For those of us who study Israel and Zionism from the vantage point of Britain, there are some things we are able to predict with unerring accuracy. One such is that whenever the latest depressing dispatch arrives from the bloody ground-hog day that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will swiftly follow, from print journalists and keyboard warriors alike, a flurry of discourse on the question of the British left’s position on Israel and on the correlation between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Support for the Palestinian cause, nigh universal on the British left, has become so myopic as to amount to a delegitimisation of Israel which is de facto anti-Semitic. So the argument goes. To which the left responds with enraged accusations of slander, moral obfuscation and misuse of the charge of racism.
These exchanges are invariably unedifying, steeped in ad hominem vitriol and contribute only to the ever-increasing divide between the two parties to the conflict and their proxy defenders. Even the most civil example of the debate, between Brian Klug and Robert Wistrich, ended with very little common ground being reached. Doubtless, Bibi Netanyahu’s victory will spark a new round of intellectual hostility. It will be seen by the left as an endorsement by the Israeli public of the rejectionist, expansionist view of the conflict, and will almost certainly exacerbate the keyboard-war between the left and the defenders of Israel. It will confirm the suspicions of many that Israel itself, and Zionism along with it, is inherently right-wing, bellicose and intransigent. The more hard-line Israel gets, the more this argument is solidified, and Netanyahu left Israeli voters in no doubt what they would be getting when he announced before the election that his Israel would not countenance Palestinian statehood.
This article is an attempt to address the issue with reason but not with dispassion. It tries to highlight ways in which the left needs to alter its thinking with regard to Zionism and also seeks to defend the left from some unjustified criticism. It is written by one tired of the myopic character of the debate who believes that we owe the conflict better than to discuss it in a manner more befitting the message boards of an article on a football match, with advocates of each side trumpeting the deserving virtues of their own and failing to see any merit in the position of the other.
The history of the left’s position on Zionism is long and complex, but there are a few points that can be made accurately and succinctly. In the immediate pre and post-1948 periods, the British left was broadly, and often enthusiastically, supportive of the Zionist movement and then the State of Israel. Weizmann and the other pre-State Zionists had few more vociferous gentile cheerleaders, for example, than the Guardian editor C.P. Scott. This was of course by no means a uniform support, and there were many outliers who denied Zionism’s legitimacy,
but this article is not a history of the left and its relationship with Israel and so must paint in broad generalities.
The situation changed fundamentally following Israel’s victory in the Six Day War of June 1967 and its acquisition of the Occupied Territories.
The left underwent a wholesale reconsideration of its view of Zionism based upon the fact that, following the war, Israel no longer looked to them like a persecuted underdog in need of solidarity, but rather appeared as a militaristic outpost of Western Imperialism (this despite the fact that many of its Western allies, including Britain, were not at all supportive of Israel’s occupation of the territories). That this occurred at the time that the popular left was undergoing a general move towards an anti-colonial emphasis, inspired by the Vietnam War and the Algerian uprising against the French, ensured that Israel quickly and dramatically lost most of a leftist support it had once been able to rely on.
Not all on the far left moved to an anti-Zionist position. Ironically, that doyen of the 60s/70s revolutionary left, Fidel Castro, saw no contradiction between supporting the Palestinian national struggle and defending Israel’s right to exist. ‘Revolutionaries’, he said, ‘never threaten a whole people with destruction.’ Ralph Miliband, Holocaust Survivor, ardent Socialist and the Daily Mail’s favourite Briton reacted with alarm at the anti-Israeli currents he saw developing in the Socialist movement in the late 1960s.
‘The elimination of the State [of Israel]’, he wrote, ‘does not seem to me a policy that Socialists worthy of the name could support.’ Instead, Miliband advocated ‘condemning the Israelis for their foreign policy’ and to do so ‘in the name of Socialist principles, but without putting the existence of the State in question.’ (Of course, to the worst kind of leftist anti-Zionist, Miliband was a Jew and so would say that. A particularly hypocritical leftist position is to champion the Jewishness of Jewish critics of Israel-Chomsky, Finkelstein et al.- but hold that the very same Jewishness of Israeli defenders makes them part of the ‘lobby’ and thus unworthy of consideration.) Jean Paul Sartre, meanwhile, wrestled with how the anti-colonialist should properly view Israel and Zionism but still advocated solidarity with the Jewish State.
