The Israeli state’s terror—and the heroism of the Palestinian resistance—have inspired an international movement of solidarity. Hundreds of thousands of people have joined mass marches, meetings and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
But this movement is under attack. As Israeli forces Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, British MPs backed a bill that would ban public bodies from supporting BDS. How can we combat the right’s attacks and further the fight for Palestinian liberation?
The main weapon deployed is the charge that opposition to Israel is antisemitic. This is nonsense for many reasons. To criticise or oppose a state or government is not racial abuse of people who live under it. The majority of Jews live outside of Israel—and many Jews are utterly opposed to the Israeli state and what it does. However, simply asserting that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic is insufficient—no matter how true.
Some activists fall into the trap of saying the West supports Israel because of a lobby. To avoid it, we need a broad analysis of the nature of Israel and its relationship to Western imperialism. Without it, as the saying goes, the road to hell can be paved with good intentions.
There are many examples that we could choose to demonstrate that point. A recent book by Ghada Karmi can stand in for all, precisely because it is among the best pieces of writing on the subject.
I fully concur with the overall conclusions of One State—the Only Democratic Future for Palestine-Israel. But it shows how the charge of antisemitism can be alleged even when absent. The difficulty arises from how the book explains what drives Israeli terror.
Karmi presents a mass of detail exposing double standards over Israel. She compares the completely different treatment of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians. As she observes, injustice perpetrated by Russia is immediately condemned and mountains of weaponry are sent to oppose it. Israel enjoys “the benefits of a complicit and supportive Western world whatever crime it commits”. She points out how it has “the unstinting support of Western countries, most especially the US”. And “the European Union has accorded Israel a privileged status in trade and access to EU research programmes, exactly as if it were a European state”.
These facts are not in doubt. However, the book explains them as the result of “a Zionist propaganda effort… a massive campaign of publicity, persuasion and arm-twisting was fought ceaselessly on Israel’s behalf.” This takes place “especially in the US (whose collective guilt over the Holocaust was expiated in this way)”.
Alongside this, “The American Jewish community in particular had shown itself to be ardently Zionist and was a major direct donor to Israel, as well as its active proponent in US society and politics.” She gives the example of US president Jimmy Carter who “came under strong pressure from the State Department, Israel and the US Zionist lobby” not to criticise Israel.
The only other motive Karmi puts forward for why Jews might receive special treatment in the corridors of Washing and London is the Nazi Holocaust. This “completed the task of persuading Zionism’s Western sponsors that a haven for persecuted Jews was an imperative”. “And few people in the West have ever seriously disagreed with this proposition since then,” she writes.
This explanation not only plays into our enemies’ hands—it is wrong. Karmi’s account is completely well-intentioned and has no trace of antisemitism, but it can provide ammunition for the very forces she is opposed to.
To understand why, it is necessary to consider what is the core antisemitic trope. It’s that Jews are a small minority who exert extraordinary power behind the scenes to advance their selfish interests. While unintended, Karmi’s account can be read in this way. And, while certainly not her aim, even the reference to the impact of the Holocaust can be interpreted as Jews resorting to emotional blackmail. Supporters of Palestine who are less sophisticated and careful can easily cross over into antisemitism, rather than it being mere appearance.
To reject talk of a Jewish lobby and refer to a Zionist or pro-Israel lobby is right. But does that explain the West’s backing for Israel? All governments solicit for their interests, so the mere existence of a pro-Israel lobby fails to demonstrate preferential treatment Israel gets.
The Israeli cause may have nine million colonists behind it, but the governments of 500 million Arabs in the surrounding countries can lobby too. Karmi points out that American Jews largely back Israel—there are some eight million. But 206 million Americans—62 percent—are opposed to the Supreme Court ending Roe v Wade. There are 42 million black Americans, but they do not receive preferential treatment at the hands of state institutions. These groups have failed to persuade the US government of their cause. Why assume Israel has?
Guilt about the Holocaust is not a factor behind the backing Israel gets either. Today leading antisemitic politicians, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, support Israel. They do not do so because they are upset by how Jews have been treated. In any case, governments do not do guilt. If they did, we would not see drownings in the Mediterranean. And they would not be inflicting the same inhuman treatment of refugees that they carried out against Jews fleeing Hitler in the 1930s.
The problem with the explanation lies in not locating the tragedy of Palestine in a total picture. This is understandable as solidarity with Palestine is sparked by resistance to Israeli actions. But doing only that misses out important pieces of the jigsaw.
Let’s start with an illustration of how easy and apparently common sense phrases can be misleading. As an insult, it is absolutely right to accuse Israel of being an “ethnocentric, apartheid state”. Apartheid describes appalling racism, as practised in South Africa.
But in another sense, the term is inaccurate. The Afrikaner government that brought in South African apartheid in 1948 was backed by the Boers—farmers brought by the Dutch East India Company to exploit the black labour force.
Before the establishment of Israel in 1948, Zionists constructed an entirely separate Jewish economy whose purpose was the opposite—to exclude the Palestinian labour force. Some 97 percent of Arabs and Jews operated in separate economies. By equating Zionism with apartheid, we lose an essential difference between Palestinian Jews and Boers, which remains important today.
Another example of where a faulty framework can lead is when Karmi argues that “the Arabs were forced to respond to the creation of Israel in various ways”. “All of them deleterious. Militarisation was top of this list,” she writes. So, while “the Arab states should have been focused on their own political and social development the front-line states were instead dragged into wars, which diverted their resources into armaments and surveillance.”
