Not a minor issue

Marching with Zionists, excusing Zionism and standing in solidarity with Palestine. Tony Greenstein investigates the contradictions generated by crass opportunism

Wherever there is a Palestine solidarity march, you can be sure that there will be a Socialist Workers Party stall with posters and placards. The impression is that the SWP is in the forefront of Palestine solidarity.

There are no doubt individual members who are sincerely committed to the Palestinian cause and who consider themselves anti-Zionists. But the organisation itself and the way it works combines support for Palestinians with the most shameful appeasement of Zionism.

This contradiction came to a head in Scotland over the presence of the far-right Glasgow Friends of Israel and the Confederation of Friends of Israel in Scotland on the annual Stand Up To Racism anti-racist march in April 2022. Since 2017 the SWP - or rather its front group, SUTR - has repeatedly allowed GFI and Cofis to march with Israeli flags.

The reasons behind this speak volumes about the SWP’s ‘anti-Zionism’. Its ‘logic’ is that Jewish Zionists should not be prevented from taking part in anti-racist activities. But that logic is flawed for a number of reasons. If there was such a creature as an anti-racist Zionist, then no-one would object to such a person taking part on an anti-racist march. The objection is to the supporters of Jewish supremacism and apartheid participating. To Palestinians the Israeli flag is like the swastika for Jews. Since no-one would tolerate the presence of a swastika or someone marching in a white hood, why then is the Israeli flag tolerated?

Instead of making its position clear on the differences between Zionism and being Jewish, the SWP has conceded to the false ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign in the Labour Party. For the Labour right and rightwing unions, Zionism and Judaism are synonymous. The SWP is proud of the fact that the TUC and various union leaderships have given token support to SUTR and its marches - although as secretary of a Unite branch I have received no publicity about them.

It does not seem to have occurred to the SWP that the ‘support’ of the trade union bureaucrats is a way that they can parade their anti-racist credentials without actually doing anything. If the union leaderships were serious about fighting racism, then they would have condemned the statement of Rachel Reeves criticising the Tories for not having deported enough refugees.1

The fact that Glasgow Friends of Israel is on the far right politically makes no difference to the SWP. GFI has been repeatedly caught fraternising with fascists such as Max Dunbar, former treasurer of the British National Party. Although it later dissociated itself from Dunbar, it is noticeable that the statement confirming this was from Edward Sutherland,2 who was reprimanded by the General Teaching Council for sharing an anti-Semitic post online.3

All this is part of a wider problem with the politics of the SWP on Zionism, racism and imperialism. Instead of integrating its political analysis and understanding that racism flows from imperialism, including Zionism, the SWP compartmentalises racism and imperialism for tactical - ie, opportunist - reasons. On the one hand, it will proclaim that Zionism is racist and Israel is an apartheid state, but, when it comes to anti-racist work, the issue of Palestine is excluded. The fact that Zionist organisations are in the forefront of anti-Muslim racism is simply ignored.

On the GFI Facebook page a supporter wrote, after the murder of 50 Muslims in New Zealand: “It’s payback for the attacks that Muslims have perpetrated across the globe. Perhaps this will curb their appetite for bloodshed.” It is difficult to think of a more vile racist comment, yet to the SWP it is of no concern. Imagine that someone had celebrated the murder of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 because of the Palestinians murdered by Israel, the ‘Jewish’ state. The air would be thick with condemnations - prime amongst them the SWP. Also on the GFI Facebook group was a post which talked about Israel “euthanasing” Palestinians.3 This is language which one would expect from neo-Nazis, yet the SWP is happy to allow GFI to take part in its annual march.

The SWP’s politics are fragmented. It supports refugees coming to Britain but it refuses to ask why they come and to integrate this into a broader anti-racist struggles.

The SWP confines itself to broad statements of support for the Palestinians. It rarely if ever discusses the causes of their dispossession and the role of Zionism - except perhaps once a year at its Marxism summer school, when anti-Zionism is put on display.

At the 2021 Palestine Solidarity Campaign conference, the executive moved a new constitution eliminating anti-Zionism. The two SWP members present, Tom Hickey and Rob Ferguson, spoke in support of the proposal and against those who wanted the PSC to remain an anti-Zionist organisation (at least on paper!).

