In 1986-7 Socialist Organiser, Solidarity's predecessor, carried a debate on "what is Zionism?", an issue recently discussed in this paper. In the last issue of Solidarity we reprinted some extracts from the 1986-7 debate. We print the rest here.
A perverse definition
Martin Thomas, Socialist Organiser 297, 8/01/87
Faced with rising anti-semitism in late 19th century Britain, Eleanor Marx used to declare at public meetings: "I am a Jewess".
Strictly speaking she wasn't, but she wanted to confront the anti-semites head-on.
The position of Sean Matgamna is in some ways similar. Faced with "anti-Zionists" who say that if he defends the rights of the Israeli Jewish nation then he's Zionist, he responds: "So I'm a Zionist. So what?"
The impulse, I think, is honourable. But the logic, I think, is faulty
Crude anti-Zionists often refer to the Israeli Jewish nation as "the Zionists". They evade the issue of the rights of the Israeli Jewish nation by first reducing the Israeli Jews to a political group ("Zionists") and then reducing "Zionist" politics to the driving out of the Palestinian Arabs.
Now most Israeli Jews would accept the label "Zionist". And historic Zionism did mean the driving out of the Palestinian Arabs. But historic Zionism also meant many other things. And the big majority of Israeli Jews are Israeli Jews not because of an ideological choice but because they were born in Israel or found Israel as a refuge from persecution. So the "anti-Zionist" definition grossly distorts the reality.
Then the "anti-Zionists" add an inescapably anti-semitic twist by proceeding further in the same line of argument and extending the term "Zionist" to all those (Jews) who feel a special national allegiance to the Israeli Jewish nation.
Even as a gambit in debate, saying "So then I'm a Zionist too: so what?" is a more confusing and clarifying response
In Israeli and wider Jewish politics, "Zionism" has a current meaning which is narrower than Sean Matgamna's "logical" definition as meaning "defending the right of Israel to exist (maybe with modifications)" .
It is almost impossible to participate in Israeli, or broader Jewish, politics without accepting the narrower definition of Zionism, at least provisionally. And to have "our" definition of Zionism in which almost all Jewish and Israeli anti-Zionists, and a sizeable spectrum of Palestinian nationalists, are "Zionists", is perverse.
Rights and wrongs
Clive Bradley, Socialist Organiser 300, 29/01/87
Perhaps the clearest way to reply to Sean Matgamna's comments is to explain briefly my overall views.
Much of what passes as "anti-Zionism" is implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, anti-semitic. The nice-sounding programme of a "secular, democratic state" is a utopia, and in fact could only be implemented by force. In reality, whatever people mean by it, it is a programme unrealisable except by military conquest of Israel.
If it is supposed to be voluntary on the Jews' part, it is not an answer to the national question. A long (who could know how long?) process of change of heart by the Jews is not much of a programme for Palestinians facing oppression now. Withdrawal of Israeli forces from the post-1967 occupied territories, combined with the right of secession of majority Arab areas within pre-1967 Israel, is a big part of an immediate democratic programme.
So, I support Israel's right to exist. I agree with Sean Matgamna that this is an unconditional right - that is, it is ridiculous to say that we support the conquest of Israel until such time as Israel is a nicer place. I am completely opposed to the conquest of Israel.
Sean Matgamna says that we should champion the rights of the Palestinians, and support Jews fighting Jewish chauvinism. On what basis, though? What does opposition to Jewish chauvinism mean?
It seems to me that it must include trenchant criticism of the refusal of the Jews to countenance a large influx of Arabs into their state. We should not advocate "return" on the point of a chauvinist's gun, nor deny the Jews rights until they agree to allow Arabs in. The agency for opposition to the racist, exclusivist character of Israel, and therefore for change, is the working class in Israel.
But Israel is exclusivist, and we do have a socialist responsibility to oppose this exclusivism. Israel's right to exist is not conditional upon it ceasing to be exclusivist, but opposition to its exclusivism should be part of our programme.
Israel's definition as a state for Jews rather than for its citizens, which Matgamna sees no problem with, is an expression of this exclusivism. It is part of the institutional structure that denies Arabs rights within Israel.
Because of this, I think it is wrong to identify ourselves with "Zionists" even as a quiet way to make a stand against the hysterical "anti-Zionists". The Zionist movement - though not, of course, all individual Zionists - are our political enemies too.
