Don't give in to the slurs
Eddie Ford defends Clare Solomon against the rightwing press and its AWL outriders
Without doubt, the British establishment has been seriously rattled by the student protests. The sudden explosion of militancy shattered the cosy consensus that no-one would fight back against ruling class attacks in phlegmatic Britain. Hence the November 10 attack on Millbank Tower and then the kicking given to the car carrying Prince Charles and Camilla have been given totemic status by an establishment baying for revenge.
A few days ago, on January 4, the police released CCTV footage of the latter incident. The stated intention was to “remind anybody involved in attacks of violence that we will investigate them” and “do everything in our power to bring them before a court”. Anyone convicted, we are further told, “will have to face the consequences of having a criminal record” - which could have a “potential impact” on their future employment and travel.
Therefore, we should not be surprised by the fact that just before Christmas some sections of the rightwing media (maybe a festive treat for some of their readers) engaged in a brief, but nasty witch-hunt against someone prominently identified with the student resistance movement - Clare Solomon, a School of Oriental and African Studies student who last March was elected president of the University of London Union, representing over 100,000 students. In many people’s eyes Solomon is the de facto NUS leader, given the scab behaviour of the actual NUS president, Aaron Porter, a shameless careerist who could not move fast enough to condemn the “despicable violence” of student protestors on November 10 and urged full “cooperation” with the police.
A Counterfire supporter, comrade Solomon is also, of course, an ex-SWP member who was rather dramatically expelled in March 2009 alongside Alex Snowden - both at the time being members of the Reesite Left Platform - for the heinous crime of “factional behaviour”, an accusation that was largely based on ‘evidence’ obtained by the SWP central committee after allegedly hacking into email accounts. Neither were allowed to attend the SWP’s January 2010 conference in order to present their case against expulsion. That despite the SWP constitution having provision for a conference appeal.
To her credit, she earned the enmity of the tabloids - and Jeremy Paxman - for her combative performance on the BBC’s Newsnight programme after the November 10 protests. Comrade Solomon mounted a strident defence of the student movement against Porter and the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, Simon Hughes. Attacking the mendacious narrative being pushed by the media, of “feral mobs” of extremist students “hell-bent on violence”, Solomon called for further resistance to the coalition government. In adopting such a forthright and principled stance, Solomon was clearly not playing by the rules of the game - something the rightwing press would not forget in a hurry.
Hence, almost inevitably, in December there was a flurry of lurid newspaper headlines which amounted to nothing more than a smear campaign against comrade Solomon. So, typically, we read about “calls for ‘anti-Semitic’ student leader to quit after Facebook message about Jews” and so on. Such a campaign dovetails perfectly with the reconfigured ideology of the post-war bourgeoisie. Essential to the new national chauvinist ideology is the retrospective myth of World War II being a noble democratic crusade against fascism in order to ‘save the Jews’ from the Nazis. Therefore nowadays for the press to imply that someone is anti-Semitic is tantamount to an official declaration of anathematisation.
Predictably, the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty rushed to join the reactionary chorus. An official statement written by Richard Gold was issued on December 29. It bluntly insisted that comrade Solomon had made a series of outrageous “anti-Semitic” comments, “for which there is no excuse.”
So what exactly were these outrageous “anti-Semitic” comments that place comrade Solomon beyond the pale? Well, we are dealing with postings on Facebook way back on May 1 but which were dredged up as part of an obvious - almost desperate - campaign to discredit the growing student resistance to coalition cuts. In particular, the Daily Mail quite self-evidently hoped to tarnish the entire student movement by associating it with Solomon’s supposed anti-Semitism.
Of course, seeing how the original Facebook post and subsequent thread were deleted - somewhat foolishly - by Solomon herself, it is not possible to contextualise the remarks/debate as we would prefer. However, she posted the following comment in what appears to be a message supporting the boycott of Israel. Given the rank dishonesty of the rightwing bourgeois press it is a good idea to quote her in full: “Actually, there is no such thing as the ‘Jewish race’. Yes, there is the Jewish religion, but not a Jewish people per se. Identity politics is a very fashionable argument at the moment. It questions the samenesses that group people together. I think you’ll find that there is no one way of being Jewish. The view that Jews have been persecuted all throughout history is one that has been fabricated in the last 100 or so years to justify the persecution of Palestinians.
