Barry Finger reviews Paul Kelemen’s book The British Left and Zionism: History of a Divorce (Manchester University Press, 2012)
This volume, which joins the herd of independent minds in churning the same old depleted groupthink, purports to challenge the claim that changes over the decades in the left’s appraisal of Zionism and the Palestinian cause stem from antisemitism.
Whose claim? Even the people Kelemen whom has a go at would most probably argue the opposite: pro-Palestinian sympathies do not stem from antisemitism. However, antisemitism often finds a greenhouse atmosphere in pro-Palestinian advocacy. And these toxic spores are pervasive.
Criticisms of Israel and Zionism are not per se antisemitic. Few on the left, and few in the Jewish community whatever their political allegiances, would say otherwise. Having to repudiate this canard is tiresome in the extreme.
That does not mean that no criticism of Israel is or can be antisemitic. Criticisms of Israeli crimes are often turned to the advantage of antisemites and conspiracy theorists galore. That can be done even when the criticisms are valid.
Criticisms of say, Zimbabwe, may not be racist. But if they are done in a context whereby Mugabe’s misdeeds and atrocities are ascribed to the inability of Blacks to self-govern, they most certainly are. They are racist no matter how true the account of Mugabe’s crimes is.
Criticism of Israel, of its ruling class, of the movements who lead it and their ideologies, may be vast, profound and true. But if those crimes and their exposure are used as a pretext to implicate and isolate Jews who refuse to disavow Israel (regardless of how these Jews oppose Israel’s occupation, dispossession and settlement regimes), or if they are used as a pretext to deny the Hebrew community of Israel its right to express itself nationally, the effect is undeniably antisemitic.
I am more familiar with the American scene than with the British. Consider this. Steven Salaita, a prominent Palestinian nationalist and BDS supporter, has demanded that Zionists be expelled from any progressive meeting on campus, or elsewhere. Whether working on climate change, health care, voting rights, union organising – Zionists, he contends should be cast out before events move forward.
The Dyke March in 2017 banned not Israeli flags, but rainbow flags with Jewish stars. Participants in academic and scientific conferences held in Israel imperil their careers for supposedly being collaborative with racism and occupation, as are judged all artistic, academic and scientific exchanges with Israelis.
Israelis are routinely refused study-abroad opportunities and professors increasingly withhold academic referrals needed for American Jewish students to study in Israel. American campuses increasingly refuse to accredit Jewish organizations. All, of course, in the name of conscience.
Even militants associated with Uri Avnery’s Gush Shalom are rebuffed as Israeli apologists. Revolutionaries routinely extend “unconditional support” to progressive-leaning politicians who traffic in the same antisemitic tropes for which they would otherwise call out conservatives.
That is what “anti-normalisation” looks like.
There is no need to weigh into the bottomless controversy over a proper legal definition of antisemitism. But how and by what methods you defend a national and humanitarian cause is, above all, a political choice. And if you chose to defend that cause by marginalising the vast majority of the Jewish people, not to mention Israelis who feel even the faintest connection to the State of Israel, there is an undeniable problem to be called out.
If one section of humanity is singled out by the left to have their dignity, their intellectual and moral attachments rejected and to have their rights to critical thought and rational inquiry blocked, there is an issue.
If Jews and Jews alone are required to pass a political litmus test to prove their moral worthiness, and when special organs such as the Jewish Voice for Peace act as gate-keepers to certify those credentials, we should be suspicious.
And if this is acceptable to you, all the “anti-Zionist not anti-Jewish” gibberish you toss like confetti will mean nothing. If you are so blinded by your arrogance and moral self-righteousness that you can’t grasp the obvious, the problem resides with you.
Kelemen offers a guide on how social democratic allegiance to Zionism and Israel is being displaced by a New Left in the Labour Party that presumably draws on what he thinks was valid in the Stalinist orientation towards Zionism in Israel’s pre-state period.
It never occurs to him that Stalinism was the ideology of a consolidating ruling class. Its politics were guided, not by revolutionary concerns or to advance any democratic cause, but to jockey for leverage in Palestine and to position itself as an imperialist rival to the British.
In practical terms this entailed, until Russia sought to enlist the support of world Jewry during its war-time alliance with the US and Britain, accommodating itself whenever possible to reactionary Arab leaders who diverted the nationalist impulses of the masses into Pan-Islamic and antisemitic channels.
In the 1930s, Stalinist chicanery meant support to closing the door to Jewish refugees fleeing annihilation. The Stalinists in Palestine regarded the Jewish masses and Jewish refugees en bloc as an integral part of the imperialist camp. and made no distinction between the masses and their leaders. On this basis, they raised their own demands for non-normalization: “Block Jewish immigration! Prohibit sale of land to Jews! Expropriate the land of the Jews and arm the Arabs!”
Once the war-time alliance was established, and in light of the pro-Axis role of the Arab nationalist leaders, Russia presented itself as the champion of the Jews, while murdering thousands of anti-Stalinist Jewish socialists.
There is much truth to Kelemen’s claim that the old Stalinist attitudes have permeated the Palestinian solidarity movement. But it is an insult to Marxism to celebrate these attitudes as revolutionary.
Actual revolutionary socialists called for “opening the door to Palestine” (and not just Palestine) to Jews from Europe and other continents and also to Arabs from surrounding areas; for a complete equality of rights, for working-class unity and for national reconciliation from below; for a break with Zionist and Arab chauvinism and for convening a Constituent Assembly.
Actual revolutionaries understood that the influx of Jews into Palestine was rooted in desperation and need, and not in Zionist fervour.
These old Stalinist mental habits were hardly overcome by Kelemen’s New Left, despite its attempt to define a “third” political space independent of Soviet Russia and the West. The dichotomy between West and East was surely surmounted, but not for the primacy of global class conflict—not for what we understand as the third camp.
