Socialists pride ourselves on being the most principled and consistent anti-racists. So when the left is labelled institutionally antisemitic—or the Labour Party is told it’s an unsafe place for Jewish people—that can’t be dismissed.
If someone uses antisemitic tropes or conspiracies, denies the existence or scale of the Holocaust, or targets people because of their Jewishness, that’s antisemitism. Those racist, far right ideas are alien to the left.
But what about accusations of antisemitism that are to do with our opposition to Israel?
How we answer them affects the way we campaign in solidarity with Palestinians who have suffered at the hands of the Israeli state.
The question of whether it’s antisemitic to oppose Israel as a racist state has run throughout Labour’s crisis.
From the targeting of Labour students for backing Israel Apartheid Week, to last year’s furore over how Labour should define antisemitism, this is a key question.
Last week Labour MP Margaret Hodge told Channel 4 News that anti-Zionism—opposition to Israel’s founding ideology—is antisemitic.
“Denying Jews the right to self-determination in their own state is very difficult in the light of all the pogroms and indeed the terrible Holocaust,” she said.
This is a powerful and emotive argument that it can be difficult to disagree with.
Israel was founded in the wake of the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews during the Second World War. It promised a safe haven to all Jewish people. This resonates with a much broader layer of people than those who support the actions of Israel’s current government against the Palestinians.
So how can socialists, who say the horror of the Holocaust should never be repeated, oppose it?
Why do we criticise the Israeli state and not just its government? Why do we march in such large numbers for the Palestinians when many other governments are guilty of violence, racism and human rights abuses? And why do we only call for Israeli products to be boycotted?
One answer is to do with US domination in the Middle East and its fear of resistance by masses of ordinary Arab people.
The US has given more money in aid to Israel than it has to any other country. It is increasingly in the form of military aid, fuelling the growth of the military that occupies Palestinian land.
Britain, as the US’s partner, plays a similar role. That’s why the issue is so important for the left in Britain. Both the US and Britain are directly responsible for funding and supporting Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. And if we want to challenge the system that supports the West’s wars in the Middle East, we have to oppose Israel too.
But that doesn’t fully answer why we say the Israeli state is illegitimate.
So look at the way Israel treats Palestinian refugees. Palestinian refugees demand the right to return to the land they lived on before Israel was created. Israel won’t let them, and the reason it gives for this is more or less explicit. As the Times of Israel news website explained “no Israeli government” could ever accept the right of return.
“It would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state.”
Every Israeli government has taken this attitude, and the reason goes back to the very basis on which Israel was founded. The people who founded Israel—like the people who support it today—believed in Zionism. This is the idea that Jewish people should have a state of their own in Palestine, and that in this state they should be the majority.
It emerged as a response to antisemitic repression in Eastern Europe towards the end of the 19th century, although few Jews supported it. Many more were socialists who wanted to stay in Europe and fight antisemitism as part of the struggle against their governments.
The problem that confronted Zionism was that people already lived in Palestine. It became a racist ideology that insisted the Palestinians weren’t entitled to the land they lived on.
The first settlers agreed to support the British Empire in Palestine in return for the promise of a homeland there. Zionist militias engaged in racist violence against Arab villages, and cooperated with the British army against Palestinians who rebelled.
After the Holocaust, a state in Palestine seemed to many Jewish people to be the only way they could be safe.
But there was still the problem of what to do with Palestinians.
David Ben Gurion, who became Israel’s first prime minister, believed that “only a state with at least 80 percent Jews is a viable and stable state”.
So when the United Nations drew up a plan to partition Palestine—without the agreement of Palestinians—Zionist militias waged war to drive Palestinians out.
By the end of this process of ethnic cleansing, some 850,000 Palestinians had been expelled from their homes. This has had far-reaching and drastic consequences.
Inside Israel, more than 65 racist laws discriminate against Palestinians. They include laws that mean Palestinians can be stripped of their citizenship for “disloyalty” to Israel.
Israel’s latest racist law—the Nation State Law—ensures it keeps its ethnic majority by saying only Jews have the right to self-determination there.
This is the result of a process that can’t be pinned to any one government, but goes back to the nature of the state itself.
Campaigning tactics such as a boycott target Israel as a racist state. The same goes for supporting Palestinian resistance.
Standing on the side of Palestinians who resist doesn’t mean calling for Jewish people to be driven out of Palestine. But it does mean supporting the right of people to fight the forces that have brutalised them for decades. Israel is the source of the violence.
Likewise, arguing that this isn’t antisemitic is not the same as denying that antisemitism exists. A just solution would see Palestinians and Jewish people living together with equal democratic rights in a state not based on religion or ethnicity.
Many people on the left disagree with this. But it’s possible to discuss it without accusing them of supporting Israel’s violence, or of being accused of antisemitism.
Others want to shut down this discussion entirely by labelling it antisemitic. It’s important that we have the confidence to argue why it’s not.
Israel is accusing its critics of antisemitism because it faces a crisis. It has launched three major wars on the Gaza Strip in the last ten years. Each has been challenged by mass protests around the world.
In the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel expands its claim to Palestinian land through ever-growing settlements. It has made sure that the Palestinian economy and infrastructure is completely tied to its own.
These things make a two-state solution—an independent Palestine existing alongside Israel—look increasingly impossible. But those in charge in Israel hate the idea of one state for Jews and Arabs.
Israel has responded to its problems by trying to roll back international solidarity with Palestinians and squash the arguments for a one-state solution. Accusations of antisemitism help it to do this.
Criticism of Israel is denounced as “delegitimising” the world’s only Jewish state. Palestinians who resist are accused of wanting to massacre Jews. Then those who stand in solidarity with Palestinian resistance are said to support antisemitic killers.
And people who argue for a single state are told they want to deny Jews the right to live in safety.
Israel has a specific government department—the Ministry of Strategic Affairs—devoted to combating support for Palestinians.
Last year its minister, Gilad Erdan, contacted the British government to try and cancel marches in solidarity with Palestinians. Erdan has described the campaign to boycott Israel as “a battlefield”.
This isn’t a conspiracy theory. It is how a state built on violence and racism defends itself. And it’s not just happening in Britain.
In the US Democratic politician Ilhan Omar has been demonised for speaking out against pro?Israel campaign groups.
And in France, president Emmanuel Macron is championing a law explicitly equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism.
The arguments in Britain over antisemitism and Israel take place in this context. Giving in means handing victory to those who want to hide Israel’s crimes in Palestine.
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