Socialist Worker

‘Fear works if you cave in’—Ilan Pappe on Israel, Palestine and antisemitism

The right are trying to silence solidarity with Palestine by claiming it’s antisemitic to call Israel and its founding Zionist ideology racist. Ilan Pappe, a leading Israeli-born historian and anti-Zionist, spoke to Nick Clark about how to combat their claims

Issue No. 2616

Ilan Pappe speaking at Marxism Festival 2018. You can watch his talk The day after: opportunities and dangers for Palestine in the Trump era here

Ilan Pappe speaking at Marxism Festival 2018. You can watch his talk here


The International Holocaust Memorial Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitsm includes an example that says that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” could be antisemitic. What is your response to this?

There are two clear issues that are undeniable. 

The first is that the Zionist movement from the moment it set foot in Palestine adopted a racist vision towards the native Palestinian population. It acted upon it by having as much of the country as possible with as few of the native Palestinians as possible. 

The second is that the political regime in Israel since its inception in 1948, through its basic laws, policies and practices, is a racist regime. 

This racism has manifested itself in different ways throughout the years, as the circumstances dictate. It is also exercised differently towards the various Palestinian groups that are either under direct or indirect rule of Israel. For example, its racism is more stated in the West Bank than in the Galilee.

The Zionist movement is a settler colonial movement. These movements were created by Europeans that escaped the continent for existential reasons. 

When they encountered a native population the logic that informed them was to remove those natives as the main obstacle for creating a new homeland. Such an act meant the dehumanisation of the native. 

In the case of Zionism, it was first manifested in a strategy that tried to convince the British governors of Palestine to view transfer of the Palestinians as part of a solution.

Failing that, the Zionists carried out a programme of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians in 1948. It then dealt with the Palestinian minority inside Israel through a harsh military rule that robbed them of any basic rights. 

After the Six Day War in 1967 Israel imposed this inhuman occupation on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip which it occupied. 

At the same time it created a more subtle—until recently—Apartheid system discriminating against the Palestinian citizens in Israel through laws, practices and policies. This discrimination was based on the fact that the Palestinian citizens were not Jews, hence this is a racist reality.

So the oppression of the Palestinians is the outcome of an ideology and not a policy of this or that government. 

Bloody Balfour’s century of oppression in Palestine
Bloody Balfour’s century of oppression in Palestine
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What implications do the IHRA definition—and recent accusations of antisemitism based on this—have on the right of Palestinians to describe their history and oppression? And what about the right to speak up and campaign for Palestine, and to criticise Israel? 

Linking anti-Zionism to a defintition of antisemitism is scholarly wrong and morally absurd. This is like claiming that criticising Apartheid South Africa at the time was an anti-Christian position.

Zionism and the Israeli policies that emanate from them are racist in the way they frame, treat and envision the future of the Palestinians. 

These treat and frame the Palestinians as potential criminals, regardless whether they are children or active resistance fighters, because they were born Palestinians. There is nothing more moral and just to condemn such an idea and policy as racist. 

The only reason that such an IHRA definition can be successful is if supporters of Palestine surrender to a campaign of emotional blackmail.

It is so clear that the accusations of antisemitism are born of the sole motive to remove Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party. 

This is the first time in decades that a pro-Palestinian politician was elected to a senior position in any European political system. That terrifies not so much the state of Israel, as it does unsettle its supporters in Britain.

I think there are two fallacies at work that so far too many people have bought into.

One is that the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) represents all Jews in Britain. 

The Jewish community is bitterly divided, but the non and anti-Zionists Jews do not have a formal institution representing them. 

Not all Jews identify with Israel.

The younger generation in particular is very active among the pro-Palestinian outfit. 

The second fallacy is that a struggle in court and in parliament challenging the IHRA definition has already taken place and therefore it is valid. In fact, we have not even begun the struggle.

Arm yourselves with the arguments about why it’s right to oppose Israel
Arm yourselves with the arguments about why it’s right to oppose Israel
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Do you think this definition—and the accusations of antisemitism based on it—is connected to growing support for a one state solution in Palestine and the failure of the two state solution?

It is connected. The backbone of support for Israel in Britain, and not just among Jews, was among liberal and even socialist members of society. They reconciled Israel’s criminal policies with their wish to support the idea of an independent Jewish state through the two state solution. 

They thought that all the terrible things that were done by Israel were temporary and would stop once there are two states. 

Now it’s becoming clear, particularly after the Nation State Law passed in Israel last month, that Israel’s crimes will continue unless stopped by outside or inside forces. 

The confusion caused by this brings a knee-jerk reaction and support for the Israeli campaign against anyone who criticises the state. 

But I am an optimist. Israel is losing and will lose the support of most of the Jews in the world if nothing happens on the ground.

What is the best way to rebut accusations of antisemitism aimed at critics of Israel? What can we do to bring the issue of Palestine back to the foreground of the debate?

Sky and BBC news channels have devoted more airtime to these allegations than to reporting Israel’s atrocious policy in Palestine. The reason they can do it is that too many good people are prepared to take part in these public televised discussions.  

Labour spokespeople can and should demand discussions on Palestine as a condition for discussing these absurd allegations.

As someone who has been and still is a prime object of Israeli smear campaign, I can tell you that it works only if you are willing to collaborate with it as a victim. 

I learned not to accept the premises of the smear campaign, chose carefully when to consent to a public debate, when not to.

Fear works if you cave in. Labour has had far worse enemies in its history and survived.


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