Antisemitism and the left in Britain today (1)

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The political terrain underlying debates about antisemitism and Zionism has shifted dramatically since 2000. This shift has been shaped by the second intifada, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the more recent revival of antisemitism on the far right.

John Rose’s contribution to the discussion (“Antisemitism and anti-Zionism today”, January SR) is a serious attempt to address the consequences of these developments. However, I fear John’s approach risks confusing the issues at stake rather than clarifying them.

It’s important to identify key political developments. First, the “two-state solution” in Palestine is buried in all but name. A majority of Palestinians no longer believe such a solution is viable. We are also witnessing the hardening of an implacable colonial-settler politics among Israeli Jews. According to a Pew Research poll, half of Israel’s Jews now support the expulsion of all Israeli Arab citizens, while less than 1 in 5 are strongly opposed. In this context, a call for “calm, rational, imaginative dialogue” between Palestinian and Israeli Jew seems utopian.

Meanwhile, in the wake of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the narrative of “the new antisemitism” is now an indissoluble part of the “clash of civilisations” thesis, not only levelled against campaigners for Palestinian rights and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, but more widely against the Muslim community, the anti-war movement and the radical left. This has culminated in the attacks on Corbyn and the Labour left and the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “definition” of antisemitism.

Finally, we are witnessing the revival of antisemitism on the far-right. In east European states hit by economic crisis, attacks on “Jewish finance” serve to deflect anger away from the national capitalist class. Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, even blames Jews for the refugee crisis (according to one poll, 37 percent of Hungarians give credence to this view). Western Europe is not immune, as evidenced by the growth in support for the Austrian Freedom Party and the Front National.

The appointment of Breitbart executive, Steve Bannon, a pro-Israel antisemite, as chief adviser to Trump, has led to political turmoil among Jewish organisations in the US and will also have an impact in the UK. The question of fighting antisemitism is no longer abstract nor confined to combatting marginal fascist groupings.

These factors are related in contradictory ways. Taken together, it means we cannot conduct the argument over Zionism solely within the confines of Israel-Palestine. In this sense John is wrong to place such central emphasis on such arguments. For the majority of Jews outside Israel, Zionism is seen as a justified and rational response to antisemitism and the Holocaust, whatever Israel’s “faults”. It is right to argue that the manner in which we contest this deeply rooted assumption is important.

However, the problem in the way John frames the argument lies in positing an abstract “dialogue” between Palestinians and Israeli Jews over a one state solution in which the onus appears to fall on Palestinians and their supporters to remain “calm” and “rational”. I do not believe that this is where the argument against Zionism among Jews will ultimately be won.

The future of the Israeli state will be determined by anti-imperialist struggles in the Middle East, including the Palestinian struggle, and by international solidarity. However, it will come too from demonstrating that Zionism is not Jews’ natural political home. This too will not be a matter of abstract debate. The question of unity between Muslim, Jew and the left against the threat of the far-right and fascist organisations is urgent and real. Unity must be actively constructed here and now, far beyond our current ranks.

Unite Against Fascism and Stand Up to Racism have an outstanding record of building unity against fascism, racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism. My own local SUtR recently initiated a protest demanding implementation of the Dubs amendment to grant entry to refugee children from Syria and elsewhere at the Kindertransport statue in London. Alf Dubs and Leslie Grant, both Jewish Kindertransport refugees, spoke.

While unity cannot be conditional on support for Palestine, it is in such a united struggle that we can demonstrate the falsity of Israel’s claim to represents the interests of Jews against antisemitism. We should be confident this is an argument that can be won, and that in posing an alternative to Zionism we can also greatly strengthen the struggle for a free Palestine.

Rob Ferguson
London