The Left’s problem with Anti-Semitism

Let’s be very clear – many on the British far-left (and far too many Muslims unfortunately) don’t believe the state of Israel should exist. (See this on the ‘Stop the War’ website as an example.)

They think it is a racist state akin to apartheid South Africa and it needs to be destroyed. They believe the displacement of Palestinians as the state was created is an historic injustice that can only be righted by – one way or another – abolishing the Jewish state.

Ramalah Aug 77

(The picture is me [left] as part of an NUS Executive delegation that visited Israel/Palestine in 1977 – also in the picture are Trevor Phillips and David Aaronovitch)

The idea of creating a Jewish state in Palestine – Zionism – was a minority one amongst Jews before WWII and the Holocaust. It was opposed by most of great powers, including Britain. It was also opposed by most left-wingers, but not all.

WWII and the Holocaust changed that forever. The need for a Jewish homeland was an overwhelmingly obvious consequence of the catastrophe that engulfed European Jews. Anyone who has visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Israel, as I have, would have to have a heart of stone not to see why the Jews wanted Israel so badly.

Was the way the Jewish state was set-up badly handled – yes. Were there injustices to some Palestinians – yes. Was the ‘right of return’ for Jews from anywhere in the world not ideal – yes. But two things need to be remembered.

First the world was in turmoil in 1945-48 and people were being displaced all over Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Nor was the international system well established and settled.

Second, how else could a Jewish homeland have been created that didn’t cause fresh problems – albeit on nothing like the scale of the Holocaust?

By the 1970s the left in Europe was firmly divided over Israel. The social democrats largely supported the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, as did the international order and the UN. The far-left equated Israel with apartheid in South Africa as a legacy of colonialism that had to be overturned.

The ‘acceptable’ position on the far-left was to support the (then) Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s position: a democratic, secular, Palestine in which Jews and Arabs could live together. In other words Israel had to be destroyed as a Jewish state, but nicely. This was seen as an ‘equitable’ solution.

Of course it rather glossed over a couple of uncomfortable truths in the way of this utopian scheme.

Firstly, Israel was, as the Israeli’s never tired of reminding anyone who’d listen, a “fact on the ground”. Millions had joined the Jewish state. It had a powerful armed forces. It would go nowhere without a fight and for its Jewish inhabitants they literally felt they had nowhere to go since the destruction of European Jewry.

Second, a lot of the supposed supporters of the PLO position didn’t believe in democracy, or secularism, or living peacefully with the Jews. They wanted to ‘drive Israel into the sea’. I am sure there were many sincere Arab nationalists who genuinely believed in the PLO position – I met many of them. I also think those of us on the left who supported it honestly believed a democratic, secular, Palestine was possible (yes, I was one too).

Scroll forward 30 years and most of the left – and the international community – had settled on the so-called “two states” solution: Israel within its pre-1967 borders and a new Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza (a position I now support).

This ‘two-states solution’ is the official position of the British Labour party. It is a position that apparently Jeremy Corbyn agrees with, although he seems to keep it very quiet. And with probably with good reason.

Any cursory glance at social media over the past week will show you just how many of Corbyn’s supporters want to see Israel overthrown and something like the old PLO solution imposed. Moreover they regard anyone who supports Israel’s right to exist as a ‘Zionist sympathizer’ and racist.

They regularly equate what has happened to the Palestinians to what happened to the European Jews, which is patently absurd. They see Israel as an imperialist outpost established and supported by the USA to further its interests. They see ‘Zionism’ as racism and have regularly attempted to launch boycotts, ‘no platform’ anyone they deem ‘Zionist’, etc.

In all this fervor they don’t even notice that many of their ‘allies’ in the Islamicist movement – Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah – revive Nazi tropes about the Jews and would cheerfully see Israel ‘wiped off the map’. They want an Islamic caliphate in Palestine, not secularism or democracy.

What amounts to “Holocaust 2.0” being promoted barely registers with the far-left. It is at best a ‘lesser evil’ to be dealt with later after defeating Israel and the USA. (This sort of thing has a long pedigree on the far-left, dating back at least to the ‘Congress of the Peoples of the East’ in 1920.)

