When Sunderland Polytechnic Students Union (SPSU) banned a campus Jewish Society in 1985, Socialist Worker (weekly newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party) rallied to its defence.
The SPSU was “quite clearly not racist. … One thing is clear – they are not racists, unlike the Zionists who oppose them.” (SW/928)
Socialist Worker conceded in passing that “it can be argued whether the SPSU was tactically wise to ban the Zionists.” But the ban itself was not criticised. In fact, the paper uncritically quoted the SPSU Treasurer’s rationale for the ban:
“The students union has a policy that Zionism is a form of racism. This was reaffirmed at a union meeting in January and 1,000 students voted against a Zionist motion protesting about the banning of their group.”
“A second Jewish Society has been formed by a minority of Jewish students at the college,” the SPSU Treasurer continued, ”this is a ‘cultural and religious’ organisation and does not include the promotion of Zionism in its aims. Of course we have no objection to that.”
In its defence of the SPSU, Socialist Worker explained that the SPSU “has not banned Jewish students nor banned discussion of Zionism, but it does not support the promotion of Zionism.”
The author of the article did not seem to realise that this would make for a very one-sided “discussion”.
According to Socialist Worker, the ban had “provoked claims that to oppose Zionism is to be antisemitic.” This was not quite accurate. It was not “opposing Zionism” which had given rise to allegations of antisemitism. It was the banning of a Jewish Society.
Socialist Worker continued its defence of the SPSU with a history lesson: “Until recently the majority of Jews were not Zionist” (SW/929). But, logically, this could only mean: the majority of Jews today are Zionist; and something must have happened to bring about that change.
Zionism was defined by Socialist Worker as “the idea that Jewish settlers are entitled to drive Palestinians out of their own country to create an exclusively Jewish country” (SW/929). This was hardly an accurate definition of Zionism.
The real villains of the piece – apart from “the Zionist Jewish Society” itself – were the National Union of Students Executive and the Union of Jewish Students, both of which advocated expulsion of the SPSU from the NUS:
“Their (the NUS leadership) attacks on antizionist students at Sunderland Poly are a cynical and shoddy attempt to divert attention away from their own failure to support students fighting a real racist and antisemite at North London Poly.” (SW/928)
“The same (NUS) leadership who condemned Sunderland Poly for opposing Zionist racism themselves condemned the students at North London Poly who campaigned for months against well-known National Front member Patrick Harrington.” (SW/930)
Two years later, in 1987, Zionism again loomed large in the pages of Socialist Worker. This time the trigger was Jim Allen’s play ‘Perdition’, widely and rightly condemned for its antisemitic language, imagery and content.
Nominally, the play was a fictional trial involving the alleged role of Zionists in the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry. In reality, the play was a cipher for claims of Zionist-Nazi collaboration in the Holocaust, and the centrality of that collaboration in the creation of Israel.
According to Allen: “Privileged Jewish leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to help bring about a Zionist state, Israel, a state which is itself racist.” As one of the play’s characters put it: “Israel was coined in the blood of Hungarian Jewry.”
Under the headline “’Perdition’ Is Not Antisemitic” Socialist Worker claimed:
“It powerfully brings out the role Zionist leaders played in that process [Nazi extermination of Hungarian Jewry]. It does not equate Zionism with Nazism. It does not argue that Zionism murdered the Jews, rather that its commitment to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine was greater than its commitment to saving the lives of Jews.” (SW/1051)
Apart from misrepresenting the play’s rewriting of history as fact, this claim did not even fit in with lines in the play such as “the Zionist knife in the Nazi fist” and “to save your hides, you (Zionists) practically led them (Jews) to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”
A letter about the play in the subsequent issue of the paper – by Chanie Rosenberg, who enjoyed a certain status in the SWP – enthused about the play’s premier in Edinburgh and highlighted its relevance to today (at least in terms of the SWP’s politics):
““It is to be hoped the play ‘Perdition’ will find further venues after the excellent rendition I attended at the Edinburgh Festival. … The logic of the Zionist state now is to kill the Palestinians.” (SW/1052)
The same letter (“Zionism Laid Bare – 40 Years Ago”) equated the Holocaust with Israeli oppression of Palestinians:
“What a tragedy that Jews, who suffered their supreme agony in the Holocaust because of their ‘race’ [inverted commas in the original], should mete out the same murderous punishments to the Arabs because of their nationality.” (SW/1052)
Allen spoke at that year’s SWP Summer School, ‘Marxism 87’. His session was “one of the most dramatic of the many meetings and debates” (SW/1048). Socialist Worker portrayed him as a victim of Zionism:
The Royal Court had decided not to perform his play “as a result of concerted Zionist pressure.” Allen had falsely been accused of antisemitism because “wherever Zionism finds itself under political attack from Marxists”, the bogus charge of antisemitism is “one of its main lines of defence.” (SW/1048)
But Allen could count on the support of the SWP, whose members “supported Jim Allen and confirmed the historical validity of the charges he made.” (SW/1048)
Moving into a wider terrain, the same article acknowledged that “another subtler, more complex” argument was involved in the controversy about ‘Perdition’.