The arguments of Hickey and Ferguson were that we should concentrate on activity, leafleting, etc, and not get distracted by ‘minor issues’ like Zionism. Except that Zionism, as an ideology and movement, was responsible for the situation today. How can you support the Palestinians and have nothing to say about Zionism?

On the street people constantly ask why we do not support a Jewish state and oppose Zionism. This was a central feature of debates inside the Labour Party. Yet to the SWP what matters is activity for its own sake - despite the fact that Israel, unlike South Africa, depends on maintaining political support in the west. Anti-Zionism is not a theoretical luxury, but a necessity. We constantly have to win the argument on campuses and in trade unions, but to the SWP all we have to do is become more active!

The reluctance of the SWP to argue for anti-Zionist politics arises from the fact that they do not understand Zionism. The SWP’s founder, Tony Cliff, did understand Zionism, because he was born in mandate Palestine, but today’s SWP theoreticians - eg, John Rose and Rob Ferguson - do not have that background.

In the Socialist Worker article, ‘Don’t fall into your opponents’ traps’, Rose had this to say in response to Ken Livingstone’s reference to Nazi-Zionist collaboration:

… the anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian case must be argued effectively and sensitively. Traps must be avoided which favour our opponents. On Thursday Ken Livingstone created, then walked into, precisely such a trap. The argument about Zionist collaboration with the Nazis has been around for a long time. It is rightly ignored by solidarity activists with Palestine ...

It’s true that when Hitler came to power some Zionist leaders stupidly thought that they could do a deal with him that would enable some German Jews to go to Palestine. But Ken should have known that this disgraceful manoeuvre bitterly divided the Zionist movement.4

Rose went on to say that “there was no coherent, united Zionist leadership in the 1930s. It was deeply split.” This is simply untrue. As I show in my book, Zionism during the holocaust, this is ahistorical nonsense. There was almost complete agreement about the need to create a Jewish state - and incidentally to ‘transfer’ the Palestinians out. The differences between Chaim Weizmann and Ben Gurion were about shifting allegiance to American imperialism or staying with the British. Even the differences between Labor and Revisionist Zionism were tactical. The attacks on the British by the paramilitary group, Irgun, were premature, but after 1945 they were agreed on whom their enemy was.


Nor was there was anything ‘stupid’ from the Zionist point of view about their negotiations with the Nazis. The one thing that the Haavara Nazi-Zionist trade agreement of August 1933 was not about was saving German Jews. What it sought to do was to rescue their wealth.

David Ben-Gurion became Israel’s first prime minister in 1948. He had been chair of the Jewish Agency and was the most important pre-state Zionist figure. A cursory reading of the final chapter, ‘Disaster means strength’, in Shabtai Teveth’s official biography of Ben-Gurion5 makes it abundantly clear that the Zionist leadership welcomed the rise of the Nazis and Hitler. The very title gives us a clue.

On the eve of Hitler becoming chancellor, in January 1933, Ben-Gurion explained his thinking to the central committee of Mapai, the Israeli Labor Party, when he warned that “Zionism … is not primarily engaged in saving individuals” and that if there was “a conflict of interest between saving individual Jews and the good of the Zionist enterprise, we shall say the enterprise comes first”.6

In November 1935, after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws he said: “To the disaster of German Jewry we must offer a Zionist response: namely, we must convert the disaster into a source for the upbuilding of Palestine.”7 In October 1942 - by which time the Zionist leadership was aware of the holocaust - Ben-Gurion remarked to the Zionist executive:

Disaster is strength if channelled to a productive course. The whole trick of Zionism is that it knows how to channel our disaster - not into despondency or degradation, as is the case in the diaspora, but into a source of creativity and exploitation.8

Berl Katznelson, a founder of Mapai and editor of Davar, saw the rise of Hitler as “an opportunity to build and flourish like none we have ever had or ever will have”. 9 Ben-Gurion predicted that “The Nazis’ victory would become ‘a fertile force for Zionism’.”10

It is to the critical Zionist historian, Noah Lucas, not John Rose, that we must turn if we want to understand Zionism’s approach:

As the European holocaust erupted, Ben-Gurion saw it as a decisive opportunity for Zionism ... In conditions of peace … Zionism could not move the masses of world Jewry. The forces unleashed by Hitler in all their horror must be harnessed to the advantage of Zionism ... By the end of 1942 … the struggle for a Jewish state became the primary concern of the movement.11

As I have stated, Rose is simply wrong when he says that “this disgraceful manoeuvre bitterly divided the Zionist movement”. The Labor Zionists were united around the policy of breaking the boycott of Nazi Germany and Haavara, and the General Zionists and religious Zionists of Mizrahi supported them. Only the ‘rightwing’ revisionists under Jabotinsky (except for its German wing) opposed Haavara and they were very much isolated.

