Anti-semitism: AWL and roots of Zionism

Tony Greenstein enters the debate on Israel, anti-semitism and the Zionist movement

Manny Neira suggested in a recent article that the pro-Zionist politics of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty “seemed to rest on a confusion about the meaning of ‘Zionism’.” (Weekly Worker June 26). I beg to disagree.

It was in the early 1980s that the then Socialist Organiser began a debate which led to its current politics. Andrew Hornung, a prominent member of the SO leadership, who had co-founded the Labour Committee on Palestine with me, along with myself contributed a number of articles to SO explaining the historically reactionary roots of Zionism. Whatever else it is that Sean Matgamna and co can be accused of, it certainly is not “confusion”. They are all too well aware of the antecedents of Zionism.

The first Zionists, people like Lord Shaftesbury, saw quite clearly that the powerful ideological roots of Jewish colonisation of the ancient Hebrew land of Israel could be harnessed by British colonialism. This type of romantic colonialism was epitomised by George Elliot in Daniel Deronda, with its toe-curling Isaac and its wooden characters - a book in two parts, with the Zionist part being embarrassingly awful.

Zionism arose among a section of the Jewish masses in eastern Europe - the petty bourgeoisie. They despaired of ever fighting anti-semitism and nor did they wish to ally with the socialist and communist forces that Jewish workers turned to. It was out of this milieu that the early Zionist leaders arose. Zionism, as its founding father, Theodore Herzl, explained to the tsarist pogromist and interior minister, Von Plehve, was an “antidote to socialism”. It took the Jews away from the revolutionary parties and instilled a sense of national pride. This is why the Russian Zionist Organisation was, remarkably, a legal organisation under the tsar and equally why the Bolsheviks outlawed it as counterrevolutionary.

It is ironic - in view of the standard accusation of Zionists and now the AWL that anti-Zionism equals anti-semitism - that the Zionist movement saw its most fruitful allies as being among the anti-semites. Zionism began from the notion that anti-semitism, in the words of another founder, Leo Pinsker, was an incurable disease, and as such it was hereditary among the non-Jews. And if a disease is incurable, there is no point in fighting it. Which is why Zionism sought to ally with the anti-semites. As Isaac Deutscher, in his Non-jewish Jews and other essays, noted regarding the situation in Poland, the main slogan of the anti-semites was ‘Jews, go to Palestine’.

The Zionists were thoroughly in agreement with this and therefore seen by the Jewish workers as being the legitimation of anti-semitism. Not surprisingly, as the Hitler threat advanced, the Zionist parties decreased in influence in Poland’s Jewish communal elections. In 1938, of 20 Jewish seats, the Zionists won just one and the anti-Zionist Bund won 17.

No less than Adolph Eichmann himself described himself as an ardent supporter of Zionism (Life Magazine November 28 and December 5 1960). Indeed the Zionist HQ in England is Balfour House, named after the Tory politician who sponsored what became known as the Balfour Declaration in 1917, promising support to the Zionist project. Balfour, as home secretary, in 1906 had introduced the Aliens Act, aimed at preventing Jews escaping the pogroms of tsarist Russia. Balfour’s anti-semitism neatly complemented his Zionism.

The record of collaboration by the Zionist movement during the war is notorious and was itself the subject of a major libel trial in Israel in 1955, when the leader of Hungarian Zionism, Rudolph Kastner, was accused of sacrificing Hungary’s million-strong Jewish community in order to save the Zionist elite. All of this is documented, not least by Zionist sources. Indeed Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was one of the leaders of the pro-fascist Stern Gang, which actually offered a military pact to Nazi Germany in order to oust the British! All of this Matgamna and co are well aware of, because it was debated at length in the pages of their paper.

Zionists were always fiercely anti-communist and after the May Day riots in Jerusalem in 1921 they actively cooperated with the British in deporting Jewish communists of the MOPSI to Russia (where Stalin murdered them). Like their white counterparts in other British colonies, the Labour Zionists could be militant in defence of their own work conditions whilst being utterly hostile to even the notion of organising the Arab working class. Indeed, whereas the revisionist (Likud) Zionists were quite happy to exploit the Arab workers, Labour Zionism campaigned to exclude Arabs from the land and the economy (‘Jewish land, Jewish labour, Jewish produce’ was their slogan). Unlike their cousins in South Africa, they sought to expel the indigenous population rather than exploit them (though they ended up doing that too!).

