Poverty of solidarity
The failure of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to oppose Zionism and the Jewish supremacist nature of the Israeli state renders it politically incoherent, argues Tony Greenstein
In 1982, shortly before Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, I was among a group of people who founded the Palestine Solidarity Campaign at a meeting held in the University of London Union. It gives me no pleasure to say that the organisation we formed is today incapable of building mass solidarity in the same way as the Anti-Apartheid Movement did a generation ago.
As Bob Dylan said, ‘The times they are a-changing’. The old lies about Israel being ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ or the Israeli army being ‘the most moral army in the world’ do not have quite the same ring to them when you see police firing stun grenades inside a mosque or children being battered.
Today there is a real possibility of building a mass movement in support of the Palestinians and engaging with the thousands of young people who demonstrated last summer for Black Lives Matter. The narrative around Israel is changing, however many times robots like Keir Starmer claim that they are Zionists “without qualification”. The production of two reports this year, by B’Tselem1 and then Human Rights Watch2, describing Israel as an apartheid state, is a game-changer. Couple this with Israel’s ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem and its mass murder spree in Gaza, and it is no longer possible to hide the reality of Israel, no matter how many times false accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ are made. There is no longer any stopping the process of Israel’s ‘delegitimisation’.
But, as long as the PSC is controlled by two tiny, quasi-Stalinist groups - Socialist Action and the Communist League - Israel will have little to fear. Both SA and the CL fear, quite correctly, that if a mass movement developed they would lose control. In short they have a vested interest in not building a mass movement around Palestine.
You only have to ask what steps did the PSC leadership take to link up with Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion? Or what steps did it take to support the demonstrations against the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill? It is not interested in linking up with other movements.
What is the political basis of the PSC’s failures? Quite simply it is that the PSC is not anti-Zionist. To be pro-Palestinian and not anti-Zionist is like opposing the oppression of black people in South Africa without being anti-apartheid. Zionism is the cause of all the Palestinian ills. It cannot be ignored just because it is tactically convenient to do so.
But the PSC refuses to allow anything to get in the way of subordinating its politics to the trade union bureaucracy. In practice that means supporting the two-state solution, which is the antithesis of anti-Zionism. By definition supporting two states means accepting a Zionist state of Israel.
If you have a look at the PSC’s 2020 annual report3 or any other such document, you will search in vain for the words, ‘Zionism’ or ‘Zionist’. It must be a complete mystery to much of the PSC’s membership why Israel behaves as it does. Perhaps the Israelis are particularly malevolent. True, the PSC refers to Israel as an apartheid state, but it never explains why Israel is or how it became one.
Still less does the PSC talk about Israel as a Jewish supremacist state - a conclusion that even B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) came to, because of its fears of being called anti-Semitic.
In practice, the PSC has always supported a two-state solution. In 1993 it supported the Oslo accords (which did not even promise a Palestinian state). As has become clear to most people, the two-state solution was never other than a smokescreen, under cover of which Israel’s settlements expanded. It was always an illusion, because the Zionist movement always claimed the entire ‘Land of Israel’ (Eretz Yisrael).
It was Oslo which created the monstrosity that is the Palestinian Authority in October 1993. In a debate with Julia Bard of the Jewish Socialists Group I wrote:
The agreement provides for a Palestinian police force up to 30,000-strong. Their first duty will be to suppress Palestinian dissent and any resistance to the accord. Little wonder that this provision evokes such Israeli enthusiasm ... This is an agreement built on shifting sands. It represents a massive victory for imperialism.4
Virtually everything I predicted has come true. It did not need a crystal ball to say that Oslo would be a disaster. All you needed to understand was the nature of the Zionist settler-colonial movement.
But the PSC never abandoned Oslo. Instead it accepted the ‘peace process’ and the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority. With the recent murder of Nizar Banat by its thugs,5 the leadership has been forced to criticise the actions of the PA for the first time.6 But it has never questioned its legitimacy.
Even now its statement merely demands that “the PA should be severing all security cooperation with the occupying state”. It says that the PSC “has raised these issues in the past with the PA and is doing so again in relation to the death of Nizar”. It is as if the French resistance had written a letter to Marshal Philippe Pétain, asking Vichy France to join their ranks!