It is not a great surprise therefore that what starts out as pro-Palestinian “anti-Zionism” can easily spill-over into anti-Semitic Jew hating. The rise of anti-Semitic attacks in Britain and France in recent years demonstrates we have a problem.

For Jeremy Corbyn this creates a problem: does he come out clearly for defending the right of Israel to exist, saying Zionism is not racism, and that a two-states solution is now the only viable one? Or does he, as he seems to have done in the past, implicitly support the (old) PLO and far-left position of overthrowing Israel to create a new, non-Zionist, ‘Palestine’?

In my view he won’t resolve Labour’s issue with ‘anti-Semitism’ until he states clearly that so-called ‘anti-Zionism’ is mostly a cover for ill-concealed anti-Semitism and anyone who calls for the destruction of Israel, however ‘nicely’, is in practice being anti-Semitic.

The Israeli state – and especially its right-wing politicians like Likud – have done itself no favors. The continued effective annexation of the West Bank and the promotion of Jewish settlements is a disgrace. So too are many of the unjustified abuses of Palestinian’s and oppositions groups within Israel. Israel rightly counters with examples such Hamas rockets from Gaza and terrorist attacks with Israel.

As someone once rightly said about Northern Ireland during the ‘troubles’, playing the “politics of the last atrocity” gets us nowhere. In the end the competing demands of Irish nationalists and Ulster Unionists had to reach some sort of messy compromise to bring the conflict to an end. The same will one day be true in Israel/Palestine. But that day won’t be hastened by those who deny utterly the rights of Jews to a state of their own.






16 thoughts on “The Left’s problem with Anti-Semitism

  1. I’m very worried by Corbyn’s refusal to recognise how anti-Semitism is unique in racism, and just why its unique in the hard left- beyond people talking about Israel or Palestine. As you point out, anti-Zionism is usually a clear cover for anti-Semitism. Often it has nothing to do with the middle east.

    Corbyn’s election didn’t just encourage fanatical or naive members of Palestinian solidarity campaigns- or those that supported the PLO- to join Labour or become vocal. It also encouraged the certain elements of the hard left who have spent the last 26 years building conspiracy theories to explain how the Soviet Union could possibly have fallen to join up or get involved.

    Conspiracy theorists have virtually always fallen back on anti-Semitism to fill the gaps in the logic of their theories. If that be the Protocols of Zion, or David Icke’s slow road to actually admitting his clearly anti-Semitic ideas, it always comes back to ‘Rothschild money’, ‘Zionist infiltrators’, or the ‘Jewish media’.

    The ‘Jewish money’, ‘Jewish media’, or ‘Jewish control’ tropes among other libels are perhaps the most powerful drivers of anti-Semitism amongst conspiracy theorists, and certainly a unique problem. No other form of racism paints a group so fully as the reason for every single one of the world’s problems, while creating an ideological framework so hard to break.

  2. Rights and wrongs notwithstanding, this media outrage has little – or nothing – to do with anti-Semitism and everything to do with he elections on May 5th. How the hell did Israel, the West Bank, Jerusalem, carpet bombing Gaza jump to the fore in battles between tens of people for a seat on the council of a small English village? But the MSM has decided it suits itself to make it so.

    Tory election ‘cheating’ and Goldsmith’s “If you want a terrorist for your neighbour, vote Labour” have passed by without comment on the MSM. A local election has been usurped by forces afraid that the power in this country might shift slightly.

    The wrongs don’t make either right, but the bias is anti-Somethingism writ large.

  3. You haven’t been very clear. It really doesn’t help to speak categories like: “many on the British far-left and far too many Muslims”. What is that constituency, actually? Who are you actually describing? I suggest you are not providing any insight into the beliefs of any real people. The occasional citation you provide (e.g. of Stop The War) doesn’t make your straw man any more credible. It is just an incoherent collection of beliefs you are describing – not the beliefs of any particular group. To misquote Stuart Hall: there is no such thing as “many on the British far-left” just ways of thinking of people as “many on the British far-left”.

