As we were saying: “Anti-Zionism”

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.



As we were saying: “Anti-Zionism”


Firstly, it is by pure fluke that I "Googled" Sunderland Poly Students Union and got directed to the AWL site and digested your February 2012 article.

I've got to say it's been a fascinating read for me.

You may recall,I was the former Chairperson of the Sunderland Poly Jewish Student Society that was at first banned and then eventually re-ratified by the Sunderland Students Rep Council.

By comparison to the "firewall" that we as Jewish students faced at that time by the SPSU and its outside supporters with imflammatory arguements relating to the equation of the rescinded UN Z=R policy - it has been like a real breath of new air to see the progress in understanding based upon your article. Back then I could only have dreamt of such a rational viewpoint that you express.

Certainly there is much work to be done to achieve what you correctly conclude quite logically as the only viable democratic policy - a two state solution where neither Israel nor Palestine feel threatened in any way by any neighbour,regional state or organisation.

Jews, be they in the diaspora or in Israel are no more and no less racist than any other nation that inhabits this earth - you rightly state that the majority of Jews are Zionists - and as such should not be deemed racists based on their nationalist movement being singled out over any other nationalist movement. To so do is certainly construable as anti-semitic.
Through our perpetual experiences of persecution (culminating in the Shoah) towards us down the ages and through every generation even today put us naturally radar-like vis-a-vis perceived threats that most other peoples probably would neither perceive nor fear.

One specific point from your article which I believe requires contest is you stated that:

“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"

Indeed it was a very well attended meeting - however not all 1000+ students voted in favour of the ban - by my recollection the difference of those in favour to those against the ban was only in the magnitude of several tens.

Further, there were approximately 20-30 Jewish students studying and eligible to vote at the poly at that time - By contrast,there were probably IRO~500-600 mostly overseas Arab/Islamic students attending mostly engineering courses and many who attended the EGM. As such there was a significant bloc vote in favour of the Jewish Society becoming banned that needed to be overcome. I believe that this considerably dilutes your "not the work of an unrepresentative minority" claim in as much that the bloc vote against the JSoc was generated more by natural bias rather than by specific democratic reasoning.

That said - Great article

Brian Plainer

Following on

As the Chair who succeeded Brian and got the JSOC affiliated the year after the EGM...
However important it seemed at the time, I'm not sure how much of an influence our debates and marches had on either of the polarized sides except, perhaps, to entrench them.
Still, I'm sure that, 30 years on, things are much better and students have far more enlightened attitudes - haven't they?