Anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism – the left under attack

Ken Livingstone press scrum
There is a fight going on within the Labour party that is dragging in the whole left, and being stoked and watched closely by the media. That is the argument that anti-Semitism is a serious problem within the party.

Former London mayor Ken Livingstone has been suspended following comments made in interviews where he was discussing a Labour MP, Naz Shah, who herself had been suspended. She had got in to trouble regarding a tweet from before she was elected as an MP which showed a picture of Israel superimposed over the United States, with the comment: “Problem solved and save you bank charges for the £3bn you transfer yearly.”

This was at the height of the Israel/Gaza conflict in 2014, in which Israel was bombarding Gaza and slaughtering a large number of Palestinians.

Ken Livingstone in interviews defended Naz Shah by calling her comments “over the top” and “rude”, but also said she was not an anti-Semite. He also said he didn’t believe there was a problem with anti-Semitism within the Labour party, and that accusations were being made by Zionists and those who support Israel and from those who wish to undermine the Labour Party, particularly Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

There was also confusion over comments Naz Shah tweeted, from Martin Luthor King, that what Hitler did to the Jews was “legal”. This has been construed as suggesting in some way that Naz Shah was supporting the murder of Jews, but in fact it’s a comment from Martin Luthor King basically saying that just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong and should be stopped. Here he was talking about legal forms of discrimination against black people in America at the time.

Talking about whether the action Hitler took against the Jews was “legal” Livingstone said:
“Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”

Now, I’m not a member of the Labour party, but instead a member of the Socialist Workers Party, a revolutionary Socialist organisation. My journey politically started when I was 19 and went to university. At the time I was not convinced at all by Socialist politics, but I was concerned by racism and the rise of the British National Party (BNP).

This was soon after there had been the riots in places like Oldham, which was followed by a significant increase in support for the BNP in the general elections. I knew enough to see that the BNP had purposefully caused a backlash in these towns, and had then exploited it for their own gain. I also knew that these people were Nazis, and I wanted to get involved in stopping them.

I joined the Anti-Nazi League whilst at University, and would go up to Oldham every weekend to help with leafleting against the BNP. I started to learn more of their history – of their attacks on Muslims, on their deep seated anti-Semitism (including Holocaust denial). It’s from this that I started working with a number of members of the SWP, and through various discussions and meetings became convinced of the need for revolution and joined the party.

With my background in anti-Fascist activity, I always found issues around Israel and Palestine difficult. Not in the need to support Palastinians, that was clear. The difficulty was standing against all racism, but at the same time clashing with Zionists.

The Battle of Cable Street - forcing back the fascists in 1936
The Battle of Cable Street – forcing back the fascists in 1936

Zionism is a belief that Jews have a sole right to the land of Israel. It is this belief that leads to the racist ideology that drove millions of Palestinians from their homes, and continues to hold an oppressive military occupation over those that remain.

It started in the 19th century as a response to the massive oppression of Jews in Europe and beyond. It made sense to argue that Jewish people needed their own land, as that was the only way to guarantee that they did not have to face further oppression, not to mention pogroms (organised massacres).

Whilst this position was understandable, it was also extremely pessimistic. For a start it assumed that Jewish people would never be able to live in other countries as a minority without facing persecution, and that this was the only solution. Up until the end of the second world war, this position was only maintained by a very small minority within the religion. A number of which had set up settlements in what was then British mandated Palestine.

It is little surprise that Zionism grew massively in popularity following the end of the war, following the holocaust, during which millions of Jews were forced from their homes and killed. There was a massive number of Jewish refugees that needed to find a home. Just as is the case now, countries in Europe and America didn’t want to help, so Palestine became the destination.

There were Zionists already set up on the land anyway, who wanted to make the land exclusively one for the Jews. They set out to make deals with the West, with America, that they could be their watchdog in the Middle East. This was especially useful given the rise of Arab nationalism in the region, which was of concern to America and their access to the rich natural resources there, such as oil (some things never change). These deals secured significant military funding from America which continues today, and without which Israel would likely not be able to survive.

So we have what was essentially a tiny, pessimistic cult in Zionism in the 19th century growing to prominence following the horrors of the holocaust. The actions of the Zionists to drive out huge number of Palestinians from their own homes led Edward Said to describe the Palestinians as “the victims of the victims”. The support from America has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with maintaining their political dominance in the region.

So as a student involved in Anti-Fascist activity, I struggled with trying to involve some Jewish students in uniting as part of a movement to stop the modern day Nazi’s of the BNP (of course, there were many Jewish students who did get involved. Not all Jews are Zionists, and even those with some sympathies for Israel can understand the need to unite). Whilst there were major arguments to be had around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it is fair to say that if the BNP took power Jews, Muslims, and Socialists would all be their target.

But whilst this presented a certain difficulty, not to mention annoyance, it should never stop anyone from being clear on standing up for Palestine. But at the same time you make clear that the problem is Zionism, and not with the Jewish people.

This is made difficult though when you consider that for most Zionists, criticism of Israel is indeed a form of anti-Semitism. Most Zionists argue that Jews have a right to Israel on a specifically religious basis, so it’s of little surprise that there are those who are sympathetic with the Palestinian cause who respond by criticising the religion itself as being the problem.

This is where elements of anti-Semitism creep in. It is vital, then, that when fighting for the Palestinian cause on the left we do not flinch from criticising Zionism, but must make clear wherever possible that we also stand against anti-Semitism. We recognise the horrors of the Holocaust, and of Jewish suffering at that time, and that Zionism does not represent the entire Jewish people. And yes, that does mean stating that repeatedly, as part of our stand for Palestine.

Is Ken Livingstone right when he says Hitler supported Zionism? The Haavara agreement was to allow Jews to be expelled to Palestine set up in 1933. It allowed Zionists to support their movement to increase the Jewish population in Palestine, and allowed Germany to continue with their policy of expelling Jews without facing the most severe aspects of a Jewish boycott of Germany. So a policy did exist, but to say that Hitler supported Zionism? Not really.

To suggest that Livingstone is anti-Semitic is ridiculous. Everyone right minded needs to defend him against these accusations. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be frustrated with how he expresses himself, I know I am.

Saying that Hitler supported Zionism until he “went mad” and killed six million Jews is such a stupid thing to say, as it suggests he wasn’t “mad” in the first place. Ken Livingstone has been chair of Unite Against Fascism, so to suggest that he is a “Nazi apologist” though, as he was accused by MP John Mann, is clearly absurd, but this kind of language does not help.

Talking of language though, when you understand what terms like “Fascism” and “Nazi” really mean, you understand the true power of those words. To bandy them about throwing accusations like John Mann has is disgusting, and he should be ashamed of his conduct.

Ken Livingstone does not need to apologise for suggesting that anti-Semitism is not rife in the Labour Party – it isn’t. But he must recognise that for many Jewish people living in Britain today, Israel presents a difficult issue. Whilst there will be hard core supporters, and those who absolutely stand against Israel, there will be many Jewish people who will be critical of Israel in certain aspects, but in others recognise some kind of need of its existence.

In this regard he needs to understand that whilst he knows anti-Semitism exists, and wishes to argue that it is not a major problem within the Labour party, he needs to calm his ego down in his response to criticism. It is not enough for him to keep repeating the same thing over and over again, he needs to find a way to express why he supports the Palestinian cause, and how it is perfectly possible to do this whilst standing up against anti-Semitism, and all other forms of racism.