Nonetheless, the late 60s leftist re-evaluation of Zionism led many to an embrace of Nasserism and to subsequently back any Levantine movement, no matter how reactionary, as long as it was anti-Israeli. Lest we dismiss this as a product purely of the heady days of the late 60s-early 70s rebellion, fast forward to 2006 and witness prominent American leftist intellectual Judith Butler’s notorious belief that ‘understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important.’ It is fair to note Butler’s caveat that ‘that does not stop us from being critical of certain
dimensions of both movements. It doesn’t stop those of us who are interested in non-violent politics from raising the question of whether there are other options besides violence.’ Butler’s equivocation notwithstanding, Hamas and Hezbollah are part of no left that I know or understand, but this attitude is consistent with much left-wing rhetoric since its post-67 re-appraisal of Zionism.
This is a perennial left-wing problem, and one that I wrestle with a great deal. The left is not always good at differentiating among revolutionary movements the genuinely progressive and pluralist from those whose espousal of national liberation is really a mask for chauvinism and hatred. It is wont too often to blindly subscribe to the dictum “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and therefore whomever opposes the forces of the Imperialist West must, by necessity, be virtuous. This was somewhat more forgivable amongst anti-American post-WW2 Stalinists when the horrors of Stalin’s regime were not fully known. It was less excusable when some on the anti-Iraq War left downplayed the barbarity of Saddam Hussein (“Yes he tortures and murders but so do the Israelis”). Saddam’s sadistic track record, it is fair to say, was a matter of public record and the left needn’t and shouldn’t have used mealy-mouthed obfuscation to condemn the invasion; Lord knows there were enough deserving criticisms to be made. One of the undying lessons taught us by George Orwell is that it is imperative not to idealise those who oppose who you oppose; to see clearly their true nature and champion those who represent humanist ideals and decry those who are undeserving.
To return to the question of Zionism and the left, post-67, support for the Palestinian right to self-determination has become a hallmark of the popular left, and anti-Zionism has generally moved from the right to the left. This brief summation is the context in which we must view the contemporary debate.
Let us now look at the various expressions of left-wing anti-Zionism. If we take the totality of self-identifying British leftists who further self-define as anti-Zionist I think we can perhaps divide them into certain schools of thought and motivation, and from there begin to judge their attitudes in terms of appropriateness to a left-wing agenda.
If you are an anti-Zionist in that you inherently reject the right to sovereignty of the Jewish people; in other words, if -after millennia of pogrom after ghetto after massacre, culminating in the worst of all anti-Jewish orgies of violence, the Holocaust- you still refuse to grant the Jews the right to self-determination, self-governance and self-protection, then I feel that there is more than the whiff of the antisemite about you. For what you are essentially saying is one of two things: a) You care not at all for the survival of the Jewish people; b) You care for the survival
of the Jewish people but believe this must be achieved as a stateless people in the diaspora.
Belief in the continuation of the Jewish diaspora is not anti-Semitic. Indeed, the majority of the world’s Jews believe sufficiently in the viability of diaspora Jewish life that they continue to reside outside of the Jewish State. But if one argues that not only can Jewish continuity be achieved in the diaspora but that it must do so only there (this follows inarguably from the anti-Zionist position since it denies the desirability of the existence of the Jewish State) then one is either ignorant of, or, worse, aware of but unmoved by, the psychological strain gentile antisemitism and its frequent bloodthirsty manifestations have wrought on the Jewish mind. This position seems to me to be sufficiently anti-Jewish as to constitute antisemitism. It is also logically and philosophical inconsistent and hypocritical.
As leftists, we either agree with the rights of collective peoples to self-determination and sovereignty or we don’t. It is maddening and cringe-worthy to hear leftists vigorously defend the national rights of the Kurds or the Chechens or other persecuted people (as indeed they should) and deny the same rights to the Jews. If Jews wish to wander that is their right, but Gentiles demanding the Wandering Jew is not the same.