Nowhere in its statement does the PSC demand that the PA disbands itself or even that its armed thugs be disarmed. Instead it treats the PA as a legitimate institution rather than the bastard fruit of Oslo.
Contrast this with Joseph Massad’s ‘Why the PA’s days are numbered’, which describes the PA as “a collaborating body” with the Israeli apartheid regime “under US sponsorship”. Massad describes how
The PA police arrangement in fact replicated, and was perhaps inspired by, the South African apartheid state’s use of the black police to suppress black resistance before 1994 - an arrangement that reduced the danger to the lives of white policemen.7
If you compare Massad’s incisive analysis to the PSC’s statement, it is clear that the latter has no analysis. The PSC is not only politically but intellectually bankrupt. It treats what is happening in Palestine as a ‘human rights’, not a political, question. It fails to understand that the PA is an adjunct to Israel’s occupation. It is its military subcontractor.
In 2014 I proposed a motion which said: “The PSC should sever all relations with the Palestinian Authority, which is a quisling government, whose role is to police the Palestinians on behalf of Israel.” Betty Hunter - then general secretary and now president of the PSC - blew a gasket at my describing the PA as a “quisling” organisation. In her view and that of the PSC, the PA was a legitimate representative body of the Palestinians.
Compare this with what Ali Abunimah, the editor of The Electronic Intifada, wrote in the wake of Abbas’s withdrawal of support from the Goldstone Report following ‘Operation Cast Lead’:
Naming collaboration - even treason - for what it is has always been a painful taboo among Palestinians, as for all occupied peoples. It took the French decades after World War II to begin to speak openly about the extent of collaboration that took place with the Nazi-backed Vichy government.8
The internal publications of the PSC make up an ideas-free zone. They do nothing to educate or raise people’s consciousness. The PSC campaigns on human rights abuses, but never connects them with the politics. There is no explanatory narrative.
The word ‘Zionism’ never crosses the lips of the leadership and the obvious conclusion is that Israel is a legitimate state which can be reformed. This has major implications for the solidarity movement. Israel can withstand criticism of its human rights record (using ‘security’ as its excuse), but it reacts wildly to those who question its legitimacy.
In 2010 in response to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, the Reut Institute produced a report, entitled Building a political firewall against the assault on Israel’s legitimacy.9 In the section, ‘London as a case study’, it explained:
The assault is increasingly perceived to be a strategic concern for Israel, with potentially existential implications. This understanding underlies the recent mobilisation by the government of Israel ... to offer a systemic response to this challenge.
What the Zionist movement and the Israeli state fear most of all is the questioning of the very concept of a Jewish state. To them this is an “existential” problem. But the PSC simply ignored this document. And because there is no forum within it to discuss such issues, the organisation continued to blunder along blindly.
The Zionist response to questioning ‘Israel’s right to exist’ as a racist state was to launch the campaign to paint Israel’s opponents as ‘anti-Semitic’. It did not begin with Jeremy Corbyn, but his accession to the leadership of the Labour Party lent a new urgency to the Zionist campaign.
Corbyn himself is an example of the poverty of the PSC’s politics. He had been extremely close to its leadership and had attended every AGM for a decade or so. He was the PSC’s ‘human rights ambassador’, but he simply mouthed two-state platitudes. The PSC never provided him with any explanation of Zionism.
I knew Jeremy well in the early 1980s when I was chair of the Labour Movement Campaign on Palestine and he was a sponsor. Our motion to the Labour Party conference in 1982 supporting a democratic secular state in Palestine was passed and Jeremy chaired the Labour Movement conference on Palestine, which called for the disaffiliation from Labour of Poale Zion (today the Jewish Labour Movement).
When the right wing in Labour under Kinnock and Blair took over, the LMCP disappeared. The PSC took Corbyn under its wing and he began spouting ‘two states’ nonsense. Jeremy too treated Palestine as simply a human rights question. Hence when he took part in the JLM leadership debate with Owen Smith, he praised the independence of Israel’s judiciary - the very judges who have legalised the theft of Palestinian land since 1948! The PSC depoliticised a young and enthusiastic MP because it had no anti-Zionist politics.
