The following letter (slightly abridged here) has been sent to the Stop the War Coalition. It raises important issues which need to be widely discussed.
As Jewish anti-war activists, who support the work of the Stop the War Coalition and value its achievements in mobilising so many people, we write to express our grave disappointment and concern about how the coalition's officers handled the clash between the STWC demonstration and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, on 27th September we are raising this issue in the hope that errors which have undermined the STWC can be acknowledged and steps taken to ensure that they are not repeated in the future. We believe that the issues raised by recent events are of concern not only to Jewish anti-war activists but to the STWC and the anti-war movement as a whole.
In the months leading up to 27 September, a number of Jewish STWC supporters expressed their concerns about the implications of holding the demonstration on this hugely important date in the Jewish calendar. Many also proposed a variety of constructive suggestions for mitigating the impact of the clash of dates on the anti-war movement as a whole. We would obviously have preferred it not to be organised on that day. If the reasons for doing so were, nonetheless, overwhelming we would have expected serious attempts to mitigate the effects, beginning with an expression of regret that such a choice had been necessary.
Unfortunately, the only response we received was a "form letter" from an individual speaking on behalf of the STWC, which treated these concerns and suggestions dismissively.
We have heard it said that the only complaints or concerns about the clash of dates came from "Zionists". This carries an implication that anyone for whom Rosh Hashanah or Jewish identity are important must be a "Zionist", and de facto a supporter of Bush, Blair and Sharon. This is precisely the bogus claim made by the Israel lobby and the right-wing Jewish establishment, which many of us have worked for decades to refute. Statements of this kind undermine our efforts to campaign against the war within our own community and to challenge the attempts by the community's self-appointed leaders to characterise progressive campaigns as hostile to Jews.
Andrew Murray's letter in the Guardian on 25 September, which ignored the concerns exacerbated the problem. In refusing to express any regret over the clash of dates, or to acknowledge the importance of the holiday, this letter appeared disrespectful and insensitive as well as ignorant of the conflict Jewish supporters would face, both personally and politically. As a result, it fuelled the campaign against STWC and will have been used by pro-war elements in the Jewish community and magnified the task facing Jewish anti-war activists.
We feel strongly that, at the least, there should have been consultation by the STWC with anti-war Jewish groups and individuals. Had such consultation taken place, the STWC would have been in a better position to determine what needed to be done, and to enlist allies from within the Jewish community.
We also believe that there should have been efforts to send out positive messages to the Jewish community in the run-up to the demonstration. What was needed was an expression of regret about the clash of dates, a statement asserting the importance and vitality of Jewish participation in the anti-war movement, and a clear repudiation of anti-semitism along with Islamophobia and all forms of racism. Nothing of that kind was forthcoming from the STWC
There have been large Jewish contingents from a range of organisations on all the Stop the War demonstrations, though the Jewish Socialists Group, is the only Jewish group which is affiliated to the STWC. Having understood that our representation on the platform was being considered, we put forward the name of a speaker for the demonstration. Up to now, the JSG has had no communication about this whatsoever from the STWC However, we heard informally that this was refused, apparently on the grounds that the JSG was "unrepresentative" of Jews, though various other "reasons" were given - also informally - at different times.
As far as we are aware no other Jewish groups were invited to contribute speakers, and none appeared on the platform on the day. It was claimed that the presence of a speaker with a Jewish-sounding name from the Vanunu campaign, of which we are strong supporters, filled this gap. We hope that STWC Steering Committee members will see why it was inappropriate for the officers of the STWC to make such a suggestion. What was needed on this day, above all other days, were people speaking explicitly as Jews who could represent the Jewish constituencies that are opposed to the war.
While wishing people a "Happy New Year" from the platform was a welcome gesture, it was just that - a gesture, not a response to the issues raised. This fact was made clear to STWC officers by Jewish activists prior to the event. What was needed here was not ethnic tokenism, but a political strategy.
Those who distributed apples and honey to the crowd (a traditional way of celebrating the New Year) were extremely well received. Sadly, despite their repeated requests, both before and during the demonstration, their activity was neither announced from the platform nor incorporated into the day's proceedings - a contrast with the way in which Ramadan was recognised at the STWC demonstration in November 2001.
Over the last two years, the anti-war movement, and in particular the STWC, have been repeatedly smeared as "anti-semitic". We, with other anti-war Jews, have been in the forefront of refuting that smear. As soon as the clash with Rosh Hashanah became apparent, the STWC officers should have realised the necessity of taking positive steps to limit any damage that might be done. Instead, they reacted defensively and refused to deal with the real difficulties the decision had created
We believe the handling of the clash with Rosh Hashanah raises questions that are of importance to the whole movement.
First, how do we act with respect towards all the various elements of our diverse coalition?
Second, how do we address the Jewish community and the claims made by the Israel lobby?
Third, how do we ensure that there is genuine consultation, democratic debate and inclusiveness in decision-making in order to promote united action in future rather than discouraging some elements of the anti-war movement from full participation?
The starting point, we believe, must be to acknowledge that serious errors of judgement were made in regard to the Rosh Hashanah clash by those speaking in the STWC's name. These errors of judgment if not addressed, will undermine the anti-war movement as a whole.
We believe that now the STWC has an opportunity to acknowledge that organising the demonstration on that date was regrettable, and to state publicly that the coalition values the participation of Jewish supporters in all its activities.
Signed: Julia Bard, Paul Collins, Dave Landau, Charlie Pottins, David Rosenberg on behalf of the National Committee of the Jewish Socialists' group with Simon Grosser, Vicky Grosser, Richard Kuper, Mike Marqusee
All of these signatories are active anti-war campaigners, through local Stop the War Coalitions, the Socialist Alliance, their trade union and other campaigning groups.