“Any demand that people clearly be men or women, let us be clear, is the patriarchal world view. But from the view that sex is material, that biological sex is immutable, comes a requirement that bodies line up, to appear as men or women. Biological sex is used to create a social line, that we have the right, even moral duty, to enforce. Any costs become regrettable. In such a world view, deviation is seen as dangerous, even deadly. This is how, by treating the idea of two distinct biological sexes not as the product of the sex-gender system, but as before it and beyond it, “gender critical” feminists tighten rather than loosen the hold of that system on our bodies. To breathe in feminism we have to loosen this hold.” [Original emphasis] (Sara Ahmed, 2021)
“As a fascist trend, the anti-gender movement supports ever strengthening forms of authoritarianism. Its tactics encourage state powers to intervene in university programs, to censor art and television programming, to forbid trans people their legal rights, to ban LGBTQI people from public spaces, to undermine reproductive freedom and the struggle against violence directed at women, children, and LGBTQI people. It threatens violence against those, including migrants, who have become cast as demonic forces and whose suppression or expulsion promises to restore a national order under duress. That is why it makes no sense for “gender critical” feminists to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people. Let’s all get truly critical now, for this is no time for any of the targets of this movement to be turning against one another. The time for anti-fascist solidarity is now.” (Judith Butler, 2021)
In November 2021, three motions relating to academic freedom were tabled at my local UCU branch: two explicitly addressed the case of the sacking of David Miller (one of which called out his antisemitism) and one implicitly related to both the cases of David Miller and the resignation of Kathleen Stock. This latter motion is noteworthy in the differentiation it made between those who label the views of others as “‘hate’” and contributing to feeling “‘unsafe’” (note the use of single speech marks) and those who experience “genuine hate speech and threats to safety”. Two groups are implied here: Jewish students and staff, and trans students and staff. Whether intentional or not, this motion reflects a wider phenomenon in the leftist and feminist milieux: both Jewish and trans people are delegitimised when they call out, respectively, antisemitism and transphobia, since both are accused of manipulating their ‘apparent oppression’ for sinister ends.
Left antisemitism and the transphobia of gender critical feminists while separate also intersect: Jews (who do not denounce Israel) are seen to be complicit in a Zionist network of world destructive power; trans women are viewed as carrying patriarchal power and as seeking to both destroy sex-based rights and invade women’s spaces and bodies. Both Jews and trans women are deemed as having especially dangerous, invisible and lurking hegemony. The Jew vis-à-vis Israel and Zionism is ‘the Other’ of the Left and the trans woman is ‘the Other’ of gender critical feminism.
Essentialism is precarious territory for leftists and feminists to slip into. The idea of a hierarchy of inferior to superior biological ‘races’ is both intellectually out-dated and regressive; this includes the delineation of naturalised culturally essentialist ‘races’. The gender critical feminist fixation on and essentialisation of – and primacy given to – biological sex is fundamentally incompatible with a project for human liberation and emancipation. Any intellectual and political endeavour that ascribes power to the skin colour or the religion or the genitalia that one is born with will find itself intersecting with a trajectory of far Right ideology.
“The earliest entanglement of Nazi anti-semitism and transmisogyny occurred in response to the emerging gay and trans liberation movement in Weimar Germany. The earliest development of an organised effort for gay and trans liberation emerged in Germany in the late 19th century, and reached a new level of power in 1919, with the establishment of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. The Institute’s founder was Jewish Marxist scientist and political campaigner Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was a committed organiser in the German Social Democratic Party, and headed the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee – the world’s first gay and trans advocacy group. Hirschfield is credited with the coining of the term “transvestite” and “transsexual”, and in his research and advocacy he was committed to opposing the eugenic homophobic and transphobic science of sexology that emerged in Germany at the end of the 19th Century, a science which had come to dominate state understandings of sexual and gender issues and which profoundly influenced the sexual and gender politics of National Socialism. […] Eugenic sexology understood homosexuality essentially through the lens of gender, specifically as the corruption of the male body and psyche by femininity. […] Transness is here understood as a dysgenic biological defect that must be eliminated for the health of the species.”
The denial of trans rights and existence on the basis of sex trumping gender is premised on the notion that trans existence is biologically false and unnatural and thus harmful to the body politic – the intersection and potential slippage here from gender critical feminist thought to fascist thought is plain.
Cohen (2018) continues:
“For his crime of arguing against this strand of eugenic science it is not surprising that Hitler is reported to have named Magnus Hirschfeld “The most dangerous Jew in Germany” […] The Institute was seen by the Nazis as a hub for Jewish Marxist intellectuals and their nefarious plans to undermine the purity of Aryan racial biology and culture. […] We can see that Nazism understands itself to be engaged in a culture war with Jews over gender roles and gender/sexual variance. But, just as we saw in the original National Socialist regime, Nazism also understands the fundamental terrain of this war to be on the level of biology. There is a deep anxiety expressed in Nazi and far-right thinking which is constantly concerned about the biological undermining of the white race yes, but also the white male, and his hormone balance, his testosterone level. Nazi political ontology understands the biological as one of, if not the most important terrains of political dispute. We know this in our understanding of Nazi race theory, but what has been neglected is the centrality of endocrinological purity and security to Nazi ideology. In this sense, endocrinological purity is the gender/sex corollary of the Nazi eugenic project of racial purity.”
Far Right ontological thought elevates the biological terrain in its quest for racial and sex purity. Social categories and material reality are reduced to biology, including the demand for men to be men and women to be women. Drawing on the work of Moishe Postone, Cohen (2018) offers an explanation for this biological materialism:
“[…] it is not only the concrete ‘side of the antinomy which can be naturalized and biologized… the manifest abstract dimension was also biologized – as the Jews. The fetishized opposition of the concrete material and the abstract, of the “natural” and the “artificial,” became translated as the world-historically significant racial opposition of the Aryans and the Jews.’ The “natural rootedness” of the Aryan Volk is contrasted to “rootless cosmopolitanism” of the wandering Jews, who in their diasporic state, abstracted from territory or nation, become a perfect candidate to represent the transnational abstraction of the capitalist world-system. The essential content of National Socialism then is ‘a biologization of capitalism – which itself is only understood in terms of its manifest abstract dimension – as International Jewry.” The National Socialist project is therefore a fetishized ‘overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects’ through the total eradication of the Jews.”
Similarly, Cohen (2018) demonstrates (drawing on Gonzalez and Neton’s essay The Logic of Gender) that the far Right has:
“[…] an understanding of gender/sex wherein gender is understood as a social construction (an abstraction), but the naturalisation of sex is redoubled. Gender is therefore historical and mutable whilst sex forms the natural and transhistorical substratum upon which it is written. Following Postone, the authors argue that ‘the transhistoricisation of sex is homologous to a foreshortened critique of capital, which contends that use-value is transhistorical rather than historically specific to capitalism.’ If we take the structure of Postone’s argument about anti-Semitism and apply it here, we can begin to see where the foreshortened critique of gender posits sex as the concrete reality which must be protected from the pernicious abstractions of gender. In the National Socialist framework of fetishized concretism the concrete biological reality of sex is figured as primary and pure; along with a thorough renaturalisation of gender as a reaction against the mainstreaming of denaturalised nature under late capitalism. For National Socialism, the primacy of sex is reinforced in opposition to the ‘Talmudic abstractions’ of multiple and fluid genders then cast as the pernicious force which seeks to dominate and even erase the sensuous, simple and concrete sexual dimorphism and the natural binary gender roles which flow from it.”
Cohen (2018) concludes:
“Just as the Jew becomes the concrete manifestation of the abstraction of capitalism and the law of value, the trans woman becomes the concrete manifestation of the abstraction and denaturalisation of gender. The trans woman is a woman without the concrete biological content of womanhood. She is woman in the abstract, separated from her biological foundation, and therefore her use as the conduit for the reproduction of the Aryan race in this grand Darwinian struggle. She is everything that is detestable about womankind, for Nazism, without any of the redeeming biological expediencies. Further, she represents the worst excess of the cultural degeneration of modernity and contemporary capitalism. Just as the “rootless cosmopolitan” Jew represents abstraction by being rooted in no Nation, trans people demonstrate a rootless cosmopolitanism of gender/sex – with disregard for rootedness of sex and the allegiances of gender. She is a product of a culture so abstracted and so sick, in their eyes, that it actively encourages the corruption of the purity of biological sex and the destruction of gender roles so essential in the battle for racial primary.” [Original emphasis]
The powerful insight delivered by Cohen (2018) is that both antisemitism and transphobia operate on the same (il)logic of a concrete biological reality of ‘race’ and sex: the purity of the Aryan ‘race’ to be protected against the pernicious Jew, and pure and primary sex to be protected against the pernicious abstractions of gender. As long as the culturally naturalised and essentialised Jew vis-à-vis Israel and Zionism is ‘the Other’ of the Left and the biologically essentialised trans woman is ‘the Other’ of gender critical feminism, the related ideas and arguments of the leftist and feminist milieux will intersect with fascist ideology. Our comrades and sisters are not fascists. The battle for ideas is absolutely critical here if we are (to paraphrase Sara Ahmed’s opening quote) to breathe in a politics for the liberation and emancipation of all of humankind.
Sociologist David Miller reads onto the surface and off the surface a reflection of the surface. He fails to understand the surface as mere appearance of a dynamic and complex whole. Miller reads off the surface a world devoid of geography – a fluid geography of specific material realities and human consciousnesses and agencies. Through the lens of racialized conspiracy theory, he reads onto the surface an enveloping Zionism: an imperialist globalization in which space annihilates place and warps time. In the above mapping of Miller’s imagination, Israel and the United Kingdom are collapsed into one compressed space-time of a self-expanding, nowhere and everywhere, timeless and smooth global Zionist network.
Keith Kahn-Harris astutely identifies David Miller’s modern antisemitic thinking as a flatlands:
“The problem is that his work constructs a kind of ‘flatland’; a world in which networks of power and influence are so intricately connected that they form a seamless system. Each node that he exposes in this system, each connection that is traced between it and other nodes, is functionally identical to others. What we end up with is a process of progressively revealing a system so overwhelming that the only rational response to its exposure must be despair shot through with liberation. Take Miller’s well known slide from his presentation on how British Jewish / Zionist / Israel lobby institutions are interconnected (reproduced above). While the nodes on this network are differentiated by type (‘Israel institution’, ‘Key UK individuals’ etc) and while the nature of the interconnections are identified (‘donor’, ‘president’ etc), these annotations do not in fact tell us anything meaningful, because there isn’t any meaningful distinction to be made – and that’s the point. That, for example, Mick Davis and Vivian Wineman have been fiercely criticised from the right of the Jewish community for their dovish views on Israel is of no import. That the Board of Deputies and the Zionist Federation are coalitions constantly riven by tension and dispute is not worth remarking on. Zionism / Israel forms a seamless whole. […] Miller’s map of the Zionist flatland grows remorselessly over time. The only way to avoid getting ensnared into it is by renouncing any connection to those who are on the map. […] Those who share Miller’s methodology of guilt by association will always end up progressively writing off whole chunks of humanity until only a small hardcore of enlightened ones is left. While Miller may be a particularly adept exponent of the politics of the flatland, it is not exclusive to him, to the left or to antisemites. We have to acknowledge that the flatland holds its attractions to those of any political disposition. Its mixture of liberation and despair are tempting: You no longer have to grapple with the intricacies of who people are; you are released from the burdens of developing a finely-calibrated politics. All is one; all is either enemy or friend. I suspect that the internet and social media have made the flatland more attractive. It is easy to trace associations, to find meaning in the liking of a tweet or the acceptance of a friend request. Like David Miller we are all tempted to see ‘research’ as the piling up evidence of contacts, rather than an investigation of the nature of those contacts. We can know everything and still know nothing. The alternative is hard: To understand relationships as relationships. There are no shortcuts here.”
Kahn-Harris is right that the internet and social media make flatlands politics more appealing. I wonder also of the symbiosis between Miller’s fantasy of a global Zionist network and his life in the internet network society. His above mapping of lines and nodes has a rudimentary resemblance of the below map of the internet, such that co-construction seems likely.
David Miller’s flatlands illustrates how antisemitism kills geography. It also indicates how both the most despairing accounts of globalization, which reduce humans to passive dupes and deny human agencies in all their nuance, and the infrastructure of globalization are themselves flatlands open to antisemitism.