The PSC engages in routinism. It is happy for people to stand on street corners, handing out leaflets and lobbying MPs - all very worthwhile, as we have to win public support, but it is not enough. We have to transform support on the streets into political support and on this the PSC has hopelessly failed. In fact it has not even tried.
The PSC has a ‘strategy’ of mainstreaming Palestine, which has led it to putting Emily Thornberry - a patron of Labour Friends of Israel - on its platforms. Thornberry is a vitriolic Zionist, who declares that those who deny Israel’s right to exist as a racist state should be expelled. In a grovelling address at the Labour Friends of Israel ‘annual dinner’ in November 2017, Thornberry declared: “Even today ... modern Israel stands out as a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy, particularly in respect of women and LGBT communities.”
That must seem like a sick joke to those who are being evicted in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah today as part of the ‘master plan’ to increase Jerusalem’s Jewish majority;10 or those who are confronting pogromists in Bat Yam.
The PSC says that it does not support any single solution - two states or one. Its excuse is that it is up to Palestinians to decide what they want. This is a problem, because when people ask what we want to see in Palestine the PSC has nothing to say. It has no vision to offer, whereas the AAM had no hesitation in declaring that it wanted a unitary South Africa.
It is also disingenuous, since Palestinians today have no representative organisations. The PA, which the PSC supports, believes in two states. Indeed it believes it has already achieved a Palestinian state! Yet all surveys of Palestinians show that today a very clear majority - 66% in the West Bank and 56% in Gaza - support a unitary state, compared to 14% in the West Bank and 31% in Gaza supporting a two-state solution.11 But even if Palestinians still supported a two-state solution a solidarity movement should reject it. The reason why some Palestinians still support two states is because they are desperate for anything that relieves their plight.
A two-state solution is an apartheid solution, which leaves Israel in place as a Jewish supremacist state. We speak to British supporters of the Palestinians, not the Palestinians themselves. Our job is to persuade people here that Israel is illegitimate. Our end goal must be a state where all people live together, not a continuation of apartheid by other means.
But the PSC leadership is dishonest. It is not concerned about Palestinian opinion. Some 53% of Palestinians now support Hamas, compared to 14% for Abbas and Fatah. The real reason why it still clings to a two-state solution is that the affiliation of trade unions to the PSC has been obtained at a political price. That price is not adopting a position which opposes Israel’s right to exist as a ‘Jewish’ - ie, racist - state. The trade unions support two states. So do Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement, because they know it will not happen!
The trade union leaders support two states because they want to support both sides of the ‘conflict’. It is as if, 30 years ago, they had supported the white nationalists and the black liberation movements. In situations of colonisation you cannot support both sides, but supporting two states is exactly that.
The PSC - or rather Socialist Action - is happy to cuddle up to trade union leaders and accept their money in return for silence. It is a Faustian bargain - a deal without principle or any semblance of morality.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism was drawn up at the initiative of Dina Porat of the Stephen Roth Institute at Tel Aviv University in 2004. Kenneth Stern, its principal drafter, has described its genesis and makes clear the intention all along was to redefine hostility to Zionism as anti-Semitism.12 What Stern did not support was using it to brand individuals as anti-Semites, especially on campus, and thus chill free speech (whether he was naive or duped is an open question).
The IHRA has been the main instrument by which anti-Semitism has been weaponised. It has been the sword of defamation and has been responsible for numerous (anti-racist) anti-Zionists being traduced as racists. It is like an Orwellian world, where words have lost all meaning.
The PSC seems to have dropped any opposition to the IHRA it might have had. It is difficult to understand what exactly it has done on the matter, apart from funding a legal opinion from Hugh Tomlinson QC13 and writing a round-robin letter to local authorities. Perhaps the one initiative it did take was when the ‘Big Ride’ was banned from meeting in a park in Tower Hamlets by the council’s Blairite mayor. That was a brief respite from doing nothing.
