How to be pro-Palestinian without being “anti-Zionist”

Submitted by AWL on 31 October, 2018 - 11:17 Author: Martin Thomas
no peace no justice

A French translation of this article can be found here.

The term “anti-Zionist” was rare in political discourse when real debates with Zionists were a lively part of the broadly-defined left, in the early 20th century.

Its use quadrupled in the 1930s, when the Stalinist movement took an overt “anti-Zionist” and antisemitic turn. It multiplied by three again, to twelve times the level of the early 1930s, in the 1970s, when the term “Zionist” had lost meaning in general circulation other than as a catch-all curse-word. So Google Ngram’s statistics show.

Studies such as Dave Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem have shown that it was in that same period, the 1970s, that “absolute anti-Zionism”, or “anti-Zionism seeing itself as anti-racism and anti-imperialism, but in fact being antisemitism”, started to run riot through a Third-Worldist left (starting in Britain, Rich argues, in as unobvious a place as the Young Liberals).

The graphs for “antisioniste” in French, “antizionistisch” in German, and so on, show the same broad pattern with differences of detail. The term “zionist” in Russian shows a huge jump in the 1970s, signifying simultaneously the USSR’s courting of some Arab regimes, a step-up of antisemitism in Russia and Eastern Europe, and an injection of “anti-Zionist” confusion into the European and American left way beyond the official Communist Parties.

The term “anti-Zionism” came into wide usage, not as a way of indicating dissent from or criticism of Zionism, but for quite other reasons.

Before World War Two, Zionist groups were a visible strand on the left in many European countries. There was an explicitly Zionist unit in the Red Army during the Russian civil war. The early Bolshevik government agreed in principle to establish a Jewish republic within the USSR where Jews could gain self-rule if they wished: in the event that policy was only carried out in caricature form a political epoch later, with the creation of Birobidzhan in 1934.

Marxists were arguing with different varieties of Zionists all the time. They felt no need to describe themselves as “anti-Zionists” in order to do that. The usage dating from the 1970s usage connects not to the Marxist critique of early 20th century Zionism, or of nationalism in general, but to regressive and dangerous trends.

“We have to take strong measures”, wrote Leon Trotsky in January 1936, “against the abstract ‘anti-fascist’ mode of thinking that finds entry even into our own ranks at times. ‘Anti-fascism’ is nothing, an empty concept used to cover up Stalinist skulduggery”.

“Anti-fascist”, as a political label, can mean anything from working-class socialism through bourgeois-democratic conservatism to Stalinism. Today it has acquired some connotations of being left-wing and pro-democracy; still, it is not a label a Marxist would choose.

In general “anti-X” political labels are slippery. One of the early examples of such a label was the “Antisemites’ League” of Wilhelm Marr, formed in 1880. Marr’s use of the term “semitism” as a word for “Jewishness” which chimed into the pseudo-scientific racism of the time was pretty much an innovation, so he was forming a political movement on the sole principle of opposition, not to something matter-of-fact, but to something ideologised by him in his own special way.
Jews were not just Jews. They were semites! And they were such a great and compact power (despite their small numbers and apparent differences among themselves) that simply to be “anti” them was to define a whole political program.
“Anti-Zionism” today carries many of the same problems. And more.

Between the late 19th century and 1948, “Zionism” had a fairly definite meaning: the movement to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Since the Israeli state was established in 1948, its meaning has been unclear.

“Zionism” is used as an amalgam-word for Jewish exclusivism within Israel; Israeli chauvinism in general; any species of Israeli nationalism, or Israeli national sentiment; and simply the belief that Israel has a right to exist, i.e. that the Hebrew Jewish nation has a right to self-determination.

Israeli Jews, as a collective, are frequently referred to as “the Zionists”, and thus, unlike any other nation on earth, equated with a political faction. (As if Poland, as a country, were routinely referred to as “the Polish nationalists”). Then the big majority of Jews worldwide, who for historically rooted reasons not changeable at will, mostly have some reflex (maybe critical or very critical) identification with Israel, are also “Zionists”.