I think it is possible both to make a stand against anti-semitism on the left and to maintain a socialist critique of the Israeli state.
Zionism in living politics
Sean Matgamna (excerpt from a much longer article published in 1987, in Arabs, Jews and Socialism)
You can't - despite what people like Martin Thomas think - have a clam, elevated, abstract, scholarly or pseudo-scholarly discussion on the meaning of the word Zionism. It is a living question of politics. The whole network of questions - of history and so on - cannot be separated from the central political question of Middle East politics now. One state or two? The right of the Jewish nation, or the right of the Arabs to destroy it?
You cannot in the political arena separate such a discussion from the attitude we should take, as socialists and democrats, to Jews and "Zionists" who defend the right of Israel to exist and refuse to accept the ultimatum that they are posed by much of the left - endorse the demand that the people of the Jewish state agree to dissolve themselves in an Arab secular democratic state, or be branded (like Israel) as racists and imperialist stooges.
Thus Martin Thomas's letter is typically balanced, and a fairminded summary of what has gone before - but it's five miles above the political terrain on which we operate. It simply does not engage with the political questions I have tried to take up.
It doesn't relate to, let alone answer, the problem that we need to answer - that anti-Zionism mostly means anti-semitism on the left, and moreover that it is part of a massive political infection. Or the fact that by running before the hysterical anti-Zionists we give their campaign extra power and momentum, and abandon those who cannot so readily solve their dilemmas by adding their own curses to a word - Zionism.
Martin Thomas should think about the very flattering analogy he makes between those of us who would be prepared to accept, with qualifications, the label Zionist, and Eleanor Marx's declaration during the anti-Jewish agitation in Britain that she was a Jewess.
I think Martin misunderstands what she was doing. I don't think she was just making a romantic personal gesture. Eleanor Marx was a well-known and respected trade union activist among the East End workers. She had helped organise match girls, gas workers, dockers and others, helping to start what is today the GMB. She taught the union's first secretary, Will Thorne, how to read and write.
Surely Eleanor Marx was trying to counter the xenophobia, the fear of aliens and outsiders, by identifying "Jews" with someone her listeners knew and accepted. Socialist Organiser has taught few on the left to read either English or Marxian, and there are those, in the hard left and soft left, who would brand us ourselves as aliens; but, still, something can be gained by making a demonstrative stand against the anti-Zionist hysteria - and all the more so if we combine this, as we should, with honest defence of the oppressed Palestinian Arabs and support for the anti-chauvinists within Israel.
The point was made very early in the discussion that Zionism is a word with more than one meaning. By now it is a pretty decayed word.
I think the logical meaning is what I said: acceptance of the right of Israel to exist. Martin Thomas says that the Israeli left uses "Zionism" to mean the idea that the Israeli Jewish nation has rights above all other nations. All right! But how many copies of Socialist Organiser go to Israel? If we were in Israel we could adopt the terminology of the left, and we'd have no reason to quarrel about it. In Britain we have, and that's the point of this discussion
I do not support or accept responsibility for the crimes of the Israeli state, and no amount of play with words can saddle me with that responsibility. I want to defend the rights of "Zionists" and of Jews, not Israel's treatment of the Palestinian Arabs.
Have I "confused" the terms "Jew" and "Zionist" and "then accused the rest of the left of anti-semitism for the same sin?" At issue here is a question of fact: is it or is it not true that most Jews instinctively support Israel? The only exceptions are some very religious Jews and a thin smattering of revolutionary socialists.
It is not a matter of imposing the "Zionist" label on Jews who would not accept it, a substitution of a "congenital Zionist" definition of Zionism for the "proper" one, but of defining rigorously what exists now.
Either we accept that any emphatic hostility to "Zionists" is in effect hostility to the Jews, or we try to evade this problem by using "Zionist" as a tag only for the allegedly super-villainous super-Zionists. But who are these? There are specifically Zionist organisations. But a broad campaign against such people for their pro-Israel stand, or for the crimes of Israel, is impossible without at the first move clawing in most "Zionists" in the wider definition
It seems to me that sympathy, understanding, or even retrospective endorsement, of the Zionist movement would be a thousand times more appropriate to the facts of modern Jewish history than the stupid demonology - based on utterly dishonest pseudo-history - in which the left engages.