The recent move by Britain’s right-wing Conservative government, notably, Gavin Williamson’s punitive request in October 2020 to university vice-chancellors to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, and the government announcement in February 2021 of a ‘free speech champion’ to protect freedom of speech on universities campuses, is, simply put, a demagogic culture war which should be opposed in such terms. As this looms, in this paper, I am seeking a fuller and richer culture on the activist and academic Left for freedom of thought on Palestine and Israel that involves an honest and critical self-reflection on the issue of left antisemitism, alongside freedom of speech and peaceful action against the longstanding and ever-worsening oppression of the Palestinians by Israel’s state and military. This is a plea from the Left to the Left: to oppose a right-wing government’s culture war in the name of freedom of speech, at the same time as, on our own terms, enacting what belongs to us at the grassroots, and to discuss the problem of left antisemitism while opposing the Israeli state and military occupation and dispossession of Palestinian land and subjugation of Palestinian people. My local branch of the University and College Union (UCU) debated the government imposition of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. Whilst I consider this working definition a good educational basis for discussion on the nature of contemporary antisemitism, which does not prevent criticism of Israel’s state and military, I supported the branch’s rejection of the government’s effective enforcement. Any working definition of antisemitism should be shaped at the grassroots by open debate and discussion within our academic communities. There is however a closure to such open debate and discussion at the grassroots, which is that the very idea of the existence of ‘left antisemitism’ is denied by many on the Left. The 2006, 2007 and 2008 UCU Congresses passed a series of motions that demonstrate this: in 2006, denying that “criticism of the Israeli government is in itself anti-Semitic” and claiming that “defenders of the Israeli government’s actions have used a charge of anti-Semitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate and in the context of Higher Education to restrict academic freedom”; in 2007, that “criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-Semitic”; and in 2008, that “criticisms of Israel or Israeli policy are not, as such, anti-Semitic” (cited in Fine and Spencer, 2017: 119). Much of the Left comprehends antisemitism as an exclusive embodiment of the Right: either as a feature of the populist Right and fascism against the Jews; or as a fabricated allegation made, behind-the-scenes, by Israel and the Zionist lobby against the Left globally to silence criticism of Israel; or as a reaction and product of Israel’s existence as a Jewish, expansionist, racist, and settler-colonial state. This paper is an effort to move us beyond this impasse.
To illustrate the ideological terrain that impedes recognition of contemporary and left antisemitism, I draw on rejoinders from three well-known pro-Palestinian left academics on this question. Norman Finkelstein, in an address in 2015 to the Philosophy Society at the University College Dublin, responds to a question on whether there is a rise of antisemitism in Europe. His full response is available to watch on YouTube.
Finkelstein states: “There’s just no evidence for these claims about a rise of antisemitism in Europe and we have to all renew our battle against antisemitism, it’s just not true.” He evidences this reply as follows:
“By far and away the most accepted minority in all the western countries, by far and away, are Jews […] the sign of acceptance, when you know what’s called assimilation has tipped, the sign is always inter-marriage […] Well in the United States today, I would say, there isn’t a single ruling class family that hasn’t intermarried with Jews.”
Finkelstein then goes on to qualify his answer:
“What you do find is, if you look at the opinion polls, there is a spike in antisemitism […] every time Israel launches one of its murderous invasions […] That’s not antisemitism in any meaningful sense, that’s a state that calls itself Jewish carrying out in a horrifying way and so people react to it against Jews, if you want to prevent antisemitism there’s two things you can do, number one you can stop committing massacres and number two stop calling yourself a Jewish state, just call yourself Israel, and then I think the number of antisemitic acts will go back down”.
“If you had a choice, in any European country where they say ‘oh the antisemitism is going berserk’ […] if you’re in France, would you rather be Jewish or short, would you rather be Jewish or obese, […] would you rather be Jewish or ugly […] the world is so plagued by so many horrifying crimes, so much suffering […] so okay some people have some prejudices about me, but if you take it at the legal level, Jews are doing better than anybody else, so all this talk of antisemitism, it’s just a joke.”
Finkelstein claims four things here: one, that in the context of crime and suffering across the world, antisemitism is trivial; two, that what might be considered antisemitism is not antisemitism in a meaningful sense because it is an understandable response to the murderous actions of Israel, and when Israel ceases to be a Jewish nation-state, the so-called problem of antisemitism will disappear; three, that antisemitism is the product of a Jewish nation-state that commits massacres; and, four, that in key respects, Jews actually hold a higher position in society than others. It is worth emphasizing, on this final point, that Finkelstein evidences his observation about Jewish assimilation not by identifying an assimilation to the general, vast majority population but rather by stressing an incorporation (which he calls assimilation) into the ruling class and jobs with power.
In a public meeting hosted by the Socialist Workers’ Party in 2019, titled “Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism”, which is available to watch on YouTube, Ilan Pappélays bare the relationship between anti-Zionism, Zionism, and the allegations of antisemitism in the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Pappé (2019) explains:
“The inability to cover the criminality in Gaza is one of the reasons that you get instead a hyper inflated coverage of a few emails that may or may not be antisemitic, as if this is an issue that threatens people’s life or existence, and this imbalance between, a manipulated hysteria of something that doesn’t happen and a total ignorance of what really happens is one of the major challenges that this ridiculous equation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism is causing, and which we will have to challenge”.
He stresses, as a continuous mistake from Corbyn down to the activist base when in the mainstream media, that:
“They apologise, not understand what they are apologising for, but they think that apologising is good, apologising is terrible, apologising means that you think there is some truth in it, maybe a little misunderstanding […] every minute we waste on talking about antisemitism instead of talking about Palestine is a wasted minute”.
“because they cannot […] challenge with facts, they cannot challenge us with a moral position, they have nothing in their arsenal that can really struggle efficiently against our humane position and universal position on Palestine, so they blame us of antisemitism”.
On the journalists who covered the antisemitism allegations in the Labour Party, he speculates:
“either these people are intelligent and I suppose many people who work in The Times and BBC and so on are intelligent and that’s worse, that means they know exactly what they are doing, because they’re afraid, because someone is paying them, I don’t know, I don’t know, I’m not going to investigate, I’m interested in the outcome not in their motives […] or […] they’re ignorant […] on an area that they should know a lot as British journalists, but we should be on the onslaught here, attacking their ignorance or the sinister manipulation effects and stop apologising for something we are not”.
Pappé then moves to a full exposure of what is happening by spelling out that for the first time in the history of any mainstream political party in the West since 1948, a leader holds a pro-Palestinian position:
“This is the whole story, they thought this would never happen, it suddenly unfolded in front of their eyes, they cannot use F-16s, they cannot bomb Jeremy Corbyn, they cannot send Israeli tanks […] to the Labour Party headquarters, so they can’t use the main method they usually use to silence people […] in this case they were a bit more limited in what they could do, I must say to their, cynically I would say, to their credit, they found a way”.
In his summation, he responds to a question about Netanyahu’s rule to explain the true nature of Zionism:
“In those ten years […] all the shields of complexity that Israel, especially the Israeli Labor Party […] the so-called Israeli peace camp, the left Zionist camp, all these shields of complexity, where you supposedly could be a socialist and a Zionist, you could be colonizer and an enlightened person, you could be a progressive and an ethnic cleanser, that all these impossible oxymorons, even the Israeli electorate seem to find them quite ridiculous and that’s why they kicked out the Zionist left, it doesn’t exist anymore, and Netanyahu is just the epitome of this kind of inevitable […] political development inside Israel, where you cannot really reconcile the ideology of Zionism with universal values, whether they are Marxism, socialism or even liberalism”.
On the question of left antisemitism, Pappé presents a situation regard the British Labour Party in which a morally devoid, sinister and manipulative ‘they’ – i.e. Israel and Zionism – have exerted a global reach to witch hunt and silence Jeremy Corbyn and the pro-Palestinian Left by fabricating allegations of antisemitism. On the question of Zionism, Pappé gives it a fixed and inevitable drive of colonization and ethnic cleansing, seemingly gloating at Netanyahu’s success and the defeat of the Zionist Left because it proves him right, apropos “the so-called Israeli peace camp”, that Zionism is the absolute antithesis of progressive universal values.
Finally, in terms of a response to the question of left antisemitism, and also its relationship to the issue of freedom of speech, I present the contentions of the pro-Palestinian left academic David Miller, both from a public meeting in 2020 titled “In Defence of Free Speech” and from a conference in 2021 titled “Building the Campaign for Free Speech”; both hosted by Labour Against the Witch-hunt, an organisation that frames the allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party as a “purge of pro-Corbyn supporters” and akin to McCarthyism. This public meeting and conference are available to watch on YouTube.
David Miller (2020) talks of his “shocked, perhaps not that surprised” realisation of the complicity of the leadership of the Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby, in the witch hunt:
“They [the leadership under Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby] adopted the witch hunt […], they decided that what was going on here was people who had genuine grievances, perhaps mistaken but genuine grievances about members of the Party, and we should engage them in constructive dialogue, and of course there is no constructive dialogue with the Zionist movement, the Zionist movement isn’t interested in dialogue, in truth, in finding out how best to tackle antisemitism, and that is the fundamental mistake and a fundamental error for the Labour Party […] so it wasn’t just a question of the Zionist movement, of the trolls, of the JLM, of Labour Against Antisemitism, and […] and all of that lot, you know backed of course by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs in Israel, it wasn’t just a question of them […] you see in the Labour leaked report […] there’s a bit where they discuss the people that they took on to be in charge of antisemitism investigations, one of whom is a former member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a well-known [bleep] faction, and the other one says in a long passage in the report, which he himself must have written, that he learned about left antisemitism from reading a book by Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust, an organisation which has been at the forefront of pursuing the witch hunt, which is unable to distinguish between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and which purposefully blurs together those two concepts in order to pursue the Left […] so the idea that people like that should be engaged in constructive dialogue is a fantasy, these are people who must only be faced and defeated, they are supporters of Israel, of the racist policies of the Israeli government and of course of the racist foundation of the Israeli state founded of course as we know on ethnic cleansing and settler-colonialism […] there is of course much we can do to engage in Palestine solidarity work, as many people are doing, but also we must of course engage the enemy in this which is, not just of course the British government and US imperialism but the Zionist movement, the Zionist movement and the Israeli government are the enemy of the Left, the enemy of world peace and they must be directly targeted […] in order for the Palestinians to win, Zionism as a philosophy, as an idea, as an ideology, must be defeated, and that seems to be the clarity which the current historical moment gives us […] I think that there’s a strategic problem in discussing this under the rubric of free speech on Israel or Zionism or antisemitism, I mean there isn’t free speech for racists […] and you know the problem with defending the principle of freedom of speech in relation to this issue is that we don’t have the freedom of speech and they have the freedom of speech and we are never going to get the freedom of speech because they are in power, and so it seems to me that what we should be talking about is not counterposing our conception of ‘Zionism as racism’, which I think most of us are agreed on, with their conception that ‘we’re all anti-Semites’, because that’s a balance which is based on falsehood and it’s based on a racist understanding of how things are, it’s not acceptable for them to call us racist, it’s untrue, and so what I think we should be saying is not how we create slightly more space for the Left to say slightly more things about Palestine and Israel while they at the same time are using their speech to destroy people’s lives, careers, mental health, and jobs […] we should be saying is, no we’re not here to defend freedom of speech, we’re here to end Zionism”.
Miller (2021) later proclaims:
“The enemy we face here is Zionism and the imperial policies of the Israeli state, and free speech is not the main problem here […] It didn’t start with the Labour Party, it’s not started with the Labour Party and moved to the universities, it’s an all-out onslaught by the Israeli government, mainly through the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, but also other ministries too, on the Left globally and this is not something which just happened in Britain […] this is an all-out attack by the Israeli government […] this attempt by the Israelis to impose their will all over the world and that I think is what we should recognise”.
Miller’s narrative on antisemitism in the Labour Party and freedom of speech on Palestine and Israel is that, Zionism is racism so there cannot be freedom of speech for Zionists, and Zionism is an all-powerful and infiltrating movement which is waging a war globally against the Left: hegemonizing freedom of speech for itself while denying the pro-Palestinian Left its freedom of speech under the accusation of antisemitism and the pretence of fighting antisemitism. Zionism must be faced and defeated in all of its multiple personifications and manifestations: both as an omnipotent, permeating global movement that seeps right down to the local and individual level and consciousness, and as a settler-colonial state. He identifies people who accept a basis to the claims of antisemitism in the Labour Party as supporting a racist Israel based on ethnic cleansing and settler-colonialism – people who, in his words, “must only be faced and defeated”. In sum, for Miller, what’s freedom of speech in times of war.