“Anti-Zionism”, as a political label, implies that there is some political force in the world, “Zionism”, which is such a great and compact power that just to be “anti” says enough to outline a whole political program. All the “Zionists”, from the young idealist nationalist getting herself or himself arrested for street protests against Israel’s recent killings on the Gaza border, to the foulest Israeli chauvinist, to the Jew who does no more than refuse to commit to hating Israel, are bundled together as components of that great and compact power.

You do not at all have to adopt “anti-Zionism” as a political label in order to back Palestinian rights. And to adopt it is, at the least, to navigate your boat into the midst of a big and raucous convoy carried on antisemitic currents, behind flagships which fly the “anti-Zionist” emblem for fundamentally antisemitic reasons.

A word may need to be added on the terms “anti-Stalinist” and “anti-capitalist”. No-one much defines themselves just as “anti-Stalinist” (which means what? socialist, liberal, fascist, Islamist, conservative...?), but we sometimes call ourselves “anti-Stalinist socialists”.

Why? Because all the old positive terms we can use to define ourselves — socialist, communist, social-democrat — have been taken by others and dirtied. In Britain, at least, “socialist” is understood to cover a broad variety of views, so we can make progress by calling ourselves “socialist” and then defining further — “democratic socialist”, “working-class socialist”, “revolutionary socialist”, “Trotskyist”, “Third Camp”...

Since the Stalinists have abused all the qualifying terms too — North Korea calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and its ruling gang the Workers’ Party of Korea — sometimes it clarifies to indicate upfront that we are not just non-Stalinists, but also war-to-the-death opponents of Stalinism.

The term “anti-capitalist” is unsatisfactory (does it mean Islamist? primitivist-anarchist? “third-way”-ist? what?) but at least is mostly understood (in the name of the French group Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, for example) to mean “socialist who wants to overthrow capitalism, and not just modify it”. It is resorted to because in some countries (France is one) the term “socialist” is widely identified with an official Socialist Party which is obstreperously pro-capitalist.

It carries almost none of the problems that the label “anti-Zionist” carries.

Are we “critical friends of Israel”?

The record of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty is good on indicting actions of the Israeli government, organising protests about them, building links with and boosting the activity of anti-occupation groups in Israel, etc.
It compares well with other left groups who focus on general “hate Israel” propaganda.

A good many years back now, a small team of our people went to leaflet an Israeli-nationalist demonstration called in London.

Most of the people on the protest were outright chauvinists. Our people were accused of being “anti-Israel” or “hating Israel”. They replied by saying that they were pro-Israel. Only they were pro-Palestinian too.

It cut little ice among the agitated protesters. But it was the right way to reply.

“Friends of Palestine”, “friends of Kurdistan”, “friends of Iraq”, “friends of the Earth”, “Friends of Ireland”, “Friends of the Blacks” (in France, 1788-93) — those terms usually describe loose assemblings of sympathy, or diffuse lobby groups, rather than the sort of militant action we advocate. But in that loose sense, yes, we are critical friends of Israel.

At a recent meeting this month I had a Labour “returner” from the 1980s say to me after scanning the pages of Solidarity: “You’re the pro-Israeli ones, aren’t you”. I replied by saying. “Yes. We are also pro-Palestinian. We support ‘two states’.” He nodded and said he remembered that from working with one of our people in the Labour Party in the 1980s.

Subsequent (amicable) conversation made it clear what the reader meant by “pro-Israeli”: it was that we contested the idea that Israel should not be allowed to exist.

There is a precedent here. In 1891, a delegate brought a motion to the congress of the Second International condemning antisemitism. Everyone agreed to condemn the gross antisemitism in Russia. The more general motion ran into trouble.
What about the Jewish bankers, asked some delegates? We can’t afford to appear friendly to them. The conflict was resolved by passing a motion condemning both antisemitism and “philosemitism”. The socialists were against antisemitism, but no, they had no general friendly attitude towards Jews.

