Claims about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party have corrupted the need to not only confront the real anti-Semitism initiated by Donald Trump’s administration but, as John Rose argues, the need to campaign for national dialogue between Palestinians and Israeli Jews.
‘Everything is allowed to him [the member of the gang], he is capable of anything, he is the master of property and honour…if he wants to, he can throw an old woman out of a third floor window together with a grand piano, he can smash a chair against a baby’s head, rape a little girl while the entire crowd looks on… He exterminates whole families, he pours petrol over a house, transforms it into a mass of flames… There exists no tortures, figments of a feverish brain maddened by alcohol and fury, at which he need ever stop… The victims…kiss the soldiers’ boots…[only to hear] drunken laughter… ‘You wanted freedom, here it is!’”
This is Leon Trotsky writing about the anti-Semitic pogroms in the shadow of the defeat of the 1905 Russian Revolution, from his masterpiece, 1905: graphic and terrifying descriptions of anti-Semitism’s irrationality, often state-sponsored, and its capacity to turn Jew-hatred into an epidemic, pogromist and ultimately genocidal.
It’s a stark reminder about what raw and real anti-Semitism looks like. And it throws into sharp relief the claims about anti-Semitism in the current row in the Labour Party, so cynically manipulated as part of the campaign to undermine Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.
Norman Geras cited this passage in his deeply disturbing and pessimistic book about the Nazi Holocaust, The Contract of Mutual Indifference. Anthony Julius cited a similar passage in his book Trials of the Diaspora equating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. It is part of a long tradition of Jewish intellectuals, supporters of a Jewish state in Palestine, reaching out to Trotsky. It is, of course, a tribute to the immense prestige of Trotsky that attempts should be made to somehow attach his legacy to a cause he explicitly dismissed. Dismissed in one word, as a matter of fact — Trotsky called Zionism a “trap” for the Jews.
But there is a different argument to be developed here. Geras had regarded himself as a Marxist even though he authored the so-called Euston Manifesto, an anti-Islamic focus for trying to rally disillusioned parts of the left behind the Bush/Blair imperialist war drive in the Middle East. It also equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Nevertheless his Marxism was not to be ignored, as this magazine acknowledged in its obituary for Geras in 2013.
This raises the contradictory politics of Zionism’s association with Marxism which has a far longer, and much more serious, pedigree than some Zionist trends, occasional association with Nazism. In fact, the second wave of Jewish emigration to Palestine from the Russian Empire, following the defeat of the 1905 Revolution and the pogroms that Trotsky so vividly outlined, included former revolutionaries who forged part of Zionism’s cadre in the early parts of the last century. Some of them continued to regard themselves as Marxists as they set up communes known as the kibbutz system on seized Arab land.
Their Marxism had fused with a secularised Judaism which glorified a version of ancient Jewish history in Palestine: the “Promised Land” fable modernised to fit a national liberation narrative. A century later it retains intense emotional and quasi intellectual magnetism. Palestinian revolutionaries and intellectuals have had to grapple with it as they have tried to think through its implications for its future Jewish citizens in a liberated Palestine.
In her excellent book defending a one-state solution in Palestine, Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine, the Palestinian writer and activist Ghada Karmi gives serious consideration to a de-politicised “cultural Zionism”. It’s a proposed defence of Jews who wish to “maintain a cultural identity in the biblical homeland”. She cites Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, thoroughly disillusioned with modern Israel. Burg has warned Israelis not to assume the existence of their state was assured. He has suggested the connection between Jews and “the sources of Jewish culture” could be constitutionally protected in “an open non-racist society.”
This is not simply a daring idea for the future; it has immediate implications both for the current phoney row about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and, just as important, how that row is conducted.
It shows that a dialogue between Palestinians and Israeli Jews about dismantling the Zionist state in Israel can be conducted in a calm, rational and imaginative manner with respect shown on both sides. It re-frames the “aha” question, so beloved by the anti-Corbyn brigade in the Labour Party and the media. “Aha – so you are against Israel’s right to exist, proof of your anti-Semitism!” During the apartheid years no one ever questioned South Africa’s “right to exist”. What they questioned was the apartheid state system. Exactly the same argument applies to the Zionist state system which has institutionalised the exclusion and oppression of the Palestinians.
But the dialogue has another lesson too. It shows which arguments should take priority over others: those which keep the liberation of Palestine centre stage. The experience of the Labour Party row illustrates that other arguments, even if they contain grains of truth, can be unhelpful, even counterproductive.
Some strands of “anti-Zionism”, over the years, have occasionally risked morphing into a self-absorbed and one-dimensional sectarianism, losing sight of both real Palestinians and real Jews. True, the rigid one-dimensional fanaticism of the Israeli Netanyahu government, its racism and its unbridled use of force against the Palestinians, feeds such a reaction. But one consequence is a failure to distinguish between the Zionism of Netanyahu and the far more fluid and often conflicted Zionism of many Jewish students and young people who genuinely believe they can support Israel and Palestinian liberation at the same time.
Traditionally the “two-state solution” appeared to accommodate this belief. But Israel’s land grab on the West Bank, its point blank refusal to share Jerusalem and even discuss the right of return of the Palestinian refugees has rendered this option obsolete.
Yet we need to talk to these Jewish students. Trump and his government appointments have suddenly made real anti-Semitism respectable in the West for the first time since the Second World War. The implications are frightening. We need Jewish youngsters, and indeed their parents, in social movements such as Stand Up to Racism and Unite Against Fascism. And they need to feel comfortable in these movements. But we also do need to conduct with them the argument about Palestine.
We need to take care that we do so in a language and in a manner that minimises misunderstandings and eliminates any possibility of anti-Semitic interpretation. Several years ago an SWP student organiser told me the following story. He had been arguing with a member of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). The UJS student had complained of anti-Semitism. When the student organiser challenged what appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction, the UJS student said words to the effect that the problem wasn’t with the argument. He accepted that supporting the liberation of Palestine in a single state was a legitimate argument. What was troubling was the venom, the hatred that seemed to come with argument. “We can sometimes feel the hatred; after all we are not Nazis!”
Finally, we should remember that among Israeli Jews all is not well even at the highest echelons of the Israeli state. Deep divisions simmer just beneath the surface. A Holocaust Memorial Day speech at an official Israeli ceremony this year warned:
“If there is anything that frightens me in the remembrance of the Holocaust, it is discerning nauseating trends that took place in Europe in general, and in Germany in particular…and seeing evidence of them here among us in 2016. After all there is nothing simpler than hating the foreigner, there is nothing easier and simpler than arousing fears and intimidating, there is nothing easier and simpler than becoming bestial…”
The speech was made by Major General Yair Golan, deputy chief of staff, Israeli Defence Forces.
New definition has ‘serious flaws’
Prime minister Theresa May announced in early December that the government intends to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism drawn up by a grouping called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and turn it into law in Britain.
I strongly recommend an excellent article by David Rosenberg from the Jewish Socialist Group, and author of Battle for the East End, one of the best books about defeating the British Fascists at Cable Street in East London in 1936, who has analysed the serious flaws in this approach.
As David points out the basic definition appears fine. “Anti Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical or physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Immediately after that, though, the definition leaps to “Manifestations might include the targeting of Israel conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”
David pulls no punches in exposing the implications: “Israel is an ethnocracy and occupying power...discrimination is built into many of its laws... Palestinian political activists (including children) fill Israel’s prisons, many of them under administrative detention with no date set for any process of justice.
“This conflation of Israel and Jews has the potential to outlaw perfectly legitimate pro-Palestinian human rights campaigns as anti-Semitic.”