II. Defining left antisemitism
A definition of antisemitism attributed to the academic Brian Klug is often cited by members of the activist Left as offering a sensible and simple insight into what antisemitism actually is and academic legitimation of how accusations of left antisemitism are false; a part sentence or paraphrase of Klug’s work is picked out, specifically, “anti-Semitism is hostility to Jews as Jews” (Klug, 2013: 471). The pro-Palestinian left activist Tony Greenstein, speaking at a public meeting titled “The abuse of antisemitism to silence free speech on Israel” in 2017, hosted by Brighton’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and available to watch on YouTube, is an example of how the definition of anti-Semitism as hostility to Jews as Jews is applied to the question of left antisemitism in the Labour Party.
Greenstein (2017) states:
“All this stuff of antisemitism has nothing at all to do with antisemitism whatsoever, it’s a complete blind and a complete smokescreen […] the antisemitism crisis and the allegations, of the hysteria that’s grown up, has nothing whatsoever to do with antisemitism, it has everything to do with Israel’s record and Zionism’s record in the Middle East […] one of the ways you defend it is by saying that anyone who criticizes it is antisemitic, they’re singling it out, yes we are singling out Israel in one respect because it’s the only apartheid state in the world […] there are many repressive states in the world, I grant you, but there is only one racist state, there’s only one apartheid state […] the definition of antisemitism is remarkably simple, you don’t need to be a genius to work out […] it is hostility to Jews as Jews, it is simple, an Oxford academic, a friend of mine, Brian Klug, worked that out years ago, but the government has a problem, and the problem is how to associate antisemitism with Israel, and therefore they have come up, they came up in 2004 with what they called the working definition, the European Union Monitoring Committee [EUMC] Working Definition of Antisemitism, which met a lot of resistance, the University College Union opposed it, the National Union of Students opposed it […] and in 2013 the successor agency to the EUMC […] took it down from its website and it basically fell into a bed, however, the Zionist monster is a multi-headed Hydra and it has grown again, it’s becomes something called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition.”
Here Greenstein provides an opposition to the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism based on the idea that it is an end product of a Zionist racist monster that has manufactured false allegations of antisemitism to silence international criticism of its monstrous record in the Middle East; in making this case, he offers up an Oxford academic’s simple and obvious definition of antisemitism.
The definition of antisemitism as hostility to Jews as Jews has very limited explanatory power, because what does one mean by ‘Jew’? The process of racialization is skipped: the process of identifying difference as significant and the cause of harm, which requires the one doing the racialization to identify and label a difference and to assign negative meaning and consequence to that difference. Let me put it differently, one could define anti-Muslim racism, or Islamophobia, as hostility to Muslims as Muslims. But what does one mean by ‘Muslim’? The process of racialization is omitted: again, the process of identifying difference as significant and the source of harm, which involves identifying and labelling a difference and giving negative meaning and consequence to that difference. On September 15th 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a man of American nationality, was attacked and killed in a hate crime in the US state of Arizona. He was a practising Sikh with a beard and a turban – the beard and the turban were identified with the figure of the Islamist terrorist. Explaining this hate crime as hostility to Muslims as Muslims actually offers no explanation at all; more precisely, Balbir Singh Sodhi was a victim of anti-Muslim racism and the process of racialization that that entailed.
Similar to other forms of racism, with anti-Jewish racism, or antisemitism, it is not ethnic difference per se that matters but the identification of ethnic difference as significant and a problem. Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism involves a process of signification that assigns ‘the Jew’ with negative characteristics that have negative consequences – the idea of ‘the harmful Jew’ – which fuses into a way of seeing and making sense of the ills of global capitalism. The harmful Jewish Other is seen as part-and-parcel of a Zionist collective that harbours a particularly harmful imperialism, a particularly harmful nationalism, a particularly harmful settler-colonialism, a particularly harmful ethnic cleansing, and a particularly harmful racism, comparable only to two historical pariahs, South African apartheid and Nazi Germany, and which operates, surreptitiously, a particularly sinister, tyrannical and harmful global reach to shut down criticism of Israel, to dominant the world, and to threaten world peace.
In a comparison of contemporary Islamophobia and antisemitism, old and new, Pnina Werbner (2013: 451) astutely observes its intersection with the politics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:
“we find these concepts and the protagonists who enunciate them entangled with each other in mutual recriminations, invoking a wide concatenation of ambiguous, polysemic, ideological tropes: Zionism, Islamism, racism, colonialism, apartheid, genocide, terrorism, Nazism, orientalism, occidentalism.”
Revisiting her conceptualisation of the “three archetypal demonic figures conjured up by the racist imagination […] the slave, the witch and the Grand Inquisitor” (ibid: 455; see image below), she recognises that on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “extremist actions seem intent on confirming the worst racist imaginaries each group has of the other” (ibid: 461): the Jews as conspiratorial witches and the Palestinians as the Islamic Grand Inquisitor.
“The witch”, Werbner (2013: 455-456) elaborates:
“crystallizes fears of the hidden, disguised, malevolent stranger, of a general breakdown of trust […] Your neighbour may be a witch who wants to destroy you. He or she is culturally indistinguishable in almost every respect because the witch masquerades as a non-alien.”
“[t]he Islamic Grand Inquisitor is not a disguised, assimilated threat as the Jewish ‘witch’ […]; ‘he’ is not subservient and bestial like the black ‘slave’. He is upfront, morally superior, openly aggressive, denying promiscuous society and the validity of other cultures […].” (ibid, 458).
Both antisemitism and Islamophobia mobilise religion as a marker for racialization and entail a dynamic of ‘conspiratorial racialization’ – defined by Reza Zia-Ebrahimi (2018) as an ahistorical and unchanging, psychological and moral essentialisation of a population as “a monolithic group animated by only one will”” (ibid: 319) that is “the ultimate enemy out for our destruction” (ibid: 318). Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism operates a racist imaginary akin to Werbner’s description of the Jewish witch and Zia-Ebrahimi’s (2018) understanding of conspiratorial racialization: many on the Left seek to expose the hidden power of Zionism and its followers who are out to destroy us and see Zionism as the ultimate epitome and personification of the insidious harm wrought by global capitalism and imperialism.
In their book Antisemitism and the left: On the return of the Jewish question, Robert Fine and Philip Spencer (2017) construct a powerful argument around the two faces of universalism: its emancipatory face that seeks to include the Other as an equal human being and its repressive face that singles out the Other as the failure of what is required for membership of humanity. They explore how the negative face of universalism has shaped the Jewish question over time; ‘the Jewish question’ being, “the classic term for the representation of Jews as harmful to humanity as a whole” (Fine and Spencer, 2017: 2). Furthermore, they recognise, quoting Hannah Arendt, “[t]he classic form in which the Jewish question was posed in the Enlightenment” – that is, the belief that the Jew can only be a human being when he or she stops being a Jew – “provides classic antisemitism its theoretical basis” (Arendt cited in Fine and Spencer, 2017: 17). Fine and Spencer (2017: 6) reason that while it should not be controversial to state that a critique of antisemitism should be integral to any emancipatory movement that strives “to understand” the problems of “modern capitalist society rather than simply blame it on secret conspiracies or particular scapegoats”, much of the Left respond to ‘charges’ of antisemitism with suspicion; a suspicion not made of other forms of racism. As such, they suggest, “something has gone seriously wrong with the universalism of the antiracist imagination” (ibid: 7). Fine and Spencer (2017) identify four methodological assumptions that have seeped into the culture of the activist and academic Left that support and intensify the Left’s misrecognition of antisemitism: one, ‘methodological separatism’, which disconnects antisemitism from other forms of racism; two, ‘methodological historicism’ that places antisemitism as a phenomenon of the past; three, ‘methodological dualism’, which obscures our view of antisemitism and racism through a world framework of ‘them’ versus ‘us’, “reinforced […] when racism is condemned as the exercise of oppressive power while antisemitism is excused as a mislabelled or misguided form of resistance” (ibid: 8), and when those who raise concerns of antisemitism are consequently placed in the camp of the oppressive power; and, four, ‘methodological nationalism’, or rather, “the replacement of the cosmopolitan critique of methodological nationalism by a simulacrum of cosmopolitanism that projects into one particular instance of nationalism the defects of nationalism in toto” (ibid: 9). The idea that something must be done to end the harm caused by the Jewish nation-state and its supporters because of its particular infliction on humanity is the contemporary form which the Jewish question and left antisemitism takes.
I propose that the methodological assumptions that Fine and Spencer (2017) identify as made by much of the Left, and which underpin and compound its misrecognition of antisemitism, have some roots in what Robert Miles (1989; 1993) critiques in much of the theorising about capitalism and racism in British and North American academia since the 1960s. Such theoretical work, while recognising the immorality of the racism that culminated in the Holocaust, nonetheless applies:
“a colonial model which has little scope to explain much of the European racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and certainly not that form of racism which others label anti-semitism […]; it does, however, have a relevance to the controversial debate about whether or not Zionism can be defined as an instance of racism […]. Consequently, we are offered definitions and theories of racism which are so specific to the history of overseas colonialisation (that is, specific to the domination of ‘white’ over ‘black’ as so many writers express it) that they are of little value in explaining any other (non-colonial) context.” (Miles, 1989: 68)
Miles (1989: 33) understands that the scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not simply replace earlier representations of the Other, rather earlier ideas of “savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it”. Widening one’s historical and geographical perspective beyond a colonial model of racism enables us to comprehend the racialization of religion, or rather the co-constitution of ‘race’ with religion. As James Thomas (2010: 1738-1739) in his study of the racial formation of medieval Jews points out, whilst:
“[m]ost scholars still conceive of race as a post-Enlightenment ideology built upon the Atlantic slave trade, hinged upon observable phenotypical human differentiation and therefore absent in pre-modern societies whose ideologies of difference were simply ‘cultural’ […] discourses of modern racism not only antedate the social taxonomies arising out of nineteenth-century scientific thought, but it was Christianity which provided the vocabularies of difference for the Western world, and even for secularized science […].”
Returning then to Fine and Spencer’s (2017) identification of methodological slippages into a left misrecognition of antisemitism, a colonial model of racism can be seen to have contributed to a disconnection of antisemitism from racism, an effective relegation of antisemitism to the past, and a framework of ‘white’ domination over ‘black’ in which Zionism is racism. In Ilan Pappé’s (2007) words, on Palestine and Israel, “[t]he story here is a simple story, a story of white people who were persecuted in Europe and who drove away the black people who used to live here”.
Contra to a colonial model of racism, Miles (1993: 21) theorises racism through a focus on “the articulation between the capitalist mode of production and the nation state, rather than between capitalism and colonialism, because”, he explains, “this maps the primary set of social relations within which racism had its origins and initial effects”. And although “[c]olonialism was an integral moment of this articulation, […] racism was not an exclusive product of colonialism […]” (ibid: 21). Miles (1993: 61-62) expands on both the distinctiveness and potential overlap of nationalism and racism:
“For much of the nineteenth century, nationalism was synonymous with a struggle for political sovereignty within defined spatial boundaries and for some form of representative government. […] By way of contrast, there was no single political strategy that emerged from the general theory of biological, hierarchical differentiation expressed in the idea of ‘race’. […] The theorisation of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ took place at a time of ‘internal’ European political and economic reorganisation and ‘external’ colonial expansion, in the course of which the range of human cultural and physiological variation become more widely known to a larger number of people. The extension of capitalist relations of production increased the circulation of commodities and of people, and this increasing mobility, migration and social interaction provided part of the foundation upon which the ideologies of racism and nationalism were constructed. […] Because nations were identified as naturally occurring groups identifiable by cultural differentiae, it was logically possible to assert that these symbols of ‘nation’ were themselves grounded in ‘race’ […]”.
Earlier in this section I quoted the pro-Palestinian left activist Tony Greenstein (2017), including his assertion, “there are many repressive states in the world, I grant you, but there is only one racist state, there’s only one apartheid state”. A colonial model of racism aids the singling-out of the nation-state of Israel as an examplar of settler-colonialism in an era of decolonization. Only seeing racism in the context of European colonization (and decolonization), rather than as intersecting with capitalist political economy and the nation-state more broadly, enables the possibility of the statement, “there are many repressive states in the world, I grant you, but there is only one racist state, there’s only one apartheid state”. On the question of apartheid, South African apartheid operated through a narrow caste exploiting the labour-power of a majority population – a class dynamic that is not present in Israel. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court alongside the 1973 United Nations General Assembly’s International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid define apartheid as the institutionalized and regime-maintaining, systematic domination and oppression of one racial group over another racial group. Even with this wider definition of apartheid, there are nation-states other than Israel guilty of an apartheid racism but which fall outside of the lens of a colonial model of racism. Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing and segregation of the Rohingya population, for example, and China’s persecution of the Uyghur-majority population in the state of Xinjiang through the detainment of an estimated one million Uyghars in re-education camps, the mass separation of children from Uyghar families, and the forced contraception and sterilisation of Uyghar women.
