neil, and Nick Robinson have been able to refer to Labour’s ‘anti-semitism crisis’ as if the party was indeed riddled with racism that was being systematically denied and ignored by party leaders.

You cannot prove a negative. How do you deny the party has a major problem when everyone, including the party leaders, says that it does? How do you demonstrate that you are dealing with a major problem when only a fringe phenomenon exists? How can you refuse to apologise once you have said there is a major problem, and how can you apologise without confirming that there is?

The Labour leadership is now trapped in a thicket from which it cannot extract itself. What should it have done? Stated clearly at the outset that: a) occasional examples of racism among party members are not tolerated; and b) the party has internal disciplinary measures for dealing with cases of racism.

And then it should have said, loud and clear, again and again: Zionism is a form of racism, Israel practices racial oppression, and Labour Party members stand in solidarity with Palestinians and all other oppressed people fighting back against dispossession, discrimination, and repression.

A weapon of the Far Right

Leading US fascist Steve Bannon addresses the Zionist Organisation of America.

Nor is this simply a local matter. The primary form of racism in the modern world – from India to Indiana – is not anti-semitism, but Islamophobia. Muslims are playing the role played by Jews in the 1930s. Muslims have become the pariahs of the world, the targets of far-right regimes, the scapegoats for social decay.

Instead of an ‘international Jewish conspiracy’, we have a ‘clash of civilisations’, in which a modern, civilised Judaeo-Christian West is counterposed to a benighted, barbaric Islamic East.

This essentially racist world-view has its origins in the work of right-wing academics like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. But this has been mainstreamed by leading fascist activists like Steven Bannon, for whom the rulers of Israel are firmly inside the Western tent – ‘one of us’, as it were – in opposition to the great Islamic Other.

That is why the mainstream Zionist Organisation of America hosted a gala dinner where Bannon was the main speaker. That is why Bannon told guests that he was ‘proud to be a Christian Zionist’. That is why he proclaimed to applause that Donald Trump was the most pro-Israeli US president since Ronald Reagan.[9]

It is also why Trump’s racist attack on four Democratic congresswomen of colour accused them, amongst much else, of being ‘anti-semitic’.[10] He meant, of course, that they were pro-Palestinian.

So this is not just a Labour Party matter: the ‘anti-semitism’ smear is not simply a cudgel for bashing the Left inside the party. It is a global drive, supported by the Far Right, to build support for Israel, de-legitimise pro-Palestinian solidarity, and further embed an already deep-rooted Islamophobic racism.

Gove, on election night, announced that Labour has been defeated because the British people had rejected ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s politics of division, extremism, and anti-semitism’. In an Orwellian inversion of language, speaking for a party that had stood on a platform of nationalism and racism, he accused a life-long anti-racist campaigner of ‘anti-semitism’. What he was referencing, of course, was the Left’s tradition of solidarity with the oppressed.[11]

This was immediately confirmed by Eric Pickles, the ex-Tory minister who chairs the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, who announced that the Johnson government will ban boycotts of Israeli goods on the basis they are ‘anti-semitic’ and ‘thinly disguised racism’. Another inversion of language, for the boycotts are in solidarity with the victims of racism – indeed, with an especially virulent form of institutionalised state racism analogous to South African apartheid.[12]

The spinelessness of the Labour leadership on the question of Zionism and Palestine has allowed its enemies – the fascists, the Tories, the media, the Blairites, the pro-Israel lobby groups – to conflate anti-semitism and pro-Palestinian solidarity, to weaponise the charge of anti-semitism, and to bring us to the brink of what could turn into a McCarthy-style purge of socialists.

A brief history of Zionism and Israel

The Nakba: Palestinians flee Israeli terror in 1948.

Zionism was a right-wing nationalist movement founded in the late 19th century and supported by a minority of European Jews in the years before the First World War. Most politically active Jews in this period were on the Left.

Judaism is a religious confession, not a race, nor even a nationality. The vast majority of European Jews were descended from converts to Judaism in medieval times. Their only real ‘homeland’ was Europe.

But the Zionists claimed that anti-semitism was inevitable, the Jews were a separate ‘nation’, and Jewish people from different parts of the world should therefore resettle in a single place and live together. Where this should be was secondary. One suggestion was Madagascar.

