Elephant in the room
While the Labour left is under attack, writes Eddie Ford, why is there no criticism of Zionism?
For anyone who doubted that official or institutional anti-racism is now a key component of the modern-day bourgeois ideology, the scales must surely have fallen from their eyes over recent weeks. The mass media, the Labour right, David Cameron, etc all throw endless accusations of racism against the Jeremy Corbyn leadership, and the left as a whole. Our ranks are supposedly riddled with anti-Semites.
Apparently Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone were just a sample. The Sunday Telegraph (May 1) talks of a “dossier” containing a “series of disturbing examples of anti-Semitic attitudes” among party activists and leading members. The “examples” given are: a London Labour council leader sharing a Facebook post comparing the “terrorist state of Israel” to Islamic State; the fact that Corbyn “questioned” why an “anti-Semitic mural” in east London should be taken down; and that he attended events run by self-confessed holocaust-denier Paul Eisen, “long after his views had become clear”.
With the witch-hunt gathering momentum, on May 2 the Daily Mirror reported that three councillors had been suspended “within hours” over alleged ‘anti-Semitic’ material posted two years ago on social-media sites - someone has clearly been doing their homework.1 Blackburn councillor and ex-mayor Salim Mulla committed the same crime as Naz Shah - sharing on Facebook the obviously satirical graphic suggesting Israel could be relocated to the United States; and he also posted footage of a Palestinian boy being arrested in 2014 with the comment: “Apartheid at its best. Zionist Jews are a disgrace to humanity.” Meanwhile, Nottingham councillor Ilyas Aziz shared a link about Nazi Germany with the comment: “A reminder of the treatment and suffering of Jews in Nazi Germany. Are there any similarities to how Israel is treating Palestinians?” As for Burnley councillor Shah Hussain, he tweeted to Israeli footballer, Yossi Benayoun, “You are an complete and utter plonker, you and your country doing the same thing that hitler did to ur race in ww2.”
All these suspensions are clearly irrational, and the councillors have become the latest victims of a well-coordinated campaign to smear critics of Israel, and Zionism in general, as inveterate anti-Semites. There will be plenty more such accusations.
Yes, it is possibly true that some of those castigated for ‘anti-Semitism’ may have come out with crude or crass formulations. But there are worse crimes than sloppy language (or, in the case of Livingstone, historical inaccuracy). More to the point, we need to deal with those pro-Zionist groupings that are not being accused of racism despite excusing the oppression of the Palestinians, sometimes in the most grotesque way. Indeed, the smear campaign against Corbyn and the left is predicated on the basis that Zionism is an entirely legitimate movement, and therefore anti-Zionists can only have sinister motives.
Which brings us to Labour Friends of Israel - the elephant in the room. Now, at one stage, the likes of Eric Heffer, Tony Benn and other members of the Tribunite left were members of LFI, but they started to drop out following Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon - in fact, for the most part and to their credit, they became champions of the Palestinian cause (reversing the general trend up until then of the Labour left having distinct pro-Israeli sympathies, whereas sections of the Labour right, and some Tories, favoured the Palestinians/Arabs).
LFI used to be a pretty substantial organisation and historically was seen by many Labour MPs as a stepping stone to ministerial office - for example, one of the first things Tony Blair did on becoming an MP in 1983 was join LFI, and Gordon Brown used to be a member too. LFI supporters, such as Lord Sainsbury, Michael Levy, Sir Trevor Chinn and Sir Emmanuel Kaye, were among the most generous donors to the party. Interestingly, LFI appears to have shrunk in size over recent years - though obviously it would be foolish to deny that it still wields a fair amount of influence within the party and beyond.
Its current chair is Jo Ryan MP and the list of officers/supporters represents a roll call of Labour rightists - Michael Dugher, Louise Ellman, Rachel Reeves, Jonathan Reynolds, John Woodcock, Hazel Blears, David Blunkett, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna ... On its (rather dull) website, LFI claims it is “working towards a two-state solution”, promoting a “vision of coexistence founded on peace and liberal democracy” and fostering “close links with progressive Israelis and Palestinians”. It prominently features a quote from Ed Miliband (who is not a member), saying that the organisation “plays an incredibly important role in the debate about a peaceful settlement in the Middle East”.2 Seemingly all very liberal and not particularly offensive.
However, Jo Ryan gave the game away when she expressed her “horror” at Naz Shah’s and Ken Livingstone’s comments - “no question that their statements were anti-Semitic” - and then gave a revealingly disingenuous definition of Zionism as “the right of Jewish people to self-determination”.3 Who could possibly object to that? Similarly, chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis informs us that Zionism is a movement “celebrated by people right across the political spectrum, all over the world” - and those who seek to “vilify and delegitimise” it are “deeply insulting not only to the Jewish community, but countless others who instinctively reject the politics of distortion and demonisation” (The Guardian May 3 2016).
Communists flatly reject not just the dishonest definition of Zionism on offer from Jo Ryan and rabbi Marvis, but Zionism itself - which is a colonial-settler project based on ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population and discrimination. Marxists do not recognise the ‘right’ of anyone to march into another country and bomb and shoot the hell out of people, any more than we would advocate or support the ‘right’ of Protestants, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Sikhs, etc in London hiving off a bit of territory and kicking out others. Oppressors do not have the right to oppress, nor do exploiters have the right to exploit. This is the ABC of Marxism.