III. Challenging left antisemitism
“An emphasis upon racism as a ‘false doctrine’”, Robert Miles (1989: 80) points out, “fails to appreciate that one of the conditions of existence of ideologies (which by definition constitute in their totality a false explanation, but which may nevertheless also incorporate elements of truth) is that they can successfully ‘make sense’ of the world, at least for those who articulate and use them.” This point is congruent with Antonio Gramsci’s dissatisfaction with the notion of false consciousness and his alternative concept of contradictory consciousness: the co-existence of two competing philosophies, common sense and good sense. Common sense is a way of making sense of the world that goes against “thinking dialectically”, instead encouraging dogmatism and eagerness “for peremptory certainties” (Gramsci, 1971: 435). Common sense is employed by people simply because it seems to make sense as “a specific way of rationalising the world and real life, which provide[s] the general framework for real practical activity” (Gramsci, 1971:337) – albeit “a creation of concrete phantasy” (ibid:126). “Common sense as the site of unexamined prejudices, values and normativities” co-exists with “good sense” which “demand[s] a human life for all people” (Holub, 1992: 53). The way in which much of the Left understands and responds to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict reflects contradictory consciousness, both common sense – left antisemitism – and good sense – a sincere and passionate commitment to end the longstanding and ever-worsening repression of the Palestinians by the Israeli state and military. Freedom of speech and peaceful action are essential here, but so too is the creation of circumstances that enable people on the Left, activists and academics, to engage in critical self-reflection and honest debate. This necessitates an advancement in the culture of the Left: a culture where “people join in a criticism of themselves and their own weaknesses without [losing] faith in their own strength and their own future” (Gramsci, 1985:251), both challenging and overcoming common sense and developing existing embryonic good sense.
In a Socialist Workers’ Party public meeting of its July 2017 Marxism Festival, titled “Zionism, antisemitism and the left today”, which is available to watch on YouTube, Brian Klug is a guest speaker. The Socialist Workers’ Party member Rob Ferguson refers in this meeting to Klug’s 2004 article in The Nation, “The Myth of the New Antisemitism”, and his 2013 keynote lecture in Berlin, “What do we mean when we say ‘antisemitism’”, as a benchmark to understanding antisemitism. What Klug says in this public meeting is nuanced and insightful, and the other contributions made thereafter are noteworthy.
In sum, Klug (2017) critiques “a discourse [on the pro-Palestinian Left] that folds Zionism completely, without remainder, into the history of European imperialism and colonialism, as if Zionism does not have its roots in the Jewish experience […] of centuries of exclusion and persecution in Europe”. He emphasizes that he does not want to be seen as defending Zionism, which he is not, rather his agenda is for a change on the pro-Palestinian Left to how Zionism is spoken about and for a more thoughtful response to the question of antisemitism. Klug stresses his political credentials: recognising and rejecting dominant Zionism today as dispossessing Palestinians and possessing Jews. He continues by stating that whether or not any of the allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party were true, there clearly was a cynical and shameful campaign by enemies of Labour on the outside and enemies of Corbyn within, under the guise of combating antisemitism, “and yet”, he adds, “things are not quite that simple”. Klug then tells the meeting of an experience that was told to him by a friend, “I’ll call her Daphne, not her real name”: a lifelong socialist and a Jewish anti-Zionist. Daphne, it is relayed, had recently proposed a motion at a well-attended Labour Party CLP meeting criticising Ken Livingstone for his comments linking Zionism with Nazism. For her, Klug explains, the history of the Holocaust is part of the identity of all Jews regardless of what one might feel about Israel, and her motive had nothing to do with Livingstone’s politics on Israel which she made clear when she proposed the motion. He continues:
“Nevertheless, and I quote her, “everyone who spoke against the motion suggested that it was part of a plot by Israel or that it was an attempt to prevent discussion of Israel”. Daphne was made to feel, in her own words, “an agent of the Israeli state”. Her opponents didn’t address her arguments, they didn’t try to defend what he [Livingstone] said, Daphne told me, “they were”, I quote, “only interested in discrediting those behind the motion by linking it to Israel or right-wing manoeuvring in the Party”. In effect, her opponents, I quote, ““shut down discussion, I felt I was being silenced”, she said”.
Klug makes two points on this. On the one hand, one is familiar with people crying antisemitism to shut down critical discussion of Israel, on the other, in Daphne’s case, there were those, in effect, crying Zionism to shut down discussion on antisemitism. The second point:
“Here we have an anti-Zionist, anti-occupation Jew being made to feel by a group of people on the Left, all of whom knew her, as though she were an agent of the Israeli state. […] What should we call this? Antisemitism? Or maybe, I don’t know, and I almost said I don’t care, the word antisemitism is so contested, so emotive that it sometimes seems to get in the way of thinking [original emphasis]”.
Klug does nonetheless call this incident an injustice: an injustice to Daphne, just like the injustice when it is the other way around. He states that while he refrains from ‘crying antisemitism’, someone without a pro-Israel agenda could suspect bigotry at play. He concludes on the case of Daphne:
“All too often, when a Jewish person, even an anti-Zionist, anti-occupation Jew says they feel uncomfortable or worse with the way in which Jews or Israel are spoken about, the knee-jerk reaction is to scoff and to cry ‘Zionism!’, we wouldn’t treat members of other racialized minorities this way, then why the Jews?”
Klug then returns to expand on the standard way Zionism is thought and spoken about on the pro-Palestinian Left:
“Zionism is seen as part and parcel of the history of European, especially British, imperialism and Israel as a settler-colonial state, to which I have two responses, yes that’s true and no that’s false, it’s true as far as it goes but it doesn’t go far enough and what it leaves out is crucial which is why it’s false.”
Klug’s main point here is that Zionism was part of an argument about how to save the Jews, not a debate about how to make Great Britain greater; “this is the piece that is missing from the stock discourse […] the missing piece is the centrepiece of the story but it is certainly not the whole story”. Zionism, he suggests, should be recognised as Janus-faced, as belonging to two opposite histories simultaneously: as part of a history of Jews as a racialized minority and the internal Other of Europe and as part of the history of British imperialism. While Zionism from the outset spoke the language of colonization, Klug stresses that Zionism thought of itself as a colonization for emancipation not a colonization to expand and enrich an Empire. He cites a Palestinian academic to summate his point, the European saw the back of Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives, the Palestinian saw the face of settler-colonialists. Klug’s participation and contribution in this public meeting is commendable. His aim was to invite thinking; in a Gramscian sense, he was an organic intellectual in a genuine effort to generate a culture of “thinking well, whatever one thinks, and therefore acting well, whatever one does” (Gramsci, 1985: 25). Noteworthy then is the rest of this public meeting, i.e., the contributions of the other two panellists and those from the floor. While there was some limited discussion about Ken Livingstone connecting Zionism with Nazism, which ranged from Tom Hickey calling his comments “clumsy” whilst stating that Livingstone must nevertheless be defended, to someone else saying you don’t mention Zionism and Nazism together, no one identified the story about Daphne as either problematic or, further still, antisemitism. Indeed, the second speaker from the floor – Jonathan Rosenhead – was the only person to directly address the case of Daphne. He said this: “she was offended, she felt criticised […] I use to be offended like that […] we are not obliged to be hypersensitive about people who are still feeling offended that Israel can be criticised in serious ways”. The general Socialist Workers’ Party line pushed in the meeting was twofold, the threat of antisemitism comes from the far Right and fascists and we are the true opponents of fascism, racism and antisemitism, not the Zionists who capitulate to antisemitism and promote an illegitimate racist colonial state, and, that we must engage and have arguments with Jewish students on university campuses who are attracted to soft Zionism, while being mindful of our language, in order to get them to make the break from Zionism.
“The Jewish question is not just an attitude of hostility to Jews or to those who invoke the sign of ‘the Jews’ but a theory designed to explain the winners and losers of capitalist society. It is formulated in terms of dichotomies – the modern and the backward, the people and its enemies, the civic and the ethnic, the postnational and the national, imperialism and anti-imperialism, power and resistance, the West and the rest. In every case Jews appear as the ‘other of the universal’: a backward people who stubbornly resist progress or an all-too-clever people who manipulate progress and hold the world in its thrall; a nation within a nation that is endemically treacherous or a nation unlike all other nations in that it is not a valid nation at all; a ‘settler-colonial’ state in an otherwise decolonised world or a ‘cosmopolitan elite’ with no comprehension of global responsibility. The ‘othering’ of Jews inevitably creates an inequitable economy of compassion and a restrictive arena of solidarity. In its spiritless radicalism it at once turns Israel into the primary source of violence in the world and places Palestinians into a single identity script as victims, only as victims and only as victims of Israel. Just as it subsumes the plurality of Jewish voices to ‘the Jews’ and the plurality of Israeli voices to ‘Israel’, it also subsumes the plurality of Palestinian voices to ‘the Palestinians’ and risks turning them into ciphers of our own resentments. […] Jews never were the problem; they are not the problem now. What has to be dealt with is not a Jewish question, but the question of antisemitism that generated the Jewish question in the first place.” (Fine and Spencer, 2017: 124)
To recap, much of the Left comprehends antisemitism as an exclusive manifestation of the Right: either as an aspect of the populist Right and fascism against the Jews; or as a false accusation made, behind-the-scenes, by Israel and the Zionist lobby against the Left internationally to silence criticism of Israel; or as a reaction and product of Israel’s existence as a Jewish, expansionist, racist, and settler-colonial state. Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism, or antisemitism, involves a process of signification that ascribes ‘the Jew’ with negative characteristics that have negative consequences – the idea of ‘the harmful Jew’ – which merges into a way of seeing and making sense of the ills of global capitalism. The harmful Jewish Other is seen as part-and-parcel of a Zionist collective that harbours a particularly harmful imperialism, a particularly harmful nationalism, a particularly harmful settler-colonialism, a particularly harmful ethnic cleansing, and a particularly harmful racism, comparable only to two historical pariahs, South African apartheid and Nazi Germany, and which operates, clandestinely, a particularly sinister, tyrannical and harmful global reach to shut down criticism of Israel, to dominant the world, and to threaten world peace. What follows is the conclusion that the Jewish nation-state must cease to exist as a Jewish nation-state in order to belong to humanity, and that the Zionist Jew must stop being a Zionist Jew to be included in the commune of human beings. As Fine and Spencer (2017) make plain, the Jewish question and left antisemitism expresses itself through the negative face of universalism, as the Other of universalism. This is confirmed by Ilan Pappé’s (2019) damning assertion, previously quoted, “you cannot really reconcile the ideology of Zionism with universal values, whether they are Marxism, socialism or even liberalism”.
The independent Marxist theoretician and French Orientalist scholar Maxime Rodinson does well to emphasize that the prevailing colonial philosophy in Europe both explains and is responsible for the fact that the actual population of Palestine was generally ignored by the early Zionists (Rodinson, 1968). A new population of Europeans settled on an already occupied territory whose people refused such a settlement and these settlers “came from that world which was everywhere known as the world of the colonizers” (ibid: 215). For the Arabs, Zionism, a manifestation of nationalism that pursued its project in an era of decolonization, is synonymous with imperialism, colonialism and capitalism, and the Palestinian refugees are the living symbol of injustice (Rodinson, 1968). At the same time, the ultimate momentum for this mass settlement was European fascism: “anti-Semitism played a capital role in gathering together an entire group that was otherwise on the road to disintegration. Zionism played no significant role […] before 1939 […]” (Rodinson, 1983, page 164). Rodinson (1973, page 91-93) concludes that while the “creation of the State of Israel was an outrage committed against the Arabs as a people”:
“Colonists and colonizers are not monsters with human faces whose behavior defies rational explanation, as one might think from reading left-wing intellectuals. […] The Jews of Israel too are people like other people. Some of them have hammered out an illusory ideology to which they have sacrificed themselves as well as a great deal of effort and many human lives. They are not alone. Many are those who have suffered much but have looked with indifference upon the sufferings and rights of others. Many went there because it was the life preserver thrown to them. They most assuredly did not first engage in scholarly research to find out if they had a right to it according to Kantian morality or existentialist ethics. It is accordingly useless to reproach them for it. […] Let it be said forthrightly, even if it hurts or arouses indignation among left-wing conformists who believe the social revolution solves all problems. There is no “revolutionary solution” to the Israeli-Arab problem.”