Did the deep historical roots of antisemitism make “any sharp or unequivocal attack on Zionism suspect in itself” because it might flow out of subconscious antisemitism? And were such attacks “likely to arouse the latent antisemitism of others”? (SW/1048)
There was, the article conceded, “a grain of truth here.” But if that grain were to be “exaggerated, as it frequently is”, then that would be “disastrous for left debate and for the cause of the left in general.” Debate would be “dominated by an individual’s personal credentials” rather than by “what is being said”. (SW/1048)
This was far too much for Chanie Rosenberg. In a letter headlined “No ‘grain of truth’ for Zionists” she denounced the idea of “a grain of truth” as “a form of vulgar materialism” which “blunts the straight issue of class.” (SW/1050)
“Was Lenin more prone to antisemitism, because he was a gentile, than Trotsky, because he was a Jew?” asked Rosenberg rhetorically. Fortunately, she continued, “there is always a minority which rejects the prevailing ideology totally and fights against it. Only because such a minority exists can a revolutionary party be built.” (SW/1050)
A further performance of ‘Perdition’ the following year led to a new round of applause by the claqueurs of the SWP.
The play had exposed the role of Zionists in Nazi-occupied Hungary:
“The leaders of the Jewish community, all Zionists, at first cooperated and then collaborated with the Nazis. The only lives saved by collaboration were their own, those of their friends, leading Zionists and the richest members of the Jewish community – less than 2,000 in all.” (SW/1087)
And it helped provide an understanding of Israel today:
“Allen indicts some, but not all, Zionists for doing deals with the Nazis before and during the Holocaust. It is necessary to be reminded of this, for understanding the ideas and motivation of Zionism’s founders makes it easier to understand the horror of Israel today.” (SW/1087)
If the play had any faults, then it was that of being too soft on Israel:
“Jim [Allen] certainly pulls a punch when one character accuses Israel of being a racist state ‘but not like South Africa’. Yet to many people, watching the repression of the Palestinian uprising on the West Bank and Gaza, the parallels seem only too clear.” (SW/1087)
For Socialist Worker, the controversy triggered by the play the previous year was simply a witch-hunt of a playwright – “one of the most shocking displays of witch-hunting in the arts” – who had dared to tell the truth:
“For daring to write about this, Jim Allen was roundly abused by journalists and academics who support the state of Israel. … Anyone lucky enough to see it (the play) will understand that it is Jim Allen and not the victims of the Holocaust who have been slandered.” (SW/1087)
But none of this sits easily alongside of Allen’s claim that his play was “the most lethal attack on Zionism ever written, because it touches at the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust.” The Holocaust was, in some way, “a myth”?
Nor does it address the problem posed by Allen’s supposed historical insight that all over wartime Europe “Jews were massacred because their leaders covered up for the Nazis.”
They were not massacred because the Nazis had the politics and the power to massacre them, but because “their leaders” (by which Allen means Zionists, even though they hardly counted as “leaders” in the 1930s) covered up for the Nazis?
The defence of the SPSU and ‘Perdition’ in the pages of Socialist Worker in the 1980s was the inevitable result of the SWP’s overall (mis)understanding of Zionism, the origins of Israel, and the nature of contemporary Israel.
Zionism was a form of racism: “The logic of this belief (Zionism) was racism” (SW/985). And it was an agent of imperialism: “Zionism has acted and continues to act as the agent and watchdog of imperialism, especially US imperialism, in the Middle East.” (SW/1048)
Zionists saw antisemitism as “a positive force, for it justified their belief in the separateness of the Jews” (SW/985).
Consequently, when Hitler came to power “the Zionist leaders saw an opportunity to bolster their aim. They colluded with Hitler to allow German Jewish funds to flood into Palestine”. (SW/985)
Antizionists were the best anti-racists: “Being antizionist has nothing to do with antisemitism. Defenders of the Palestinian people are the best and most principled anti-racists, who fight alongside Jews against antisemitism.” (SW/1192)
(Some readers of the paper were certainly in need of help in the matter of identifying antisemitism, even if Socialist Worker itself was hardly likely to cast light on the issue.
