Responses to Sean Matgamna's article in Solidarity 497. That article can be found online here. It has caused some debate within Workers' Liberty and beyond, and has been widely read online. More debate on the right of return here.
Sean Matgamna (Solidarity 497, 27 February 2019) writes as if it is a matter of blinding obviousness that advocacy of any version of the “right of return”‘policy for Palestinians is simply a “coded” way of saying: “destroy Israel, drive the Jews into the sea”. Therefore, anyone who advocates this policy is a racist and its advocacy should not be compatible with Labour Party membership.
Sean’s argument functions here in precisely the way he criticises elsewhere: “to obliterate all distinctions and gradations”. As such it is more likely to lose listeners than to win converts. The distinctions and gradations are many. It is simply not accurate to argue that any advocate of any version of “right of return” is a “racist”, and simply not operable to advocate, even implicitly, that anyone holding any version of the policy be expelled from the Labour Party.
Workers’ Liberty’s long-held position is that a “right of return” policy that presumes the collective resettlement of five to six million Palestinian refugees and their descendants in contemporary Israel, via the displacement of the contemporary Israeli-Jewish population if necessary, is a revanchist-nationalist policy that cannot be part of any democratic resolution to the current national conflict in the region. But “right of return” means different things to different people.
For the ideologues of absolute anti-Zionism, who got their political training on a 1970s and 80s far left whose politics on the Middle East were substantially distorted by vicarious Arab nationalism, an emphasis on the “right of return” undoubtedly serves as a more palatable way to imply the conclusion of the “smash Israel”-type slogans they once would have raised explicitly. But beneath and around them are other activists who support the policy simply because it is the near-unanimous one of all wings of the Palestinian national movement. Like the now widespread support for boycotts of Israel, support for it is a matter of reflexive instinct for leftists concerned to support the Palestinians. Younger activists in particular have grown up in a world where Israel has been an increasingly brutal colonial power.
Sean says Israel “often” tramples on Palestinian rights; it would be more accurate to say that a large part of contemporary Israeli polity is entirely bound up with an ever-expanding project of colonial subjugation, designed to snuff out the possibility of Palestinian nationhood. It is less a question of “often”; more one of “always”.
The barbarism of the Israeli state does not excuse or justify supporting the counter-barbarism implicit in the programme of, for example, the clerical-fascist Hamas, but it is a necessary factor in understanding why sincere supporters of Palestinian rights, recoiling in horror and despair from an increasingly reactionary Israel and an increasingly bleak and hopeless situation, might draw conclusions that in fact have reactionary-revanchist implications. Untangling these issues, and persuading those leftists that the elementary duty of solidarity with the Palestinians does not mean that the people of the nation currently oppressing must have their own national rights extirpated if the Palestinians are to have true justice, will be a matter of patient explanation, not moralistic denunciation.
For the Palestinians themselves, “right of return” also has a range of meanings. For Yahya Sinwar of Hamas, it means, simply, “not conceding a single inch of the land of Palestine”, with all that implies for the fate of the Jews currently living there. But for others, it simply expresses a desire to live in the general environ of the place where their families are from and from where they fled or were driven out. An understandable romantic-nationalist attachment to the “right of return” policy, keenly felt especially by the descendants of refugees who have grown up in social misery in refugee camps, is only likely to break up as part of the development of a substantial movement amongst both Israeli-Jews and Palestinians for a comprehensive policy of equal rights — that both peoples should have an equal right to their own state within the territory of historic Palestine and, ultimately, to free movement between those states.
Palestinians who have not yet adopted that policy, in conditions specifically engineered by revanchists and ultra-reactionaries on both sides to prevent its development, are not aspirant agents of genocide. To think of them as such can only serve to drive them into the arms, and strengthen the hand, of the revanchists and ultra-reactionaries, such as Hamas, who might very well be agents of genocide if given the capacity to be so.
Sean is right to say that the conflict in Israel/Palestine is “at root, a conflict of right against right”: that is to say, the rights of the two national peoples in the territory to their own states, which must be equal. The brutality of history, most recently and centrally the Israeli occupation, has rendered that policy so remote as to seem utopian. If it is to be rescued from that position, and a movement built around it, some understanding of the “distinctions and gradations” within the other political conclusions different groups of people, for different reasons, have reached, will be required.