However the PSC has not taken up the IHRA question on campus. At the end of last year Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, threatened that universities who refused to adopt the IHRA would have their funding cut, but the PSC has been completely inactive over this question. Yet the IHRA ‘definition’ has been used to attack anti-Zionist academics at a host of universities, including Bristol, Sussex, Leeds and Warwick. At Warwick at least four staff members have been targeted by the Union of Jewish Students as ‘anti-Semites’. The university adopted the IHRA in October of last year, but the attack on the staff prompted the Warwick Assembly, which over 200 staff attended, to reject the IHRA by over 93%! As a result the adoption of the IHRA has been suspended.
The most egregious case of a witch-hunt is at Bristol University. Four years ago the misnamed Campaign Against Anti-Semitism targeted a Jewish lecturer, Rachel Gould, over an article she had written. They called for her dismissal. Tory cabinet minister Eric Pickles called her a holocaust denier. The attack on her was described by Kenneth Stern in testimony to Congress as “egregious”, “chilling and McCarthy-like”.
On February 13, David Miller, a professor at Bristol University, called for an end to Zionism and described how Zionist organisations were using Jewish students as pawns. Immediately the Zionists demanded that Miller be dismissed. Two weeks later 100 MPs and lords, including Caroline Lucas MP, wrote an open letter to the vice-chancellor of Bristol University, demanding that Miller be removed.
Caroline Lucas’s Tory friends on the Education Select Committee then demanded that Miller be sacked. These McCarthyites called Bristol University a “hotbed of anti-Semitism” that was fostering a climate similar to “1930s Nazi Germany”. If anyone else made comparisons with Nazi Germany they would be called anti-Semites! Jonathan Gullis MP went further in attacking Goldie Osuri at Warwick University: “We need to start sacking people,” Gullis said.
I wrote to Ben Jamal demanding that the PSC issue a statement supporting David Miller. Well, they issued a statement - ‘Protecting Palestinian rights and academic freedom’ - but they offered not a word of support or solidarity. Instead the PSC accused David Miller of failing to
apply depth, context and clarity, and to avoid narratives that oversimplify the interlinks between groups which oppose actions in support of Palestinian rights, and Israeli state actors ... it can risk drawing on anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power.14
They did not even have the courage to make these criticisms directly. Instead the following weasel words appeared: “Whilst some have criticised professor Miller for lacking such depth and clarity in the way he has couched his remarks ...”
The push by the Tories for the adoption of the IHRA has gone hand in hand with a campaign by various Zionist organisations - the Board of Deputies, the UJS and the CST to target anti-Zionist academics.
Compare the PSC’s response to the forthright statement of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (Bricup):
Bricup is not qualified to comment on professor’s Miller’s scholarly work, but affirms the responsibility of all academics, irrespective of discipline or political view, to defend his right to teach and research without the threat of external intervention.
It seems the PSC has forgotten what the word ‘solidarity’ means.
In 2010 it refused to support a resolution to boycott Histadrut - Israel’s apartheid trade union. From its inception in 1920 Histadrut supported a policy of Jewish Labour: ie, a boycott of Arab labour. It took 39 years to admit its first Arab member, but even then Arabs were put into a separate section. Histadrut was, with the Jewish National Fund, one of the main organisations of Zionist colonisation.
Whilst Unison voted to boycott Histadrut, the PSC and its trade union officer, Bernard Regan, opposed such a move. The PSC, far from encouraging unions to take the boycott of Israel seriously, is happy to confine boycott to settlement goods only - which is a nonsense, since they are marketed as the produce of Israel itself.
The PSC has refused to raise the IHRA in the unions. When I leafleted delegates at its trade union conference, I was told to leave by Ben Jamal. The PSC refused to include the IHRA on the agenda. If it had campaigned for the unions to oppose the IHRA, then Labour would not have adopted it. The witch-hunt of Palestinian supporters in Labour would have been halted in its tracks.
I wrote on behalf of my union branch to Len McCluskey, asking that Unite’s executive stop supporting the IHRA. On May 16 2021 McCluskey wrote back indignantly, stating: “In the meantime Unite will continue to support the PSC and I dismiss out of hand your suggestion that we are betraying the PSC.”15
The strange thing is that I had not mentioned the PSC in my letter. What had triggered this response? Clearly McCluskey believed that the PSC supported the IHRA ‘definition’. This is understandable because it had refused to campaign in the unions against the IHRA.
