At a hustings organised by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) on 13 February, Labour leadership candidates were asked if they were a “Zionist”. Three of the four said they were; Keir Starmer said that he wasn’t, but was “supportive” of and sympathetic to Zionism.
In their answers, all candidates emphasised their support for the right of Israeli Jews to national self determination. Emily Thornberry, Lisa Nandy, and Rebecca Long-Bailey presented this as the basis of their “Zionism”. Long-Bailey said: “I also agree with a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state... I suppose that makes me a Zionist because I agree with Israel’s right to exist and right to self-determine.”
That all four candidates gave clear and unambiguous statements of support for Israeli Jews’ right to self determination is positive.
In doing so, they were doing no more than affirming existing Labour Party policy, which is for a two-states settlement in Israel/Palestine; but their clear statements are high-profile rebuttals of the far-left common sense which contends that Israel must be done away with somehow, and that any expression of Israeli-Jewish national self determination is unsupportable. It is particularly significant in Long-Bailey’s case, as some of her support is drawn from a far-left milieu where such politics predominate.
The clarity of her statement on the right of Israeli Jews to self-determine must reflect at least on some level the work done by individuals and groups on the Labour left, including Workers’ Liberty, to assert a two-states position, to argue against the view that Israeli Jews should have no national rights, and to explain how that position tends logically in the direction of antisemitism.
Clearly, none of the candidates are supporters of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. Lisa Nandy, whom JLM subsequently nominated, is chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, and Emily Thornberry has spoken at Palestine Solidarity Campaign events. Their statements ought therefore to make it harder for those on the left who wish to argue that anyone who calls themselves a “Zionist” must be a supporter of the Israeli government; or that “Zionism” is synonymous with “racism”, or even “fascism”; or that Zionists should be “no-platformed” and expelled from labour movement spaces. That too is to be welcomed.
Long-Bailey’s formulation, that she is a Zionist if “Zionism” means supporting Israel’s right to exist, is reasonable enough on its own terms, but without qualification it is limited and potentially reactionary. The question itself is unhelpful: one should not have to adopt the label of a particular nationalism — vicariously, in the case of the Labour leadership candidates — in order to express support for a national group’s right to self-determine.
“Zionism” has meant many different things to many different people, at many different times. It is a label, and an ideology, that has borne immense internal contradictions. It has been a radical politics of liberation from oppression, a response to stifling and murderous antisemitism, that asserted the right of Jewish people to self determination. There are explicitly left-wing, even Marxist, traditions within Zionism: Zionist brigades fought in the Bolsheviks’ Red Army in the post-1917 civil war, organised by supporters from the left wing of Poale Zion, a socialist-Zionist party.
But Zionism has also impelled intense national chauvinism and bigotry towards Arabs. For many Palestinians, Zionism is the ideology that has driven their dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and ongoing national oppression.
The contemporary use of the term is hard to disentangle from antisemitism. In much far-right political writing, “Zionists” is a codeword for “Jews”, within a conspiracy-theorist narrative that sees Jews as a shadowy, powerful elite controlling world affairs. Some far-left “anti-Zionism” shares a similar framework, massively over-inflating the power and influence of the Israeli state and “Zionism” in world politics.
For many Jews, self-describing as a “Zionist” is less an indication of a particular attitude to the policy of the Israeli state, which they may support or oppose, and more a way of expressing a diffuse affinity with Israel, the “liferaft state”, in Isaac Deutscher’s phrase, emerging from the wreckage of European antisemitism given industrialised form via the Holocaust. An “anti-Zionism” which is incapable of understanding distinctions between that type of “Zionism”; the “Zionism” of Poale Zion-affiliated supporters of the Bolsheviks; the “Zionism” of the far-right settler movement in Israel; and “Zionism”‘s many other diverse expressions is of no explanatory value or political use.
But that doesn’t mean leftists who support Israeli-Jewish self determination are required to give that support the label “Zionism”.
Beyond “Zionism” and “anti-Zionism”, there is a path to a consistently democratic politics of equal rights, that asserts the right of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs to peace, justice, security, and self determination.