A debate on Corbyn, Israel and left antisemitism

Submitted by AWL on 20 March, 2019 - 11:33

This comment on our debate is from Alan Davies of Socialist Resistance. More debate on the right of return here.

“Defend Corbyn against the AWL”

Just as the latest round of witch hunting antisemitism allegations against Jeremy Corbyn has reached its crescendo something particularly vile has emerged from the woodwork – a 2,400-word open letter to Corbyn from Sean Matgamna of the AWL (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty), an organisation claiming to be on the radical left, arguing that Corbyn is guilty as charged.

The AWL has a proud thirty-year record of supporting Zionism and attacking anti-Zionist Jews. An article last year concluded that “AWL is a Zionist organisation, though it does not describe itself as such. Its commitment to Zionism cancels out its commitment to socialism and internationalism whenever the two conflict.”

Matgamna’s letter is a torrent of pro-Israeli, anti-Palestinian, bile. Despite recognising the weaponisation of antisemitism against Corbyn, he argues that this is fully justified and should be supported.

He argues that the MPs who left the Labour party last week to form the Independent Group were “driven out of the party” by “possible future anti-Jewish pogromists” inspired by “five decades of political and moral ferment on the ostensibly ‘Trotskyist’ left in which absolute hostility to Israel, to ‘any’ Israel, has slowly built up in the political atmosphere like poisonous smog.”

He explains: “The ‘Corbyn surge’ that recreated a mass membership almost overnight pulled into the new, new Labour Party a lot of people educated on the Middle East question in the kitsch left. With them they brought their political baggage, and a trolling and bullying culture. On a certain level, the Corbyn surge was also an antisemitic surge.”

With Matgamna you can skip to the chase. The much-debated definitions of antisemitism — that antisemitism is hatred of or discrimination against Jewish people and not opposition to the Israeli Government or indeed Zionism — have little relevance. For him the main crime is exactly that – opposing the state of Israel or conversely supporting the Palestinians.

The biggest crime in his distorted world is to call for a single democratic secular state based on equal rights as an alternative to the current occupation and suppression of the Palestinian people by Israel and to support the right of return of the Palestinian refugees driven out in 1947-8.

Such people, he says, are “absolute anti-Zionists” and in the end they are racists who bring a “lethal poison” into the labour movement: They are “adamantly for a one-state solution, for an Arab and Islamic state incorporating the population of 1948-67 Israel, or those of the population whom it does not kill or drive out in conquering them.”

He goes on: “This ‘right of return’ implies, and is meant to imply, the displacement of the Jews of Israel. By what standards do the descendants of the people who lived in that territory decades ago have the right to do that?”

He accuses Corbyn of playing lip service to a two-state solution while tolerating “absolute anti-Zionists” in the party. He calls for the witch hunt to be stepped up and the party to be re-educated. He calls for advocacy of the right of return and opposition to Zionism to be proscribed:

“As well as an educational drive in the party on this question – which includes a candid discussion of the politics of the leadership – the party should declare advocacy of the destruction of Israel, by Arab or Islamic states or whomever, incompatible with membership of the Labour Party. Encoded versions of that policy – via ‘right of return’ for example – should not be tolerated in the labour movement. Advocacy of measures that are code for driving Israel out of existence – ‘right of return’, ‘from the river to the sea’, etc. – should not be tolerated in a healthy labour movement…”

And this comes from a man who told a public meeting in the 1990s that Palestinians could not exercise their right of return because “No nation should be expected to absorb an immigration greater in size than the host community”. This racist nonsense is what should really not be tolerated in the labour movement.

No doubt this kind of vile divisive stuff works well for the AWL in hardening up a sect around outrageous positions that are rejected by the bulk of the left and building its organisation. But its wider effect is to support a campaign by the right that poses a real and direct threat to the whole Corbynite project, which is the most important development in Britain and indeed beyond for a very long time. The response to the witch hunt has been the emergence of Jewish Voice for Labour, which does a very important job,

It should be fully supported by the whole of the left in the Labour party that rejects the AWL line and seeks to build a healthy left inside the Labour Party to back up and defend the Corbyn leadership.

“Two states” and the Milne machine

Martin Thomas replies:

Theodor Adorno and other Jewish academic Marxists of the Frankfurt School fled to the USA after Hitler took power. In the USA, they said, they found themselves more troubled by antisemitism than they had been in Germany, right up to 1933.

