Israeli settlement on West Bank

Left wing of Zionism

Recent smears of ‘anti-Semitism’ against the left are an echo of similar allegations emanating from within the left, argues Paul Demarty

Suspiciously silent on the recent ‘controversies’ over alleged ‘anti-Semitism’ in the Labour Party are our old friends, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

To recap briefly: Oxford University Labour Club found itself at the centre of an almighty shit-storm over its support for Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual pro-Palestinian event. The controversy seems to be entirely synthetic, as very many of them are nowadays, but it resurfaced at the recent Young Labour conference in Scarborough, where left candidate James Elliott was defeated narrowly - perhaps by one vote - after his victorious rival, Jasmin Beckett, allegedly conspired to smear the Oxford boy as an anti-Semite. The inevitable inquiry looms.

Last week’s Solidarity managed to mention the YL conference, under the headline ‘Young Labour: gains for the left’ (March 2); and pointed out that “it was a tense race which saw an orchestrated smear campaign”. Space was mysteriously not found, however, to mention the nature of the smears - viz, that comrade Elliott, who is also a member of the AWL’s favoured student front, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), is supposedly none too keen on the Children of Israel.

Beyond that, the comrades are not touching the issue with a bargepole. Why? We humbly submit that it might have something to do with the comrades’ own inglorious history of promoting fatuous scare stories about leftwing Jew-hatred.

The AWL’s history is, even by the standards of left-sect genealogy, somewhat complicated. Its founder-guru, Sean Matgamna, emigrated to Britain in 1960, and passed through the ranks of the Young Communist League and Socialist Labour League before arriving in the Militant Tendency in the middle of that decade. At this time, he began to gather co-thinkers, and rapidly left Militant, washing up as a faction in the International Socialists (forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party), where by all accounts the faction stirred up a bit of a ruckus, recruiting a good clutch of people before its summary ejection by the leadership. At this time, its political character was orthodox Trotskyist, albeit unusually soft on the Provos and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

This successful raid on the IS seemed to give Matgamna and co a taste for such activity, and indeed the broad contours of the group’s subsequent history is in one sense a picaresque tale of con-artists moving from one easy mark to the next. There are very few organisations on the British far left who have not been at the business end of a dangerous liaison with Sean and his crew.

Typically, this sort of manoeuvre means taking sharp ideological turns, such that the cosy basis for unity between the Matgamna organisation of the day and its contemporary suitor is ripped away before the victim has sufficient time to react. In the 1980s, these ‘turns’ began to take on a more consistent political character: they took what was then Socialist Organiser into an ambiguous relationship with imperialism.

One of the first such ‘turns’ was on the Palestinian question; contemporaries remember the thing differently, but it seems to have first surfaced as part of manoeuvres within the National Union of Students. At the time, some on the left were pursuing a line of ‘no platform for Zionists’, which was stupid for all the reasons no-platform politics usually are; Socialist Organiser took advantage of the situation to bloc with the Union of Jewish Students, which is historically dominated by Zionism. Suddenly, the PLO’s soi-disant best friends in Britain switched to support for a negotiated two-state settlement and discovered a concern for subtle anti-Semitism in the Palestine solidarity milieu. It was all too much for Andrew Hornung, a Matgamna minion since the Militant days, and no doubt others.

Yet the new identity has stuck. From advocacy of a ‘two-state solution’, Socialist Organiser and then the AWL moved to explicitly drop support for the Palestinian right of return, on the basis that this actually amounted to the destruction of Israel - an eventuality deliberately confused with the driving of the Jews into the sea. The operative definition of anti-Semitism has since expanded continuously, now including support for boycott, divestment and sanctions, and almost all activity of the Palestinian solidarity movement, with the grudging exception of marching against Israel’s periodic punishment bombings of the Gaza Strip.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact nadir of this tendency, mainly because there are two of them. The first came in 2007, when Matgamna penned a truly awful think-piece for Solidarity, in which he came close to supporting, in advance, Israeli air strikes on Iran, on the basis that the Iranian regime was a bunch of religious fanatics hell-bent on the obliteration of all life in the country - a truly idiotic idea, lifted wholesale from Israeli propaganda. (The Iranian theocracy, like all ruling classes, is driven primarily by self-preservation, and thus not given to utterly suicidal military adventures.) At the time, the AWL’s leadership was under intense pressure from many of its younger members over its refusal to call for an end to America’s occupation of Iraq, and the article was an attempt - unfortunately successful - to lance the boil.

The second saw Mark Osborn, the AWL’s most aggressive attack dog, agree to testify in a tribunal against the Universities and Colleges Union in 2012. Ronnie Fraser, a lecturer, had brought a case against the UCU on the basis that the latter’s decision to support BDS was anti-Semitic. Osborn saw no problem with intervening on Fraser’s behalf, such was the mortal danger of “the demonisation of Israel and Zionism in the British unions”. Despite some opposition, he was supported in this by the AWL’s UCU fraction and the leadership. Fortunately, he was not supported by the judge, who decried “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means”, and threw the case out.

So ingrained is this reactionary balderdash within the AWL - especially combined with their softness on American military adventurism - that it left the group somewhat wrong-footed by the Jeremy Corbyn surge. Corbyn is, of course, the left Labour MP most closely associated with the Israel-Palestine issue and anti-imperialism more generally; thus, he is least of all to the liking of the AWL. Matgamna had to fight hard to get his people in line, reassuring them that Corbyn was for a two-state solution, which was good enough, so they did not miss the opportunity.

It was a timely intervention from their point of view, seeing that AWLer Jill Mountford made it to the Momentum steering committee in short order, despite her subsequent expulsion from Labour. Unsurprisingly, the AWL has since become coy about its more scandalous views on these matters, since its allies against Labour’s ‘compliance unit’ are to be found to its left, not its right.

It has to be said that there is an anti-Semitic wing of the Palestinian solidarity movement, of which the most notorious members are probably Gilad Atzmon and Israel Shamir. The former, an Israeli by origin, explains the whole unpleasantness in mandate Palestine by the tribal identity of the Chosen People; the latter advocates alliances with the far right, against the ‘common enemy’ (guess who). On top of that, there is the matter of Islamists, who have plenty of Jew-haters among them.

Yet these people are essentially marginal. The vast bulk of pro-Palestinian sympathy amounts to run-of-the-mill leftwing solidarity, and an instinctive understanding that the Israeli state is founded upon the oppression of the Palestinians. The ‘apartheid’ label is, for narrow factual reasons, incorrect - but it is not morally inappropriate. This, in the end, is why identifying the ‘destruction of Israel’ with a pogrom is ridiculous - Israel is an ethnically exclusionary colonial project. Yes, therefore, the state of Israel needs to be destroyed; fortunately, history abounds with examples of the destruction of oppressive regimes without aiming to drive out every last individual member of the oppressor population.

The net effect, then, of the AWL’s activity on this is to spread within the Labour movement the poisonous association of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism (which in the end is only the flipside of the Atzmon-style anti-Semitism that conflates Jews with Israel). They may be keeping quiet about it just now, but it remains a criminal enterprise.