What’s more, the proclaimed revolutionary solution of undoing the Jewish nation-state to deliver redress and justice to the Palestinian-Arabs is “liable to be calamitous and unjust” (Rodinson, 1968: 231). It “binds”, as Daniel Randall (forthcoming) puts it, the “advancement” of “Palestinian rights to an outcome” of historically unprecedented “mass collective disavowal of national rights by Israeli Jews”, which would be achievable only “by bloody force”; “[i]t is rare for lasting equality and justice to emerge from ashes”, more often, such ashes are the “fertile ground for ongoing cycles of nationalist resentment and revanchism. If the left cannot construct an active solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination on the basis of consistent democracy and equal rights, our politics are doomed”.
In our opposition to the culture war of Britain’s right-wing Conservative government against the Left in academia, which includes its punitive request to impose the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, we must also create space for a fuller and richer culture of discussion and debate that is able to escape the prison house of the Jewish question. There is, however, a danger that opposition to this culture war is blended into the Jewish question – that too, we must resist.
Fine, Robert and Spencer, Philip (2017) Antisemitism and the left: On the return of the Jewish question, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
[Moishe] Postone argues that left-antisemitism has a “pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have”. In this, he is on the one hand speaking to the antisemitism sometimes referred to as the “socialism of fools”, in which people on the left see themselves as having an opposition to capitalism and, through the pervasiveness of racist antisemitic tropes, they associate capitalism with Jewish people. On the other hand he is also referencing what might be referred to as a “post-1948” strand of antisemitism. In that people look upon the policies and actions carried out by the Israeli state and, through seeking affinity and solidarity with the Palestinian cause, either generalise the Israeli state as a representative of all Jewish people worldwide and therefore seek to hold all Jewish people accountable, or seek revanchist solutions which would lead to the mass expulsion of Jewish populations from the Middle East. In either of the forms of antisemitism that Postone refers to here, the intentions of the person holding these views are, in general, of seeking justice and liberation for oppressed peoples. This antisemitism is justified by an idea of “punching up” rather than down. That is why these ideas have such a particular grip on the left and tend to take a form particular from that of the right.
The same can be said for transphobia. Transphobia on the left does not; generally speaking, appear in the same form as either the far-right strain […] or in the more broadly right wing bigoted view that tends to share a lot in common with homophobic bigotry that was most prominent in the 1980s. Rather, we have an extremely prominent (though small in terms of absolute numbers) layer of the labour movement organising and agitating against trans people. Some trans-rights activists make the argument that this layer of the labour movement are entirely detached from feminism. That is incorrect. Significant parts of this layer, as well as some of the milieu they draw around them, at the very least earnestly see themselves as feminists. In many cases they have a reasonably strong record in feminist activism within the trade-union movement as well as in keeping services like women’s shelters open during periods of very little funding or support.
The root of the problem is not lack of a broadly defined feminism that is. Rather, it is what we might term a “feminism of fools”, in which the societal prominence of misogyny is seen to be embodied by trans women, just as the 19th century’s “socialism of fools” scapegoated Jews as the embodiment of abstract capital. Quite a significant layer of activists who have for some time been on the left of feminist issues within the labour movement have managed to be on the wrong side of the issue of trans rights on the basis of “punching up” against trans women. It is important for the broader labour movement to come to terms with these tendencies. Given that the labour movement and the organised working class possesses the structural capabilities to fight for change in society, it is crucial that our own house is in order. If we are to fight for human emancipation, particular sections of our class cannot be sold down the river under the premise of “punching up”. (Cassidy, 2019)
What do we mean by, and what’s the case for, a two states settlement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? On the academic and public Left, the history of this conflict is actually one of competing historical narratives, which differ in their selection and emphasis of key events and players. These historical narratives offer different perspectives on the nature of this conflict at present and on its potential resolution in the future.
Two highly significant dates in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are 1948 and 1967.
1948 is known by the Palestinian-Arabs as the al-Nakba, the catastrophe. Why? Because in 1948, Israeli-Jews took up their right to national self-determination. In one and the same moment, on one and the same land, the original occupants, Palestinian-Arabs, saw their right to national self-determination banish.
What do I mean by ‘right’ here? I am coming from the tradition and perspective of consistent democracy, which recognises that, as much as I am politically opposed to nationalism and strive for a world free of nation-states, all (without exception) self-defining national groups of people have a basic democratic right to fulfilling their wish for a nation-state.
The tragedy of 1948 is that one nationally self-defined group of people achieved their right at the expense of another nationally self-defined group of people.
In June 1967, the Israeli state came out of the Arab-Israeli 6-day war with more territory than its UN recognised nation-state borders of 1948. To date, that territory is the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Now, accepting the fait accompli of the nation-state of Israel on its 1948 borders, a further critical date then in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is 1967: that being the moment when the Israeli state occupation of Palestine, Palestine being Gaza and the West Back, commenced.
This is the historical understanding that then flows into the demand for a fully autonomous Palestinian nation-state of Gaza and the West Bank alongside the nation-state of Israel; meaning, notably, an end and reversal of the right-wing expansionist politics and actions of the Israeli state, that the Israeli-Jewish settlements of the West Bank must be reversed, and that the control of movement and space in, out, and through Gaza by the Israeli state and military must end.
A consistently democratic settlement to this conflict (and by this, I mean democratic for both working class people in Israel and in occupied Palestine) is that of a ‘two nations, two states’ settlement.
Conversely, the dominant historical narrative of the Left considers 1948 as the singular paramount date in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – this is when, it is argued, the colonial occupation of Palestine began and continues, with the territory gained by the Israeli state in 1967 merely an expansion of this occupation. The demand, ‘Free Palestine, End the Occupation’, means then the undoing (in some way) of the existence of the nation-state of Israel on 1948 borders. And after that, because we exist in a world in which the nation-state is the legal vehicle of political governance, some kind of one state settlement: be that under the guise of a binational state, a confederation, or so on.
What’s the right political answer here for the Left? Two states or a various configurations of one state. Certainly the answer for the Israeli political Right is one state.
In the run up to 1948, as stated by late scholar Maxime Rodinson, “the actual inhabitants of Palestine were ignored by practically everybody. The philosophy prevailing in the European world at the time was without any doubt responsible for this. Every territory situated outside that world was considered empty”. Zionism, Jewish nationalism, pursued its project in this climate and it gained reality because of the exodus of Jews from Europe escaping murderous anti-Semitism. A newly formed Israel existed in an era of decolonisation, which partly explains why Israel is uniquely singled out by the much of the Left.
Is it a just and realistic demand, seven decades on, to undo Israel? No. Is it morally bankrupt and unrealistic to demand a two nations, two states settlement on pre-1967 borders? No.
Again, Maxime Rodinson: “If the consequences of pressing a just claim are liable to be calamitous and unjust, and too fraught with practical difficulties, there may be grounds for suggesting that it be renounced. The wrong done to the Arabs by the Israelis is very real. However, it is only too common throughout history.” “Colonists and colonizers are not monsters with human faces whose behaviour defies rational explanation, as one might think from reading left-wing intellectuals … Who is innocent of this charge? … History is full of fait accomplis.”
There is no revolutionary solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but there is a consistently democratic one with the hope that the peaceful coexistence of two realised national groups of working class peoples might then transcend their national and religious identities for a cosmopolitan and egalitarian future.
“It is strange to see things for which Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty have long been despised and abused, among much of the left, the kitsch left, now being brandished as weapons against the Corbyn Labour Party by our political enemies. Certainly “left-wing” antisemitism, expressed as “anti-Zionism”, is a malignant and powerful force on the left. […] Those who want the destruction of Israel and advocate, or would support, an Arab or Islamic war of extermination against it should not be members of any working-class or socialist party. It is necessary to educate and re-educate the left and the labour movement, to get the movement to see, reject, and fight their “left-wing” antisemitism. […] Blatant and persistent antisemites should be expelled from the Labour Party. But more than that is needed. Jeremy Corbyn should take the lead in initiating an educational campaign in the Labour Party and in the broader labour movement on the complex of questions involved, including Israel-Palestine.”Anti-Semitism is a real issue: criticise the “left”, oppose the right (2018)
“I’m sure you know, millions more Africans were killed in the African Holocaust and their oppression continues today on a global scale in a way it doesn’t for Jews… and many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade which is of course why there were so many early synagogues in the Caribbean. So who are victims and what does it mean? We are victims and perpetrators to some extent through choice. And having been a victim does not give you a right to be a perpetrator.”Jackie Walker (2016)
““Anti-Semitism is a crime. Anti-Zionism is a duty” read the banner in front of the stage at Jackie Walker’s performance of her one-person show “The Lynching” at the Edinburgh Fringe in early August. […] She describes her play as “the one-woman show about a real-life witch-hunt: an attempt to destroy Jeremy Corbyn and an entire political movement.” According to the play’s publicity, the play tells you “what they wouldn’t let Jackie Walker tell you.” Who “they” are is not defined. Nor is there any explanation of why “they” are letting Walker tell you something in a play which “they” do not let her tell you in any other way. Or maybe that’s the power of the performing arts? The play is part of an ongoing campaign by Walker, according to which the allegations of anti-semitism raised against her are totally unfounded and are really an attempt (presumably by “them”) to silence critics of Israel (and destroy Jeremy Corbyn, and destroy Momentum). […] The banner draped in front of the stage on which Walker performed her play is the banner of the Scottish Palestine Campaign (SPSC), which also organised a speaking tour of Scotland for Walker in March. In the week preceding Walker’s performance the SPSC had been a news item in its own right, following the publication of “Jew Hate and Holocaust Denial in Scotland” by Jewish Human Rights Watch. The report’s author, David Collier, had researched the personal social media accounts of Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) members and activists. The bulk of the 160-page report consists of screengrabs of some of the antisemitic material which he encountered: Holocaust denial and Holocaust revisionism; the antisemitic trope of Israel as a behind-the-scenes global superpower; other traditional antisemitic tropes (rich Jews, greedy Jews, cunning Jews, etc.).”Jackie Walker’s questionable allies (2017)
Insightful context to the high-profile case of the twice suspended Labour Party member and former Vice-Chair of Momentum, Jackie Walker, is the book Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments edited by Paul Berman (published by Delta in 1994); in particular, two of its essays by Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Below are extracts from each essay.
Cornel West: On Black-Jewish Relations
“Without a sympathetic understanding of the deep historic sources of Jewish fears and anxieties about group survival, blacks will not grasp the visceral attachment of most Jews to Israel. Similarly, without a candid acknowledgment of blacks’ status as permanent underdogs in American society, Jews will not comprehend what the symbolic predicament and literal plight of Palestinians in Israel means to blacks. […] The ascendance of the conservative Likud party in Israel in 1977 and the visibility of narrow black nationalist voices in the eighties helped solidify this impasse. When mainstream American Jewish organizations supported the inhumane policies of Begin and Shamir, they tipped their hats toward cold-hearted interest-group calculations. When black nationalist spokesmen like Farrakhan and Jeffries excessively targeted Jewish power as subordinating black and brown peoples they played the same mean-spirited game. In turning their heads from the ugly truth of Palestinian subjugation, and in refusing to admit the falsity of the alleged Jewish conspiracies, both sides failed to define the moral character of their Jewish and black identities.”
“Black anti-Semitism rests on three basic pillars. First, it is a species of anti-whitism. Jewish complicity in American racism – even though it is less extensive than the complicity of other white Americans – reinforces black perceptions that Jews are identical to any other group benefiting from white-skin privileges in racist America. This view denies the actual history and treatment of Jews. And the particular interactions of Jews and black people in the hierarchies of business and education cast Jews as the public face of oppression for the black community, and thus lend evidence to this mistaken view of Jews as any other white folk.
Second, black anti-Semitism is a result of higher expectations some black folk have of Jews. This perspective holds Jews to a moral standard different from that extended to other white ethnic groups, principally owing to the ugly history of anti-Semitism in the world, especially in Europe and the Middle East. Such double standards assume that Jews and blacks are “natural” allies, since both groups have suffered chronic degradation and oppression at the hands of racial and ethnic majorities. So when Jewish neoconservatism gains a high public profile at a time when black peoples are more and more vulnerable, the charge of “betrayal” surfaces among black folk who feel let down. Such utterances resonate strongly in a black Protestant culture that has inherited many stock Christian anti-Semitic narratives of Jews as Christ-killers. These infamous narratives historically have had less weight in the black community, in stark contrast to the more obdurate white Christian varieties of anti-Semitism. Yet in moments of desperation in the black community, they tend to reemerge, charged with the rhetoric of Jewish betrayal.
