AWL member Daniel Lemberger Cooper’s victory in the recent elections at the University of London Union (2-9 February) was won in the teeth of a large campaign, orchestrated by the SWP, branding Cooper a “racist” on the grounds that he is “a Zionist”, i.e. he defends Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself, while also supporting the right of the Palestinians to an independent state of their own alongside Israel.
This recent flurry is an echo of an old argument. In the student movement in Britain, it started in 1974. In April that year, the National Union of Students (NUS) voted for “no platform for racists and fascists”.
There was a large Establishment outcry against the vote. Solidarity’s forerunner Workers’ Fight defended the right of students to use force against fascistic rallies; but it also criticised the “vague open-endedness” of the NUS formula.
In 1975, the United Nations General Assembly resolved that “Zionism is racism”. Picking up on that, in 1977 a few university student unions banned Zionist meetings.
At that time AWL’s forerunners still accepted the then-common left view that Israel was an illegitimate state and could and should be replaced by a democratic secular state in all Palestine, merging Jews and Arabs. That (as we would later come to see) was nonsensical. Two nations in long conflict must first each have the right to self-determination before democratic merger is possible; and it is wrong, implicitly anti-semitic, to denounce the Israeli Jews for failing to fold into an impossible scenario.
However, even in 1977, we demurred from the too-rapid equation which said “Zionists” were ipso facto “racist”.
The issue blew up more in 1985-6. In March 1985, the student union of Sunderland Polytechnic banned the student Jewish society. Several other broadly “left-wing” student unions would follow Sunderland’s example.
Solidarity’s forerunner Socialist Organiser, by then far more influential among students than we had been in 1974-7, campaigned against the bans. Socialist Organiser, 28 March 1985, declared:
“Israel is a racist state, and Israeli atrocities such as its savage reprisals against Arab men, women and children in Lebanon are crimes against humanity. Should anti-racists therefore treat Zionists — or all those who support the right of the lsraeli state to exist — as racists?
“Almost all Jews — apart from revolutionary socialists and some religious zealots — are Zionists (at least in a broad sense), and therefore what is at issue here is whether or not socialists, and anti-racists, should politically persecute Jews.
“The Sunderland student union ban was not the work of an unrepresentative minority. Over 1,000 students attended its General Meeting which endorsed the ban on the Union of Jewish Students on the grounds that the UJS is racist because it is avowedly Zionist. Nor is the majority attitude at Sunderland untypical of the Left.
“Lenin and Trotsky never dreamed of ‘banning Zionists’ — though such a ban would have been a much less drastic matter in their day, when only an ideological minority of Jews were Zionists. They opposed Zionism politically; but, for example, the Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) movement continued to publish its paper in the USSR until 1927, the year the Left Opposition was outlawed. Yet many today who consider themselves Leninists or Trotskyists support a ban on Zionists.
“The intention of the Sunderland Poly students is to show the sharpest possible intolerance and hostility towards what they consider to be racism — and that is good. What they have done, however, looks more like racism than the anti-racism they intend...
“Whatever the good intentions, there is no way that a ban like that at Sunderland Poly can avoid being anti-semitic... Jewish identification with Israel has its roots and motives not in anti-Arab racism, not even in a thought-out commitment to displace the Palestinian Arabs, but in the Jews’ experience of racist persecution, culminating in the Nazi slaughter...
“Even many who, for tactical or better reasons, would not ban Jewish student societies, share the notion that Zionists should, more or less, be treated as racist. Translated, that means that most Jews — those who cannot be persuaded to stop believing that Israel, or some version of Israel, has a right to exist — should be persecuted.”
The arguments over Sunderland Poly helped prepare the way for the AWL’s forerunners, a few years later, to become convinced that “two nations, two states” was the only viable democratic policy in Israel-Palestine.
PS. We also became convinced that the quick equation, "Israel is a racist state", stated in the extract above and inherited by us from the ideology which said that Israel must be abolished as a political unit and replaced by an all-Palestinian state, was false.
To be sure, Israel has discriminatory policies (as other states do), and we stand in solidarity with those in Israel fighting those discriminatory policies. But the "Israel is a racist state" equation is not about discriminatory policies and the need to oppose them. It is about asserting that Israel as a political unit, Israel even with any modification of its policies, is inherently a "racist" construct. It is not saying that Israel has a racist government. It is saying that the very existence of Israel as a country is "racist".
It effectively redefines the whole of Israeli nationalism - which has its chauvinist and even racist strands, as other nationalisms do - as "racism". The indicated, and desired, conclusion is that since racism should be crushed, so also should Israeli nationalism be crushed, and in the only way it can be crushed, by crushing the national existence of the Hebrew nation.
Today, the "Israel is a racist state" argument is almost always found as a variant or accompaniment of the "Israel=apartheid argument, which we polemicised against soon after the 1985 "Zionism=racism" row.