As Brendan McGeever and Satnam Virdee explain:

“For socialists like Victor Adler and Paul Singer, being seen to be against antisemitism risked confirming the antisemitic stereotype that socialism was a ‘Jewish’ project. Such concerns were far from confined to the supranational level of the International’s congresses... the socialist response to antisemitism in late imperial Germany was similarly defined by a preoccupation with the question of ‘philosemitism’.

“Having ostensibly rejected antisemitism, German socialists frequently went out of their way to disprove any guilt in ‘defending the Jews’... in the Austrian context... ‘philosemitism’ was often viewed by social democrats as an unacceptable defence of ‘capitalist Jewry’.” (McGeever and Virdee, Antisemitism and socialist strategy in Europe, 1880-1917: an introduction, Patterns of Prejudice, 51:3-4, 2017).

George Plekhanov, and other socialists of the time, took issue with this quibbling. When Jewish bankers harmed the workers, they did so as bankers, not as Jews.

Likewise, when the Israeli state harms Palestinians and others, it does so as a chauvinist and colonialist regime, not as Jewish. Today’s socialists should not put ourselves in the same queasy middle ground — “oh, I’m against antisemitism, but of course I’m in no way friendly to Israel” — as the Second International did.

Does anyone really say “smash Israel”?

But no-one says in so many words that Israel should be destroyed? But Israel’s military position is secure? But most of the Arab states, while refusing to recognise Israel, signal that they would accept some sort of “two states” deal?

Yes, Israel is militarily strong. That is one reason why proposing “smash Israel” as the answer is no service to the Palestinians: it is telling them to wait until some big military power smashes Israel for them, and to trust that this big power will treat them, the Palestinians, well.

It is also true that most of the “left groups” are almost always evasive about what their program for Israel, and about their opposition to the “two states” policy which makes sense to most broadly left-minded people.

Instead they limit themselves to vague and ambiguous slogans (“Free Palestine”), and under that cover pull people towards them by piling on the “hate Israel” messages. Sometimes they indict real Israeli abuses, but always the intended message is: this is not an abuse such as other states are guilty of, but something much worse; this is not an abuse which could be ended by changing policies (conceding “two states”, conceding full equal rights to Arabs within Israel), as other states can end abuses by changing policies; this is something imprinted in the very genetic code of Israel.

If new activists have qualms about this agitation, they are quieted by the idea that Israel is so strong and aggressive that a bit of exaggeration does no harm.

In the Socialist Alliance of 2001-3 we had a chance to debate face-to-face with the SWP on this. They would propose only “Free Palestine” as a slogan, and recommend it only on the ground that it would best “fit the mood”.

They made no effort to have the Socialist Alliance adopt “Two states solution, no solution!”, “From the river to the sea!”, or “We are all Hezbollah”. They left those slogans for shouting and placarding to the narrower milieu found on demonstrations. They blocked the Socialist Alliance from demanding Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, apparently on the grounds that that might imply Israel would still exist, and gave less scope for add-ons than the vague “Free Palestine” formula.

Groups like the SWP used to say, when pressed, that they are for a “secular democratic [single] state” in the territory of pre-1948 Palestine. No-one much on the British left says that now, because it obviously clashes with support for Hamas.
If pressed, they are more likely to say that the solution will come through a socialist revolution across the whole region, which of course, being socialist, will find all the peoples happy to live together in a single state on friendly terms.

But to make a socialist revolution, it is necessary first to unite the working class; there is no other force which can make a socialist revolution for the working class and then present it with working-class unity as a consequence. And it is fatalistic and sectarian to dismiss all prospect for improvement for the Palestinians short of a region-wide socialist revolution.

Lots of people on the left are vague when pressed on this issue, refusing to say that they actually support Israel being wiped off the map. Some on the left say that they would accept “two states”, but only on the basis of the full “right of return” of six million descendants of 1947-8 refugees to what is now Israel. That is another way of saying that they will not accept any actually conceivable “two states” solution, and will support more or less military action against Israel until it disbands.