If you consider yourself an anti-Zionist in that you accept the Jewish right to self-determination but reject the right to do so in an exclusivist manner- in other words in a particularistic State which grants certain rights to Jews and not to non-Jews- then not only does this not necessarily make you an antisemite, but also allies you with a great many Jews and Israelis, including the so-called Israeli post-Zionists, who are not in the least self-hating. Criticism of this kind seems to me consistent with a left I am proud to be a part of; a left which rejects exclusivist and chauvinist societies.
With this in mind, and leaving aside for a moment the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, Israel’s Arab population (some 20% of the whole country) is technically equal and enfranchised. But this should not blind us to the realities of their status in the Jewish State where they are regarded by many as a fifth-column. When Netanyahu needed a late Hail-Mary electoral pass what weapon did he employ? “The rule of the right wing is in danger. Arab voters are going to the polls in droves! Go to the polling stations! Vote Likud!” Although Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has shown that the Likudnik spectrum also includes those who see Israel’s Arabs in far more equal and positive terms, it seems to me that Israel’s move towards an ever more exclusivist character is a proper bone of contention for a left which is internationalist and multi-cultural. But this need not lead a leftist to an anti-Zionist position, anymore, for example, than his opposition to chauvinistic attitudes and
policies towards minorities in India need lead him to oppose the sovereignty of India. In all other cases, repulsive state practice leads leftists to condemn the state and seek its improvement, not to deny or abjure its right to exist.
Now we come to the more complex and morally ambiguous issues. If, as a leftist, you understand the Jewish impulse for nationhood but cannot accept the decision to choose a land which, although replete with an existing Jewish population and rich with spiritual and cultural significance for Jews, already contained another native majority population whose own national rights were ignored then, again, not only are you not necessarily an anti-Semite, but you are in the company of a great many early “Zionists” who believed deeply in Jewish self-determination but believed it should be pursued in a land, or portion of land, more genuinely terra nulius.
The Anglo-Jewish author Israel Zangwill was one who, having seen the error of his earlier estimation that first Ottoman and then Mandate Palestine was essentially uninhabited, broke with Herzlian Zionism and pursued his own version of non-Palestinian Jewish Nationhood with his Territorialist movement. So, I think it is possible to pursue this caveated anti-Zionism un-antisemitically, provided one can propose a solution which is as equally concerned with the rights and security of Jews in the region as it is with those of the Palestinians. At present, the binational “one-state” solution which is most popular on the less dogmatically anti-Zionist left leaves far too many unanswered questions in this regard.
The early Zionist argument that the Palestinian population would welcome Jewish statehood because it would bring economic advancement was at best naÃ¯ve and at worst reminiscent of the most odious justifications for colonial subjugation. The International Community recognised the legitimacy of the national rights of both Jews and Arabs in Mandate Palestine and proposed partition of the land in 1947. This plan was accepted by the Zionist authorities (though many argue that they saw it only as a jumping off point for further expansion) and rejected by the relevant Arab authorities. Shortly after the Israeli declaration of independence the new state was attacked by the surrounding Arab states in its War of Independence. Victory resulted not only in expanded Israeli territory from that envisaged by the UN Partition Plan, but also in the displacement of 700,000 odd Palestinian citizens and the birth of the Palestinian Refugee problem, what the Palestinians refer to as the Nakba (catastrophe). Debate continues to rage in Israel over two points: 1) Whether or not the Palestinian refugees fled their homes under inducement by Arab authorities or where forced to by the victorious Israelis and 2) Whether the expansion and displacement of the Arabs was an unplanned product of war or of orchestrated Israeli expansionism. This is not the place for a detailed discussion of these points, suffice it to say that the events briefly described have been the cause
of untold Palestinian suffering and of much of the violent enmity between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Of those on the left who take a position that Zionism is justified as a movement for the national self-determination of the Jewish people but became unjustified a) when it settled on an already inhabited land or b) when its success resulted in 700,000 Palestinians losing their homes and being plunged into abject misery, we may debate and argue but I think it is logically and morally difficult to charge this position with being by definition antisemitic, again provided the leftist has a just and secure solution for all. But it should also be remembered that the contemporaneous left of the time almost entirely supported Israeli statehood and backed its cause in the 1948 War. The view at the time was that to take the established leftist tradition of supporting the persecuted underdog was to take the side of an Israel encircled my enemies on all sides, while, in Britain, the establishment position was to press the case of Britain’s Arab allies. How times have changed!
