Simon Schama: junk history

In the cause of imperialism

What lies behind moves to outlaw boycotts? Tony Greenstein investigates

The government recently announced that councils or other “public bodies” which engage in the boycott of goods from Israel when procuring goods or services will face “severe penalties”. The purported reason is that this undermines “community cohesion” as well as “international security”.

Procurement boycotts on ethical grounds will effectively be illegal.1 Ironically the foreign office’s ‘overseas business risk assessment’ for Israel states that the government does “not encourage or offer support” to business with the occupied territories. Its latest policy will therefore mean that following its own advice and boycotting the Jewish settlements on the West Bank will be illegal!

This decision of the government could be far wider than boycotts of Israel, however. It will affect environmental campaigns and, no matter how repressive or murderous a regime, it will be unlawful to operate any sort of ethical boycott. Refusing to trade with Saudi Arabia will be illegal, although the government itself was recently forced to pull a prison contract.

Why therefore is it proposing to ban boycotts now? Less than six years ago David Cameron described Gaza as a “prison camp”,2 so why the change - not only in rhetoric, but substance? Cameron made his comments during a visit to Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had just seen nine of his citizens murdered on the ship, the Mavi Marmara, by Israeli naval commandos as the Gaza Freedom Flotilla tried to break the blockade. Relations then between Turkey, a key member of Nato, and Israel were at an all-time low. Today the situation is completely different and we have an informal alliance over Syria between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The British move is neither unique nor exceptional. In France the situation is even worse. BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) has effectively been rendered illegal following a decision of the constitutional court: those who organise boycotts of Israel are apparently guilty of inciting racial hatred or discrimination.3

In Germany there is a virtual consensus, especially on the left, around the idea that support for BDS or opposition to Israel’s military occupation is equivalent to anti-Semitism.4 Volker Beck, a leading Green MP, has pressed the Christian Democrat administration of Angela Merkel to declare supporters of a boycott anti-Semitic. Indeed Beck went even further. He asked whether the German BDS campaign was under observation of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution: ie, subject to the attentions of the German security police.5

Nor are Die Grünen alone. The Left Party, Die Linke, and its MPs, with a couple of exceptions, have taken a similar stance. In December 2014 the party’s leader, the former Stalinist, Gregor Gysi, attacked two Israeli anti-Zionists, Max Blumenthall and David Sheen, who were visiting the Bundestag, as “anti-Semitic”.6

The question is, why is all this happening and in what context?

The Middle East is in a vortex of instability, with the conflict in Syria having become a proxy war, sucking in the imperialist powers and their protégés, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, as well as Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Israel has been quietly giving support to the jihadi groups, al-Nusra, Ahrar al Sham and Jaish al-Islam.

At a time when the Middle East is more volatile than ever, when the Saudi regime is under threat and bleeding financially, with IS strong in Iraq and destabilising Libya and with the murderous Egyptian regime also facing mounting opposition, Israel is a source of stability in an unstable region.

Although lip-service is paid by the leaders of the United States and Europe to a two-state solution, nobody of any importance actually believes that it is possible any more. Occasionally people like Daniel Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel, will raise the problem of maintaining indefinitely a military occupation over millions of Palestinians and two systems of law - one for Palestinians and another for Jewish settlers. It is a way of politely hinting that Israel might possibly want to think of the problems that maintaining an apartheid society might create if the situation continues indefinitely. Shapiro was rewarded with an anti-Semitic outburst from Netanyahu’s former adviser, Aviv Bushinsky, who called him a “little Jew-boy”.7

Of course if the proponents of boycotting Israel had used such language, then we would have reams of denunciations from rent-a-mouth MPs such as John Mann or Louise Ellman. Learned articles would have been written by Zionist scribes. We would have been told how this proved that opposition to Israel is motivated by anti-Semitism. But because this comes from a prominent Zionist such matters are passed over in polite silence.

One of the leading exponents of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ is the BBC’s very own junk historian, Simon Schama. In an article, ‘The left’s problem with Jews has a long and miserable history’,8 Schama focuses on Oxford University Labour Club, whose co-chairperson, Alex Chalmers, resigned last week because the club had decided to support Israel Apartheid week. This was, it seems, convincing proof that the club was full to the brim of anti-Semites.