On paper the Socialist Party’s position on Israel-Palestine looks fairly similar to ours: “a socialist Israel alongside a socialist Palestine as a part of a socialist federation of the Middle East”. Whenever the heat is on (it happened in the 1980s as well as 2009) they hide that position. They chime in with the “hate Israel” brigade.

If questioned, they explain that the “socialist Israel alongside a socialist Palestine” line does not preclude siding with Hamas against the actual Israel which is, you see, capitalist. In 2009 their main line was that Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel had “failed” of their purpose and should be replaced by “mass struggle” (presumably, by “mass” rocket attacks, with the same purpose).

“Israel is a racist endeavour”

Yes, Israel has racist policies (as other states do). But the often-denounced words in the IHRA text are well-chosen on this.
Criticisms of Israel of the same sort as we might make of Turkey or Sri Lanka, the USA or Britain, Russia or China, may be right or wrong, but are not antisemitic. The claim that “the existence” — the very existence — “of a state of Israel” — however modified — “is a racist endeavour” — that is antisemitic.

The general use of the theme “Israel is a racist state” is geared not to rouse protest against actual racist policies, but to persuade hearers that Israel as a political unit is and will be “racist” whatever it does.

There is another issue here, in the way that bad Israeli-nationalist and Israeli-chauvinist policies are all tagged as “racist”. The word “racist” cannot be put back into the relatively precise box it occupied until a few decades ago, meaning prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of supposed “racial” (collective-biological-descent) characteristics, but if it is to aid communication at all its meaning must be circumscribed to some degree.

The issue here is similar to that about declaring all left antisemitisms to be variants of racism. Myself, I don’t think they are. People may slip over the line between political left antisemitism and racism, but there is a line. That means not that political left antisemitism is harmless, but that it is different.

Many people see their political left antisemitism as a form of “anti-racism” (Zionism is racism, isn’t it? Israel is a racist endeavour, isn’t it? Therefore to be an absolute anti-Zionist is only to be anti-racist). They are wrong, but it clarifies nothing to call them “racists”.

“Racist” in essence, over and above policies?

Another argument for calling Israel a “racist state” is that it advantages Jews, said to be a particular “ethnic” or “religious” group.

Israel is intensely nationalist, even chauvinist. You might even call it a chauvinist state. That is not the same thing as “a racist state”. In the first place, all states are more or less nationalist; the answer to that nationalism and even chauvinism, in Israel or elsewhere, is not to have the state conquered and overrun by another state (clearly chauvinist, from its predilection for conquest).

Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities, despite its quirks, demonstrates that the link between nationalism to racism is not a straight line. The state-building official nationalisms of late 19th century Europe were connected through imperialism to racism, but much racism operates within nations, and it is something other than strong nationalism.

“Nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies, while racism dreams of eternal contaminations, transmitted from the origins of time through an endless sequence of loathsome copulations: outside history… The dreams of racism actually have their origin in ideologies of class, rather than in those of nation: above all in claims to divinity among rulers and to ‘blue’ or ‘white’ blood and ‘breeding’ among aristocracies”.

Israeli Jews are one of the most ethnically diverse nations on earth, and many Israeli Jews are secular or atheist. (56% say they “never” go to synagogue on Saturdays). They are a nation, not an ethnic group or a religious sect.

It is an unusual nation, in that a lot of people outside the nation-state identify with it, as many people identify as “Irish” without much connection to Ireland, or “Palestinian” without much geographical connection to Palestine. The national identity is connected with a religious identity — as Gaelic-Irish identity historically has been connected with Catholic religion, or Serbian identity with Serbian Orthodox religion.

Those unusual features arise from the fact that the gradual assimilation of Jews into varied nations across the world, expected by Marxists and socialists until the 1920s, was disrupted and reversed by Nazi persecution, the closing of doors to Jewish refugees after 1933, the Holocaust, and the mass eviction of Jewish populations from Arab and Muslim-majority countries.