Third, black anti-Semitism is a form of underdog resentment and envy, directed at another underdog who has “made it” in American society. The remarkable upward mobility of American Jews – rooted chiefly in a history and culture that places a premium on higher education and self-organization – easily lends itself to myths of Jewish unity and homogeneity that have gained currency among other groups, especially among relatively unorganised groups like black Americans. The high visibility of Jews in the upper reaches of the academy, journalism, the entertainment industry, and the professions – though less so percentagewise in corporate America and national political office – is viewed less as a result of hard work and success fairly won, and more as a matter of favouritism and nepotism among Jews. Ironically, calls for black solidarity and achievement are often modeled on myths of Jewish unity – as both groups respond to American xenophobia and racism. But in times such as these, some blacks view Jews as obstacles rather than allies in the struggle for racial justice.
These three elements of black anti-Semitism – which also characterize the outlooks of some other ethnic groups in America – have a long history among black people. Yet the recent upsurge of black anti-Semitism exploits two other prominent features of the political landscape identified with the American Jewish establishment: the military status of Israel in the Middle East (especially in its enforcement of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza); and the visible conservative Jewish opposition to what is perceived to be a major means of black progress, namely, affirmative action. Of course, principled critiques of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, of Israeli denigration of Palestinians, or attacks on affirmative action transcend anti-Semitic sensibilities. Yet vulgar critiques do not – and often are shot through with such sensibilities, in white and black America alike. These vulgar critiques – usually based on sheer ignorance and a misinformed thirst for vengeance – add an aggressive edge to black anti-Semitism. And in the rhetoric of a Louis Farrakhan or a Leonard Jeffries, whose audiences rightly hunger for black self-respect and oppose black degradation, these critiques misdirect progressive black energies arrayed against unaccountable corporate power and antiblack racism, steering them instead toward Jewish elites and antiblack conspiracies in Jewish America. This displacement is disturbing not only because it is analytically and morally wrong; it also discourages any effective alliances across races.”
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: The Uses of Anti-Semitism
“As the African-American philosopher Cornel West has insisted, attention to black anti-Semitism is crucial, however discomforting, in no small part because the moral credibility of our struggle against racism hangs in the balance.”
“A book popular with some in the “Afrocentric” movement, The Iceman Inheritance: Prehistoric Sources of Western Man’s Racism, Sexism, and Aggression by Michael Bradley, argues that white people are so vicious because they, unlike the rest of mankind, are descended from the brutish Neanderthals. More to the point, it speculates that the Jews may have been the “‘purest’ and oldest Neanderthal-Caucasoids,” the iciest of the ice people: hence (he explains) the singularly odious character of ancient Jewish culture. Crackpot as it sounds, the book has lately been reissued with endorsements from two members of the Africana Studies department of City College, New York, as well as an introduction by a professor emeritus of Hunter College and paterfamilias of the Afrocentric movement.
College speakers and publications have also had a role to play in legitimating the new creed. Last year, UCLA’s black newspaper Nommo defended the importance of the notorious czarist canard, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (Those who took issue were rebuked with an article headlined: “Anti-Semitic? Ridiculous – Chill.”) Speaking at Harvard University earlier this year, Conrad L. Muhammad, national youth representative of the Nation of Islam, neatly annexed environmentalism to anti-Semitism when he blamed the Jews for despoiling the environment and destroying the ozone layer.
But the bible of the new anti-Semitism is The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, an official publication of the Nation of Islam that boasts 1,275 footnotes in the course of 334 pages. […] The book, one of the most sophisticated instances of hate literature yet compiled, was prepared by the historical research department of the Nation of Islam. It charges that the Jews were in fact “key operatives” in the historic crime of slavery, playing an “inordinate” and “disproportionate” role and “carv[ing] out for themselves a monumental culpability in slavery – and the black holocaust.” And among significant sectors of the black community, this brief has become a credo of a new philosophy of black self-affirmation.
To be sure, the book massively misrepresents the historical record, largely through a process of cunningly selective quotations of often reputable sources. But its authors could be confident that few of its readers would go to the trouble of actually hunting down the works cited. For if readers actually did so, they might discover a rather different picture. They might find out – from the book’s own vaunted authorities – that, for example, of all the African slaves imported into the New World, American Jewish merchants accounted for less than 2 percent, a finding sharply at odds with the Nation’s claim of Jewish “predominance” in this traffic. They might find out that, in the domestic trade, it appears that all of the Jewish slave traders combined bought and sold fewer slaves than the single gentile firm of Franklin and Armfield. In short, they might learn what the historian Harold Brackman has documented at length: that the book’s repeated insistence that the Jews dominated the slave trade depends on unscrupulous distortion of the historic record. But the most ominous words in the book are found on the cover: “volume one.” More have been promised, carrying on the saga of Jewish iniquity to the present day.
However shoddy the scholarship of works like The Secret Relationship, underlying it is something even more troubling: the tacit conviction that culpability is heritable. For it suggests a doctrine of racial continuity, in which the racial evil of a people is merely manifest (rather than constituted) by their historical misdeeds. The reported misdeeds are thus the signs of an essential nature that is evil.”
“These are times that try the spirit of liberal outreach. In fact, Minister Farrakhan himself explained the real agenda behind his campaign, speaking before an audience of fifteen thousand at the University of Illinois last fall. The purpose of The Secret Relationship, he said, was to “rearrange a relationship” that “has been detrimental to us.” “Rearrange” is a curiously elliptical term here: if a relation with another group has been detrimental, it only makes sense to sever it as quickly and unequivocally as possible. In short, by “rearrange,” he means to convert a relation of friendship, alliance, and uplift into one of enmity, distrust, and hatred. But why target the Jews? Using the same historical methodology, after all, the researchers of the book could have produced a damning treatise on the involvement of left-handers in the “black holocaust.” The answer requires us to go beyond the usual shibboleths about bigotry and view the matter, from the demagogue’s perspective, strategically: as the bid of one black elite to supplant another. It requires me, in short, to see anti-Semitism as a weapon in the raging battle of who will speak for black America: those who have sought common cause with others, or those who preach a barricaded withdrawal into racial authenticity. The strategy of the apostles of hate, I believe, is best understood as ethnic isolationism – they know that the more isolated black America becomes, the greater their power. And what’s the most efficient way to begin to sever black America from its allies? Bash the Jews, these demagogues apparently calculate, and you’re halfway there.”
“In short, for the tacticians of the new anti-Semitism, the original sin of American Jews was their involvement – truly “inordinate,” truly “disproportionate” – not in slavery, but in the front ranks of the civil rights struggle.”
“Cornel West aptly describes black anti-Semitism as “the bitter fruit of a profound self-destructive impulse, nurtured on the vines of hopelessness and concealed by empty gestures of black unity.””
“Still, why should we be so preoccupied by ethnic scapegoating among people who are themselves ethnic scapegoats and relatively disempowered? Whom does it really hurt? Fair question. The answer: first and foremost, it hurts black people, through the politics of distraction and distortion. Getting the sources of our problems wrong is an obstacle to solving them. Objectively speaking, black anti-Semitism isn’t primarily a Jewish problem, it’s a black problem. In the words of the formidable critic and activist Barbara Smith, “We don’t oppose anti-Semitism because we owe something to Jewish people, but because we owe something very basic to ourselves.””
Much of the British Left comprehends anti-Semitism as the exclusive property of the Right: either as a phenomenon of the far Right (fascists) against Jewish people, or as a false accusation by the Israeli Right and its allies against the Left to silence political criticism of Israel, or as an ironic bedfellow of the Israeli Right to justify its existence as an expansionist and racist nation-state.
“Antisemitism” by the Brazilian left-wing political cartoonist Carlos Latuff (Wikimedia Commons)
“The Boy Who Cried Wolf” by Carlos Latuff (Wikimedia Commons)
In this blog post I endeavour to demystify left-wing anti-Semitism. Moreover, I define anti-Semitism, including historical and contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism, as anti-Jewish racism. Specifically, I present: a general history of racism and anti-Jewish racism; an overview of what has been defined as the anti-Semitic anti-Zionism of the Stalinist Left and New Left of the 1960s and 1970s; the consequences of a colonial model of racism, as developed in US and British academia since the 1960s, for enquiry into anti-Jewish racism and the framing of Zionism; and, contra to an absolute colonial model of racism, an understanding of the interrelationship between the capitalist mode of production, the nation-state, and racism. Within this context, I conclude by expounding the contemporary nature of left-wing anti-Jewish racism. I draw on a range of sources, but primarily upon the work of the sociologist and Marxist scholar Professor Robert Miles.
I. Racism and anti-Jewish racism: origins and evolving nature
“The specific content of racism should be expected to change temporally and contextually. A discourse ‘inherited’ from the past is likely to be reconstituted if it is to be used to make sense of the world in a new context, while new circumstances can be expected to stimulate the formation of new representations.” (Miles 1989: 133)
In the history of racism, a key transformation occurred with the epistemological shift from religion to science as the standard criterion to measure and evaluate the apparent nature of the social and material world (Miles, 1989). Miles (1989: 13-18) explains the early origins and evolution of (European) racism:
“prior to the fifteenth century, the geographical region that is now Europe had been subject to a variety of invasions from Asia (Baudet 1976: 4) and the ‘old continuous nations’ of Europe were haltingly emergent rather than extant (Seton-Watson 1977: 21-87). The notion of Europe as an entity began to emerge only in the eighth century (Lewis 1982: 18) and, until at least the twelfth century, it was subordinate to the economic and politico-military power of the Islamic world, its populations being in practice colonised (Kaye 1985: 61). Indeed, it was because the Islamic world constituted a dominant force, motivated and legitimated by a view of history by which ‘the Muslims were the bearers of God’s truth with the sacred duty of bringing it to the rest of mankind’ (Lewis 1982: 39), that a representation of Europe as a distinct entity expressed by the common religion of Christianity was to emerge. […] Before the interests of the feudal monarchies and merchant capital of Western Europe combined in order to colonise the Americas from the fifteenth century onwards, the main focus of external interest (and concern) was the Middle East, North Africa and India, collectively known as the Orient.”
As Edward Said (1995: 59-60) notes in Orientalism:
“Not for nothing did Islam come to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians. For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma. Until the end of the seventeenth century the ‘Ottoman peril’ lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of Christian civilization a constant danger, and in time European civilization incorporated that peril and its lore, its great events, figures, virtues, and vices, as something woven into the fabric of life.”
Miles (1989: 20-24) continues:
“By the fifteenth century, the centre of economic and political power in Europe had consolidated in the emergent nation states of the north and west of the continent (Kiernan 1972: 12-13, Wallerstein 1974). Trade, travel, and exploration were interdependent elements in an attempt by the feudal ruling classes to resolve a major economic crisis (Fox-Genovese and Genovese 1983: 10) and together, they widened the European contact with populations elsewhere in the world. This resulted in a major change in the structural context within which representations of the Other were generated and reproduced. Up to this point, the non-Islamic Other was beyond and outside the European arena. Moreover, in the case of the discourse about the Islamic Other, it was for a long time a representation generated in the context of European subordination to a greater economic and military power. But once the emergent European city and nation states began to expand their material and political boundaries to incorporate other parts of the world within a system of international trade (Braudel 1984: 89-174), a system which was subsequently linked with colonial settlement, the populations they confronted in this exercise were within the arena of Europe in an economic and political sense, even though not spatially. And when colonisation became an objective, a class of Europeans began a new era of contact and interrelationship with indigenous populations, a contact that was increasingly structured by competition for land, the introduction of private property rights, the demand for labour force, and the perceived obligation of conversion to Christianity. Collectively, these were all embodied in the discourse of ‘civilisation’. […] The complexity of European representations was hierarchically ordered around the view that Europeans were superior by virtue of their ‘civilisation’ and achievements (of which world travel and trade were but one sign): the condition of the Other was represented as proof of that interpretation.”