Even by the BBC’s standards, Schama’s article is mediocre, lumping in the murder of French Jews in a kosher supermarket by Isis gunmen with the BDS movement, without even bothering to explain what the connection is. It is not even the McCarthyite technique of guilt by association - more smear by association. Schama falsely complains that the left ignores Saudi Arabia, when it should be obvious that it is the right and David Cameron (and formerly Tony Blair) who defend trade with and bolster the credentials of that regime. “Why,” he asks, “is the rage so conspicuously selective? Or, to put it another way, why is it so much easier to hate the Jews?”

This encompasses two of the favourite techniques of Zionist apologists. Why is Israel singled out? The answer is, of course, because Israel is a Jewish state, in which Jews have privileges over Palestinians and non-Jews, in much the same way as whites did in South Africa.

There was a time when the left campaigned against South Africa, because it, like Israel, was an apartheid state. Were we being racist then? Indeed if you campaign against any country’s human rights violation, according to this ‘logic’ you are clearly singling it out. Those of us who oppose Turkey’s genocidal massacres of the Kurds are presumably died-in-the-wool anti-Turkish racists.

Note the seamless elision between campaigning against Israel and hating Jews. Schama is a ruling class historian who presented the six-part History of the Jews for the BBC. Inaccurate, biased and factually wrong, it was a Zionist version of history.

The affair of Oxford University Labour Club is symptomatic of how imperialism uses the right’s false anti-racism, in the guise of opposition to anti-Semitism, in order to defend and perpetuate Zionist racism. Opposition to racism becomes, in a conjuring trick worthy of the most deceptive magician, support for anti-Semitism.

It is somewhat unfortunate that the Morning Star, in a muddled leader entitled ‘No place for anti-Semitism’,9 welcomed the decision of the Labour Party to hold an inquiry into alleged anti-Semitism at Oxford Labour Club. There is nothing to investigate and this inquiry is nothing more than an attempted witch-hunt. Unfortunately Jeremy Corbyn, who has himself been the subject of accusations of anti-Semitism, has decided to keep his head down rather than supporting those who are being vilified at Oxford.

Socialists, however, should be clear. The tactic of boycott is one which has historically been used to highlight oppression. From the boycott of slave-grown sugar in the Caribbean in the 18th century, to the boycott of the English land agent, Captain Boycott (who at least gave us the name), by Irish tenant farmers, to the Jewish and labour-movement boycott of Nazi Germany in 1933 (which the Zionists scabbed on), to the boycott of apartheid in South Africa, this weapon has been an expression of solidarity with the oppressed.

All of the above boycotts were opposed in their time by the right. It is no accident that the Tories are seeking to make the boycott illegal and equally it is no surprise that New Labour would like to outlaw comparisons between Israel and South Africa. However, four Jewish groups have come together to condemn the Tories’ proposals in a letter to The Independent10 and another letter was sent to The Guardian by 22 Jewish people protesting at the witch-hunt against Oxford University Labour Club.11 It is incumbent on Jewish socialists, in particular, to reject those who purport to speak in their name.


1 . www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-governments-ban-on-boycotting-israel-contradicts-its-own-advice-on-doing-business-with-israel-a6881146.html.

2 . www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/jul/27/david-cameron-gaza-prison-camp.

3 . http://forward.com/news/breaking-news/323207/france-court-upholds-bds-is-discrimination-ruling.

4 . www.i24news.tv/en/news/international/europe/63723-150309-germany-says-bds-is-not-anti-semitic.

5 . See http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/germanys-racist-green-mp-volker-beck.html.

6 . http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/the-cowardice-of-gregor-gysi-die-linke.html.

7 . www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/daniel-shapiro-aviv-bushinsky_us_569fa497e4b0875553c26b9e.

8 . Financial Times February 19 2016.

9 . www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-5785-No-place-for-anti-semitism-1-2#.VsvS7svoxjX 18.2.16.

10 . www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-boycott-ban-tories-side-with-oppressors-again-a6877531.html.

11 . www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/23/antisemitic-or-just-against-the-israeli-governments-oppressive-actions.