Throughout his leadership Corbyn and the Labour left were accused of anti-Semitism. The purpose of the campaign was to brand anti-Zionism and support for the Palestinians as anti-Semitic.
Yet, as activists were being picked off, the PSC kept silent. It never defended Corbyn from allegations of anti-Semitism. It issued no leaflets explaining why anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. I wrote to secretary Ben Soffa on April 11 2016, asking why the silence.16 Ben responded on April 20 in what was a master class in complacency. He wrote: “I make no apology for the fact that we do not engage in every debate some would wish to involve us in.”17
As activists were being picked off for any mention of Israeli apartheid, many others were intimidated into silence. The campaign against ‘anti-Semitism’ in the Labour Party spread into virtually every area of society. The PSC still seems unable to come out and say that the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign had nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
It has nothing to say about Zionism, since it is afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism itself. It has never mentioned the links between the Zionist movement and the far right - people like Viktor Orbán, the anti-Semitic Hungarian prime minister and friend of Israel, or the support of Germany’s neo-Nazi AfD party - or even Tommy Robinson’s recent appearance on a pro-Israel demonstration.18 The PSC is unable to go onto the offensive against the Zionist lobby. It resembles David Low’s depiction of the TUC as a slow-witted “carthorse”.19
But the campaign against Israel is different in one crucial respect from that against apartheid in South Africa. Whereas the latter had no domestic support base, apart from the capitalists, rightwing Tories and fascists, the Israeli state has a lobby that is strong and powerful.
True, Israel has support within the Jewish community. The last survey by Yachad of British Jews in 2015 found that 59% identify as Zionists. Meanwhile, 31% said that they were not Zionists - down 13% on a similar survey five years previously.
Despite the attempt to label BDS as anti-Semitic, 24% of British Jews support some form of sanctions on Israel. Among secular Jews this rises to 40% and among the under-30s it is 41%. Compare this with the Board of Deputies, which purports to speak for “British Jews”, but never criticises Israel. Zionist organisations have hijacked the voice of “British Jews”. In the words of Barnaby Raine, they are the establishment’s “favourite pets: heroic colonists in the Middle East and successful citizens in the west”.20
British Jews are, as David Miller asserted, treated as pawns by Zionist organisations. They fulfil the same role in support of Israel as Algerian Jews did under French colonialism. What is surprising is not that there is anti-Semitism as a result of the identification of British Jews with Israel, but that there is so little of it.
The PSC could, if it had any internal democracy or discussion forums, take advantage of these divisions amongst Jews to challenge British Zionist organisations. But, since there is no debate on strategy within the campaign, there was no discussion about how to combat the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign - except maybe inside Socialist Action or the Communist League.
There is a great deal of debate about Palestine in Britain, yet within the PSC there is no attempt to debate strategic issues, such as how to advance BDS. There is no internal discussion bulletin or forum to debate how to combat the pro-apartheid lobby.
Discussion about strategy or tactics is left either to individual branches or ad hoc groups like Palestine Action.21 There was a strategic review some years ago by Ben Jamal, but it was top-down. When it comes to internal debate, the PSC is an arid desert.
Palestine Action was formed late last year with a focus on campaigning against companies complicit in Israel’s colonisation of Palestine - Elbit Systems in particular. Elbit has some 10 factories in Britain and you will have seen news of actions against it.22 The state has spent enormous resources trying to criminalise activists opposed to it.
Having done little itself, you might imagine that the PSC would welcome a group campaigning against Elbit. Wrong. In February it circulated a bogus piece of legal advice to branches, warning against supporting PA.23 It warned that those who supported it financially could be prosecuted. This was nothing more than scare-mongering. The real reason for its hostility was its opposition to direct action and confronting the British state - in addition to fear of competitors. The PSC contacted the Boycott National Committee and got it to warn PA not to use the term ‘BDS’!
