By Dave Stockton
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty group, AWL, is well known on the left for its assertion that the state of Israel embodies “the right to self-determination of the Jewish people”, has a “right to defend itself”, and that those on the left who reject this are antisemites, albeit “left antisemites”.
Antisemitism is, of course, one of the oldest, if not the archetypical, form of racism and means, quite straightforwardly, hostility to all Jews simply because they are Jews. The AWL, however, conflates the term with opposition to Zionism, a Jewish nationalism based on the project of a settler state in what was once Palestine. On this basis it then accuses those who oppose that project of recycling the anti-Jewish views of the far right. More, when they support the struggle to end the racially exclusive Israeli state, they are really calling for a pogrom of the Jews in Israel, if not elsewhere.
Supporters of Red Flag work alongside comrades of the AWL in the trade union and political labour movement and defend them against expulsions by the witch hunting Labour right but, on this question, we have to condemn their current as Zionist, as vicarious nationalists not internationalists. Moreover, because Jeremy Corbyn and many of his supporters, including Jewish antizionists, oppose the Israeli state’s cruel oppression of the Palestinians, the AWL has now sided with the Labour Right and the pro-Israel leaders of the Jewish Community in Britain in the attacks on Corbyn and the left.
Red Flag supporters, in contrast to the AWL, do not identify Israel with the Jewish people, even if a majority of Jews around the world support it today. The Zionist settlers, and then the state of Israel, denied and obstructed the right of the Palestinian people to self determination and statehood in their own land. Israel’s creation was not, and is not, the exercise of that same democratic right by the world’s Jews. It was an act of dispossession by European colonists and is only maintained by systemic oppression of the indigenous people, the Palestinians. To call holding on to the fruits of this robbery and continuing to rob the Palestinians of their country “self-defence” is an example of Orwellian “newspeak”.
In spite of Western European and American Christian prejudices, the Zionists did not have a right to Palestine, their claim was not superior to the rights of a people who had lived there for many centuries. Neither their boasts of possessing a higher economic and cultural level than the “natives”, nor all their achievements since, give them a right to “redeem the land” from a “backward” people. Such claims are based on imperialist racism, pure and simple. Though such a project is far from unique in the history of capitalism, especially British capitalism to be sure, that does not make the settlers’ “rights” any the less bogus.
Equally, the terrible wrongs inflicted on Europe’s Jews by the Nazis and other antisemitic movements cannot justify a terrible wrong done to the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. Two wrongs do not make a right. Even the Holocaust, for all its vast scale and the bestial methods used by the Nazis, is not a justification of Israel’s birthright. The project of Palestinian dispossession began long before the Holocaust and Palestine/Israel did not “save the Jewish people”.
Most critical for the falsity of that argument is the fact that the Arabic speaking population of Palestine was not responsible for it in any way whatsoever. That Britain and the USA support such claims is actually a very convenient way of obscuring the fact that they only allowed in a tiny number of refugees from Hitler and the antisemites when they could easily have opened their doors.
The Zionist project began long before Hitler and with the active support of the major imperialist powers who were seeking to dominate the Middle East, and this remains the case today. Thus, all those who take Israel’s side are also taking the side of imperialism against an oppressed people. One thing the Zionists are right about is that their state does, indeed, require the dispossession of the Palestinians for its existence as an exclusively Jewish state.
The AWL accept that dispossession as irreversible and accuse the Palestinians and their supporters of being antisemites and seeking to pogrom the Jewish inhabitants when they chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine must be free”, but they do want Israeli expansion to stop. They support the so-called two state solution, as does the official leadership of the Palestinians, but they do not support the Palestinians’ right to struggle against Israeli oppression or the right of those who have been driven from their homes to return to them. Above all, they denounce those who say that Israel is an Apartheid style, racist state, which by its very nature discriminates against and oppresses non-Jews who live within its pre-1967 borders, its post-1967 Occupied Territories and the besieged, blockaded and bombed 1.9 million inhabitants of Gaza.
The AWL’s senior leader and writer on the subject, Sean Matgamna, spells out the position clearly:
“That of course means recognising not only that the Palestinians have a right to their own state, but also that Israel is a legitimate state and has a right to defend itself. The full scale implications of the continual stream of hatred spewed out does not match with the belief that Israel has a right to exist and defend itself. It matches the view that Israel is not a legitimate state and that it has no right of self-defence.” (Solidarity No. 476, 8 August 2018)
What Matgamna cannot understand or, rather, will not recognise, is that Israel’s legitimacy and its “defence” of itself is utterly inseparable from its denial of the Palestinians’ right to a viable state for their entire nation; that its claim to legitimacy rests on its present narrow majority, gained thanks to Britain’s guardianship of its settlement project and the USA’s guardianship of the stolen fruits of two major seizures and an ongoing incremental occupation of Palestine.