Shortly before the ‘Perdition’ controversy erupted, Socialist Worker had published a letter challenging the idea that antisemitism had existed prior to capitalism: “A brief look at the history of the Jewish community in the Middle Ages shows how wrong this is.” (SW/1015)
From the twelfth century onwards, explained the writer, indebted peasants had “attacked their Jewish moneylenders, sometimes with the sole aim of destroying the credit notes. This is very different from antisemitism.” (SW/1015)
The article was accompanied by a photograph of rabbis with the caption “There’s a lot more to Jewish history than antisemitism.”)
More often than not, when the Holocaust appeared in the pages of Socialist Worker at this time it was for the purpose of condemning its survivors: ““The horrible logic of Zionism has proved to be as deadly as the period of antisemitism it grew from.” (SW/985)
Veteran Socialist Worker writer Paul Foot asked the question: “How on earth can one set of concentration camps justify another? Concentration camps are precisely what are being built in Gaza and the West Bank this very moment by the so-called victims of persecution.” (SW/1069)
“How can a people who endured the Nazi Holocaust inflict such horrors on the Palestinians?” asked Socialist Worker (SW/1382). The oppressed – at least they were spared the epithet of “so-called” – had become the oppressors:
“After the horror of the Holocaust people throughout the world defended the establishment of Israel. Israel was born of the brutal eviction of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and a bloody war. How could the oppressed become the founders of an oppressive state?” (SW/985)
Israel even used Nazi tactics as a model in its repressive policies: “One tactic was modelled on the Nazis – keeping prisoners in the open in sub-zero temperatures in order to break them.” (SW/927).
The creation of Israel, explained Socialist Worker, had been the result of imperialist machinations, initially by British imperialism, and then by American imperialism:
“The power of Zionism to cause so much horrible violence and drive so many Arabs from their homes would never have come to fruition had it not been for the support of first British and later US imperialism.” (SW/1083)
In the 1920s and 1930s “Zionist settlers [had been] dependent on British support and defended British control of the area” (SW/1083). But by the 1940s British imperialism had decided to withdraw from Palestine:
“The British were desperate to find an excuse to get out. They found it in the USA’s growing interest in continuing something Britain started four decades before – making Zionism into a watchdog of imperialist interests in the Middle East.” (SW/1083)
Zionism therefore switched its allegiances: ““If Zionism once unleashed terrorist forces against the British mandate, it did so solely to embarrass British imperialism in the eyes of American imperialism and to shift its allegiance from one to the other.” (SW/1069)
In the aftermath of the Second World War, “the USA under its leader Truman – a man desperate to win the now important Jewish vote in the 1948 presidential election – went all out to pressure delegates to the United Nations into supporting the partition of Palestine.” (SW/1083)
This was because “the most powerful country in the world, this time the United States, saw Zionism as a useful card to play in ensuring control over the Middle East” (SW/985). Thus, “acting at the behest of the US, the United Nations created the state of Israel” (SW/1264).
Israel was “a country built on stolen land, a country which is a watchdog for the West in the Middle East” (SW/1359). It was “a state created by colonisers and the superpowers. It is built on stolen land. It is racist.” (SW/1354)
And it was also a very unsafe country for Jews. With a monotonous regularity, carrying on into the 1990s, Socialist Worker warned of the dangers facing Jews in Israel.
Zionism had “turned the Jewish state into one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a Jew” (SW/929). Far from being a safe haven for Jews, “Israel has become the most dangerous place in the world for Jews to live” (SW/1224).
Israel was “the most dangerous place in the world for Jews to live” (SW/1283). “Today” Israel was “the most dangerous place in the world for Jews to live” (SW/1354). Israel had become “the most dangerous place in the world for Jews to live” (SW/1382).
Israel was “the most dangerous place in the world for Jews“ (SW/1400). Jews who emigrated to Israel “have found not the haven they expected but one of the most dangerous countries in the world for Jews“ (SW/1485). “Once again”, Israel was “set to become one of the most dangerous places in the world for Jews” (SW/1497).
According to Socialist Worker there was no chance of change from within, nor any chance of peace and reconciliation with the surrounding Arab states.