From the late eighteenth century, with the secularisation of culture and the rising hegemony of science, a transformation in European representations of the Other took place, namely, “the emergence of the idea of ‘race’” – “an idea that was taken up by scientific enquiry and increasingly attributed with a narrow and precise meaning”:
“As a result, the sense of difference embodied in European representations of the Other became interpreted as a difference of ‘race’, that is, as a primarily biological and natural difference which was inherent and unalterable. Moreover, the supposed difference was presented as scientific (that is, objective) fact. This discourse of ‘race’, although the product of ‘scientific’ activity, came to be widely reproduced throughout Europe, North America and the European colonies in the nineteenth century, becoming, inter alia, a component part of common-sense discourse at all levels of the class structure and a basic component of imperialist ideologies (for example, Biddiss 1979b, MacKenzie 1984).” (Miles 1989: 30-31)
This scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not simply replace earlier representations of the Other, rather earlier ideas of “savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it” (Miles 1989: 33). While the end of the Second World War marked an era in which the scientific establishment largely discredited the determining biological category of ‘race’, the idea of ‘race’ survives and continues to evolve as an everyday common-sense discourse, id est, as an ideological framework for making sense of the world and its social and material relations.
Vis-à-vis anti-Jewish racism, the historical shift from Christian anti-Semitism (which was religious-based) to racial anti-Semitism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries effectively fused religion with the idea of ‘race’ born from ‘racial’ science. Miles (1989: 36) observes that within Europe:
“representations of the Other as an inferior ‘race’ focused, amongst others, on the Irish (Curtis 1968, 1971) and Jews (Mosse 1978). This was sustained partly by claiming a biological superiority for the Nordic ‘race’.”
The Passing of the Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History (Wikimedia Commons)
“Homo europaeus, the white man par excellence. It is everywhere characterized by certain unique specializations, namely, wavy brown or blond hair and blue, gray or light brown eyes, fair skin, high, narrow and straight nose, which are associated with great stature, and a long skull, as well as with abundant head and body hair. […] The Nordics are, all over the world, a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers, and aristocrats in sharp contrast to the essentially peasant character of the Alpines. Chivalry and knighthood, and their still surviving but greatly impaired counterparts, are peculiarly Nordic traits, and feudalism, class distinctions, and race pride among Europeans are traceable for the most part to the north.”
Grant argues for a eugenics programme – improving the population ‘stock’ via controlled breeding of advantageous ‘racial’ characteristics – to enable the survival of the Nordic ‘race’.
“Map Four: Present Distribution of the European Races” from The Passing of the Great Race. This illustrates Grant’s vision of a status quo, with the Nordic ‘race’ in red, the Alpine ‘race’ in green, and the Mediterranean ‘race’ in yellow (Wikimedia Commons)
Campaigns for immigration controls in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century focused on Jewish refugees from eastern Europe:
“the notions of ‘immigrant’ and ‘alien’ became synonymous in everyday life with that of Jew […] Moreover, Jewishness was increasingly interpreted as a quality determined by blood, and therefore as hereditary and ineradicable. References to the existence of a Jewish ‘race’ became common. This ‘race’ was signified as an alien presence that had the potential to destroy civilised society through the promotion of an international conspiracy: consequently, the Jews became the racialised ‘enemy within’” (Miles 1993: 135-136)
A British Brothers League poster from 1902, which aimed to curb Jewish immigration to the East End of London (Wikimedia Commons)
Demands for immigration controls to the United States in the early twentieth century included pro-Nordic and anti-Jewish ‘racial’ components:
“In comparison with people of British, German and Scandinavian ‘stock’, Italian, Polish, Russian and Jewish immigrants were said to have naturally inferior intelligence and their increasing presence in the United States was considered to lower the average level of intelligence.” (Miles 1989: 58)
Within a wider economic and political crisis, it was in Nazi Germany “that the idea of the Jews as a degenerate, unproductive and criminal ‘race’, as simultaneously a ‘race’ of exploiters and revolutionaries (Mosse 1978: 178, 219)”, evolved into a state policy and practice of genocide (Miles 1989: 59).
“This picture shows me, Capt. Alfred de Grazia, in front of a pile of dead bodies at Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria Germany, two (maybe three) days after the liberation of the camp by the American army. I was then Commanding Officer of the Psychological Warfare Combat Propaganda Team attached to HQ, the Seventh Army.” (Wikimedia Commons)
II. Stalinism, the New Left, and anti-Semitic anti-Zionism
In the USSR the period between 1949 and 1953 was marked by an officially-endorsed anti-Zionism that was anti-Semitic. This period concluded in a series of show trials, including the Slansky trial, which demonised the alleged collaborators of Zionism as bourgeois, cosmopolitan, Trotskyist, and conspiratorial enemies of the state (Crooke 2002; Rapoport 1990; Rodinson 1983; Vaksberg 1994; Wistrich 1979). Although the 1953 Doctors’ Plot, a planned show trial of five Jewish doctors accused of attempting to poison Stalin and his aides whilst ‘under the influence of Zionism’, was cancelled after Stalin’s death, by the end of this period Zionism was popularly depicted as the stalking horse of US and Western imperialism. Post-1967, another official anti-Zionism campaign began in the USSR and Eastern Europe (Ciolkosz 1979; Crooke 2002; Oschlies 1979). Oschlies (1979: 161) illustrates its anti-Semitism by referencing a letter published in June 1968 in the Prague evening newspaper Vecerni praha:
“During the last few years a tacit, but persistent, anti-semitism has informed official attitudes, and it will take a long time before it can be eradicated… In this context the word Zionism is invariably used. Please take your notebook and interview people; I am sure they will tell you what they always tell me: that (a) Jews are out to destroy the socialist countries; (b) Jews aspire to world domination; (c) They want to revenge themselves for the victims of the gas chambers.”
With anti-Semitic anti-Zionism becoming common currency in Stalinist Communist Parties worldwide, it is argued that the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s (pioneered by a number of ex-Communist Party members) inherited this tendency as part of a general leftist, anti-imperialist, third worldist, and ultimately dual campist outlook (Cohen 2004; Frei 1979; Forster 1979; Hearst 1979; Krämer-Badoni 1979). This New Left represented an orientation away from class-centred politics towards activism linked to broader protest movements and mass politics, with its proponents ideologically drawing from, notably, Debray, Fanon, Guevara, and Mao (Buhle 1991; Cohen 2004; Scruton 1998) and motivated by the national liberation struggle of the Viet Cong in North Vietnam and the national revolutions of Cuba and Algeria (Cohen 2004).
After the formation of the nation-state of Israel in 1948, general public opinion in the West, including on the Left, regarded Israel as a civilised country amid backward, barbaric masses who desired its annihilation (Rodinson 1968, 1983). As this opinion feared Israel’s destruction in the escalation to the Arab-Israeli Six-day war of June 1967, pro-Israeli demonstrations took place in, for example, London, New York, and Paris (Rodinson 1968, 1983). For Edward Said for example, these demonstrations were pivotal: “1967 in New York, was probably the most shattering experience in my life, because I was surrounded on all sides by people who identified with the Israeli victors” (Said, cited in Katz and Smith, 2003: 645). Indeed, the portrayal of Arabs in the media during this time spurred Said’s writing of Orientalism (Katz and Smith 2003). The turning point, in terms of general leftist opinion, came with outcome of the 1967 war. Post-1967, Israel’s right to exist as a nation-state was called into question by a new generation of Maoists, Trotskyists, and New Leftists (Bassi 2012; Cohen 2004; Crooke 2002; Wistrich 1979):
“the Israeli victory in the 1967 war and subsequent settlement of occupied Arab territories […] brought the younger generation of Western Marxists, the Trotskyist or Maoist ‘new left’, to an extreme anti-Israeli position. Israel, which from 1967 also developed close relations with the US, was condemned as racist, the oppressor of the Palestinians and the main progenitor of imperialism and colonialism in the Middle East (Halbrook, 1974; Ram, 1999; Rubinstein, 1982; Said, 1980; Turner, 1984).” (Golan 2001: 129)
The “militant anti-imperialism” of the 1968 Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Charter, including its call for a democratic secular Palestinian state in all of former British Mandate Palestine, situated the Palestinian cause “at the forefront” of the New Left’s broad revolutionary politics (Hassan 2002: 64).
Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati, 1973: pro-Arab pickets at Israeli birthday celebrations (Wikimedia Commons)
For this New Left, Frei (1979: 260) concludes, “Israel is a colonial fact, a ‘spearhead’ created in the back of the Arab peoples to prevent their emancipation from imperialism; she is expansionist by nature, her ideology (Zionism) is racist and her politics fascist.”
III. Colonial model of racism and its consequences
Miles (1989: 67; 1993) is astutely critical of “much of the British and North American theorising about capitalism and racism since the 1960s”. Although such theorising acknowledges the immorality of racism which culminated in the Holocaust, it nonetheless:
“utilises a colonial model which has little scope to explain much of the European racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and certainly not that form of racism which others label anti-semitism (for example, Cox 1970: 393-4); it does, however, have a relevance to the controversial debate about whether or not Zionism can be defined as an instance of racism (see Kayyali 1979). Consequently, we are offered definitions and theories of racism which are so specific to the history of overseas colonisation (that is, specific to the domination of ‘white’ over ‘black’ as so many writers express it) that they are of little value in explaining any other (non-colonial) context.” (Miles 1989: 67-68)
He offers a specific caution to the work of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS):
“often implicit in their writing is the assumption that the only contemporary form of racism in Britain is that which has people of Caribbean and South Asian origin as its object. Even if this were the case during the 1970s (and I doubt that it was), it is not true for the late 1980s, a period which has witnessed the growth of an increasingly explicit racism against Jews […] The expression of anti-Irish racism is even more consistently ignored.” (Miles 1993: 85)
Miles insists that a theorisation and analysis of racism grounded solely in colonial history and which subsequently elevates the somatic characteristic of skin colour – such that racism is exclusively understood as a ‘white ideology’ created to dominate ‘black people’ – has “a specific and limited explanatory power” (Miles 1993: 148). Vis-à-vis the history of anti-Jewish (and anti-gypsy) racism in Europe, he explains:
“These instances demonstrate that, contrary to those who argue that ‘being black’ makes ‘black’ people especially vulnerable to racism in a ‘white society’, it is because visibility is always the outcome of a process of signification in a historical context that one can conclude that those who cannot be seen by virtue of their really existing phenotypical features are equally vulnerable to being racialized: their ‘non-visibility’ can be constructed by the racist imagination as the proof of their ‘real’ and ‘essential’ (but ‘concealed’) difference, which is then signified by a socially imposed mark (as in the example of the Nazi requirement that Jews wear a yellow Star of David: Burleigh and Wipperman 1991: 93-6).” (Miles 1993: 13-14)
“Frau mit Judenstern und Kind” (Wikimedia Commons)
Miles (1993: 14) continues:
“Otherness can also be constructed by means of a racism which signifies a wholly imaginary presence as real […] The very fact that there are so few living Jews can become socially accepted as proof of either the real extent of ‘Jewish power’ or of the continued success of Jews in assimilating themselves, of ‘hiding’ in order to continue their ‘destructive’ work. […] The racist imagination can be made to do its work not only with a real population as its subject (but transmuted through signification into an Other), but also with an absent, wholly imagined, subject (transmuted through signification into a ‘really existing’ Other).”
“Many physical characteristics (both real and imagined) have been and continue to be signified as a mark of nature and of ‘race’ (cf. Guillaumin 1988). Moreover, cultural characteristics have also been, and continue to be, signified to the same end. The reification of skin colour therefore mistakenly privileges one specific instance of signification and ignores the historical and contemporary evidence which shows that other populations (Jews, Irish people, etc.) have been signified as distinct and inferior ‘races’ without reference to skin colour (Miles 1982, 1991b). Moreover, it restricts analysis of the nature and determinants of racism to a debate about the effects of colonial exploitation. […] The economic and social positons of Jews in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe cannot be understood as a situation, or a product, of colonialism.” (Miles 1993: 87-88)
Vis-à-vis anti-Jewish racism, the colonial model of racism, as prevalent in US and British academia (and indeed on the wider political Left), is not able to explain the combination of events, circumstances, and social relations in which certain populations have been racialised and excluded without being colonised; furthermore, this model offers intellectual credibility to the ahistorical notion of ‘Zionist racism’: of rich, colonial, white Jews oppressing poor, anti-colonial, brown Arabs.
IV. Capitalism, the nation-state, and racism
Contra the colonial model of racism, Miles (1993: 21) advances a theorisation and analysis of racism that focuses on:
“the articulation between the capitalist mode of production and the nation state, rather than between capitalism and colonialism, because […] this maps the primary set of social relations within which racism had its origins and initial effects. Colonialism was an integral moment of this articulation, but racism was not an exclusive product of colonialism […].”
