A series of incidents in the Labour Party and in the student left over the last few months have highlighted the issue of “left-wing" anti-semitism.
In January, the liberal-Zionist group Yachad, which campaigns for a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine based on the 1967 borders, and an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, organised an event with the liberal Zionist Ami Ayalon at King’s College London. This meeting was disrupted by members of the KCL Action Palestine group, with fire alarms being set off and a crowd hammering on the doors and windows of the venue.
In February, a member of the Oxford University Labour Club’s committee, Alex Chalmers, resigned, alleging that left-wingers in the club would deride Jewish students with whom they disagreed as “Zios” (a term used by far-right anti-semites) and sing a song about rocket attacks on Tel Aviv (“Rockets over Tel Aviv”, to the tune of Bread of Heaven). He also said Jewish students deemed to be pro-Israeli would be barracked and heckled in meetings. The left-wing candidate for Young Labour’s position on the Party’s National Executive Committee, James Elliott, also a member of OULC, was mentioned by Chalmers as having written an article defending the Palestine Society at Oxford against charges of anti-Jewish racism, in which he said, “Anti-Semitism is a tired old accusation from Zionists, retreating behind mendacious slurs when losing the arguments”. We know that the allegations about the song and the article are true. The other allegations are plausible.
A few weeks later, during the LSE Student Union elections, the left-wing candidate for General Secretary Rayhan Uddin was beaten by Re-Open Nominations after a scandal over a message he sent, claiming that “leading Zionists around the country… want to win back LSE and make it right wing and Zio again”. These events come alongside a furore caused by the anti-semitic remarks of a number of Labour Party members.
Vicky Kirby, a member of Woking Labour Party’s Executive Committee, who had been removed as a Labour parliamentary candidate in 2014 because of online antisemitic comments, has been suspended. A Labour Party left-winger, Gerry Downing, was invited onto the Daily Politics to expound his cranky conspiracy theories about the influence of Jewish millionaires in American politics.
As Workers’ Liberty has long argued, leftwing anti-semitism is nothing new. In the 19th century, the German socialist leader August Bebel was moved to remark that “Anti-semitism is the socialism of fools”. Many early anti-capitalist demagogues stole from conspiracies about Jewish financiers to win support for their political groups. After the Second World War much of leftwing anti-semitism has been under the cover of agitation against “Zionism”. Stan Crooke has documented the origins of that modern leftwing anti-semitism, showing its roots in Stalinist “anti-Zionist” campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s, campaigns of lies which were motivated by domestic and foreign policy of the Soviet bureaucracy.
The realities revealed by the recent scandals are ugly. The positive flipside is that the charges have not been denied or dismissed by the left. Frequently, much of the left, especially the Socialist Workers’ Party and those in its political orbit (Counterfire, RS21, Stop the War, Unite Against Fascism), have claimed either that left anti-semitism is not very serious, or that it is the exclusive preserve of the far right, or that accusations of anti-semitism against the left come from “Zionists” who wish to silence their critics (as in Elliott’s article, quoted above). Alternatively that where anti-semitism is expressed by Arabs or Muslim-background people, it is “the violence of the oppressed”, an understandable reaction to Israel’s colonial war against the Palestinians.
Elliott has rightly apologised for writing the line quoted above. And Uddin has apologised for his use of the word “Zio”. Owen Jones has written an article in which he declares anti-semitism to be bad, and calls on Labour to change its rules so that “anyone found guilty of anti-semitism – or any other form of racism — is expelled from the party. Their readmission should only happen when they have demonstrably been shown to have been re-educated.” But Jones’s proposed solution does not get to the bottom of this question.
There is certainly a case for labour movement bodies to expel determined and worked-out racists. But cases like Elliott’s and Uddin’s can not be usefully be dealt with by expulsions or by pious general statements about anti-semitism being unacceptable. All the incidents of “left" anti-semitism are almost certainly not rooted in personal animosity to Jews. Rather they have a common political root in the commonly-held programme of much of the left for the Israel-Palestine conflict. Until the left’s political programme is picked apart and corrected, incidents like these will continue to occur. Labour Party expulsions would have little effect on left anti-semitism; they would explain nothing and educate no-one.