Despite PA receiving massive support, the PSC has not let up on its hostility. When Brighton and Hove PSC wanted to move an emergency motion supporting PA at the 2021 AGM in April, Socialist Action’s Louise Regan ruled it out of order. Regan, who is vice-chair, told the AGM that people had a choice - they could support either PSC or Palestine Action, not both.
In reality the PSC should have welcomed Palestine Action - there was absolutely no reason to try and destroy it. The PSC ended up objecting to the minor damage that PA caused to Elbit’s factories, like breaking windows or painting its buildings red! I wrote to Omar Barghouti of the BDS national committee in March this year, suggesting that Palestinians in Gaza were unlikely to protest at PA damaging Elbit Factories, given the reign of terror they face from its drones!
If the PSC prioritised Palestine solidarity rather than empire building, it would have offered legal help to PA. It could have publicised PA actions and begun a campaign itself against Elbit - which boasts that it is the backbone of Israel’s military. It could have supported the pickets of courts, where defendants - myself included - have been arraigned to face trial. Instead it has done nothing.
During the recent attack on Gaza, PA activists occupied the roof of the Elbit factory in Leicester. The occupation received massive publicity, both nationally and internationally, and when the police arrested those involved hundreds of local people surrounded the police vans to prevent them being taken away. The Fire Brigades Union refused to aid the police attempts to bring down the occupiers. When has the PSC ever gained such support of workers on the ground for its actions?
The occupation of Elbit - like the refusal of dockers in Italy, South Africa and California to unload ships belonging to the Israeli company, Zim - was a concrete act of support for the people of Gaza. But what was the PSC’s reaction? Nothing except embarrassed silence. Not one word emanated from it nationally. The only emails I got during the Gaza attacks were appeals for money.
But why the hostility to PA? The PSC wants to preserve Palestine as its own monopoly and therefore resents other groups trespassing on what it considers its territory. This is a product of the political sectarianism of those who control it.
But it is more than this. The PSC’s whole strategy is what it calls ‘mainstreaming’ Palestine. In other words, winning over the British establishment. The PSC does not understand why the government supports Zionism and Israel. It does so - as anyone who has any awareness of the link between British and Israeli political and military echelons knows - because of shared interests between British imperialism and Israel. Israel is the west’s strategic watchdog in the Middle East, where it conducts joint exercises with Nato. That is what lies behind the support of the most reactionary sections of the Tory Party - Eric Pickles et al - for Israel.
Direct action that involves spraying blood-red paint on a factory goes against the PSC’s ‘strategy’ of winning over the establishment. It seems to have difficulty understanding that British imperialism has no principled objection to Israel’s human rights abuses. But the PSC’s mainstreaming ‘strategy’ has been a disaster. Apart from Corbyn, it has no MPs as sponsors. It has not even tried to persuade MPs to form a BDS lobby. It lacks support from the establishment, yet it attacks direct action.
Since May there have been two huge demonstrations in support of the Palestinians - the last one 200,000-strong. They were called by six organisations including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Stop the War Coalition and the Muslim Association of Britain. The MAB in particular mobilised huge numbers. It is doubtful, given its previous record, that the PSC would have mobilised even a tenth of these numbers by itself.
What it does prove is that the cause of Palestine has massive potential. If the PSC were a genuine solidarity organisation, then its membership would be much larger than the five-six thousand it has at present. It would be a movement at the forefront of direct action, linking up with groups like Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and the recent Campaign Against the Police Bill.
What the PSC does have, however, is a number of active branches nationally. It would have even more if there was an effective branch development policy - even the list of branches on its website is hopelessly out of date. Branches receive little support from the national office. When Brighton and Hove PSC waged a two-year-long campaign against Sodastream locally, which successfully closed the shop down, we received no support from the PSC nationally. The same was true of the successful campaign against Ahava in Covent Garden - the PSC nationally mobilised nobody. Direct action simply does not fit into its plans.
But the PSC does have a number of active branches nationally. The question is whether there are enough to be the kernel of a new and healthier Palestine solidarity movement, which can build on the enormous support for the Palestinians today. It will have to be a group that is not controlled by tiny sects - leftovers of the International Marxist Group, who believe that China is a socialist utopia.
The question for activists now is how to go about building such a movement.
Eg, at palestineaction.org/news.↩︎