On 15 and 22 May London saw large demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians.
The anger at the bombing of Gaza and the Israeli government’s disregard for Palestinian rights is fully justified. But as I talked with young people on the demonstrations, it became clear that some have picked up reactionary ideas: that Jews should be driven out of the Middle East, that they are Europe’s “problem”, and that the Holocaust is exaggerated by Israeli Jews in their own interests. Many of these ideas are promoted by various shades of political Islamism, expressed on the demo by the very common chanting of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” (sometimes without the implications of the slogan having been thought through) and the fairly common chanting of “Allahu Akbar”.
In the run up to the 22 May demonstration, one of the organisers, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), made a public appeal against expressions of antisemitism on the march. PSC specified that this meant no targeting of Jews, only Israel, and no comparisons of Israel with Nazi Germany. As far as I could see, there were certainly fewer egregiously antisemitic placards on these marches than on similar ones in the past, although there were some. “Zionism=Nazism” and similar slogans have become less common.
Any move to combat antisemitism within the Palestine solidarity movement is welcome. The PSC’s moves are, however, limited. They focus only on antisemitism defined as “the hatred of Jews because they are Jews”, stating: “Our anger should be directed at Israel, not British Jews or those from anywhere else.”
This leaves much antisemitism untouched, particularly that targeting Jewish Israelis as being undeserving of the right to national self-determination despite the Jewish Israeli nation being formed by refugees from genocide and persecution, and then targeting “Zionists” (Jews outside Israel who feel empathy with Israel) as guilty by association. The demand for boycotts of Israel as “the apartheid state” remains central to PSC’s approach, as does the highly ambiguous demand for a “Free Palestine”. (Does it mean an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel? Or “freeing” the territory of British Mandate Palestine of Israeli and Jewish presence?)
The PSC needed to counter media reports of increased antisemitic attacks after the 15 May London demonstration (including reports of a convoy of cars decked out in Palestine flags driving through Jewish areas with shouts of “Fuck the Jews and rape their daughters”).
However, Tariq Ali’s speech on the 22 May platform effectively relegated the clean-up operation to a shallow public relations exercise. He said:
“The Zionist governments of Israel” and “settlers from Brooklyn… who are semi-fascist… have learnt nothing from what happened to them in Europe. Nothing”. The most generous interpretation of this is that Israeli Jews are now doing to the Palestinians what was inflicted upon them in Nazi Germany, exactly the comparison the PSC claimed was unwelcome on the demonstration.
He continued: “Every time they bomb Gaza, every time they attack Jerusalem — that is what creates antisemitism. Stop the occupation, stop the bombing, and casual antisemitism will soon disappear.”
Ali said similar at a 2018 Palestine demonstration: “The purveyors of antisemitism today, those who have encouraged antisemitism, are the Israeli government. Killing Palestinians the way that they do it, targeting children as they have done, this is what produces a crude form of antisemitism. And the support given to this by right-wing Zionist organisations in Europe and America doesn’t help challenging antisemitism either.”
Ali claims antisemitism is the fault of the Israeli government and of Zionists (that is, Jews who feel empathy with Israel) in Europe and America. He need not denounce the antisemites, or examine his own attitudes: just by denouncing Israel he has done all he needs to against antisemitism.
Ali forgets two principles. First, the responsibility for antisemitism lies not with any Jewish person, but with antisemites. Second, if people are encouraged to look at the Israel-Palestine conflict through an antisemitic lens, they will come to see more of the world through that lens. Socialists should counter that vision — patiently but firmly — with the ideas of working-class solidarity based on the mutual recognition of rights, as against sectarian delegitimation of Jewish Israelis as undeserving of rights.
Antisemitism must be opposed in all its forms and wherever it is found. As long as Palestinian solidarity protests are tainted with antisemitism, they will fail to help build pressure for a just peace.