In the wake of the latest assault by the Israeli state on the Palestinian people in East Jerusalem and Gaza, Rebel News is launching a series on Palestine. Here John Molyneux examines the often-used smear against pro-Palestinian activists that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic.
The argument, almost invariably asserted by all spokespersons for the Israeli state and widely suggested by many apologists for that regime, that anti-Zionism is the same as, or based on, anti-Semitism is both completely illogical and a vile lie.
The notion that opposing or criticising a government, a state and/or its ideology makes one racist towards its people is plainly false. To be opposed to the policies of the Irish government is not to be anti-Irish. To be opposed to the policies and behaviour of the US government, especially its numerous wars, is not to be ‘anti-American’, though that did not stop supporters of the disastrous War on Iraq accusing anti-war activists of this at the time. And to be a critic of the appalling Bolsonaro regime in Brazil or the dreadful Modi regime in India is obviously not to be anti-Brazilian or anti-Indian.
It is also a lie in that the overwhelming majority of pro-Palestinian campaigners are not anti-Semitic and strongly condemn anti-Semitism, along with all forms of racism. The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) has been campaigning for 20 years now and has never tolerated anti-Semitism in its ranks.
The statement of principles on its website contains an explicit rejection of anti-Semitism:
The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign opposes and condemns all forms of fascism, racism and bigotry, including antisemitism and Islamophobia.
The IPSC is a member of the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR), a national network of anti-racism civil society organisations which aims to work collectively to highlight and address the issue of racism. We encourage our supporters to report any racist incidents they see or experience to ENAR Ireland using the iReport online system.
Individual members are free join or be members of any political formations they choose (provided those formations are not racist or fascist in outlook or ideology).
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in Britain has a similar position. When a single car load of people shouted anti-Semitic slogans a week ago, the Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, along with spokespersons for other pro-Palestine organisations, immediately repudiated them and stated that anti-Semites were not welcome at their demonstrations.
Additionally, there has long been a significant number of anti-Zionist Jews, and those who are critical of Israel to varying degrees. These include high profile figures such as Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders and Naomi Klein in the US; Harold Pinter, Michael Rosen, Miriam Margolyes, and Eric Hobsbawm in Britain; Ronnie Kasrils (former anti-Apartheid fighter and member of Mandela’s government) in South Africa; and Jewish academics in Ireland such as Ronit Lentin and David Landy.
There has been a small, but very principled, cohort of anti-Zionist Israeli Jews such as Ilan Pappé, Moche Machover, Tony Cliff and Chanie Rosenberg. The idea, as often suggested by Zionists, that these are all ‘self-hating Jews’ is obviously absurd.
Zionism – a racist ideology
It is not anti-Zionism but Zionism itself which is a deeply racist ideology. Historically racism, whether against Africans and Black People, Indians and Asians or against the Irish in Britain has arisen as a means to justify and legitimise oppression: the conquest of the Americas, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the chattel slavery in the US Southern States, the colonial conquest of India and Asia and Africa and, of course of Ireland.
Wherever the process of conquest has occurred racist ideology has been particularly intense and genocidal among settlers who find themselves on the front line against indigenous peoples whose resistance they fear. Think of the Boers (Dutch) in South Africa, the White Settlers in ‘Rhodesia’, the Australians and the Aborigines, the French Pieds Noir in Algeria and, of course, the European settlers in America pushing relentlessly westwards at the expense of the Native Americans.
To the settler the indigenous population, dispossessed and oppressed, is perceived as a permanent existential threat that needs to be ‘pacified’, subdued or disposed of, and the ideological justification for this inevitably develops an intense racist dynamic. We in Ireland see a manifestation of this in the sectarian bigotry of Loyalism.
The Zionist project aimed to establish a specifically Jewish homeland. This project took hold in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century when virtually the whole world was divided between the major imperial powers. These conditions forced the early leaders of Zionism to go cap in hand to various imperial rulers looking for a suitable location – and because of British colonial control of Palestine, lobbied for there.
However, many of these imperial rulers were vicious anti-Semites, like the infamous Lord Balfour, so Zionist leaders presented their movement as a colonial project as, in the words of Sir Ronald Storrs, the first Governor of Jerusalem, ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism’.
One of the ways the Zionists tried to justify their project was to claim falsely that the Palestinian people did not really exist and that as Jews they were ‘a people without a land in a land without a people’. This claim, racist in itself, led to more racism in the attempt to make the claim a reality through the massive ethnic cleansing of the Nakba in 1948 and which has continued ever since through to the displacements in Sheikh Jarrah today.