It is, of course, true that ordinary Zionists bitterly opposed Haavara and did not understand what was happening, but Zionism was not a democratic movement and their voices counted for nothing.

On June 21 1933 the German Zionist Federation voluntarily wrote to Hitler expressing their opposition to the boycott and their agreement with Nazi fundamentals. No one forced them to do this. They wrote:

On the foundation of the new state, which has established the principle of race ... fruitful activity for the fatherland is possible … Precisely because we don’t wish to falsify these fundamentals, because we too are against mixed marriages and are for maintaining the purity of the Jewish group … The realisation of Zionism could only be hurt by resentment of Jews abroad against the German development. Boycott propaganda … is in essence fundamentally unZionist, because Zionism wants not to do battle, but to convince and to build.12

From their vantage point, the Zionist leaders were not at all stupid. More than any single person Hitler helped build the Jewish state. And now today, with pogroms against the Palestinians and the advent of Jewish neo-Nazi ministers, the same ideology of racial purity is again in vogue.

Between 1933 and 1939, as a result of Hitler and European anti-Semitism, the Jewish population of Palestine more than doubled from around 215,000 to 449,000, giving the settlers a critical mass.13 Sixty percent of capital investment in Palestine between 1933 and 1939 came from Nazi Germany.14

It seems that John Rose was so overcome by meeting the last commander of the Warsaw ghetto resistance, Marek Edelman, in 1989 that he lost his ideological bearings. It is true that the anti-Zionist Bund, of which Edelman was a member, along with members of left Zionist groups, such as Hashomer Hatzair and Dror, fought together. But the Zionists fought not because of their Zionism but despite it.

Mordechai Anielewicz, the first commander, expressed his regret over the “wasted time” he spent undergoing Zionist educational work.15 I quote in my book the speech of one of these Zionist fighters, Hayka Klinger, to the Histadrut executive in March 1944, after she had arrived in Palestine. She described the Judenrate, the Jewish councils who collaborated with the Nazis, in this way:

… after they began assisting the Nazis to collect gold and furniture from Jewish homes, they had no choice but to go on to help them prepare lists of Jews for labour camps ... And, precisely because those who stood at the head of most of the communities were Zionists, the psychological effects on most of the Jewish masses vis-à-vis the Zionist idea was devastating, and the hatred towards Zionism grew day by day ...16

Klinger told the Histadrut executive that “we received an order not to organise any more defence”.17 To the Zionist leadership the ghetto fighters were more valuable in Palestine. Klinger observed: “Without a people, a people’s avant-garde is of no value. If rescue it is, then the entire people must be rescued. If it is to be annihilation, then the avant-garde too shall be annihilated.”18

After the Warsaw ghetto uprising, a Zionist emissary arrived in Będzin in southern Poland in July 1943 to persuade Frumka Płotnicka of Dror to leave. She replied: “I have a responsibility for my brethren ... I have lived with them and I will die with them.” Prominent members of the Zionist youth in Europe, such as Zivia Lubetkin and Płotnicka, refused on principle to leave.19 One can only admire the bravery and commitment of these young Zionist fighters, who, given the choice between the fight against the Nazis in the diaspora and the Arabs in Palestine, committed what in Zionist eyes was a mortal sin. They chose the diaspora.

One of the Zionist emissaries, Yudke Hellman, described how in October and December 1939 he witnessed the return of Płotnicka and Lubetkin to German-occupied Poland and how he had tried and failed to persuade them to leave for Palestine. Frumka stood up and announced that her decision to return to Warsaw was final.20


Never was the ethical and moral distinction between the Jewish diaspora and Palestine’s Zionist leaders clearer. Yet John Rose has failed to perceive that Zionism as a movement was established on the basis that anti-Semitism could not be fought and that the principal task was the establishment of a Jewish state on the basis of Blut und Boden (blood and soil). He was so dazzled by the fact that Zionists took part in the resistance that he failed to understand the politics behind it.