It is imperative also to consider the post-1967 era, the era of occupation. For in the general leftist discourse on Israel, it is really the occupation that is paramount. I think a great many confuse the issue and say they are “against Zionism” when what they really mean is that they do not accept the borders of Israeli jurisdiction as they developed after the acquisition of the Occupied Territories in 1967. (Notice I don’t follow the Israeli position and say “Disputed Territories”. If such radical bodies as the International Court of Justice and the US Government are comfortable defining the territories as Occupied, then surely the matter is firmly put to bed.) Again, this is perfectly justifiable but needn’t automatically mean that one should have, ex necessitate rei, to oppose a Jewish State in some part of Palestine, as the international community in the guise of the UN felt was just and reasonable. Again, we may argue long into the night as to whether the Occupation was a product of the exigencies of war or part of a calculated design inspired by the expansionist school of Zionist thought. But, again, opposition to the occupation, essential and noble as it is, does not require us to repudiate or de-legitimize the fundamental Zionist philosophy.
Let us turn briefly from the charges made by the left to those made against it. It Is argued that those who single out Israel while ignoring or downplaying the worse or similar behaviour of other states are de facto anti-Semitic. The problem with this proposition is that it damns the innocent along with the guilty. I certainly think there are some leftist antisemites who give themselves away by their monomaniacal focus on Israel. But, by the same token, someone generally concerned with the sufferings of mankind focussing their efforts upon the particular case of injustice done to the Palestinians is not by definition antisemitic.
Who knows why particular issues seem to demand our attention while others, equally worthy of it, must be left to others. But, again, singling out Israel from the long list of international transgressors does share, inadvertently or not, the same habit of highlighting the sins of Jews over those of others of the traditional antisemite; only the conscience of the individual knows from whence his motivation comes.
Another weapon in the arsenal of Israel’s defenders who charge the left with antisemitism is that the latter often compares Israeli actions with those of the Nazis. To equate Zionism with Nazism is illogical, irrational and monumentally disrespectful to the continued legacy of the Shoah. The analogy is self-evidently explosive and deployed only to wound and cause offense. To an extent it is simply a reflection of the perspicacity of Mike Godwin in coining his “law” which states that the longer an online discussion goes on, the greater the chances of Hitler and the Nazis being used as a comparison becomes. It is, almost always, a wrong-headed and fatuous tactic used to try to summarily “win” a debate, to deliver a fatal blow to one’s rhetorical adversaries. Is it, when applied to the State of Israel, also antisemitic? Yes. It is a deliberate attempt to emotionally injure Israelis and other Zionist Jews by comparing the State’s actions with the Jewish people’s most appalling persecutor; it shares the ahistorical illogic of Nazi comparisons made elsewhere but is antisemitic in attempting to wound Jews as Jews. For reasons of both historical logic and good taste such analogies should be avoided and called out where they are applied.
There are also more problematic occasions when an implicit analogy is made by mainstream, non-leftist bodies. In 2004, for example, the International Criminal Court affirmed its view that Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention- prohibiting the transfer of civilian population from occupied territory and the transfer of the population of the occupying power into occupied territory- applied to Israeli settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This followed umpteen UN resolutions also affirming the applicability of Article 49 to the situation in the territories. One reason these affirmations of applicability cause Israeli outrage is that, since Article 49 was drafted largely in response to Nazi practices in the European territories Germany occupied in World War Two, holding states in violation of Article 49 would seem to be an implicit analogising of their behaviour with Nazi behaviour.