Elsewhere, he pleads its justification by the fact that such displacement is not unique in human history (the settlement of the USA, Australia, for example) or more recently the huge displacement (ethnic cleansing) of populations after the Second World War or in Yugoslavia.
Apart from the fact that two wrongs or, for that matter, dozens of such wrongs, cannot make a right, it is a plain lie that the left especially condemns Israel and ignores other state criminals (the Bosnian and Kosovo ethnic cleansing, the Rohingyas, Syrian refugees, etc.). True, some people close to the Stalinists have excused or ignored the crimes of Milosevic, Assad or Putin, but Red Flag and most of the revolutionary left do not ignore these crimes. Nor do we claim that Israel’s crimes are unique or uniquely horrible. Alas this is far from the case.
The reason why the struggle of the Palestinians for justice is so important to socialists is not just a matter of historical injustices committed in the 1940s and ‘60s but those going on today, such as the daily IDF sniper killings of the youth on the Great March of Return and the years of daily cruelty against civilians in the 10 year long blockade of Gaza. Because of our own government’s and big business’s complicity in it, the duty here, especially of those who call themselves revolutionaries, is to render all assistance to those struggling to end it. This includes support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction, BDS, movement which, of course, the AWL also denounce as akin to the Nazi anti-Jewish store boycotts of the early 1930s.
Matgamna’s long time associate, Martin Thomas, makes it clear that Israel as it was formed and as it ‘defends’ itself today, requires holding on to the 79 per cent of Palestine it seized in 1948 and continuing to exclude the inhabitants and their descendants who were driven out then and again in 1967:
“This demand [the right of return for Palestinians-ed] is not a democratic one for freedom of movement. It is a demand for the territory in which an Israeli Jewish nation has grown up since 1948 to be given over to some (necessarily non-Israeli) agency which will organise mass resettlement of the Palestinian Arab diaspora.” Martin Thomas, Solidarity No. 476, 8 August 2018.
This ‘defence’ requires keeping five million Palestinians out of their homeland whilst Zionist Jews from around the world have a right to “return” to a country that neither they nor their forbears ever lived in.
The AWL also try to pin various other traditional antisemitic tropes onto the left supporters of the Palestinians. One such is the claim that, when it talks about the actions of Zionist lobbies in the USA or Britain, the left is reproducing the idea of a secret worldwide Jewish conspiracy, echoing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This is simply demagogy; there is nothing secret about the World Zionist Organisation, the Jewish Agency, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, and a range of Jewish organisations, which are in reality exclusively Zionist.
Their lobbying is no secret project, as events over the summer in Britain have shown. It could hardly have been more public. Whether this increases the feelings of security of British Jews or decreases real antisemitism must be open to doubt. The public can after all see the brutality of the Israeli forces in Gaza on their TV screens and can note the total silence of the Zionist papers and rabbis on this subject. Israel’s public approval ratings continue to fall, including in the USA. Indeed, that is in part the reason for the Israeli embassy’s efforts to stoke up the fake antisemitism wave.
Our objection is not to the international character of the Zionist Movement, or its right to lobby, but to the content of their lobbying, which is slanderously anti-Palestinian, indeed often Islamophobic, and attempts to sow fear amongst ordinary Jewish people about a supposed existential threat to them from a Jeremy Corbyn government. What do they expect, pogroms? Yet the AWL, too, plays with these words and, in particular, they endorse the innuendo that Jeremy Corbyn is soft on “left antisemitism” even if he is not an antisemite himself.
This summer’s campaign against supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, plus the vile and baseless slander that he himself is an antisemite, was launched by right wing Labour MPs like Margaret Hodge, Tory rabbis like Jonathan Sachs, the virulently Islamophobic, anti-immigrant Daily Mail and Express, and the Guardian too, all eager to engineer a split in Labour.
Their objective was plain enough. For the sincere Zionists it was to divert attention from the atrocities being committed in Gaza, and an even a larger scale one being planned by Netantyahu and Trump. For the Labour Right, the objective was a third attempt to oust Jeremy Corbyn. For the Tory media, the aim was to counter the danger of Corbyn becoming PM, if May’s government collapses over Brexit. Some may think this perfect storm has now abated, but we may just be passing through the eye of the hurricane.
