Smears roll on
What lies behind the ‘anti-Semitism’ lies? Mike Macnair investigates the strategic issues involved
The ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign run by the media and Labour right against the left - with the enthusiastic support of the Jewish Board of Deputies and related groups - rolls on. At the time of writing there are two new pieces of ‘scandal’. First are complaints from rightwing Labour MPs and the ‘Campaign Against Anti-Semitism’ about Jeremy Corbyn attending a passover seder organised by the left Jewish group, Jewdas.1
Second, Jon Lansman has persuaded Momentum’s usually invisible National Coordinating Group to issue a statement on Twitter which “acknowledges the anger, upset and despair within the British Jewish community at the numerous incidents of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party” and “believes that accusations of anti-Semitism cannot and should not be dismissed as simply rightwing smears” ... and so on.2
Like the initiatives of the Labour right and media, Lansman’s statement carefully fuzzes over the difference between, on the one hand, opposition to the state of Israel and, on the other, the genuinely anti-Semitic arguments which blame the state of Israel on the undue influence in the world of ‘Jews’ or of ‘finance capital’ imagined with ‘Jew-capital’ tropes.
There is no doubt that there is such genuine anti-Semitism in circulation on the left. We broke with Ian Donovan and Gerry Downing over their deployment of such arguments and voted, along with the other participants, to exclude them from Labour Against the Witchhunt, in order to dissociate ourselves from these ideas. Nonetheless, the actual level of support for such anti-Semitic arguments on the left is very small.
This fuzzing-over is accompanied, from the right - from Lansman and the ‘Alliance for Western Liberty’ - by the claim that opposition to “the Jewish state of Israel, safe and secure” (Lansman) is itself anti-Semitism. Indeed, for the AWL, it is the core of “modern anti-Semitism”.3
It is probably for this reason that Jewish opponents of the state of Israel are especially targeted: hence the expulsion of Tony Greenstein for ‘abusive behaviour’ (the original anti-Semitism claims would not have stood up in court); hence the attempt to expel Moshé Machover (again, diverted from original indefensible anti-Semitism claims to almost equally problematic claims of guilt by association with the CPGB); and hence the latest noise about Jewdas’s seder.
‘Safe and secure’
It then becomes unavoidable to discuss the meaning of an open-ended commitment to “the Jewish state of Israel, safe and secure”. This has a mild and defensive sound to it. It assumes, of course, the legitimacy of the systemic legal discrimination against Israel’s own Arab citizens under Israel’s constitution and laws. But, beyond this, what would amount to ‘safe and secure’ for the state of Israel?
At the moment, it seems to involve at least the maintenance of the occupation of the West Bank (and continued Israeli settlement-building there) and the siege of Gaza.4 From the standpoint of the new US national security advisor, John Bolton, “the two-state solution is dead” and Israeli security requires short-term regime change in Iran.5 At various points in the past it has involved Israeli attempts to occupy southern Lebanon.
US Christianist extremists advocate a much larger Israel, running from the Nile in the west to the Euphrates in the east and as far north as the Turkish border - thus including the whole of Lebanon and Jordan, most of Syria and significant parts of Iraq and Egypt.6
The main problem is the idea of a Jewish state which claims the loyalty of all the Jews in the world and can offer them ‘safety and security’ from the supposedly endemic anti-Semitism elsewhere. This would require at least a very substantial expansion of Israeli territory, given that only around 43% of the world’s Jews live in Israel.7 There is not enough space to double the Israeli population without territorial expansion, even if the Israeli Arabs and those of the West Bank and Gaza were ethnically cleansed. Israel has a population of eight and a half million, of whom around seven million are Jews.
The Israeliswithin living memory forcibly squatted a large quantity of land, and in the West Bank continue to do so on land previously owned mainly by local Arabic-speakers, who have an inherent call on the sympathies of the other 205 million Arabic-speakers in the Middle East. Hence, the ‘security’ of Israel unavoidably depends on the seven million holding the 205 million in subordination, and not just holding down the 1.8 million Israeli Arabs or the five million in the occupied territories.
Israel’s ability to do this is dependent on US support - in particular the willingness and ability of the US to ‘take down’ other regimes in the region; and on periodic displays of radical technical military superiority (particularly command of the air). Moreover, Israel’s ability to conduct military operations lasting more than a few days rests on the immediate resupply of munitions from the US - as became apparent both in the Yom Kippur war of 1973 and the 2006 Lebanon war.