But what if the Palestinian people did not want to be colonised and ethnically cleansed and even had the temerity to resist? Clearly the Zionist leaders were not going to say to themselves, to their population or to the world, we are hated because we are colonial oppressors; rather they said we are hated because we are Jews, because Arabs are inherently anti-Semitic, despite the fact that Arabs and Jews had lived peacefully alongside each other in Palestine and the Middle East for centuries before the colonisation started.
Thus the ‘anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism’ mantra entered the ideological armoury of the apartheid state and its supporters. It was an inversion of reality.
The effectiveness of the smear
Whilst illogical, and a clear inversion of reality, there is no doubting that this smear has worked very effectively for apartheid Israel within and beyond its borders. It taps into and ruthlessly exploits the immense revulsion against anti-Semitism and the well of sympathy for the Jewish people which followed the Nazi Holocaust, especially among what might be called ‘progressives’. It has been particularly successful in certain places such as Germany because of feelings of national guilt over the Holocaust; and in the US where Jews used to be seen as strong allies against racism and Jim Crow; and amongst liberals who have tended to see racism purely as an abstract moral issue with no connection to imperialism and colonialism.
It serves to defend the Israeli state whatever it does, whatever barbarity it commits, by undermining the legitimacy of all criticism and all opposition and tending to put all critics and all opponents on the back foot having immediately to defend themselves against the accusation of racism.
Even the suspicion of anti-Semitism works as a perfect alibi for the craven mainstream western Media – RTE is a prime example – who present themselves as ‘neutral’ and ‘even-handed’ in a situation where ‘neutrality’ between oppressor and oppressed provides cover for the oppressors.
The anti-Semitism smear has been consciously and deliberately ‘weaponised’ on an international scale by Mossad (the Israeli secret service), Israeli politicians and by Zionist lobby organisations such as AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) in the US and the Jewish Board of Deputies in Britain, and Alan Shatter in Ireland.
And, importantly, it has served the purposes of various other political forces with agendas of their own. Thus in the US it has been useful for the Democratic Party establishment – through Biden, Obama, the Clintons, and back to Johnson and Kennedy, who have always tried to present themselves as liberal, progressive and anti-racist while also being absolutely committed to US imperialism, its policies and wars, especially in the oil rich Middle East.
Most spectacularly it served the interests of the right wing of the British Labour Party who took up the charge with a vengeance as a means to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Left. It worked so ‘well’ that it effectively ended the political career of a notable anti-racist such as Ken Livingstone, helped secure the removal of the most consistently anti-racist leader the Labour Party has ever had and even his suspension from parliamentary labour Party, and has driven much of the Labour left into silence and compliance.
While at the same time it has deflected attention away from actual anti-Semitism on the far right and in the Tory Party, with Boris Johnson’s Government currently introducing legislation to guarantee ‘free speech’ for Holocaust deniers in UK universities.
How the left should respond
It is vital that the left should give no quarter whatsoever to the idea that opposing the entire Zionist project or the apartheid State of Israel is anti-Semitic or racist.
This doesn’t mean that in the Palestine solidarity movement in its broadest sense anti-Semitic sentiments will never raise their ugly head or that there will not be elements of anti-Semitism among more backward strata in the Arab world (and among those ‘backward strata’ I would include the Saudi Royal Family and many of the Sheikhs and reactionary rulers in the Middle East who doubtless espouse every form of bigotry and prejudice going). The left must obviously condemn any such manifestation of anti-Semitism, while fiercely contesting, at every step, the idea that there is any intrinsic link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, or that our opposition to the apartheid state is anyway racist. On the contrary, it derives entirely from our total opposition to racism in all its forms.
As the experience in the British Labour Party demonstrates it is crucial that the left does not retreat or ‘compromise’ on this issue or work to placate the Zionists in the hope that it will go away. On the contrary any such appeasement will simply strengthen the Zionist argument and enable them to insist on further concessions in the hope that they can silence all solidarity with Palestine.
Marxist socialists are in a particularly strong position in this regard standing in a long and eminent tradition of revolutionary Jews going back to Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, George Lukács and many other Jewish socialists, and in the knowledge that at present the sheer barbarity of the Israeli state is steadily working to undermine all its lies and propaganda.