Rather the world was said to be divided between North and South, between white and black, between exploited nations and exploiter nations-- where the North’s working classes were often written off as junior partners with its capitalist overlords-- and where racism was seen as the central dynamic of the global order. It positioned itself as a front-loaded ideological apologia for every Third World fraud capable of making his pitch for global legitimacy on that basis.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Arab oppressors and enslavers were touted throughout the New Left as representatives of the “Arab Revolution against imperialism.” And the brain-crushing, body-breaking machines that these regimes unleashed were celebrated as a liberating force for no discernible achievement beyond having reanimated Arab pride.
One thing was clear, however. These regimes had nothing to do with a worker and fellahin revolt against Arab capitalists, oil sheiks, landlords or slaveholders.
What can we say about the virtues of leftists who centre the struggle over imperialism, but who think there is only one imperialism? Who think that the return of the indigenous Jewish people to the land of their origins—a return resulting in a home for half of world Jewry—is a colonialist crime, but the distribution of Arab peoples and the Arabisation of the Levant, North Africa, the Sudan, Mauritania—and yes, Palestine-- were naturally occurring events?
And who fail to notice that unlike European colonialism, Arab colonialism is not even in nominal retreat.
The Nasser doctrine of Arab-Islamic expansion, unheralded and unknown by the grandees of the New Left, fuelled and continues to fuel Arab expansionist ambitions. It brought the entire Nile headwaters under Arab rule; conquered, Islamicised and Arabised black Africans and annexed black African lands in Southern Sudan. Egyptian Nubians were resettled far from their ancestral homelands to barren areas near Aswan.
This “doctrine” is behind the import of Arab settlers into Darfur, Nubia and Mauritania to the changed demographics of black African nations; behind Morocco’s relationship to Western Sahara and Libya’s long campaign to annex Chad’s Auzou strip.
There is no point, one assumes, in belabouring the resemblance to Israeli crimes confined in relative microcosm to the occupied territories.
If the New Left heroes of Kelemen’s narrative were and are silent about this, its reason is not hard to discern. It is a repeat of the Stalinist reflex: that to freely discuss Stalin’s crimes was to give aid and comfort to capitalism. Show trials? What about the lynching of Blacks in the American south?
And so it goes. Criticise Zionist messianics, drunk on power, who trample over Palestinians, demolish their homes, despoil their crops, and assault them at will, but welcome as anti-imperialist comrades Hamas and Hezbollah who drink from the same poisonous brew and promise to answer in kind at the first opportunity.
Rehearse endlessly, as you should, the atrocity of Sabra and Shatila committed by Lebanese Christian Phalangists with logistical support from the Israeli army. But dispatch to the memory hole the identical massacre six years earlier in the refugee camp of Tel el-Zaatar by Syrian troops, summoned upon by Lebanese Phalangists and actively supported by pro-Syrian Palestinian factions.
When the Ba’aths of Syria were among the stout anti-imperialist darlings of the New Left, the Kurdish language was not officially recognized.
A 1989 decree prohibited the use of Kurdish at work as well as in marriages and other celebrations. In 1992 children could not be registered with Kurdish names, nor could businesses. Books, music, videos and other material could not be published in Kurdish and expressions of Kurdish identity were outlawed and prosecuted under a criminal stature against “weakening national (i.e., Arab) sentiment.”
In 1973, Syrian authorities confiscated 750 square kilometers of fertile agricultural land cultivated by tens of thousands of Kurds and gave it to Arab families brought in from other provinces. In 2007, another 6,000 square kilometers of Kurdish territory were granted to Arab families, while Kurdish inhabitants of the villages were evicted. As a reference, Palestinian territories are 6,220 square kilometers.
Memory fails, but I don’t think the revolutionary left of Kelemen’s imagination ever called the Ba’ath state an apartheid regime. Nor did it call for a BDS campaign to rectify these outrages—assuming the capacity to even recognize them as such-- or propose depriving Syrian Arabs of their right to self-determination.
Until the Arab Spring, most of the New Left took no critical notice of the Syrian state at all, or, if they were critical, it was for not being anti-imperialist enough.
If your “revolutionary” solution to Israeli chauvinism and occupation is to create a unitary state in which Israeli Jews are invited to become the new Kurds in an Arab state, don’t be surprised at the response. If they refuse to break with their Zionist rulers and renounce Zionist chauvinism, it is because you have not offered them the security of a convincing, peaceful, democratic and egalitarian alternative.
Anti-normalisation is nothing but a high-minded disguise for revanchism.
The socialist movement has historically divided itself on national conflicts between left and right, between social patriots and internationalists. Internationalists advocated fraternisation (which AWL calls solidarity, in deference to anti-sexist terminology). That is, the wing of socialism we identify with has always called for unity from below—of workers, soldiers, trade unions and socialist parties.
We recognize that the fear of foreign subjugation is a powerful rallying cry for ruling classes who thrive on the very national unity socialists wish to disrupt. That is why we pitch our appeal beyond the ruling classes directly to the masses of both nations.
No world power, no ruling class can be relied upon to conduct the struggle for peace and reconciliation, for equal national rights and freedom, in the interest of the Palestinian and Israeli masses.
This will only come about through independent struggle where Palestinians and Israelis breach chauvinist mindsets, dare to overcome entrenched fears and reach out to one another.
BDS, the Palestinian solidarity movement that Kelemen in effect advocates, is a modern version of social-patriotism. It exists to advance a chauvinist narrative that Israel is an illegal, usurper nation and offers no realistic basis upon which a socialist movement can move forward.
It is the antithesis of internationalism.