    You say of a broad group that includes the British Left and Muslims: “They think [Israel] is a racist state akin to apartheid South Africa and it needs to be destroyed. They believe the displacement of Palestinians as the state was created is an historic injustice that can only be righted by – one way or another – abolishing the Jewish state.”

    You are conflating two completely different issues here (apartheid and the legitimacy of Israel) which helps no one. My guess is that you haven’t really understood the term ‘apartheid’ – maybe you are being wilfully obtuse. You sound as if you understand it only as the racist persecution of the black majority in South Africa and so see its application to Israel as some sort of metaphor. That’s not what most people mean when they discuss apartheid in relation to Israel. Racism isn’t really the issue. Apartheid is a way of assigning different rights to different groups in a society – in particular property rights. Israel has wholly different rights for Jews and various categories of Arabs. It is an apartheid state pure and simple, which is not to say that all the connotations the term has carried since South Africa apply to Israel.

    The way you characterise this criticism of apartheid suggests that anyone who makes it is seeking the destruction of Israel. I want to end Israeli apartheid but I have no desire to destroy Israel. I believe the displacement of the Palestinians is an historic injustice but I don’t believe the only way it can be righted is by abolishing the Jewish State. What you have done though is to suggest that anyone who criticises the policies of the Israeli Government in this way is ‘one of those people’.

    I am a left wing British Jew who has also spent time in Jerusalem and Ramalah, and toured the West Bank and I’m getting increasingly pissed off with people (Jews and Gentiles) telling me what I think.

  4. “They think it is a racist state akin to apartheid South Africa and it needs to be destroyed. They believe the displacement of Palestinians as the state was created is an historic injustice that can only be righted by – one way or another – abolishing the Jewish state.”

    1) Who thought that South Africa needed to be destroyed? The anti-apartheid movement thought it should remain but become a democracy – with a demos that included all its citizens regardless of their ethnicity.

    2) The displacement of Palestinians as the state was created *is* an historic injustice. Like many historical injustices it can probably never be righted. But that does not mean that we should not acknowledge historic injustices.

    3) If by “abolishing the Jewish state” you mean invading and dismantling Israel, and expelling its Jewish inhabitants, then anyone who calls for that would be creating a historic injustice far greater than that visited on the Arab population of Palestine and we should clearly have no truck with anyone who advocates such things. But you are dishonestly trading on ambiguity here. What opponents of apartheid South Africa like me wish to see (in Israel and every country in the world) is the same rights for every inhabitant – regardless of their ethnicity and/or religion, or lack of it. If this counts as “abolishing the *Jewish* state” then yes, I’m in favour of that, but don’t try and imply that my call for actual democracy puts me in the same camp as those who advocate violence against or military conquest of Israel.

  5. “In the end the competing demands of Irish nationalists and Ulster Unionists had to reach some sort of messy compromise to bring the conflict to an end. The same will one day be true in Israel/Palestine. ”

    Yet the world seems happy to stand by and watch one side be blockaded and starved of land, while supporting the actions of one that’s doing the blockading and the expanding occupation.

    As for the PLO Yasser Arafat, in 1993, they gave in to nearly every Israeli demand they surrendered many of the issues they had fought for previously only for agreement to be reneged by Israel.

    If Israeli was really looking for peace they’d be seeking it now, but they are occupying more and more land and displacing more and more people.

    If you don’t think there;’s apartheid in Israel then why are Palestinian lives worth so much less than Israeli lives. Would the killer of Abdul Fatah al-Sharif have been charged with manslaughter if Abdul had been Jewish and the soldier been a Palestinian, of course not they’d both be dead and the soldier house would probably have been demolished too.

    The anger that Directed towards the Israeli government is a consequence of it’s own actions and to that it’s insistence of wanting peace while doing everything it can to avoid any form of negotiation.

    It the hypocrisy most people dislike, and the fact Israeli treats it’s detractors like idiots, expecting them to believe any cock and bull story it care to make up.

    I’ll believe there isn’t apartheid in Israel when I see a Jewish house bulldozed for the actions of one of the children who live there.

  6. Pingback: Saggio sull’antisemitismo nel Partito Laburista britannico | Osservatorio Antisemitismo

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