The Israeli working class had been bought off. Under the headline “Do Israeli Workers Hold the Key?” an article explained:
“There is a working class in Israel and it does fight. But the Israeli working class has never taken action over the discrimination against Arab workers. … Israeli workers are in an almost unique position [due to US subsidies guaranteeing higher living standards]. This is why the government has always been able to count on their support against Arabs.” (SW/1072)
And the Israeli peace movement was an irrelevance: “Inside Israel a fraction of the Peace Now demonstrators are questioning the existence of the state [of Israel]. We should applaud them. But they are a minority of a minority movement.” (SW/1072)
Palestinian resistance resulted in Israelis becoming even more reactionary: “The more the Palestinians resist, the more most Israelis feel threatened and the more reactionary they become.” (SW/1072)
This was an inevitability: “In Israel itself public opinion increasingly favours more repression. This is inevitable in a state which, like the apartheid state in South Africa, is based on the principle that one part of the population is superior to another.” (SW/1070)
Given the nature of the Israeli state, a two state solution (i.e. an independent Palestine alongside of an independent Israel) was a logical impossibility.
Beneath the headline “Why We Don’t Support the Two States Theory” a letter to the paper explained that two states would cause “further bitter hostility between the two ethnic groups.” It would be a “defeatist acceptance of the status quo” and “a betrayal of all those who seek a just peace between Arabs and Jews.” (SW/1079)
A two states solution was “neither realistic nor reactionary – the sort of idea that might be advocated by supporters of apartheid in South Africa.” (SW/1079)
Another letter in the same issue of the paper – headlined “And Why It Is Reactionary”, accompanied by a photo with the caption “It’s the nature of the Israeli state that’s the problem” – engaged in quack Marxism to justify its stance.
“Marx noted that being determines consciousness,” explained the writer. Defeats suffered by the PLO had therefore led them to lower their sights and “concede on the position of the legitimacy of the Zionist state.” (SW/1079)
The impossibility of “the two state theory” was rooted in “the nature of the Israeli state. Israel was set up as American imperialism’s watchdog in the Middle East. This is where the conflict originates from.” (SW/1079)
There would be no peace, according to Socialist Worker, “while the state of Israel continues to exist and the Palestinians are denied the right to live in their own country” (SW/1224).
“The tragedy of Jews and Arabs in the Middle East” would continue “as long as the state of Israel exists. It would end only with “the establishment of a democratic secular Palestine in which Jew and Arab live side by side in which Palestinians are not denied the right to live in their own country.” (SW/1283)
But Socialist Worker provided only the scantiest of details about how Israel was to be abolished:
“That is a solution which depends on the Arab masses of the region overthrowing the rotten regimes of Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the rest – and throwing American imperialism out with them.” (SW/1264)
But times change. And, at first sight, it might appear that the SWP has changed its attitude towards Zionism and Israel-Palestine since the 1980s.
It no longer demands that “Student Union money and facilities should not be used for activities whose aim is to further the Zionist state’s interests” (model motion by SWP Student Society for 1977 NUS conference).
Strictly speaking, this policy, not banning Jewish Societies, was the SWP’s policy in 1985. But denying funds and facilities was pretty much tantamount to a ban. In fact, the SPSU simply took the SWP’s antizionism to its logical conclusion – and the SWP backed it.
When the issue of Nazi-Zionist collaboration erupted in 2016 after comments by Ken Livingstone, Socialist Worker made a point of not “supporting the historical validity of the charges he made.”
As if it had never been cheer-leader-in-chief for Jim Allen, Socialist Worker informed its readers: “The argument about Zionist collaboration with the Nazis has been around for a long time. It is rightly ignored by solidarity activists with Palestine.” (SW/2501)
The article continued: “Zionist leaders stupidly thought that they could do a deal with Hitler that would enable some German Jews to go to Palestine. This disgraceful manoeuvre bitterly divided the Zionist movement. Many young Zionists, in particular, were outraged. They took for granted you had to fight Hitler to the death.” (SW/2501)
The repetitive expressions of concern for the fate of Jews in Israel – “the most dangerous place in the world for Jews” – have also mercifully disappeared from the pages of Socialist Worker.
But in term of its ‘big picture’ politics on Zionism and Israel-Palestine, nothing has changed.
Zionism is “the ideology that justifies Israel’s racism towards Palestinians” (SW/2644). It is “an enemy of peace” (SW/2651). Racism is “built into the foundation of the Israeli state” (SW/2598). Israel is “a racist state … racism runs through its fabric” (SW/2598).
A two state solution is “neither possible nor desirable” (SW/2598). The only solution is “one democratic secular state where Jews and Arabs live side by side” (SW/2604). This means “accepting the end of a state founded on ethnic division” (SW/2682).
In some unexplained way, this will be achieved by “the return of the revolutionary process across the Middle East” (SW/2605) because “Palestinians have been closest to liberation when their struggle has been part of mass resistance across the region” (SW/2605).
And when it comes to left antisemitism – which underpinned both the banning of a Jewish Society by the SPSU and the controversy around ‘Perdition’ – the reality is that the SWP has learnt nothing in over three decades.
