Shortly before Christmas, the media picked up on anti-semitic comments made on Facebook by University of London Union President Clare Solomon (a member of Counterfire, a group expelled from the SWP). This is an issue where the student left should proceed carefully, because these new media attacks on Clare cannot be entirely separated from an ongoing right-wing campaign to discredit the student movement. We must vigorously oppose such witch-hunts. At the same time, as left activists within the student movement, we see it as our duty to condemn Clare's comments and moreover to criticise the deeply flawed brand of left politics out of which they emerged.
This is what Clare said:
"Actually, there is no such thing as the ‘Jewish race’. Yes, there is the Jewish religion but not a Jewish people per se. Identity politics is a very fashionable argument at the moment. It questions the samenesses that group people together. I think you’ll find that there is no one way of being Jewish.
"The view that Jews have been persecuted all throughout history is one that has been fabricated in the last 100 or so years to justify the persecution of Palestinians.
"Although history is obviously a little hard to revisit, it is wrong to write off all the places where Jews, Muslims and Christians (and other faiths/non-faiths) have lived together.
"I think you’ll also find that ALL religions have had their oppressors-some worse than others true, but to paint the picture that ALL Jews have ALWAYS had to flee persecution is just plainly inaccurate."
(Italics our emphasis)
Before we go any further, we want to make it absolutely clear that we are not chiming in with the predominantly right-wing thrust of most of the coverage so far. Clare's comments were made on 1 May; they seem to have been brought up now, seven months later, as part of a right-wing campaign to discredit the growing student anti-cuts movement. In particular, the Daily Mail has openly tried to 'tag' the whole student activist movement with Clare's comments and by doing so discredit our magnificent fightback.
As president of ULU and a high profile figure in the recent protests, Clare has come under attack from the right repeatedly. The current furore cannot be entirely separated from those attacks. We condemn such attempts to undermine our movement - particularly from the likes of the Daily Mail, with its own rabid record of racism including a history of anti-semitism ("Hurrah for the Blackshirts!") We oppose the pseudo-campaign to oust Clare – which in concrete terms, if it really amounted to anything, would be a right-wing campaign to remove a prominent left-wing student officer. [Note September 2011: Clare Solomon eventually lost re-election by a narrow margin.] And the implication that the student struggle against fees and cuts is defined by Clare's politics on the questions of Israel-Palestine and anti-semitism is wrong and should be resisted.
Nonetheless, Clare's comments are now public and require a response. We do not accept the Tory press' right to act as the arbiter of anti-racist standards in our movement; but that is all the more reason why left-wing student activists have a duty to speak out according to our own standards.
What Clare wrote is anti-semitic - and she does not deny she wrote it. She was quoted in the Queen Mary student newspaper explaining herself: "This badly-worded comment was something that I wrote in haste on Facebook at a very busy period. I’m sorry for any misunderstandings caused by what I wrote." She effectively retracted the worst bit of what she had said (the bit in italics above): "My position is that Jewish people have always been persecuted throughout history nowhere more than during the holocaust when 6 million were murdered by the Nazi's [sic]. I am totally against anti-Semitism and any persecution and oppression of Jewish people as I am against the oppression people [sic] on the grounds of any race or religion."
Writing in haste is no excuse. In fact, carelessness probably revealed an underlying train of political thought. That Clare has made a retraction is welcome, but it does not solve the broader political issue.
The question is: why would a socialist write something like that? But it is not just a case of Clare Solomon! Many on the far left, most notably the SWP and now Counterfire, have adopted politics on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which push them in the direction of such stupidity. In place of rational criticism of Israel and condemnation of the Israeli government's colonial war against the Palestinians, we get a mindless condemnation of all things Israeli or connected to Israel, and a grotesquely distorted version of "anti-Zionism" which in some cases can veer into conspiracy theories and, yes, anti-semitism.
One common element is the presentation of Israel’s founding, and its dispossession of the Palestinians, as purely and simply a malign conspiracy by Zionists, writing out or minimising the history of anti-semitic persecution, the Holocaust, the complex role of British imperialism (playing off the two nationalities against each other, rather than simply backing the Jews against the Arabs as is often claimed) and attacks on Israel by the surrounding Arab states.
This is the political matrix from which Clare’s claim that the history of anti-semitism has been invented in order to do down the Palestinians emerged. (We don't deny, of course, that some, for instance on the Israeli right, cry anti-semitism even at legitimate, rational, anti-racist criticism of the Israeli government. But that is a different issue - the point is that Clare's criticism was not that sort!)
This is part of a wider phenomenon on the British left. Witness, for instance, the SWP's repeated invitations to anti-semitic conspiracy theorist Gilad Atzmon to speak at their events as an authority on Palestinian solidarity; or their promotion of Hamas and Hezbollah in the anti-war movement. Obviously no socialist is individually hostile to Jewish people in the way the far right is; the problem is the politics advocated by some socialists.
While defending our movement and its activists against the attacks of the right, Workers’ Liberty will continue to challenge the politics which prompted Clare to make the comments she did from our own, socialist, point of view, fighting within the student movement for consistent opposition to all forms of racism, and rational solidarity with the Palestinians in place of demonising Israel.