To turn this question around, it is often said by leftist critics of Israel- Jewish and non-Jewish- that Israel invokes the Holocaust to excuse, or provide a smokescreen for, its behaviour. As a non-Jew, the Holocaust certainly does not justify Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians (indeed I know of no serious Israeli commentator who would suggest it did), but I do believe it justifies Zionism itself, and we can and
should decry the former without, by logical necessity, having to repudiate the latter. If we fail to appreciate the depth of the scars of the Holocaust, if we fail to understand the enormity of this collective experience and its impact on the Jewish mind and heart then, not only are we both impractical and unhelpful observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we are inhuman as well. We condemn with the luxury and complacency of those who have never had to face the possible extinction of our tribe. What we cannot empathise with, but should never stop trying to sympathise with, is the psychological effect of knowing that there were, and are still, those who would see our race eradicated. Live with that for a while and see if you think you need a national home. Similarly (notice I don’t say equally), when those on the Israeli side refuse to acknowledge the size of the injustice visited upon the Palestinians following Israeli statehood, and the profundity of their suffering, then not only are you both impractical and unhelpful observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you are inhuman as well.
I have no doubt that there exists a certain section on the left who are simply classic antisemites; those who talk of ‘The Jews’ and their fondness for money and power. Anti-Zionism has certainly become a convenient cloak for those whose position on the Jews is most properly analogous to the most reactionary right-wing. Stated clearly, they belong on no left that I believe in. My definition of left has as its first, and perhaps defining principle, an insistence upon judging a person by their actions and the content of their character and not by their ethnic origin. Because, let us make no mistake here, when antisemites hate, they are doing so racially and not theologically.
Some invoke caveats for this which do them no credit. “Ah, but it’s Israeli action which causes antisemitism. It’s the Occupation.” Is the left really prepared to justify this? What Israeli behaviour can justifiably cause is anti-Israelism- a negative view, even hatred, of Israel’s actions as a state. Antisemitism is hatred of Jews, pure and simple and it is un-leftist to excuse this because some Jews behave appallingly.
I think much anti-Zionism is reflexive and complacent. “Chomsky condemns Israel and opposes Zionism, so it must be the leftist course” goes the rationale. I bow to few in my admiration for the Professor, and his views on Zionism itself are actually far more nuanced and complex than many realise, but if his unknowing tutelage has taught me one thing it is to question orthodoxy. This should be one of the first principles of ‘being left’ and when anti-Zionism has become a leftist orthodoxy we should question it. It is time for all leftists to be capable of holding two thoughts in their heads which seem contradictory but are not mutually incompatible. Namely, to wholeheartedly support Palestinian revanchism, restitution and justice on the one hand and also to recognise the legitimacy of the Jewish national movement. It is essential for the preservation of the left’s moral integrity and intellectual rigour
that it approaches Zionism from a consistent position. If we are in favour of the right to self-determination of a stateless people identifying and accepted as a national collective- today the Palestinians- then I fail to see how we can retrospectively deny the same moral rights to those Jews who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries pursued their own national unity and sovereign movement.
It is not our peace to negotiate. We can only ever be interested and passionate observers. What we can do is aid the chances of peace, and we do this by contributing to a culture of reconciliation and compromise. This is a duty of all, but particularly those of us on the left who champion peace and decry war, I am pleased to say, with greater fervour and consistency than our adversaries on the right.
And in this duty, we are nowhere. Actually, we are worse than nowhere.
In our journalistic sniping, our keyboard warring and our stubborn refusal to see our opponents’ humanity we are actively and wilfully sending the peace train in the wrong direction. For, whether we know it or not, the debate in the outside world has a very real effect on the conflict itself. Only when both sides view the “other” as a human being with rational and justifiable claims and desires can we hope for peace. But seldom do we in Britain contribute anything of substance to this process, and so an exponential increase of hatred and violence- that moral tit-for-tat that we scold and attempt to correct in our children- remains the despairing lingua franca of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This article was originally published on the LPJ website in 2015 and updated by the author in 2018.
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This post was written by Jack Omer-Jackaman