Fighting Left Antisemitism in the 1980s

Submitted by martin on 22 June, 2018 - 11:34 Author: Martin Thomas

Download whole Workers' Liberty 3/62 as pdf

The story told in this pull-out, of a campaign in the labour movement against us in 1983, was originally published as a series of four articles in 2003 under the title “The Last Time We Were Heresy-Hunted”.

The occasion in 2003 was another, though slighter, heresy-hunt waged against us, around the time of the break-up of the 2000-3 Socialist Alliance and the formation of the ill-fated Respect Coalition, for our insistence that George Galloway was an unacceptable figure on the left.

More recent heresy-hunts, much of their content anonymous, most of them only on social media, have been milder affairs than the 1983 one.

Then, a daily paper, endorsements from prominent trade-union and Labour figures, public meetings with such figures on the platform, and resolutions through Trades Councils and union branches, were deployed against us in a campaign by the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP).

The ideological core of that heresy-hunt, as with much recently, was “left” antisemitism.

Today “left” antisemitism’s gambit is to dismiss all question of antisemitism (short of neo-Nazi outrage) as mere contrivance to whitewash Israel or discomfort Corbyn. The 1983 equivalent was to say that our questioning of the WRP’s financing by Libya and other Arab dictatorships could only prove that we were part of a world “Zionist connection” linking us with... Thatcher and Reagan.

The WRP was by then a small and not-well-liked minority on the left. Instructively, however, in a politically unhealthy labour movement, they could build up a large heresy-hunt and get wide sections of the left nodding along or silently consenting.

They could do that because ideas were widespread that the small Israeli state was the world’s worst and most potent imperialism and that “Zionism” (meaning Israeli nationalism, or just the belief that Israel had a right to exist) should be equated with racism, fascism, or Nazism.

A good part of the “left” antisemitism in the Labour Party today is driven by people who have rejoined Labour after being out of politics for a long time but were formed politically in the 1980s by such ideas, building on less systematic “absolute anti-Zionism” in the 1970s left.

Naive and well-intentioned advocacy of the new PLO formula (after 1969) of a single “secular democratic state” in Palestine (thought of vaguely as a friendly coming-together of the two nations) curdled into support for whatever Arab or Islamic armies might conquer Israel. Today, with the rise of Hamas and Hezbollah, scarce anyone on the British left talks positively about a “secular democratic state”: all that remains is hatred for Israel and “Zionists”.

Many on the left in 1983 must have found the WRP’s anti-Israel stuff excessive, but evidently many were still willing to accept it as just a vehement expression of valid anti-imperialism.

That caused complications for us. In 1981 our forerunners had merged with a group of people around Alan Thornett and Tony Richardson who had been expelled from the WRP in 1974. WRP-type ideas still had some weight with them.

By 1983, the “Thornettite” component of the merged organisation had fragmented. Some of the fragments had quit. All were aggrieved and discontented.

Some of the “Thornettites” backed the call “Zionists out of the labour movement”, which the WRP didn’t. They criticised the WRP for failing to follow up its ultra-hostility to Israel, which they shared, with similar “ultra-hostility” to routine “Zionists” on the ground. The people heresy-hunted, by name, by the WRP, were also being heresy-hunted on “Zionism” inside our own organisation.

On “our” side of the organisation, back in the 1970s we had denounced attempts on the left (among students) to identify “Zionists” with “racists”.

We would also oppose the wave of attempts to ban student Jewish Societies for being “Zionist” which started at Sunderland Poly in March 1985.

But our policy on Israel-Palestine was still the single “secular democratic state” formula into which, like most on the left, we had slipped after 1969. A minority had been arguing for “two states” since about 1978. It was growing, and those who still supported the single “secular democratic state” line were becoming more doubtful, but we would not actually change our stance until later.

Thus in our 1983 responses to the heresy-hunt, we had to word things gingerly. The reader will see where. And in part the 1983 responses were opportunity-seizing polemic by the tiny minority advocating “two states”, the opportunity being given by the fact that even the most hostile “Thornettites” could scarcely deny those arraigned by the WRP political gangsters the right to reply.

Instructively, the fact that the organisation was for a single “secular democratic state” did not slow down the WRP in denouncing us as part of the world “Zionist connection”, or a fair number of miscellaneous leftists in going along with the WRP. That we spoke out against the WRP’s financial links with Libya and other states, and that we criticised their mercenary “Zionist-hunting”, was enough.

As the story records, we were vindicated resoundingly and quickly when the WRP fell apart in late 1985. As it also records, with the left demoralised after the miners’ defeat, not a single one of those who had joined the WRP heresy-hunt could stir themselves to apologise or openly admit to having lessons to learn.

Ken Livingstone, in particular, who had been working with the WRP via Labour Herald since 1981, remained close to Healy. He claimed that the WRP break-up must have been engineered by MI5, and that we were complicit with MI5.

Because lessons were not learned then, they remain to be learned now.

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