No to right-wing witch-hunts, no to 'left' anti-semitism

Submitted by AWL on 29 December, 2010 - 11:34 Author: Workers' Liberty students

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.

Comments

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 29/12/2010 - 17:11

If you say "X is an antisemite, therefore X should resign", it seems simple.
In fact it is not quite that simple.
Firstly, Clare's comment was not quite straightforward anti-semitism, along the lines of "I don't like Jews". It was a claim about the history of anti-semitism in connection with the Israel-Palestine conflict. That claim has an anti-semitic logic, but that's not the same as outright racism.
Quite a few student union sabbatical officers are Tories and therefore have far worse views on a whole series of issues. Generally, outside particularly outrageous cases, the left does not call for their resignation - we obviously wish we were strong enough to replace them, but we don't agitate around the demand for them to resign. So why would we call for the resignation of a left-winger who - despite our sharp disagreements on many issues - we work with?
In addition to that, she's retracted the statement and apologised. Yes, there is a broader issue, as we explain, but her retraction is not irrelevant here.
Lastly, given all this, you have to assess concretely what it would mean for Clare to resign. Our judgement is that it could not conceivably be anything but a scalp for the right-wing press and the right wing of the student movement, who do not like the more radical direction which the movement has taken recently (of which Clare's role at ULU is one part). Perhaps that doesn't bother you, but it bothers us as socialists.
Sacha Ismail

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 30/12/2010 - 09:09

Mikey,

1. I never said that the left never calls for any student union officer to resign. I said that we do not routinely call for right-wing sabbaticals to resign, despite them being guilty of much worse crimes, from any liberal or socialist point of view, than Clare Solomon. Aaron Porter is a different case: the president of the national union who has repeatedly betrayed students (not just by omission, but by condemning activists, lying etc) in the middle of the greatest upsurge of student struggles for at least a decade and probably more than two decades. As I said before: assess concretely!

2. We're not arguing that Clare's apology and retraction means that this should be swept under the carpet. Hence this statement!!

3. It's perfectly understandable that Jewish students should be upset - and not just Jewish students. I'm not Jewish, and Clare's comments outraged and distressed me too. But I think any Jewish student involved in or inspired by the current struggles (as many thousands surely are) would understand, or at least understand the argument, that the issues involved here are multifaceted.

Thanks!

Sacha

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 30/12/2010 - 13:50

Yes, the fact that Clare Solomon is on the left is not unimportant. In a certain, limited sense we do have different standards for the left and the right - but only in a limited sense, as our criticisms above should make clear. We don't want a prominent left-winger to be removed by a right-wing campaign. In so far as there is a campaign (there isn't really), it IS right-wing - which doesn't mean criticism of her anti-semitic comments is right-wing per se, of course not, but the Daily Mail and some in the student movement are jumping on this to promote their wider agenda. That is particularly clear because this comes after months of media attacks on Clare for her part in the student protests.
If Len McCluskey's prediction of mass strikes becomes a reality and there is a right-wing campaign against him, and in the midst of it all he's discovered to have made a similarly idiotic comment on the Middle East, of course we would oppose the demand for his resignation. Can you see why?
The other thing to note is that Clare didn't get elected on the basis of an anti-semitic campaign - contrast Woolas. And in what sense is Woolas' downfall a victory for anything but basic decency in politics and in the labour movement?
If Clare had said "I hate Jews" and was unrepentant, that would outweigh the other considerations. But she didn't.
Sacha

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