We in the CPGB, unlike some, are not minded to fling around accusations of racism - or treat racism as the greatest crime one can ever commit. Most on the left still tell us that immigration controls - like capitalism itself - are ‘inherently racist’ - which we communists regard as absurd (obviously we oppose all immigration controls, racist and non-racist alike). Should we write off everyone who advocates some form of immigration control or utters words perceived to be discriminatory? No, as a general principle, open debate is the best means to combat bigotry and backwardness.
That does not mean that working class groups and parties should impose no limits on the kind of politics they tolerate. For example, the CPGB supported the expulsion of Ian Donovan from Left Unity’s Communist Platform when he started to articulate and develop his views about the Jewish “pan-national bourgeoisie” constituting itself as the ruling class “vanguard” in key imperialist countries, and so on.4 But it is undoubtedly the case that Donovan’s views - which unfortunately were adopted by Gerry Downing and Socialist Fight - shaded over into genuine anti-Semitism.
Hence the Communist Platform was quite right to boot out Donovan. Similarly, before the formation of the CP, we were against the participation within LU’s Socialist Platform of the pro-Zionist, pro-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. But, obviously, there is quite a difference between a particular faction or a Marxist group and the current Labour Party, which includes plenty of out-and-out pro-imperialist and pro-capitalist reactionaries.
So, if Ken Livingstone, Tony Greenstein, Gerry Downing, etc can be suspended or expelled from the Labour Party for alleged racism, then what about LFI? Propaganda aside, it does not primarily exist to encourage “peace” or foster links between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, but to promote Zionism - an ongoing colonial project. Imagine if there had been ‘Labour Friends of Apartheid South Africa’. So why should it be any different for LFI?
Fairly predictably, the leader of the Israeli Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, could not resist getting in on the act. What is the point of a smear unless you can spread it around? Herzog wrote to Jeremy Corbyn saying he was “appalled and outraged” by the recent examples of ‘anti-Semitism’ in the British Labour Party - which, remember, is a “sister party” to the ILP as both are part of the Socialist International (Britain’s Labour Party is nowadays an ‘observer’). Insultingly, Herzog invited Corbyn to visit Israel’s holocaust museum in order to help the Labour leader “better understand the scourge of anti-Semitism”. We are sure that Corbyn appreciated the gesture.
In the words of The Independent, “such a visit would likely be a test” for Corbyn (April 30). In other words, if he fails to take up Herzog’s invitation, then he will be condemned for deplorable anti-Semitism - and if he does go, he will be criticised for merely going through the motions: deep in his heart he regards Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”.
Needless to say, even before the cynically manufactured scandal about anti-Semitism, Corbyn was not popular with the Israeli Labor Party. In February Herzog described Corbyn as “naive” because he did not understand the realities of the Middle East, and in September Michal Biran - an ILP MP - told a fringe meeting at the Labour conference that Corbyn’s election would be a “disaster” for Israel. You do not really feel the fraternal love.
Of course, the ILP is not a labour or workers’ party in any accepted or conventional sense of the term - at least for Marxists. If you take the ILP’s political progenitors in the 1920s-30s, they constituted mainstream Zionism - which admittedly then viewed itself as progressive and leftwing. Maybe some Labor Zionists seriously believed they were on a civilising mission in the Middle East. According to their propaganda, when trade unions, or kibbutzim or cooperative industries were developed, this would help educate their Arab brothers and sisters. Not too far removed from the propaganda about US and British troops being greeted by the joyful masses of Baghdad with flowers and celebration. Unsurprisingly, Zionists were not welcomed by the Arab masses - quite the opposite. Instead, it was revisionist Zionists and their descendants like Likud who actually told the truth: it will be a military confrontation and we will win, as we have better technology and better contacts.
If you take the Labor Zionists and the ‘trade union’ movement (Histadrut) - the latter a key player in the founding of Israel - their main demand was Jewishjobs forJewishworkers: they did not want Arab workers undermining their pay and conditions. Jewish capitalists in mandate Palestine, naturally enough, were tempted to follow the South African example and use indigenous labour, which was massively cheaper - but the trade unions put a stop to that. Histadrut has organised Arab workers here and there, but it was always a Jewish trade union movement - indeed Pinhas Lavon, former secretary-general of Histadrut, readily admitted that it “is not a trade union.” In fact, historically Histadrut served as an agent of Jewish colonisation.
The Labour Party should break the links with this so-called “sister party”, the ILP. As for the so-called Socialist International, till it was expelled in 2011 the National Democratic Party of Egypt was a full member - its chair was a certain Hosni Mubarak. Just like the NDP, the ILP stinks - underlined by Herzog’s recent advice to his own party activists - “We need to stop giving the impression that we are ‘Arab-lovers’” - which progressive MPs in the Knesset rightly condemned.5
In the last analysis, the difference between the ILP and Likud is a matter of nuance. Take Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, both Labor Zionists. They were the prime architects of the Six-Day War that saw Israel conquer the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem - part of the relentless process of expansion.
By a perverse irony, it is the ILP that is now considering cutting ties because of the Labour Party’s “toxic atmosphere of hatred and fanaticism” - apparently this represents a “moral collapse that requires immediate and unequivocal action”.6 Those on the left of the Labour Party should do whatever they can to speed-up the divorce proceedings.
4. ‘No place for anti-Semitism’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014.