Sean’s argument is also imbalanced in another way. While “smash Israel” politics are the root of some contemporary left antisemitism, much of the antisemitism now expressed in the Labour Party has only a tenuous relationship to any concrete policy on Israel/Palestine and is expressed in a far more “primitive” form, via conspiracy theories about “Rothschild bankers” and “financial elites”. What this primitive form of left antisemitism has in common with absolute-anti-Zionism is the conspiracy-theorist frame: in both, some Jewish element — either “bankers”, or “Zionists” — is taken to be hugely powerful and to exert a near-controlling influence on world affairs. But many of the worst instances of antisemitism from Labour Party members recently, predominantly manifesting online rather than in meetings, do not take the form of cheerleading for Hamas and a desire to “drive the Jews into the sea”, but a recycling of these primitive, “socialism-of-fools”-type conspiracy-theory narratives.
Whether some of the people recycling them have ever thought seriously enough about Israel/Palestine and the “right of return” to have a firm view is dubious. And so, in a sense, Sean’s emphasis also underplays the problem. Vicarious-Arab-nationalist or vicarious-Islamist, “drive the Jews into the sea”-type cheerleading for Hamas has at least some relationship to material reality, in the sense of advocating an explicit policy linked to an agency it is hoped will carry the policy out. It can be confronted by polemic and debate which explains the implications of the policy and the political character of the agency. “Rothschild bankers” discourse festers in the murky sewer of social-media-fuelled conspiracy theory, and in some ways is even more toxic.
What is required to confront this discourse is not simply a campaign to persuade people of a two-states, equal-rights policy for Israel/Palestine, but a comprehensive political-educational drive for a rational, materialist, class-based analysis of the world, against quasi-mystical conspiracy-theorist thinking.
A huge shift
Sean Matgamna’s article declares that everyone who holds a “right of return” position is, by definition, a biological racist: “By what standards do the descendants of the people who lived in that territory decades ago have the right to do that? There is no possible answer other than that they have the right genes [my emphasis].”
By this logic, everyone who supported Jewish settlement in Palestine 70 years ago, as well as everyone who supports the Jewish Law of Return now, must also be written off as a racist, a “gene-ist” in Sean’s awkward coinage (I disagree with the discriminatory Law of Return, but not in these terms!). If it makes one a full-on biological racist to say that the child of refugees, born in a refugee camp with no real place to call home, could claim their parents’ place of origin as their home, then what does Sean consider the 19th and 20th century Jews who wanted to “return” to Palestine based on centuries- or millenia-old lineage? What does he consider the principle that even now allows me to “return” to Israel?
It is a huge shift to go from saying – there is a conflict of rights, and full enactment of the right of return would risk making impossible a peace settlement based on consistent national self-determination – to saying – supporting the right of return by definition makes you a biological racist.
If we argue that there needs to be far more understanding and sensitivity for how oppressed and refugee Jews were pushed towards the conclusions of Zionism, then we need to apply something similar to the oppressed and refugee Palestinians. That is not to say the two questions are simply identical, but there is a relevant similarity. Given (at least) hundreds of thousands of people living their entire lives in vast refugee camps, the issue cannot be treated as simple, easy or obvious. People who disagree with us cannot be simplistically, uniformly, and furiously denounced as genetic racists.
This obliteration of nuance and distinctions is not persuasive, politically serious, or sensitive to the human struggles going on here, and is totally out of kilter with the way we ask leftists to relate to Zionism.
Second: “As well as an educational drive in the party on this question — which includes a candid discussion of the politics of the leadership — the party should declare advocacy of the destruction of Israel, by Arab or Islamic states or whomever, incompatible with membership of the Labour Party. Encoded versions of that policy — via ‘right of return’ for example — should not be tolerated in the labour movement...”
The AWL has rightly emphasised that the key is political education through discussion, and that disciplinary measures such as expulsion, while necessary in some cases, cannot be used against everyone who holds wrong or reactionary beliefs. But the call made here on the Labour Party cannot be sensibly interpreted as doing anything other than encouraging a disciplinary approach, up to and including expulsion, to anyone who backs the right of return. In reality this would mean empowering the Compliance Unit to act against tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of members. Sean’s call is wrong both in principle and practically.
I would say that there is a reason why so many people know about the laws in Israel that discriminate against its Arab minority (the most discriminatory of which was only passed recently), and so few seem to talk about the laws that Syria and Lebanon have had for decades. Those laws explicitly ban Palestinians from gaining citizenship from those countries despite them and their families having been born and spent their entire lives in these countries.
In Lebanon for example, they are banned from certain jobs and from Lebanese schools and hospitals. For a particular political reason, this is not considered apartheid, while Israel’s discrimination against its Arab citizens (which obviously pales in comparison with discrimination against other minorities in many Muslim countries) and its occupation of the West Bank is routinely classed as apartheid. That political reason is the politics we should argue against.
The Corbyn surge has brought “along with it” (not deliberately by Corbyn but by accident) people educated in a one-state view on Israel-Palestine. Of course there have always been people in the Labour Party of that view, but that was then and this is now.