Germany had been one of the “best” countries in the world for Jews to integrate and prosper educationally and economically.

Likewise Thessaloniki, in Greece, for 400 years until after World War 1, was the only big city in the world with a Jewish majority. The Jews of Thessaloniki did not have equality. They had to pay extra taxes (to the Ottoman Empire). But it was possibly the “best” city in the world for Jews.

In the Arab world and Iran, again, for centuries, Jews did not have equality, but they did have more stable conditions than in Christian Europe. Since 1948, those countries have, by harassment, made themselves more “Jew-free” than even Nazi Germany managed.

Argentina was perhaps the “best” country in Latin America for Jews, with an open door for Jews until 1938. It still has a large Jewish minority. Yet in the early years of this century many Jews fled Argentina because of a surge of antisemitism there.

These experiences do not — and many Israeli Jews agree they do not — justify denial of national self-determination to the Palestinians (denial of “two states”). They do tell us historical reasons why the Hebrew-speaking nation in Israel is obstinate about its national self-determination, and is likely to remain that way until socialist governments can show it a stable model of full democratic rights for minorities.

They tell us that there are motives other than “racism” or “exclusivism” for Israeli Jews to think that even the “best” “promise” of minority rights may not be not a secure replacement for their self-determination.

Davies’s fanciful story of some unspecified meeting, some time between 20 and 30 years ago, in which Sean Matgamna supposedly spoke about immigration to Israel, shows only that Davies has missed the point. The “right of return” is not about immigration.

The migrant rights we argue for are not about “rights” of nations to “return” to ancestral land. We do not argue for Syrian refugees to be allowed into Britain, for example, on the grounds that they have an ancestral claim to this territory. We argue against “ancestral” claims.

We want free movement for individuals. No nation-state in the world has it. So then... all nations in the world must be kept under foreign rule until they give guarantees?

Whose foreign rule? For Israel, if for nowhere else, the answer is implicit: some combination of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria. These are states which have not secured equal rights to Palestinians, or to religious minorities, in their own domains. This is not even a “best” offer of minority rights for the Israeli Jews.

The problem is tacitly recognised when in Davies’s article, and in much argument on the left these days, no positive alternative on the Israel-Palestine question is advocated. The “two-states” programme is scorned, but mention of the old “secular democratic state” formula is rare — and where it occurs, as in Davies’s article, mention falls short of advocacy. No wonder. Support for Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. scarcely fits with the “secular” requirement.

As a substitute for actual solidarity with Palestinian rights, and for a reality-based programme for emancipation, Davies offers instead the fake “solidarity” of demonising Israel and trying to define away antisemitism.

The 2017 Labour manifesto clearly supported “two states”.

Jeremy Corbyn himself has tacked on “right to return”. Maybe he (like many) sees the formula as “for show” but sure in actual “two states” negotiations (as in the unofficial Geneva Accord of 2003) to be commuted into compensation and rights in an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. As far as I know, he’s explained nowhere (maybe not even to himself).

Corbyn’s Leader’s Office honcho Seamus Milne is more on the anti-Israel wavelength than Corbyn (even though all his Guardian articles I can find were as evasive as Davies’s about actual program). Thus the attempt by the Leader’s Office to add neutralising qualifications to Labour’s National Executive agreement that it is antisemitic to brand the very “existence of a state of Israel as a racist endeavour”.

The Leader’s Office and its allies now have strong influence in the Labour machine, including in the Compliance Unit (now called “Governance and Legal”). Given the Stalinist leanings of Milne and others, the left must be wary.

However, to see the big danger now as a catch-all purge, by this actual machine, of fancied antisemites as well as real ones, is to miss the mark. They won’t purge themselves.

To take our stand on “our Corbyn project, right or wrong” is equally mistaken. To oppose Tom Watson’s moves is one thing; but a left which aligns itself with the Milne machine, to minimise and define away antisemitism, will only discredit itself and open the way sooner or later to be routed by a resurgent Labour right.

My basic difference with Camila Bassi (Is political antisemitism a form of racism?) is on whether it is enlightening or helpful to stretch the term “racism” (which originally referred to theories about “race”) further, so that it describes a even wider range of prejudices or animosities around “cultural difference”.

To do so, I think, elides important differences about how “political” antisemitism works, and moves further towards making the term “racist” so catch-all that it becomes unusable for even halfway-precise political discourse.

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