In short, the actual military-logistical situation of the state of Israel is the same as that of the medieval crusader states - dependent on continued outside military intervention for survival. At 70 years old, it has so far lasted four-fifths as long as the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem in its original location, and around two-fifths as long as the principality of Antioch (in modern Syria) and county of Tripoli (modern Lebanon). The modern USA is no doubt a lot more powerful than the medieval Christian kingdoms of Europe, so we can probably expect Israel to last longer than the crusader states. But it is just as dependent on its backers.
The ‘defensible borders’ require periodic attacks on neighbouring countries. The USA attacked Iraq for its own geopolitical reasons, but the large majority of Israelis backed the invasion in the name of Israel’s security.8 The demand for the bombing of Iran in the US is, again, motivated by geopolitical interests, but one of the central ‘cover stories’ is the supposed Iranian ‘existential’ threat to Israel.
The point is not that socialists shoulddesire that Israel meet the fate of the crusader states. CPGB comrades have argued that the workers’ movement needs to propose a strategic solution, which involves the recognition of the right of the Hebrew-speaking population in what is now Israel to self-determination, as well as the same right of the Arabic-speaking people of present-day Israel, the occupied territories, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, including the right to unite. We take this view from the arguments originally developed by Matzpen and since then defended by comrade Machover.
The point is, rather, that, because the US is the essential guarantor of the state of Israel’s existence, unqualified commitment to the “safe and secure” survival of the present state of Israel requires support for US policy in the Middle East, up to and including the infliction of destruction and barbarism on nearby states. To imagine otherwise is self-deception - very common among liberals, but self-deception nonetheless.
The ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign on the Labour left has been ongoing since the unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. The leadership has made a series of concessions to it, but it is clear that none of these concessions have done anything other than whet the appetite for more of the same.
Moreover, from the point of view of the right recapturing Labour, the campaign seems not to be working. The Times on March 31 carried a report of a YouGov polling of party members, which showed that Corbyn’s support among them has strengthened over the past period, and that the smears are widely recognised as such. And yet the campaign continues. Why?
I have made the fundamental points before. The capitalist class rules from day to day, in spite of universal suffrage, through the duopoly of ‘professional politicians’, in combination with advertising-funded media, and with the sale of justice through the ‘free market in legal services’. A relatively immediate backstop to protect their interests is the threat of the flight of capital in case of policies they disapprove (recently employed in response to the very tepid reformism of François Hollande’s administration in France). The House of Lords and monarchy, and the monarchist political culture of the armed forces, are remote backstops in case of loss of control through these mechanisms.
The duopoly has the advantage for the capitalists that voters can seem to get rid of the current rulers:
The accursed Power which stands on Privilege,
And goes with Women, and Champagne, and Bridge,
Broke - and Democracy resumed her reign
Which goes with Bridge, and Women, and Champagne.9
To be able to work this system requires two parties, both of which are committed to the capitalist constitutional order. Ideally, Whig and Tory, or Liberal and Tory, as in 18th and 19th century England, or Democrat and Republican, as in the modern USA. In electoral regimes which are more representative than ‘first past the post’ the duopoly has to be constituted in the form of coalitions rather than single parties.
In the later 19th century, the workers’ movement came up with the idea of workers’ independent political parties, composed of individual members democratically organised, and founded on a definite programme for the immediate replacement of capitalist class rule and the future development of socialism. The success of the German Social Democratic Party with this model (in spite of illegality between 1878 and 1890) made it popular across Europe and to some extent more widely. Such parties were a serious problem for the system of political management in capitalist interests through the duopoly of corrupt professional politicians.
Labour was never quite the same thing. Rather, it is a party founded on a contradiction. On the one hand Labour claims, both by its name and by its affiliate structure, to be not a party founded on a specific political platform, but rather the united representative of the working class as a whole. In this character, it blocks the legitimacy of the existence of alternative parties within the workers’ movement. (I emphasise ‘legitimacy’ because it is ‘first past the post’ which is the primary obstacle to the electoral representation of alternative parties.)
On the other hand, in contradiction to this claim, Labour is characterised by loyalty to the British constitution and to the British national interest. Though these are not explicit political commitments in the party rules, they extend way beyond the right and can be found even among leftwing advocates of constitutional reform. None of this is any novelty in Labour. It was already present in the pre-1914 Parliamentary Labour Party’s tailing of the Liberals on international politics and in Labour’s involvement in support for World War I.
Its primary institutional expression is, precisely, the regime of bans and proscriptions. Labour claims by its name and its affiliate structure to represent the working class as a whole - but, by the bans and proscriptions, it claims to exclude the representation of the part of the working class which is not loyal to the constitution and British interests.