Where Manny Neira goes wrong is in his suggestion that Israeli Jews today are the ‘children of rape’, bearing no guilt. But Marxists do not analyse or categorise people in terms of individual moral guilt. The fact is that the present Israeli state is just as much a colonisatory project as it ever was. Not only is the colonisation of the West Bank/Gaza a continuation of the colonisation of Palestinian lands inside Israel’s Green Line (pre-1967 borders), but even to this day groups like the Bedouin of the Negev live in unrecognised villages that are subject to demolition, have no right to basic utilities or education and are herded into townships when the need to colonise their lands becomes pressing.

The Israeli Jewish nation is as much an oppressor nation today as it ever was. Self-determination - ie, the right to be free from national oppression - cannot and does not arise in the case of an oppressor people who define their national identity in terms of their role as oppressors. Of course socialists should oppose the rights of an independent Jewish or Israeli Jewish nation to its own state, because such a state does not exist in a vacuum, but as a settler colonial state. The idea of a non-oppressive Jewish state makes as much sense as a white Afrikaner state which was not antagonistic towards black South Africans. Likewise the Ulster loyalists, who have 300-plus years of settlement behind them, but who still see themselves as the last outpost of the British empire (I kid you not, when I visited the Ulster Defence Association as part of a labour movement delegation, their fond reminiscences were as embarrassing as they were outdated).

What Matgamna and co are doing when they label anti-Zionists as anti-semites is to consciously mimic their co-thinkers among US neo-conservatives, for whom ‘anti-semitism’ is the respectable anti-racism of the right. Anti-semitism, which was the ideology and practice which treated Jews as sub-human and part of an international conspiracy, denying individual democratic rights and equality to Jews, has been transformed into opposition to the US’s satellite state in the Middle East. Opposition to the apartheid state of Israel (eg, over 90% of land is barred to non-Jews) is presented in the Orwellian double-think of the AWL and its rightwing co-thinkers as ‘anti-semitism’.

The politics of the AWL should neither be tolerated nor excused by suggesting they are ‘confused’ or mistaken, etc. For someone on the left to describe themselves as “a little bit Zionist” is no different from saying you are a ‘little bit racist’. Racism and socialism are diametrically opposed and that is why the AWL has such a fixation on George Galloway. Supporters of Arab nationalism are its main opponents. It will work with all manner of Jewish reactionaries, as it has done, but an islamic reactionary is something different.

Ian Donovan quotes Matgamna as saying that the vast majority of Jews in the world are at least a “little bit Zionist”. This is highly debatable. It is precisely because of the absence of anti-semitism in the west that Jewish communities are declining and assimilating so fast. The majority of Jews in the US and Britain are marrying out (ie, to non-Jews, the most cardinal sin for the jewish orthodoxy). As my own father, a rabbi, once told me, anti-semitism has something of the divine will to good in it because it helps preserve the Jewish people. Most Jews today outside Israel are non-Zionists. They want to be reminded as little as possible of the atrocities committed in their name. And let us be honest - anti-semitism in the west is a marginal force, a prejudice at worst, a totem that even the fascists have to hide away. Racism in the west is predominantly based on refugees and asylum-seekers. Jews are white, for the most part professionals and middle class and as much part of the establishment as any other group.

And when Matgamna and his groupies call anti-Zionists anti-semitic, they are echoing the old Nazi abuse of anti-Nazi Germans. Zionists call anti-Zionist Jews ‘self-haters’: ie, they hate their race and nation. This was precisely the ‘crime’ of anti-national Germans. That the AWL echoes this charge says much about its political degeneration.

It is a step forward that the CPGB call for a “democratic, secular state” in Palestine. But to believe that there can be two such states, side by side, is an illusion. If there were two such states, what possible reason would there be for a border between them? As James Connolly noted in respect of the proposed partition of Ireland, it would create a “carnival of reaction” on both sides of the border. Connolly was right then and his prognosis is equally correct today. A border between Palestine and Israel could not help but reinforce the antagonism between the Israeli Jews and Palestinians and offer succour to the racists and chauvinists in both communities.