“Although history is obviously a little hard to revisit, it is wrong to write off all the places where Jews, Muslims and Christians (and other faiths/non-faiths) have lived together. I think you’ll also find that all religions have had their oppressors - some worse than others, true - but to paint the picture that all Jews have always had to flee persecution is just plainly inaccurate.”
For these words, no doubt hastily written like most postings on Facebook and other such social networking sites - instant communication having its own pitfalls - hell and damnation was rained down on Solomon. Needless to say, the Daily Mail was pack-leader and scented blood, writing: “A radical student leader who dismissed the violent tuition fees protests as ‘a few smashed windows’ has been accused of making anti-Semitic comments on a social networking site. Mature student Clare Solomon, 37, president of the University of London Union, helped coordinate the protests - during which a car carrying Prince Charles and Camilla was attacked - and declared herself proud of the students.”
Craftily, the Mail goes on to quote Carly McKenzie, a campaigns officer for the Union of Jewish Students, in order to let her do its dirty work: “We have lost confidence in her ability to represent Jewish students. To claim that Jewish suffering is a deliberate fabrication goes beyond ignorance into real malice. Her remarks had nothing to do with principled opposition to Israel and everything to do with her disdain towards the Jewish people” (my emphasis). Lending weight to the smear, the Zionist The Jewish Chronicle Online reported that Solomon “claimed that the persecution of Jews had been fabricated to justify attacks on Palestinians” (my emphasis). The JC also darkly notes that her blog and Twitter pages contain a number of “anti-Israel posts” and “equate Israel with apartheid South Africa”.
The implication is clear. Not only is Solomon an “anti-Semite”: she is some sort of crackpot holocaust-denier, like the crazier elements around the British National Party or Hamas. But what do you expect, as The Express puts it, of a “Marxist firebrand” like Solomon who was “thrown out of the ultra-left Socialist Workers Party because of her extremist views”? Far right, far left - all the same.
This is clearly poisonous crap, and the left should unhesitatingly defend comrade Solomon. Indeed, looking at her ‘incriminating’ remarks we can only ask - what is the problem? So let us examine her first statement: “There is no such thing as the ‘Jewish race’. Yes, there is the Jewish religion, but not a Jewish people per se” (my emphasis). Surely this is a fact. For Marxists there is no Jewish race or Jewish people - if by ‘people’ we mean a historically constituted nation. There has never been a ‘Jewish nation’ except in the wild imaginations of religious obscurantists and Zionists. But, yes, just as obviously, there is a Jewish/Judaic religion. However, given the existence of non-religious Jews, or “non-Jewish Jews” - a self-designatory term used by the Marxist scholar Isaac Deutscher, to name just one - those who subscribe to what can be broadly called orthodox or classical Marxism have tended to use the category of ‘people-religion’ to describe the Jews (another obvious example being the Sikhs). That is, the Jews were a people-religion under slave, Asiatic and feudal societies - heavily involved in commerce and then usury due to the simple fact that they were banned by law from holding public office and a whole range of other ‘noble’ professions. For the record, the theory of Jews in medieval Europe as a ‘people-class’ - essentially an alternative expression for ‘people-religion’ - originated with Karl Marx and was further elaborated in The Jewish question: a Marxist interpretation, by the Jewish Trotskyist, Abraham Leon, who later died in Auschwitz.
Then in turn, the Jews were, with the emergence of capitalist relations of production, thrust into the forefront of the revolutionary socialist and communist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Bund (the General Jewish Workers Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia) was the first socialist workers’ organisation in the tsarist empire. Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Jules Martov, Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Rosa Luxemburg (all prime examples of “non-Jewish Jews”) represented the pinnacle of human, cosmopolitan, culture and the mass radicalisation of the Jewish population in Europe.
However, this a complex theoretical and historical matter and to take issue or find faults with the ‘people-religion’ theory in no way indicates in and of itself a sinister political tendency, let alone provides prima facie proof of ‘anti-Semitism’. Communists firmly believe that we should treat our political opponents and critics, in our polemics and debates, as fairly and honestly as possible - not launch inquisitions or heresy-hunts. Sadly, some on the British far left have a less than honourable history and tradition in this respect.
