Too often I see those in solidarity with Palestinians lose the plot and allow opponents to grab the agenda and deflect attention from where the suffering really exists.
That’s exactly what’s been happening in Britain this week as a row over antisemitism in the Labour Party has dominated the news.
My initial reaction to Naz Shah, Labour member of Parliament, and Ken Livingstone, former London mayor, was sympathetic. The whole thing felt hyped up, out of all proportion and part of the ongoing attempts to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. See Asa Winstanley’s article at Electronic Intifada for a compelling account of this.
But after days of news coverage about Zionism and antisemitism, none of which has shed the slightest light on the plight of the Palestinians, my sympathy with how some left wingers express their views on Israel has worn very thin. Their verbal antics have allowed distraction and deflection to triumph as an exaggerated crisis about antisemitism in Britain rules the airwaves.
I don’t believe the Labour Party in Britain has a “problem with Jews”. Antisemitism in Labour is not “endemic”, or “toxic”, or “institutional”. Or at least no more than it is in the Conservative Party.
But I do believe some comments expressed by some Labour members in support of Palestinians have been crass, ignorant, and yes, antisemitic.
The right wing opponents of Corbyn, and those who can’t stand his pro-Palestinian sympathies, are undoubtedly making the most of every stupid social media post and comment they can dig up.
It does feel like a witch-hunt has been unleashed with Labour politicians now lining up, like a parody of a scene from Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, to say how antisemitism must be “rooted out of the Party”.
If the Palestinian people are ever to get the attention and respect they deserve then those who claim to support their cause need to clean up their act, learn some history, avoid own-goals and stay focused on achieving a just peace in Israel/Palestine.
Self-Made Bear Traps
There’s a way to talk about Israel that’s honest and defensible even though it won’t avoid you escaping every accusation of antisemitism. And then there’s a way to talk that leads you into a massive bear trap of your own making.
Language and history are incredibly important when it comes to Israel/Palestine and being sloppy with either gets you into a heap of trouble that ought to be avoidable.
So let me offer three pieces of advice to help British left wingers kick racism out of their anti-Israel rhetoric.
- Never mention Hitler and Israel in the same sentence. Ditto Zionism and Nazism.
Just don’t go there. There really is little to be gained and much to lose. And ask yourself why are you trying to make such comparisons anyway? Who is it going to help? Who will it upset for no great benefit? Does it convince more Jewish supporters of Israel that you are right and they are wrong? Does talking about Hitler ever bring liberation for the Palestinian people an inch closer?
Factually, Ken Livingstone’s comments this week that the Nazis were talking to Zionists in the 1930s about getting Jews out of Germany is not in dispute. It’s true that Hitler would have agreed with Zionism’s assessment that there was no place for the Jews on European soil.
But Ken, that didn’t make Hitler a Zionist.
Hitler’s views on Jews did not originate from the same political place or personal experience as the 19th and early 20th century Zionists thinkers. For Hitler, the Jews were sub-human carriers of disease and corruption. That hardly sounds like Zionism. And whatever the encounters between German Zionists and Nazis in the early 1930s it certainly didn’t save any card carrying Zionist Jews in Europe from being murdered by the Nazis a few years later.
If you start trying to link Zionism and Nazism as political allies (as Ken Livingston did this week) you are taking the whole debate down a hopelessly unhelpful road. You may score a debating point against your hard core pro-Israel opponents but everyone else out there who’s trying to get their head around why the Palestinians are having a hard time will switch off or dismiss you as a fool. And they’d be right to.
Of course, supporters of Israel are more than happy to mention Hitler and Israel, Nazism and Zionism in the same breath. For them, the existence of the first will always justify the importance of the second. And if you support boycotts against Israel (as I do) it will not take long before you are accused of being “just like Hitler”. But never play tit for tat with the Holocaust. The fact that Israel supporters will sometimes play the ‘Holocaust card’ to close down your arguments is not a reason to enter into a competition about who is really the biggest Nazi.
Occasionally, very occasionally, and only in very skillful and sensitive hands, a comparison between the actions of the Nazis and the behaviour of Israel can be compared with some ethical integrity. See my article and interview with the Jewish song writer and left-wing activist Leon Rosselson. But for everyone else I’m strongly recommending you drop this particular line of rhetoric.
2. Remember, one person’s Settler Colonial project of land appropriation is another person’s expression of national self-determination.
And both are correct.
That’s why debating Israel/Palestine is so fraught and why the definition of Zionism is such a battlefield.
But if you’re going to talk about Zionism it’s pointless (and counter productive) to paint it as nothing more than another version of fascism, a racist ideology no better than National Socialism or the white 19th century colonialists of Southern Africa. If you do you, you’re heading straight for that bear trap again.
You can argue that a ‘return’ after 2,000 years ignores a great deal of Jewish history that makes the whole idea intellectually and historically questionable. I’d agree with that. You can argue that there are better ways to secure Jewish self-determination than state building. That’s also true. And does anyone still believe that the ‘returnees’ were arriving in ‘a land without a people, for a people without a land’? Dispossession was essential for Zionism to succeed as the earliest Zionist Pioneers knew full well. Have a read of Yitzhak Epstein’s speech to a Zionist conference in Basel in 1905.
But if all you do is sloganise about Zionism being nothing more than a hateful ideology then you will never have the sensitivity and nuance required to build a just resolution to the conflict.
And there’s no benefit in trying to ignore the fact that more than a 100 years after those first Settlers and 70 years since the creation of the State of Israel, there are generations of Israeli Jews who know and have no other home.
Moving Jewish Israelis to America, as suggested by the Facebook post Naz Shah MP shared in 2014, to which she added the comment “problem solved”, just treats Jews with the same contempt and disregard that Zionist thinking has shown towards the Palestinians. Shah, to her credit, now seems to understand this. But many don’t and still imagine that a ‘Palestine free from the Jordan to the sea’ is also a Palestine free of Jews.
So unless you think it’s okay to commit a second (Jewish) Nakba in order to address the original (Palestinian) Nakba your anti-Israel rhetoric needs to factor in a very strong human rights agenda for all the inhabitants of the land. I know it may stick in the throat of same, but even Settler Colonialists (and their descendants) deserve human rights.
3. Resist conspiracy theories (especially those involving the words ‘Zionist’ and ‘controlled’)
I worked as a journalist at the BBC for ten years and I never noticed that there was a Zionist cabal controlling the newsroom agenda on Israel/Palestine. That doesn’t mean there isn’t bias against the Palestinians at the BBC, or in other newsrooms, but it doesn’t happen because there’s a ‘Zionist controlled media’. It happens through a more complicated set of circumstances which includes the efforts of very hard-working pro-Israel lobbyists from the Board of Deputies to the Israeli embassy itself. Whether you like it or not it’s perfectly legal activity in a democracy. But it isn’t Jewish control of the media.
Once you start talking about Zionist control of anything you’re deep into some of the oldest expressions of antisemitism. Criticise the lobbyists by all means but don’t succumb to conspiracy theories. It’s the politics of fools.
So my plea to those on the left is to stay focused and don’t lose the plot or sight of the prize by adopting a debased and antisemitic political vocabulary. There’s far too much at stake.
This piece first appeared on Robert A. Cohen’s site under the title, “Three pieces of advice to help British leftwingers kick racism out of their anti-Israel rhetoric.”