In fact it was the revisionists who put up the strongest resistance, because they were armed by their fascist friends. They had an abundance of arms, unlike the leftwing Jewish Fighting Organisation. Yes, Zionists fought - but not because they were Zionists, but because they were organised in groups. The Zionist parties in Warsaw, however, were opposed to resistance.

Individual Zionists are not the same as the movement. At times of despair the Jewish masses supported the Zionists and, when the fight against anti-Semitism grew, they abandoned the Zionist parties. In the last free elections in 1938 in Warsaw, out of 20 Jewish council seats the Zionists obtained precisely one, compared to 17 for the Bund.

As anti-Semitism grew in Poland, Poale Zion split into a right and left in 1919. Left Poale Zion had effectively abandoned Zionism. But these contradictions have entirely escaped the SWP and its theoreticians.

The Israeli state was extremely hostile to Edelman, who had written an open letter to the Palestinians, asking them to enter into peace negotiations. The letter caused outrage, because Edelman did not mention the word ‘terrorism’. Israeli leaders were incensed by its title: ‘Letter to Palestinian partisans’.21

When Edelman died on October 9 2009, he was honoured with a state funeral and a 15-gun salute in Warsaw. The president of Poland spoke at his funeral, held in the old Jewish cemetery in Warsaw and attended by 2,000 people. But not even the lowliest clerk at the Israeli embassy was there.22 No official representative of any international Jewish organisation attended either - not even from the holocaust memorial organisations.23 Edelman received Poland’s highest honour and the French Legion of Honour, but he died unrecognised and forgotten in Israel.24

John Rose has been the SWP’s main theoretician on Zionism since Cliff. He has never understood the internal dynamics and logic of Zionism. Imperialism has used the tragedy of the holocaust to legitimise its barbarism and to paint anyone opposed to Zionism as ‘anti-Semitic’. But unfortunately Rose and the SWP, instead of standing up to all this have bowed to the winds of chauvinism.

Thus, in an article critiquing Norman Finkelstein, Rose wrote: “Even in its most reactionary form, Zionism before the second world war was one of the voices of oppressed Jews facing the growth of violent anti-Semitism as a mass movement everywhere.”25 This statement represents an abandonment of any class analysis. Zionism was the voice of the Jewish petty bourgeoisie and bourgeois Jews who, given half the chance, would betray working class Jews - as Marcel Liebman demonstrates so vividly, when describing his experiences as a child who was seeking refuge in Nazi-occupied Belgium. He described one leader of the Belgian Judenrat, the Association of Jews of Belgium, telling a poor Polish Jewish woman: “Well, well! If you ended up in eastern Europe what would be wrong with that? You are all from Poland anyway! You’d just be going back where you came from!”26

Another wealthy Zionist member of the AJB, identified only as ‘SV’, wrote in his diary on December 12 1942, after the Germans had released a Jew who was married to a non-Jewish woman: “I find it extraordinary that someone should be recompensed for having been unfaithful to his religion.”27 Two-thirds of the Judenrat - who were hated by poor and working class Jews - were Zionists, but Rose sees them as the voice of the oppressed, writing that “Zionism was perfectly capable of inspiring resistance to the Nazis”.28

He goes on to say: “Zionism later misused its genuinely heroic anti-Nazi resistance fighters for cynical ideological ends in Palestine.” How else does Rose think they should have been used? The Zionists used the holocaust to justify ethnic cleansing, because deep down they were indifferent to it. To many Zionists those who died in the holocaust brought it upon themselves. As Idith Zertal observed, “There hasn’t been a war involving Israel ‘that has not been perceived, defined, and conceptualised in terms of the holocaust.’ Israel has mobilised the holocaust ‘in the service of Israeli politics.”29 This is more than cynicism. It is the mobilisation of the holocaust in the service of imperialism and Israel’s war against the Palestinians.

Rose echoes Zionist holocaust historians such as Yehuda Bauer, who attributed anti-Semitism to “a political elite that had come to power with pseudo-messianic concepts of saving humanity from the Jews”.30 What Bauer was saying was that Nazi anti-Semitism lay outside of history and so was inexplicable. That is also what Rose is saying: the holocaust for him lies outside class politics. This is simply anti-Marxist.