The charges of antisemitism against the SPSU and ‘Perdition’, claimed Socialist Worker in the 1980s, were spurious, a distraction from ‘real’ antisemitism, a smear on ‘real’ anti-racists, and an attempt to gag legitimate criticism of Israel.
But that too is how Socialist Worker has responded to the issue of left antisemitism in the Labour Party in recent years.
“An unscrupulous campaign to brand the Labour left as antisemitic” has been underway since Corbyn’s election (SW/2606). Accusations of antisemitism have been “a stick to beat Labour members with” (SW/2644). The accusations are “smears against the left” (SW/2643).
There was no substance to the charges of antisemitism against Corbyn: “The accusations against Corbyn are utter nonsense” (SW/2683). And the most that Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone could be accused of was that of having made “careless comments” (SW/2644).
(Another issue of the paper described Livingstone’s comments as “poorly phrased and probably an ill-judged attempt at provocation” (2606). Socialist Worker diplomatically sidestepped the fact that Livingstone had been making such “careless comments” for the best part of forty years.)
Richard Burgon was innocent: “Burgon was right to describe Zionism as an enemy of peace” (SW/2651). And Chris Williamson was even more innocent: “[He has been] suspended for standing up to smears against the left. His crime was to openly challenge that.” (SW/2643)
“If you want to make sense of the row about Jeremy Corbyn and antisemitism,” explained Socialist Worker, “you have above all to understand that it has nothing to do with antisemitism.” (SW/2614)
Having imperiously declared that antisemitism was not an issue in the controversy about antisemitism, Socialist Worker turned its attention to the ‘real’ issues.
The “real motivations of Corbyn’s critics” in raising such allegations were “to weaken him and keep him constantly on the defensive, and to protect Israel from criticism.” (SW/2614)
Corbyn was being targeted because “he is such a long-standing and consistent supporter of the Palestinian struggle, and because he is the most left-wing leader Labour has ever had.” (SW/2683)
Israel was to be protected from criticism because “the strongest Zionists are on the right [of the Labour Party] and support for Israel is associated with the drive to forcibly maintain Western domination of the Middle East.” (SW/2683)
Socialist Worker also detected the hand of the Israeli government in all of this: “For the Israeli government and its supporters the rise of someone with Corbyn’s views is a political disaster. So of course they are targeting him.” (SW/2606)
The Israeli government had “turned a crisis into an opportunity. It has reacted to the potentially disastrous election of a Labour Party leader who supports the Palestinians by backing a campaign that has successfully driven Labour onto the defensive.” (2614)
Allegations of antisemitism were really an attempt to gag legitimate criticism of Israel. They were based on “the idea that criticism of Israel and support for Palestine inevitably leads to antisemitism.” (SW/2644)
“Ever since Corbyn was elected leader” the Labour right had “tried to insinuate that the left’s support for Palestinian liberation made it inherently antisemitic” (SW/2653).
“The idea is to link antisemitism to opposition to Israel in order to accuse the left of being naturally antisemitic” (SW/2643). “The smear at the heart of Labour antisemitism row” was that “opposing Israel is inherently antisemitic” (SW/2683).
“Giving in to this argument” would be “disastrous for the left” (SW/2643). It would prevent Palestinians from “describing their expulsion as ethnic cleansing central to the creation of a racist state” (SW/2651).
In the face of “supporters of Israel wanting to shut down criticism of Zionism,” declared Socialist Worker, “the best response is to defend the right to oppose Israel – and to be anti-Zionist.” (SW/2651)
Even when Socialist Worker has appeared to have something half-sensible to say, it has been more a matter of appearance than reality.
The “argument about Zionist collaboration with the Nazis” was not to be “rightly ignored” because it was an obsession of people like Tony Greenstein. It was to be ignored because it was a trap:
“Antizionism is not antisemitism. Nevertheless, the antizionist , pro-Palestinian case must be argued effectively and sensitively. Traps must be avoided which favour our opponents.”
On Thursday Ken created then walked into precisely such a trap. The argument about Zionist collaboration with the Nazis … is rightly ignored by solidarity activists with Palestine. Ken, as a seasoned campaigner, should have known that.” (SW/2501)
It was a “trap” because it was the wrong terrain from which to launch attacks on Israel:
“The terrain on which to criticise Israel is not the fact that Zionist and Nazi organisations undoubtedly did cooperate during the 1930s to promote German Jewish emigration to Palestine. It is the continuing dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians.” (SW/2606)
Socialist Worker was wrong to have backed Sunderland Poly Student Union and Jim Allen in the 1980s. It is just as wrong, if not even more so, in its apologetics for left antisemitism today. □