Most Jews at the time regarded the scheme as fantasy. They had jobs, homes, and businesses where they lived. They were integrated into local communities. Anti-semitism was a real threat, but the most practical response seemed to be to fight against it in alliance with socialist and trade union allies, not to daydream about escape to a non-existent ‘homeland’.

What gave Zionism traction was imperialism. The Zionist leaders understood this. They lobbied hard for high-level backing – from, among others, the German Kaiser, the Russian Tsar, and the Ottoman Sultan.

But it was the British who delivered. They wanted the Zionists to encourage Jews to volunteer for military service during the war, and they could see the potential advantage in a pro-British Zionist enclave in post-war Palestine. ‘We could develop the country,’ one Zionist leader had written in 1914, ‘bring back civilisation, and form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal.’

The problem was that Palestine was already occupied. And of its 700,000 people in 1918, only 60,000 were Jews. The rest were Arabs, most of them tenant farmers. Many of the Jews, moreover, were integrated into Palestinian society; many spoke Arabic as their mother tongue, for example.

Yet, by 1947, when the British surrendered their post-WWI ‘mandate’ to rule Palestine, Jewish numbers had increased more than ten-fold to 650,000, Arab numbers less than three-fold to 2,000,000. The difference is explained by the large-scale Jewish immigration permitted under British rule.

The Zionists were well funded by rich benefactors in Europe and America. So they were able to buy land by offering attractive prices to absentee Arab landlords. They then moved in to evict Arab farmers whose families had tilled the land for centuries.

The Zionist land-grab – and British repression of Arab protests – triggered the Palestinian Revolt of 1936-1939. Zionist militia units fought alongside 20,000 British troops to crush it. About 5,000 Palestinians were killed. This was the first of many Palestinian revolts against Zionism and imperialism.

The British afterwards tried to slow down Jewish immigration to ease tensions. This brought them into armed conflict during the 1940s with the increasingly confident Zionist militias. The defeat of the Palestinian movement meant that the Zionist movement the British had nurtured now had a life of its own.

In 1947, with British withdrawal imminent, the new United Nations brokered an international peace plan. Palestine was to be partitioned, with 55% of it allocated to the Zionists (who represented 30% of the population, the vast majority of them foreign settlers).

The Arabs rejected the plan. Huge anti-imperialist demonstrations erupted in Arab capitals. The Palestinians organised for self-defence and hoped for wider Arab backing.

But the Zionists were now too numerous, too well organised, and too heavily armed to be stopped. They went onto the offensive and seized 80% of historic Palestine.

Terror was an essential instrument of their conquest. After the Irgun group massacred 250 Palestinians at the village of Deir Yassin, truck-loads of Zionist militia drove around chanting ‘Deir Yassin! Deir Yassin!’ as a warning to others. At least 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes in 1948.

The Arab monarchs committed their small, ramshackle armies to war. They were quickly defeated, but settled for a land-grab of their own, the rump of Palestinian territory being divided between Egypt and Jordan.

The State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. It has since fought a series of wars against its Arab neighbours – in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. It captured the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Desert in 1967. Another 350,000 Palestinians joined a new exodus in that year.

Much of the additional territory acquired in 1967 has been retained. Israel continues to annex land, build settlements, and encourage Jewish immigration, with the Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank growing ever smaller and more partitioned, driving its 2.7 million Palestinian inhabitants ever deeper into poverty. The bulldozers are always at work.[13]

Meantime, another 1.8 million Palestinians are corralled behind razor wire and watch-towns in the tiny Gaza Strip, making it one of the most heavily populated and impoverished places on earth. It is effectively a concentration camp, its people living in a state of permanent siege, unable to earn a living and almost entirely dependent for survival on UN aid.[14]

The almost 1.9 million Palestinians who live in Israel proper have been second-class citizens since 1950, their status defined by Israel’s ever more exclusionary nationality laws and shaped by the systematic discrimination they experience in virtually all aspects of life.[15]

Israel is a colonial settler-state, armed and funded by imperialism (primarily the United States), based on the dispossession of the Palestinian people of their land and an ongoing policy of exclusion, discrimination, and repression against them.

Neil Faulkner is the author of A Radical History of the World.
















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