Did Operation Tannenberg - the elimination of up to three million of the Polish intelligentsia - occur because the Poles were ‘satanic’? Or the Russians, the disabled and the gypsies? Extermination of the Jews was not unique, although the Jewish question was, of course, high on the Nazi agenda. Why? Because the Jews were seen as the biological parents of their main enemy, Bolshevism. Hence the term, ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’.

Rose writes about the “truly sinister cat and mouse game the Nazis were playing when they appeared to be supporting the Zionist project in Palestine, even if it did mean some German Jews, by moving to Palestine with Hitler’s agreement, escaped the death camps”. He clearly does not understand the Haavara agreement (or the Nazis’ Jewish policies), which led to just 20,000 wealthy German Jews moving to Palestine. They had to have £1,000 (today about £85,000).

If anything, Haavara undermined the position of other Jews wanting to emigrate. Between 1933 and 1939 the Nazis’ policy was expulsion, not extermination - there were no death camps to escape from. The first death camp, Chelmno, was not established until December 1941 and before that the Nazis did their best to ‘encourage’ Jews to leave.

The problem with the SWP is it shouts slogans about Zionism, but has never taken the time or trouble to understand it.

  1. See www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/rachel-reeves-immigrant-suella-braverman-b2195904.html.↩︎

  2. theferret.scot/pro-israel-dunbar-former-bnp.↩︎

  3. www.dailyrecord.co.uk/ayrshire/religious-education-teacher-reprimanded-over-27075194.↩︎

  4. socialistworker.co.uk/news/livingstone-labour-and-the-fight-against-racism.↩︎

  5. S Teveth The burning ground 1886-1948 Boston MA 1987.↩︎

  6. Ibid p855.↩︎

  7. Ibid p854.↩︎

  8. Ibid p853.↩︎

  9. Ibid p91. Tom Segev in The seventh million: the Israelis and the holocaust (London 2000, p18) attributes this quote to a report by Moshé Beilinson, a co-founder of Davar, to Katznelson.↩︎

  10. T Segev The seventh million: the Israelis and the holocaust London 2000, p18.↩︎

  11. N Lucas A modern history of Israel New York 1975, pp187-88.↩︎

  12. L Dawidowicz A holocaust reader Millburn NJ 1976, pp150-53.↩︎

  13. www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-and-non-jewish-population-of-israel-palestine-1517-present.↩︎

  14. D Rosenthall, ‘Chaim Arlosoroff 65 years after his assassination’ Jewish Frontier May-June 1998: www.ameinu.net/publicationfiles/Vol.LXV,No.3.pdf.↩︎

  15. Y Gutman The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943 Bloomington IN 1989, p143. A similar regret was expressed by Yitzhak Zuckerman, when he came to Israel and reported to the Kibbutz council at Naan.↩︎

  16. D Porat Bitter reckoning: Israel tries holocaust survivors as Nazi collaborators Cambridge MA 2019, p48.↩︎

  17. D Porat Blue and yellow stars of David Cambridge MA 1990, p242. Histadrut was the Zionist ‘trade union’.↩︎

  18. I Zertal Israel’s holocaust and the politics of nationhood Cambridge 2010, p33.↩︎

  19. Ibid p241.↩︎

  20. Y Weitz ‘The Yishuv’s response to the destruction of European Jewry: 1942-1943’ Studies in Zionism Vol 8, No2, 1987, pp218‑19.↩︎

  21. www.haaretz.com/2002-08-09/ty-article/letter-to-palestinian-partisans-raises-international-storm/0000017f-e2a4-d7b2-a77f-e3a7864e0000.↩︎

  22. azvsas.blogspot.com/2009/10/zionism-boycotts-funeral-of-marek.html↩︎

  23. syds-blog.blogspot.com/2009/10/last-bundist.html.↩︎

  24. www.haaretz.com/2009-10-04/ty-article/the-last-bundist/0000017f-e189-d38f-a57f-e7dba2bc0000. See also azvsas.blogspot.com/2009/10/marek-edelman-death-of-anti-fascist_07.html.↩︎

  25. www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/response-to-norman-finkelstein-s-interview.↩︎

  26. M Liebman Born Jewish London 2020, p41.↩︎

  27. Ibid p49.↩︎

  28. www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/response-to-norman-finkelstein-s-interview.↩︎

  29. I Zertal Israel’s holocaust and the politics of nationhood Cambridge 2010, pp4, 91.↩︎

  30. Bauer Is the holocaust explicable? Oxford 1990, pp149, 152.↩︎