The AWL saw in all this an opportunity to promote their sect building fetish of “left antisemitism” and another opportunity to defend Israel’s “self defence” while smearing the left who support the Palestinians. The AWL’s task was to give the right wingers a bit of left cover and to bear false witness to the sincerity and the justice of their charges.
The indefatigable Matgamna again:
“On a certain level their [the right wing-ed] general politics will feed into the anti-Corbyn agitation. But they are not in this being right-wing zealots or hypocrites. And there will be some amongst them who play close attention to the left, and its incipient pogromist agitation against Israel and those who support it. They are not fools. They know that the ‘Corbyn surge’ has put into power in the Labour Party people who are “absolute anti-Zionists”, people who are radical anti-Israel zealots and supporters of Arab or Islamic [sic] conquest of Israel and the forcible abolition of the Jewish state.”
Warming to his theme against the “left pogromist agitators” and would-be Islamic conquerors (echoes of a 2013 article which likened Islamists to “desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives”) he continues:
“The horrible truth that has to be faced is that large parts of the ostensible [sic] for all practical purposes is anti-semitic, hostile to Israel’s very existence, denying any Israeli right to self-defence. That it endorses and circulates malice-ridden accounts of the history of Zionism and Israel and that from that comes emotion-ridden hostility to Jews who defend Israel and refuse to see it as racism.”
The AWL’s intervention in the campaign does not stop short of Corbyn himself. Though not actually daring to call him an antisemite, they characterise the remarks he made years ago about Zionists who disrupted a meeting not understanding English irony, as: “appalling, and recycle antisemitic ideas. The “Zionists” are figured as a foreign other, failing to integrate into “Englishness”, echoing an aspect of antisemitic ideology which figures Jews as an alien or even parasitic element on the national body politic.”
Of course, the alien and “anti-Jewish” character of Corbyn’s remarks is completely made up but then comes a sickening retraction before returning to the smearing:
“His remarks were not “racist”, nor illustrative of a racialised hatred of Jews on Corbyn’s part. But they do demonstrate a lack of understanding of the ways that antisemitism does not only manifest as racialised antipathy to Jews, but can take other forms, often politically, rather than racially, constructed.”
The “antisemitism’ that the AWL has discovered is identical to that stigmatised by the rabbis, the Jewish Labour Movement and the PLP right-wingers Luciana Berger, Wes Streeting and Margaret Hodge.
Like most “left” Zionists within Israel and beyond, the AWL advocates a “two-state solution” to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This generously offers the Palestinians the Oslo Agreement mini-state on 22 per cent of their former homeland in return for recognising the right of Israel to hold on to the remaining 78 per cent. As for the rest of the refugees, living in shanty towns beyond the old Mandate borders, they have no right to return.
Because the Palestinians have never, and will never, agree to this, they and their present leaderships are also regularly accused of antisemitism. In the midst of the brutal assault by the Israeli Defence Forces on Gaza in 2009, the AWL raised the slogan “No to the IDF, No to Hamas”. No matter that Hamas was defending the population of Gaza while Israel was attacking it with all its vastly superior weaponry and as a result at least 2,104 Palestinian died, including 1,462 civilians, of whom 495 were children and 253 women.
In a one-sided war, which left 90,000 homeless, many without electricity or clean drinking water, the AWL remained neutral. Or, rather, it didn’t, with Sean Matgamna writing a splenetic letter to the Guardian claiming:
“The point is that the politics dominant in the Gaza demonstrations were entirely in line with the jihadists and their antisemitism.”
For Matgamanna, Islamist, Islamic, jihadist are all the same. He uses the terms indiscriminately, just as he asserts Zionists=Jews. Around the same time, AWL members tried to join an antiwar demonstration, carrying Israeli flags, the flag under which the bombing was taking place.
So, can anti-Zionism be antisemitism? Yes, wherever criticism of Israel and/or Zionism fails to distinguish between Jews and Zionists. Though it is understandable if some Palestinians identify their persecutors as “the Jews”, because the Zionist Israelis do so themselves, the opponents of Israel’s oppression have a duty to make it clear that only the agencies of, or apologists for, this oppression are Zionists, and many of them are non-Jews.
The increasing numbers of Jewish opponents of Israel, including Jews in Israel, are testimony to this. All and any resort to antisemitic tropes, should be offensive, not just to all Jews but to all genuine left-wingers. They can only weaken the fight against Zionism. The struggles against the different forms of racism, including antisemitism and Islamophobia, are inseparable one from another. We must hope that those AWL comrades who are unhappy with this smearing of the left and who can see its links to the fraudulent self-determination and self defence of an oppressor state, will be able to rid their organisation of its reactionary nationalistic and pro-imperialist fetish.