Labour’s shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon has faced calls to resign for describing Zionism—the ideology that is used to justify Palestinian oppression—as “the enemy of peace”.
Burgon was addressing a public meeting in 2014—the year Israel launched a brutal war on Palestinians in Gaza.
He said, “The enemy of the Palestinian people is not the Jewish people. The enemy of the Palestinian people are Zionists, and Zionism is the enemy of peace.”
The comments, made before Burgon was an MP, clearly targeted Zionism as a political ideology. Yet his comments have been linked to antisemitism.
It comes after the Labour Party last year adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which restricts criticism of Israel.
The definition was adopted with an example that says it could be antisemitic to call Israel a “racist endeavour”. Mike Katz is chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, which says its aim is to “promote the centrality of Israel in Jewish life”.
Katz accused Burgon of “making dog-whistle attacks on British Jews and their right, through Zionism, for national self-determination”.
And former Labour MP Ian Austin said, “Zionism is simply the belief in a homeland and self-determination for the Jewish people.”
But Burgon was right to describe Zionism as an “enemy of peace”.
Zionism isn’t simply the idea that Jewish people have the right to self-determination or their own state. Neither is it an intrinsic aspect of Jewishness—many Jews are anti-Zionist.
Zionism began as a colonialist idea that said Jews fleeing persecution had to occupy Palestinian land to establish a state.
Zionist settlers drove out Palestinians to ensure the state had a Jewish majority.
Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion said that “only a state with at least 80 percent Jews is a viable and stable state”.
Between 1947 and 1948, some 850,000 Arabs were ethnically cleansed from the land.
Today Zionism informs the belief held by all mainstream Israeli political parties that Palestinian refugees must not be allowed to return home. They say that this would threaten Israel’s existence. Behind this is the racist idea that Jews and Arabs must be kept separate.
Yet rather than defend his comments, Burgon has backed down.
He said he regretted using the term which “has different meanings to different people”. It strengthened calls for his resignation.
Leading Labour left figures have given ground to the idea that anti-Zionism is antisemitic.
They say supporters of Palestinians should focus on the current Israeli government—not Zionism or the state itself.
This restricts the ability of Palestinians to define and explain their oppression.
It means they can’t describe their expulsion as ethnic cleansing central to the creation of a racist state.
Supporters of Israel want to shut down criticism of Zionism.
The best response is to defend the right to oppose Israel—and to be anti-Zionist.