The result of this is that in terms of GDP, average arms spending in 2021 was 5.7 percent compared to the global average of 2.2 percent. She also notes the many deals and contacts Israel has with Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, Mauritania, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
There is an apparent contradiction—arming against Israel and making friends with it. And putting this down to the existence of Israel alone plays right into the hands of the enemy and is inaccurate.
Arab governments build up arms mainly to keep down their Arab populations, such as in Sudan, Egypt and Syria. When used externally, they are not necessarily used against Israel. Iraq against Iran and Kuwait in the 1980s and 90s, and war in Yemen, are examples. If opposition to Israel was the prime factor in Arab arms spending, the list of countries friendly towards Israel would not be so high.
Another potential area of confusion lies with the understanding of Zionism. All the negative points made about Zionism—racism, settler colonialism and so on—are fully accurate. But more needs to be said. The Israeli state claims its foundation was Jewish historic destiny. Nothing could be further from the truth. Israel emerged as the product of the destruction of the Jews, in which world capitalism was utterly complicit. Support for Zionism was the result of tragedy, not free popular choice.
For a long time, Jews living in a diaspora were a minority group in every European country. They became the target of the divide and rule tactics migrants are subjected to today and for the same reason – to divert attention away from the misery and suffering caused by the class system.
The result was violence and discrimination. There was a major upswing of pogroms during Russia’s industrialisation in the 19th century. The Dreyfus case in France in the 1890s and political campaigns in Austria and Poland were other examples. Hitler was appointed German chancellor in 1933 by the ruling military clique, and the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain wrote at the time, “I do not care a damn about the Jews.” When Jews began fleeing Nazi Germany, the governments of every continent slammed the doors shut. While the Holocaust was in operation the Western Allies refused to stop the operation of killing centres such as Auschwitz and fretted about how to keep Jews out. Afterwards, they put up barriers to receiving survivors.
Before the 1930s the vast majority of Jews were uninterested in Zionist colonisation of Palestine—if not positively hostile. They wanted to continue living alongside non-Jews. In the six decades after the 1881 pogroms one in four Jews fled Europe but the vast majority went to the US, Canada, Argentina, Australia, South Africa – in fact anywhere but Palestine. Between 1901 and 1925—when the US began closing its doors—only one in 27 chose Palestine as a destination.
Among political activists, the socialist tradition from the Jewish Bund to a range of left parties were more popular than Zionism. Only 2 percent of US Jews supported it. It was the genocide and indifference of capitalist states that destroyed hopes of anything better than a small, militarised, colonial settler state to look to.
What Israel does today is a betrayal of countless working class Jews who fought for freedom and justice for all. They would be furious to learn Ben Gvir or Binyamin Netanyahu claim to be acting in their name. The ultimate responsibility for this situation lies in capitalism and imperialism.
Today, the Israeli tail does not wag the dog of US imperialism. In terms of military spending, the US is the world’s largest spender—39 percent of the total. It gives $877bn to its armed services. That makes it top dog. Israel spends $20bn and its world share is 0.9 percent. Karmi is right to point out the Arab states’ spending. It exceeds Israel six times over at $112bn, coming third in ranking after the US and China. To suggest Israel can manipulate the US dog to favour it over the Arab states makes little sense.
Is that argument not belied by US military aid? Israel certainly receives a large amount—$3.3 billion. But if that is the measure, then again it is Arabs who have won out. At $4.7 billion US military aid to Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa region is much larger, and the same was true under Donald Trump. The Arab countries bordering Israel alone—Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt—together get the same amount as Israel. The idea of a dominant Zionist lobby can make no sense of these figures. A different approach is required.
Israel must be seen as just one component of a US-led imperialist bloc. The presence of oil in the Middle East makes the region a focus for the US—and Israel acts as a reliable force. It is an arm of US imperialism not the other way round. Governments in Britain, Germany and so on are also subordinate components of the Western bloc as the Nato warmongers’ alliance shows, not pawns of Israel.
Though the power relationship operates from the US downwards, that does not preclude satellite states from seeking their own advantage. The Israeli government fights fiercely for its position in every way possible, and that explains its outrages in Jenin. It is the paid watchdog of US imperialism—and straining at the leash is lashing out against the Palestinians. Grasping the power relationships is important if we’re going to defend the Palestinian cause.
Knowledge of the Jewish past does not make Zionism any less reprehensible but frames it within a wider picture. Alongside the murders of Palestinians there is a global rise of the far right and the return of antisemitism to the political agenda. The campaign for Palestine cannot be effectively defended from its critics unless supporters clearly reject antisemitic tropes. Giving them credence renders our campaign an easy target for hostile critics.
Blaming the Middle East situation on an Israel lobby means that the path to a solution, which is the overthrow of the system of imperialism and domination right across the region, is made harder. It lets the US—and Arab ruling classes who’ve betrayed the Palestinians—off the hook. While some Arab governments in the Western sphere pay lip service to Palestine, in practice they are indifferent to the Palestinian cause and ready to accommodate a fellow US ally occupying its soil.
The heroic resistance of the Palestinian people is extraordinary and enduring. We must not needlessly hand ammunition to enemies of Palestine solidarity. We must pin the blame where it belongs—on US imperialism which supports the terror of its Israeli watchdog because it wants to dominate the Middle East.
Protesters told Socialist Worker why they were marching