Then was a Blairite rump. And now is a mass party — a much more powerful instrument of political influence. There is a qualitative and quantitative change here and that is important The one-state position is now entrenched, often in a degraded form, in all sorts of policies and orientations from BDS, to flag-waving, to shouting from the river to the sea, to clearly stated belief in the illegitimacy of the existence of Israel. Is that agitation, as the article says, divorced from actual Palestinian solidarity?
To a large extent it is. The one-state milieu is a separate one from the Rothschild conspiracy people, but it exists and is probably impossible to quantify because most Labour Party members are not active in the party except in social media forums.
The second main idea of the article is that much of the left, even those who claim to be for “two states”, are politically tone-deaf to Jewish people’s affinities with Israel — any Israel, as the article puts it. This has been viscerally felt by Jewish people, and would be felt even if there wasn’t the “winding up” by right wing political forces which the article acknowledges. The article is clear and sharp and effective in its solidarity with Jewish people.
Part of our argument about left anti-semitism is the exceptionalisation of Israel when it comes to the national question.
Where other national conflicts are to be solved with regional and cultural autonomy, or where appropriate, national self-determination (i.e. the traditional Marxist answers to these questions) — Israelis are denied that right. Much of the left says that Israeli-Jews should, at best, be forced against their will to be made a minority in a pre-48 borders Palestinian state. The “Right of Return” fits into this exceptionalising.
The question — “should the ‘blood ancestors’ of people who are driven out of a territory have the right to ‘return’ to that territory no matter how circumstances in that territory have changed?” — is crucial. The left does not argue for a “right of return” for any other conflict. The question is: why does the left think as it does? Particularly for newer members of the Labour Party, it’s because of a lack of education, and just picking up the most dominant ideas in the movement, without thinking them through. But, for some, it is just straightforward hostility to Jews.
There are more people than before willing to listen to us. But it’s not dour, pessimistic, inwardlooking etc. to soberly assess that we are often in the minority of the organised left on these questions. I put a motion to my local Momentum group two and a bit years ago for a meeting to discuss anti-semitism. That’s all the motion said, and the only people who voted for it were us. It was voted down about 50-4 by Socialist Resistance, Workers Power, SWP, ex-SWP, and a large number of unaffiliated but serious activists. And just recently a few of us were the only people in a room of 75 to challenge Chris Williamson.
Flying too close
Sean’s article flies too close to equating nationalism to racism, with no further interrogation needed. A load of twenty-something liberals supporting the right of return because “that’s what you do” are not antisemites in the sense of racist hostility to Jews individually and collectively.
The distinction here is useful but the line has become considerably more blurred. The anti-war movement brought supposedly-”Trotskyist” left antisemitism and regular racist antisemitism into an alliance and a generation of activists were educated in that alliance. As well as the We Are All Hezbollah current, we saw the beginnings of the grip of conspiracy theories, which almost inevitably lead to antisemitic conspiracy theories.
The resurgence of conspiracy theories seems to have come in part from the parts of the “antiglobalisation” milieu and in part from the odd alliance between right libertarians and the left in the US anti-war movement. It has been fuelled by the “don’t trust the MSM” [mainstream media] culture. Confusingly the dominant form of antisemitism on the left at the moment is not left antisemitism. There is also some black-nationalist antisemitism. That gets mixed up with quite genuine and understandable (on a personal rather than political level) anger and confusion among black Labour Party activists about why Labour talks about antisemitism all the time, but not other forms of racism.
The problem requires us to patiently explain both the peculiarities of antisemitism and the role of racism in maintaining not just white supremacy and colonialism but also division and false answers in our class.
A logical thread
The term absolute anti-Zionist is very helpful in explaining the problem with denying democratic legitimacy to any kind of Jewish nationalism or nation-state, or any sort Israel. Sean’s argument that a logical thread connects the demand of “right of return” to “gene-ism”/ racism is a specific point that is new to me but makes good sense, and it’s a point consistent with our general position.
Two jobs to cover
There are two jobs at the minute: analysis and education on antisemitism, and a much sharper polemic against those on the left who are destroying the Corbyn movement by refusing to take antisemitism seriously and in the process peddling antisemitic myths.
The two tasks are intertwined and not in contradiction. But JVL, LAW, Electronic intifada and Greenstein are not going to be reasoned out of there rotten politics. We need to make plain they are the problem. By and large the defence of Livingstone, Walker, Williamson, etc. given is that they are right. Even when they have formally apologised or rowed back. Another question remains: how, without it looking like diversion and whataboutery, to give adequate weight to addressing the escalating racism faced by Britain’s black, Asian and other people, and link that fight to the fight against left antisemitism?