Now let us turn to Solomon’s second statement: “The view that Jews have been persecuted all throughout history is one that has been fabricated in the last 100 or so years to justify the persecution of Palestinians ... but to paint the picture that all Jews have always had to flee persecution is just plainly inaccurate”. Once again, for anyone of a rational frame of mind, this is just another factual observation. It was Zionism, a modern ideology, which invented the idea of the universalised persecution of Jews - a claim that was built on the grim realities of late medieval anti-Semitism and its wretched revival in tsarist Russia and then in 19th century Europe by ultra-rightist Catholicism - as exemplified by the Dreyfus case. But none of this detracts from the fact that for most of ancient and medieval history it was a positive advantage to be a Jew, which is precisely why the sect grew and grew - so that by “late feudalism Jews constituted a half-privileged, half-persecuted social caste”, gaining a “prosperous living as intermediaries”.
In other words, all Solomon said was that Jews have not always been persecuted throughout all of history - ie, there were periods when they were not persecuted. The last “100 years” she refers to is the period during which the assorted Zionist myths have been developed - mainly against Marxist, secular and “non-Jewish Jews”, of course. To put it even clearer still, what has been “fabricated” - by Zionism, of course - is the empirical and historical falsehood which claims that “Jews have been persecuted all throughout history”: the myth of eternal Jewish suffering and oppression. Quite contrary to the implication peddled by the Daily Mail, Jewish Chronicle, etc, Solomon is obviously not saying that the genocidal persecution of Jewish people under the Nazis has been “fabricated” or that the Jews have never been persecuted - whether in the 20th century or any other century. Instead, it is the alleged universal persecution of Jews which Zionism has ruthlessly deployed in order to convince others that its colonial-settler project in Palestine was morally justified - or, at the very least, an unfortunate necessity, given the timeless suffering Jews have to bear.
Therefore it is clear that comrade Solomon is no anti-Semite. Rather, albeit in a clumsy and half-remembered way, she was attempting to formulate the orthodox/classical Marxist position on the Jewish question - which is to oppose the pernicious notion that the Jews, as distinct from any other oppressed group, are transhistorically given to suffering oppression - in the same way that dogs are doomed to wag their tails. The more prosaic but less excitable truth is that comrade Solomon was plainly trying to defend the Palestinian struggle against Zionism. Yes, we can nit-pick about her wording, but we must defend her against the charge of racial/ethnic bigotry and anti-Semitism, because she is clearly innocent.
Of course, communists do have entirely legitimate reasons to criticise Clare Solomon. Though she is now in Counterfire, her SWP background mitigates against her having a fully democratic attitude towards the Israeli-Jewish nation - not due to anti-Semitism, but merely due to bad politics and bad theory. The SWP, like many others on the British far left, does not defend the right of the Israeli-Jewish, or Hebrew, people to self-determination. While communists have no truck with Zionism and condemn the colonial-settler state of Israel, we recognise that over the last 50 or 60 years a definite Israeli-Jewish nation has come into existence. Time matters. Israeli Jews speak the same language, inhabit the same territory, share the same culture and sense of identity. Therefore to call for Israel’s abolition is unMarxist and objectively reactionary.
Regrettably, though perhaps understandably, it appears that instead of fighting her corner comrade Solomon has decided to beat a hasty retreat. She has apologised for her Facebook remarks in an unnecessarily contrite manner: “This badly worded comment was something that I wrote in haste on Facebook at a very busy period. I’m sorry for any misunderstandings caused by what I wrote. My position is that Jewish people have always been persecuted throughout history, nowhere more than during the holocaust, when six million were murdered by the Nazis. I am totally against anti-Semitism and any persecution and oppression of Jewish people, as I am against the oppression [of] people on the grounds of any race or religion.”
Unfortunately, comrade Solomon is running away from the argument. Of course, it is true that “Jewish people have always been persecuted throughout history”: eg, Jewish slaves, peasants and workers. But it remains true that all Jewish people have not been persecuted throughout history. Semantics aside, she is in effect apologising to the very same Daily Mail that welcomed Hitler coming to power, enthusiastically backed Oswald Mosley - “Hurray for the Blackshirts!” - and campaigned against Jewish migrants in the 1930s, etc. A pity.
- Daily Mail December 19.
- The Express December 12.
- J Conrad Fantastic reality and the politics of religion (London 2007, pp388-89).