The policy of much of the left for the Israel-Palestine conflict is, in short, the one-state solution. The Stalinist parties did not call for the destruction of Israel, but they prepared the way by indicting tiny Israel as the world’s chief font of imperialism and racism. Widespread now is the idea that justice for the Palestinians can be secured, not by Israel ending its occupation and guaranteeing a viable Palestinian state through land transfers and reparations, and an end to racist and militarist laws and politics in Israel (as we in Workers’ Liberty advocate); but by Israel ceasing to exist. The programme is linked to the idea that Israel is an illegitimate historical formation, with no right to exist and that therefore any manifestation of Israeli nationalism, including the simple wanting Israel to continue to exist of very many Jewish people (and others) is racist. While it is generally accepted on the socialist left that nationalisms are complex, and encompass shades of opinion, from liberal civic nationalism to fascism, the spectrum of Israeli nationalisms is treated differently. It is seen as a homogenous ideology, with all controversy and political diversity stripped out. Thus the Yachad meeting at KCL was to be received in exactly the same way as a Netanyahu rally. There’s no difference between Yachad and Netanyahu: they are all Zionists.
The logic of treating all Zionists as all racist imperialists etc, necessarily puts all Jews under suspicion as most living Jews feel some connection with Israel — that is, most are “Zionists”. Then individuals take the logic further, or don’t. The same logic is at the heart of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Workers’ Liberty has no particular objection to targeted boycotts or campaigns to divest from this or that company which is complicit in human rights abuses; and positively supports an end to military aid to Israel. But the BDS movement brings together each of these tactics into a campaign which is logically for the systematic exclusion of Israel (and only Israel) from international commercial and cultural life. All Israeli goods, performers and academics are to be shunned because they are Israeli and because Israel has no right to exist. The Hebrew-speaking Jews living in Israel have no right to self-determination (unlike any other national group in the world). Zionism is uniquely and uniformly racist. Officially, the BDS movement has no position on one or two states in Israel-Palestine. But its underlying drives come from a one-state perspective; it is not open about that because “two states” has long been more widely seen to be the basis for a democratic political settlement between Palestinians and Jews in Israel-Palestine (e.g. the policy was adopted by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in 1988).
A comparison with Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds indicates the absurdity and implicit racism of these positions. Rightly, left and workers’ movements around the world are united in outrage at the Turkish state’s treatment of the Kurds.There is widespread global support for Kurdish demands for autonomy or independence. But nobody argues the Turkish state should cease to exist. Or that those Turks who support the Kurds and oppose racism in Turkish society (of whom there are many) are racists unless they accept that Turkey should be dissolved.
No-one in Oxford University Labour Club, to our knowledge, has started singing jaunty songs about bombs killing civilians in Ankara or Istanbul.
Where UK media outlets or politicians give the Turkish state an easy ride, or overlook its racist war against the Kurds, this is generally not ascribed to shadowy “Turkish control” of the UK media, or to combinations of “Turkish-nationalist millionaires” forming powerful “Turkish lobbies”. A grounded and researched explanation usually suffices to explain UK collaboration with Turkey: self-interested co-operation between imperialist states. There is no global movement to boycott Turkish goods because they are Turkish; there is no global campaign to shut down performances by Turkish artists because they are Turkish; there is no move to disbar academic collaboration with Turkish academics because they are Turkish. Moreover, were such a campaign of blanket hostility to all things Turkish proposed to a left-wing audience, it is hard to imagine it being greeted with anything other than outrage.
Workers’ Liberty rejects a theory of world politics based on “good peoples” and “bad peoples”. We reject conspiratorial explanations for world events. We believe that the answer to all colonial wars and national liberation struggles is to apply the democratic principle of self-determination for nations, to support oppressed nations in their struggle for self-determination and to apply the principle equally to all nations.
Until the rest of the left takes up an approach to the Israel-Palestine based on democracy, and abandons the formulas which are the inheritance of Stalinism, left-wing anti-semitism will continue to surface and re-surface, and no amount of hand-wringing or expulsions will change that.