If Labour had open and transparent programmatic commitments to British nationalism and loyalism, it would be hard for it to claim that it represents the working class as a whole, and thus block the legitimacy of any alternative workers’ party and to hold on to the system of trade union affiliation, and so on. These commitments must thus take indirect forms: bans and proscriptions and witch-hunting, together with the protected privileges of the PLP.
In this aspect, the Labour Party serves as an indirect agency of the British state: as it propagates loyalty to the constitution and national interest among the working class, Labour MPs can in principle be trusted to carry out ministerial roles in the interests of the state (and thus, indirectly, of capitals operating on British territory).
Britain and US
Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in two leadership elections, and the Tories’ failure to inflict a crushing defeat on Labour in June 2017, pose a particular problem for this regime. Since 1940 the fundamental orientation of British state policy has been the acceptance of subordinate-ally status in relation to the USA in exchange for protection. It was not peculiar to Blair to go into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: the Wilson government conducted various counterinsurgency operations, in particular in Yemen and Oman, and backed the US war in Vietnam; the Attlee government took Britain into the Korean war.10
There is a particular need to hem in Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott (and their supporters) on this issue because the Iraq war lacked united backing from the British state core, and consequently gave rise to an enormous mass anti-war movement, with which Corbyn in particular was closely associated. As an activist movement it ebbed away, but it left behind a legacy of scepticism on the left towards US policy in the Middle East and America’s Israeli side-kick. The Gaza war of 2008-09 (‘Operation Cast Lead’) attracted much more open hostility than had been the case with previous Israeli operations.
The British state needs to restore the trustworthiness of a potential Labour government in the eyes of the USA. To that end Labour has to offer explicit support for US policy in the Middle East. This was the point of David Cameron’s demands for backing the bombing of the Syrian state and of the Syrian Islamist opposition, and the ridiculous momentary glorification of Hilary Benn in December 2015.
But this direct demand for support has not gone down to well - after all, US policy in the Middle East does not look terribly successful. Then there was Cameron’s ostensible leading role, with Labour backing, in the state failure and humanitarian disaster of Libya in the name of ‘humanitarian intervention’.
It is in this context that the big lie that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism has been promoted and continues to be promoted. It takes advantage of a vulnerability of the broad left - its intersectionality, its inability to confront identity-oppression claims - by weaponising anti-racism.
The big lie about ‘Labour’s anti-Semitism problem’ will thus persist until one of two things happens: either the Labour leadership gives Israel the blank cheque which will - when the time comes - ‘justify’ bombing Iran and/or again invading Lebanon and/or further ethnic cleansing in the West Bank; or ‘moderate’ Labour MPs are prepared to sacrifice their careers by splitting the party in order to secure a Labour defeat. TheTimes and The DailyTelegraph over the last few weeks have offered a succession of journalistic blandishments in favour of this course of action, imagining it as also allowing the creation of a centrist anti-Brexit party.
No amount of soft talk to the Board of Deputies, no amount of violations of natural justice in Labour’s disciplinary procedures, no number of anti-war activists thrown to the wolves will prevent it rolling on. Only a fightback on the underlying issues can stop it.
1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-43624231, April 3 2018.
3. Eg, Solidarity March 28 2018.
4. Eg, http://jcpa.org/requirements-for-defensible-borders.
5. See, for example, ‘Tough on Iran, critical of “Palestine”: meet John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser’ Ha’aretz March 23 2018.
6. Eg, https://theisraelbible.com/biblical-boundaries-land-israel/; http://www.factsaboutisrael.uk/future-borders-of-israel-in-prophecy. Daniel Pipes’s ‘Imperial Israel: the Nile-to-Euphrates calumny’ (www.danielpipes.org/247/imperial-israel-the-nile-to-euphrates-calumny) may or may not have been true of ‘mainstream’ opinion in the 1990s.
8. M Schulman, ‘Tel Aviv diary: in hindsight, Iraq war only benefited Iran’ Newsweek March 18 (www.newsweek.com/tel-aviv-diary-855178).
9. Hilaire Belloc, ‘On a general election’ (1906).
10. Before 1940, of course, it was a matter of maintaining British imperial interests: for example, the 1924 MacDonald Labour government continued support to “air control” bombing in Iraq and elsewhere - see JS Corum, ‘The myth of air control: reassessing the history’ Aerospace Power Journal winter 2000, pp61-77.