Munich and the left

Submitted by Matthew on 1 August, 2012 - 12:28 Author: Eric Lee

This may be news to some, but what is today commonplace was once quite rare. I’m referring to anti-semitism on the far left — and am reminded of what some of us saw as a turning point back in 1972.

For a quarter of a century following the defeat of Nazi Germany, anti-semites everywhere were laying low — especially in the west. The Soviet leadership was growing increasingly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, and anti-semitism was rife in the Arab world, but in countries like the USA, it was quite rare for Jew-hatred to be expressed openly. And certainly not on the left.

So while there were various degrees of criticism of Israel — especially of Israel’s brand-new occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights — these took place at a time when anti-semitism remained taboo.

That’s why the Munich massacre of that year — and particularly the reaction of America’s largest far left group to it — was such a shock.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was then still riding on a wave of support following its successful leadership of a large part of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam years — a war that was still raging. Its youth section, the Young Socialist Alliance, was strong on many college campuses. And it was still at that time pretty much an orthodox Trotskyist organisation, though was later to drift towards Stalinism.

When 11 Israeli athletes were killed following the attack by Black September terrorists, most political activists either grieved or denounced the terrorists. Some would have criticised the botched German government attempt to rescue them.

But not the SWP.

In its weekly newspaper The Militant, the SWP ran an article on the “real victims of the Munich massacre”. And the real victims, in their eyes, were not the 11 innocent Israelis, but … the Palestinians.

An editorial in The Militant following the Munich massacre labelled the world outcry as a “hypocritical roar of indignation” whose purpose really was “to make the criminal look like the victim” and said the massacre itself was merely a mistake in tactics.

Those of us who were in the Socialist Party, at that time still under the ideological leadership of Max Shachtman, were shocked at the SWP’s stance.

Our youth section, the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL) produced a flyer for distribution at SWP and YSA events where we bluntly accused our former comrades of having crossed the line from criticism of Israel to hatred of the Jewish state — and of Jews.

The SWP was shocked at the allegation and responded by publishing a series of articles in The Militant defending their record in the fight against anti-semitism, going back to the Second World War.

Looking back at that today, it strikes me what an innocent time that was.

Today, if a group on the left is accused of anti-semitism it rarely goes to the lengths that the SWP of 1972 went to defend themselves.

Accusations of Jew-hatred are today greeted with a shrug.

What was so shocking 40 years ago — that a socialist organisation would identify somehow with a brutal terrorist attack on innocent people if those people happened to be Jewish — is commonplace now.

In the decades that followed the Munich massacre, the SWP drifted away from Trotskyism and lost nearly all of its members, leaving only a tiny organisation left, bereft of all influence.

But the poisonous legacy of anti-semitism remains.


Submitted by John D on Sun, 05/08/2012 - 11:13

If you look at the broad sweep of left-wing history over the last century, individuals who were born of Jewish parents have played a numerically disproportionate prominent role, as theoreticians and organisers and activists.

Now look to the future. Try a simple prediction: In the next say, 10 to 20 years, will the left still attract Jewish people of similar quality and quantity?

I think it is predictable that more than most persons of Jewish background will not be comfortable in or attracted to the left.

Rejection, contempt, dismissal and no little hatred will make their mark. The sign on the door, written in big, unfriendly letters, says "Not Welcome".

And is that to the benefit or detriment of the left?

Is this what is wanted?

John Davidson

Submitted by John D on Tue, 07/08/2012 - 16:43

And how, one wonders in an off-hand sort of way, exactly, how do you go about it, this "I completely oppose anti semitism . . ."? What does that mean, in practice?

(Two positives never make a negative. Yeah! Right!)

The working class and Cable Street was a long, long time ago. When did anyone on the left last do anything credible in defense of any form of Jewish community under attack?

Or is your primary focus, the only thing that arouses actual enthusiasim is "However I do want to see the end of the zionist state of Israel . . .".

That's the mood music. Is this what its really, and only, all about?

Is there any credibility from a left-wing point of view? And to the point, will there be appeal to anyone in any form of Jewish community?

Or is it a love story whose time has passed?

Sounds like it to me. (Sigh)

John Davidson
(UK & Israel)

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 07/08/2012 - 19:48

Well, Workers' Liberty has certainly been active in fighting to defend Jewish people against anti-semitism.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by John D on Tue, 07/08/2012 - 22:15

One of the reasons I keep coming to read WL is that it is one of the few places that remain that debates, that discusses, that tries to include me. That at least at the theoretical level, it has a place for persons from the Jewish community. You are so taken up with megaphone political sloganeering that you are having a real difficulty even understanding the question, you are so bubbling over with enthusiasm to megaphone shout DOWN WITH ISRAEL.