To be against Israeli nationalism and chauvinism? Yes. To use the special features of the Israeli Jewish nation — a unique combination, but of elements all also found in other nations — to deny its rights? No.

Yet another argument is that the very idea of creating a Jewish state was in and of itself “racist”, and all the bad features of Israel flow from that.

Almost all nations in history have been created by influxes of settlers. Thus the Franks, after whom France is named, came from what is now Germany, and so on.

The “Bantu” peoples of what is now South Africa settled there around the same time, or only slightly before, Europeans started settling there. We called the governments and parties of white South Africa “racist” not because of the possible slight time difference in settlement by their ancestors, but because of their living policies and actions oppressing living black South Africans.

In the early 20th century, Marxists argued against Zionism not on the basis of opposing all collective movements of people, but on the basis that (a) the project was unrealistic, “utopian” (we were wrong about that); (b) in its particular form in Palestine, would lead the Jewish settlers into collaboration with British imperialism and conflict with the Arabs (we were right about that).

Consider Isaac Steinberg, Left SR and People’s Commissar for Justice in the first workers’ government after October 1917, whose account of the revolution and the first period after it is covered in our recent book In Defence of Bolshevism. Did the Bolsheviks really agree to a “racist” being the first People’s Commissar for Justice? Surely not.

Yet Steinberg’s major political activity after he left the USSR was trying to establish a compact Jewish community by settlement in the sparsely-populated Kimberley (northern) district of Western Australia. The left of the Australian labour movement supported his scheme, but the Curtin Labor government eventually blocked it, it seems on the grounds that they didn’t like the prospect of such a compact Jewish community.

If there were racist elements in Steinberg’s plan, they were in the shortcomings of his discussions and negotiations with the Aboriginal peoples in the area (I don’t know the details of those), not in the idea of enabling Jews to establish a community.

Equally, the Bolsheviks’ plan to create a Jewish republic within the USSR — eventually realised only in a abortive caricature form under Stalin in 1934, in Birobidzhan — was not in essence racist.

Is Corbyn “flailing”?

We have known Jeremy Corbyn for 40 years. As we perceived early on, and as we pointed out when he stood for Labour leader in 2015, he is someone who feels a real moral imperative to stand with the left and the working class where he sees the issues clearly.

He is also someone who is often overwhelmed when faced with sharp difficulties in deciding what “left” means.

Over recent decades, he has moved from a quasi-Trotskisant sort of politics to alignment (with private reservations) with the Morning Star. Since 2015, he has appointed and worked with a Leader’s Office dominated by Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray, people who are thorough Stalinists and also ten times more politically confident, articulate, energetic, and well-read than he is.

He has not had the ideological fortitude to speak out forthrightly for his own “two states” policy. Instead he has been constantly on the retreat on the issue. He has give no clear indication that he understands that there are other dimensions to antisemitism besides the old conservative “we can’t have Jews in our golf club” sentiment which was current when he was a teenager, and the far right.

Most of his output has been one forced apology or “I didn’t mean it” plea after another. Very little has been clear positive statements. It is now evident that the initial exclusion from Labour policy of the IHRA words censuring as antisemitic the idea that “the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour” was not an innocent attempt to improve clarity, but a ploy by the Leader’s Office to license exactly that idea.

The Leader’s Office had to retreat to accepting the whole IHRA text. It tried to finesse that by a contorted (and in strict grammar nonsensical) gloss claiming that it could not be “regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict”. (What does it mean to call “circumstances” racist? “Another” than what?)

Then it was forced to retreat even on that, but not without signalling “we’re adopting these words, but we don’t really mean them”.

What is that if not flailing? The fact that right-wingers go in for wild talk (“the worst since Enoch Powell”) does not excuse the Leader’s Office or Corbyn.

We can and must combine rejection of the wild talk with the necessary criticism of the Labour leadership’s policy.

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