(Just a small personal aside. When I read or hear "I completely oppose anti semitism . . ." the message is "some of my best friends are Jews", with all the negative interpretation that goes along with it. Very uncool. Best left unsaid.)

I'll try again.

There are Jewish communities and organizations of all sorts in Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Eire, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the USA, Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, Romania, Greece, the Ukraine. There are even rumours that there might be one or two in Poland. They say there are strange ones in Portugal, and Madeira has a very odd Jewish community history coming back into life. The range of orientations is very very wide.

My question, and my worry, was that these people hear the mood from the left. Its been getting more and more uncomfortable for them, as Jews. Because of the focus of the left on seeing everything through the lens of anti-zionism, the historical process that I see is a diminishing of this resource. It feels unwelcome.
I regret this, and wish it were not so.

Go back. Read my first posting and read your replies. You can only talk in slogans about zionism and Israel. I am talking about a perception of hostility from the left to Jewish communities all over the world, as Jews. They're not totally stupid. They get it. And the probable response will be less involvement.

Your attitude, your focus, is part of the problem.

I was asking for someone to look at the grand sweep of the last century, and the contribution that was made then. And to look forward to the next period (10 y, 20 y) and to ask if that resource will contribute as before in quality and quantity to the left. And if the answer is no, do you care? Is it times past? Is it "So long, and thanks for all the fish?". I had thought WL was the place to discuss this. Looks like I was mistaken.

John D

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 08/08/2012 - 20:20

John, there seem to be some crossed wires here.

"Liberty" is not a Workers' Liberty spokesperson. In fact, s/he may not even be a WL member.

But in any case, I don't understand, what's preventing the discussion from continuing?

Will reply to substantive arguments on all sides in next couple of days.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by John D on Thu, 09/08/2012 - 13:19

The second sentence of Eric Lee's lead article made quite an impression on me "I’m referring to anti-semitism on the far left". It clarified in just a few words what it takes me a page to say.
I have just completed a visit to family and friends in Glasgow, Manchester and North London. As a pensioner (on a quarter pension I might add, and very happy for it too!) and an unemployed worker in Israel (pension age is 67, and not a day before) I am no physical activist, but in the UK I discussed the riots, the worker blacklist and several on-going strikes, especially with the younger set.

I heard a lot of sympathy for the workers, and a hope that the outcome will be good for them. And this from people who are basically not poor, but semi-comfortable, very socially active people. I asked, basically "Why are you not stuck in there, marching, organising, stuff that we all know you do well".

In one way or another, metaphorically looking at their shoes and shuffling their feet, the reply was always "We're not wanted. When they find out we're Jewish, it will get very unpleasant. The Muslims leftists will go balistic, maybe even physical and the others will just stand aside muttering serves you right, what about Israel". Would parents be happy encouraging their children to join in? Would they hell!

So I began to wonder, that long friendly supportive story of the left and the Jews, is it over? Does the left want that? In the balance of all things considered, is that a good deal?

So I come to AWL, where I get a vague hazy notion that I'm still acceptable as a human being, and ask a very simple, direct question about the Jews and the left.

And what happens? What about Israel!

"I do want to see the end of the zionist state of Israel . . .". Do you? Well jolly good for you, mate. But what about the UK worker's blacklist (an issue that particularly outrages me and is looked upon with disgust by all the people I talked to. Don't you want Jewish community help in fighting that? Is the price of joining the struggle that we first have to come with signs shouting "As a Jew, I hate Israel! Down with Zionism!".

Somewhere out there on the left, perhaps in Islington, or Blackheath, or Hackney, is there someone signing off on certificates of human acceptability". Is there a questionaire, with boxes I can tick? Is it you checking the forms? How do I get one, please?

So there you still are, with the mainstream "The question that needs asking is do you beleive that Jewish workers can be won away from zionist influence just as the workers of the world needs to be won away from their nationalist beleifs." Are those the objective conditions required for acceptance? In the UK? In France, Germany, the USA etc?

I suppose in some way it is an answer to my question.

Sad. Just sad

John Davidson (UK and Israel)

Submitted by LM on Thu, 09/08/2012 - 23:04


As Sacha and 'liberty' have said, 'liberty' is not a member of the AWL. This is an open forum where anyone can debate ideas so it is factually untrue to say that

"So I come to AWL, where I get a vague hazy notion that I'm still acceptable as a human being, and ask a very simple, direct question about the Jews and the left.

And what happens? What about Israel!"

On the substantive point, revolutionary socialists want to overthrow ALL capitalist states because we wish to see fundamental change and the transformation of capitalism into a socialist society through the self-liberation of the working-class. That includes supporting Israeli workers fighting their bosses. Just as we argue against some on the far left exceptionalising Israel and applying standards to Israeli workers (for instance, arguing that Israelis renounce their right to self-determination) which they apply to no other national grouping, we argue that Israel is a class society too and support revolutionary movements of Israeli workers (against those on the left who seek to boycott them). We support a two-state solution which guarantees the rights of Israeli Jews and Palestinians to self-determination and we support efforts to unite workers of both nations across borders.

I hope this clarifies things for you.


Submitted by AWL on Fri, 10/08/2012 - 01:29

John is absolutely right that the knee-jerk instinct (which 'Liberty', perhaps inadvertently and unintentionally, expressed) of many leftists to qualify, or at least supplement, any statement of opposition to anti-Semitism with some statement about Israel ("anti-Semitism is bad but we must remember how terrible Israel is") is part of a common sense on the left that could itself be described as anti-Semitic.

With relation to what other ethnic, cultural, or national group do leftists feel it necessary to qualify their opposition to racism with some "balancing" statement of opposition to the nationalism of that group? Does anyone, in opposing (for example) racism against South Asian people, feel it necessary to say "this racism is bad, but we must remember that the Indian state is incredibly reactionary and should be abolished", and then splutter that "well I think all states should be abolished, so what's the problem?" when challenged? No. Of course not.

We're materialists; obviously we have to understand historical contexts, and of course in cases of national-colonial oppression its "understandable" that the oppressed group would develop hostilities towards the oppressor nation that take a reactionary or even racist form. In that sense of course we can "understand" the relationship between Israel's colonial project in Palestine and anti-Semitism amongst Palestinian and other Arab peoples. But we still have a basic, anti-racist responsibility to oppose racism on its own terms, even when we "understand" its material roots.

It shouldn't be a case of "well, we oppose anti-Semitism, but given what Israel's doing to the Palestinians - what do you expect?" This is essentially the attitude a lot of leftists have to anti-Semitism. Apart from anything else, it actually implicitly accedes to the Zionist idea of Israel as the representative of all Jews everywhere (rather than the consistent-democratic idea of Israel as the expression of national self-determination of the Israeli-Jewish nation).

I am only an anti-Zionist in the sense that I am an internationalist and therefore opposed to all nationalisms. That a specific opposition to Jewish nationalism, or Israeli-Jewish nationalism, as a special political category, has worked itself into the DNA of the left is also an indication of an exceptionalism towards Jews.

Until this exceptionalism is overcome - that is, until a common sense based on an exceptionalising and fetishising "anti-Zionism" is replaced with a common sense based on working-class internationalism and consistent democracy - I think that John's fears that the left is becoming an increasingly inhospitable place for Jewish people will largely be confirmed.


Daniel Randall

Submitted by losttango on Sun, 12/08/2012 - 14:23

With relation to what other ethnic, cultural, or national group do leftists feel it necessary to qualify their opposition to racism with some "balancing" statement of opposition to the nationalism of that group?.

Conversely, with what other nation do leftists have to guard themselves against accusations of racism if they oppose the actions of that nation's government? If we say China should get out of Tibet, do we need to balance that with a statement that we're opposed to racism against Chinese people? Were we required to balance our demand for the Serbs to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or Kosovo with a condemnation of anti-Serb racism?

I think to a large extent what happened historically was that the Israeli state got a free pass from the world in general including most of the left precisely because of the holocaust and the history of European anti-Semitism. If any other group had decided to set up a more or less ethnically pure state on land which was mostly occupied by a different national group I suspect a pretty dim view would have been taken.

What has driven the increasing opposition to Israel is primarily the behaviour of successive Israeli governments, which have shown they are uninterested in negotiating a genuine two-state solution and very interested in seizing and colonising as much Palestinian land as they think they can get away with. Before the 1967 'pre-emptive' war, anti-Zionism was not a big cause on the left. Similarly, every action by Israel which makes a 2-state solution less likely increases the pull of the "democratic secular Palestine" arguments.

Going back to the original article, in the broader historical context, the Palestinians have certainly been the victims, both of the Israelis and of the bourgeois Arab governments, and I think any analysis which doesn't acknowledge that is irredeemably skewed.

Submitted by losttango on Sun, 12/08/2012 - 14:45

Sartre, in many respects a man of the left, broadly supported Black September's action in 1972, making the point that guerilla actions are the resort of the powerless - "[terrorism is] a terrible weapon but the oppressed poor have no others."

I'm not familiar with the debates on the American left which Eric Lee references, and that makes it rather difficult to form a judgement on whether the SWP's line was objectively anti-semitic. However it may be important to remember that Black September's aim was not to kill the Israeli athletes but to use them as hostages to negotiate the release of Palestinian prisoners. There's an argument to be had about whether such tactics can ever be legitimate, but the Israeli side certainly had [and has] no shortage of civilian blood on its hands either. Context does matter.

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