Miles (1993: 61-62) recognises the distinct natures of nationalism and racism (including their potential overlap) and their developments amid European internal and external reorganisation of political economy:
“For much of the nineteenth century, nationalism was synonymous with a struggle for political sovereignty within defined spatial boundaries and for some form of representative government. […] By way of contrast, there was no single political strategy that emerged from the general theory of biological, hierarchical differentiation expressed in the idea of ‘race’. This was not only because there was little agreement about the boundaries between the supposed ‘races’, but also because scientific racism did not posit a single, coherent political object. The theorisation of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ took place at a time of ‘internal’ European political and economic reorganisation and ‘external’ colonial expansion, in the course of which the range of human cultural and physiological variation became more widely known to a larger number of people. The extension of capitalist relations of production increased the circulation of commodities and of people, and this increasing mobility, migration and social interaction provided part of the foundation upon which the ideologies of racism and nationalism were constructed. The increasing profusion of physiological and cultural variation, as recognised in western Europe, became the object of intellectual curiosity and, thereby, of the theoretical practice of scientists and philosophers. But it also became the focus of political attention and action as populations within and beyond Europe were nationalised and racialised by the state […].”
At the most extreme end of ‘racial’ science:
“‘race’ determined both cultural capacity and historical development, and it therefore followed that each ‘nation’ was the expression of a particular biological capacity. This was an articulation in which ‘race’ was ‘nation’.” (Miles 1989: 89)
“Because ‘nations’ were identified as naturally occurring groups identifiable by cultural differentiae, it was logically possible to assert that these symbols of ‘nation’ were themselves grounded in ‘race’, that ‘blood or race is the basis of nationality […]’.” (Miles 1993: 62)
This was not, however, an articulation that happened in all historical instances – “there is no necessary reason why any particular ‘nation’ should be naturalised and identified by ‘race’” (Miles 1989; 1993: 64).
V. Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism
“An emphasis upon racism solely as a ‘false doctrine’ fails to appreciate that one of the conditions of existence of ideologies (which by definition constitute in their totality a false explanation, but which may nevertheless also incorporate elements of truth) is that they can successfully ‘make sense’ of the world, at least for those who articulate and use them.” (Miles 1989: 80)
I contend that operating in and through a mainstream current of leftist understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a particular ideological form of anti-Jewish racism which works to both ‘fix’ and ‘make sense’ of this conflict. This anti-Jewish racism has roots in the Stalinist Left and New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, and in the more general history of racism. What’s more, this anti-Jewish racism is compounded by the legacy of US and British academia’s colonial model of racism, which, one, provides limited to no recognition of racism beyond what ‘white people’ do to ‘black/brown people’ (and, within the recent discourse of Islamophobia, of what ‘white people’ do to ‘black/brown Muslims’) and, two, intellectually endorses an ahistorical notion of Zionism as an instance of racism. Leftists in this current argue that it is necessary for individual Jews to break from ‘them’ and assimilate to ‘us’ by becoming anti-Zionists who vocally denounce the existence of Israel. Indeed, the Left’s promotion of certain individual Jews who have done just this – for example, Ilan Pappé, Norman Finkelstein, Gilad Atzmon, and Tony Cliff (born Yigael Gluckstein) – is held up as proof of the Left’s tolerance and acceptance of Jews. And yet it is with critical qualification. Indeed, the evolving nature of racism has led to many instances in which its discourse accommodates the Other through a deemed necessary process of assimilation; take, for example, the Conservative Party general election poster from 1983: “Labour says he’s black, Tories say he’s British”. Perhaps the Left’s version could be stated as: “Israel says he’s a Zionist Jew, we say he’s a liberated anti-Zionist”.
With racism in general, real and imagined somatic and/or cultural characteristics have historically been and continue to be signified as an innate mark of ‘race’. Indeed, there are historical instances in which representations of the Other have been based exclusively on cultural characteristics, notably, “European representations of the Islamic world”, which “extensively utilised images of barbarism and sexuality in the context of a Christian/heathen dichotomy” (Miles 1989: 40). Similar to all other manifestations of racism, with contemporary left anti-Jewish racism it is not difference per se that matters but the identification of this difference as significant (Miles 1989). Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism involves a process of signification that defines the Other by real and imagined cultural features – id est, it marks out a group of people in relation to Israeli/Zionist Jewishness – and assigns this categorised group of bodies with negative characteristics and as giving rise to negative consequences. This Jewish Other is generalised with a singular and static understanding of Israel and Zionism: that this Jewish collective has uniquely world domineering and tyrannical power.
Poster held by a protester at an anti-war rally in San Francisco on February 16th 2003 (Wikimedia Commons)
The leftist demand (often implicit) that the Israeli Jewish nation-state must be undone because it is uniquely despotic (comparable only to fascist Germany and/or apartheid South Africa) – a judgement and a demand not made of any other nation-state worldwide now or in history – is racist. It is racist because real and imagined cultural characteristics have been and are signified as an innate mark of the nature of Israel and Zionism (and of the cultural ‘race’ of Jews associated with Israel and Zionism), which are deemed especially deplorable and negative in characteristics and consequences.
Protest in Edinburgh against Israel’s war on Gaza, 10th January 2009 (Wikimedia Commons)
Home-made placard from a protest in Melbourne at the State Library against Israel’s attack on Gaza, December 30th 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)
Furthermore, the logic underpinning the leftist demand to boycott Israeli academia is an unprecedented denial and writing-off of any progressive role for the Israeli-Jewish working class now or in the future. This is racist since this working class is singled out and solidified like none other and is generalised as a cultural ‘race’ (of the collective Zionist Jews) that is especially wretched and negative in characteristics and consequences.
Miles (1993: 49) does well to remind us that:
“In so far as Marxism asserts that all social relationships are socially constructed and reproduced in specific historical circumstances, and that those relationships are therefore in principle alterable by human agency, then it should not have space for an ideological notion that implies, and often explicitly asserts, the opposite.”
“There can be no doubt that the One State idea gives its holders a moral satisfaction. Somebody told me: OK, perhaps it is not realistic but it is moral, this is where I want to stand. I respect this, but I say: this is a luxury we can’t afford. When we deal with the fate of so many people, a moral position which is not realistic is immoral. […] Because the final result of such a stance is to perpetuate the existing situation.” (Uri Avnery, 2007)
Within the milieux of the academic and public Left, the idea of a two states settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has increasingly limited traction. Various forms of a one state or one shared space resolution are instead rapidly gaining intellectual dominance. The ‘two states solution’ is regarded as that of the ruling hegemonies of the West: an unjust, disingenuous, myopic solution with a rightist political agenda that favours Israel; and moreover, a solution that is more and more unrealistic given the ‘facts on the ground’.
Those of us on the Left who advocate a two states settlement – a diminishing minority both within Israel and worldwide – have an enormous responsibility and task to claim and distinguish, and to explain and debate, our own independent politics for a two states settlement. The edited extract below is from one such debate that took place in 2007 in Tel Aviv between Ilan Pappé and Uri Avnery (for a transcript of the full debate, see here “Two States or One State”).
A display of crossed Israeli and Palestinian flags with the word for peace in both Arabic (Salaam/Salam السلام) and Hebrew (Shalom שלום) (Wikimedia Commons)
Ilan Pappé commences the debate by presenting the following narrative. The moment that the nationalist movement of Zionism became an unequivocal colonial project was when the territory it sought became only and exclusively Palestine (home to an indigenous population). Moreover, the Zionist quest to become a democratic nation state was fundamentally and dangerously flawed since this was, and still is, bound together with the need for a Jewish majority, and a Jewish majority at all cost: up to and including the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Thus, the creation of Israel in 1948 should be recognised for what it is: a crime against humanity. The conflict comes down to a question of justice for the Palestinians against the Zionist Minotaur. The notion of justice for two sides is nonsensical. Even when all of Palestine has been given to the Jewish State (with its never-ending territorial hunger), this State will continue to drive for a democratic majority, i.e. a Jewish majority, and so to ethnically cleanse. The two states solution satisfies, rather than challenges and undoes, Zionist territorial hunger and maintains Israel as a Jewish majority state. Under the guise of the peace process for two states, there has been continued ethnic cleansing and imprisonment of Palestinians. Settlement building and ever greater ‘facts on the ground’ have resulted in a reality where no two states solution is actually (meaningfully) possible. Instead, the two states solution merely separates the occupier and the occupied. What is actually needed is redress for the crime and injustice of 1948. It is no wonder, Pappé concludes, that the heads of the Israeli and US states favour a two states solution, because the principle of justice can never be delivered through this formula. The way forward politically is to provide an alternative to two states – the call for one state – and to build an international boycott movement to ‘out’ Israel for what it is: a pariah state.
Uri Avnery responds with the following counter-narrative. Zionism committed a historical injustice to the Palestinians. The occupation must be terminated. On the question of ethnic cleansing, both sides in 1948 were guilty of this. This debate is not about the far future, but rather the foreseeable future. And on this, Israeli peace activists should not give up the fight for Israeli public opinion – to change the reality inside of Israel. The ideal one state project is borne out of despair and must not be made into an ideology, which consequently turns away from the real prospect of a genuine two states settlement (on pre-1967 borders). There is no such thing as a point of no return vis-à-vis the conditions needed for two states. But the one state solution is not at all realistic and its proponents should be open and honest about what they actually mean: the dismantlement of the nation state of Israel. It is necessary and critical to wage a struggle inside of Israel to change its historical narrative and the notion that it can be both Jewish and democratic – a struggle to end the occupation outside of Israel proper and to end the discrimination inside of Israel. One simply cannot ignore the overwhelming majority of Israelis who do not want to dismantle their nation state. Those who believe that outside pressure will achieve such a dismantlement, and that a campaign for one state might frighten Israelis into giving the Palestinians their own state, will (in reality) be driving the Israeli public further into the hands of the Right-wing and will awaken the sleeping dog of ethnic cleansing. The idea of a single state is a utopian idea because reality worldwide is a nationalist reality, in which it is nation states (and the demand for nation states) that are flourishing not multi-national states. There is a disturbing lack of elaboration as to what a one state would look like in practice and how it will come into being. However, when one imagines a one state not in its ideal form but in its most likely actuality then one sees a disguised and continued occupation, an Apartheid state, and a descent into civil war that plays out a new version of 1948. The two states solution is the only realistic solution and in the sphere of consciousness it is this idea that is winning. The obstacles to achieving a two states settlement are big, but nowhere near as big as those to a one state resolution.
Pappé responds to Avnery by insisting that calls for one state come from hope not despair – two states require politicians, one state, educators. What’s more, examples of Jewish-Arab cooperation already exist, as do Palestinian and Jewish partners of this idea. Pappé states that it is necessary to stand apart from Israeli society because Zionism is an ideology of dispossession not nationalism, which has reached a point of no return. The real danger of a two states solution, Pappé spells out, is the logical extension of ethnic cleansing into ethnic elimination. Avnery presses Pappé for not answering how he would bring about the dismantlement of the nation state of Israel and thus how a one state solution could be achieved in practice. He also notes examples of Jewish-Arab co-existence. Avnery offers Pappé a compromise: for two states now, so that one day we can have one state, voluntarily. Avnery again insists that the prospect of two states is stronger now than previously, and that reality is nationalist so we cannot avoid working with that. Pappé asserts that he is for the right of the Jews to a state but not Israel because Israel is a state that dispossesses the indigenous population. Avnery maintains that a solution to the conflict has to entail the consent of a majority of Palestinians and Israelis, otherwise it is not a solution at all. To this, Pappé makes plain that the story of the conflict is in fact very simple: white people who were persecuted in Europe committed a crime against black people in Palestine, and these white people should be grateful that now these black people are willing to accommodate them in a solution. Avnery holds that the story is not one-sided and that unless we engage with both peoples then there will be no peace. To which Pappé retorts, why should the occupied engage with the occupier who claims the crime they have committed is more complicated than it is. Only when the crime is paid for would it be reasonable for the oppressed party to listen. Pappé closes, it is the duty of an international boycott movement to tell Israel that it is a pariah state and will continue to be so until it stops its crimes. This will strengthen the chance of long term peace. Avnery finishes, the Israeli peace movement should engage with the Israel public of six million. Outside pressure can be helpful or it can cause grave danger. Gush Shalom calls for a selective boycott of settlement goods. A blanket boycott instead will push Israelis further to the Right. The one state proposal leaves dangerous space for the Israeli Right to say that there is no solution to this conflict, which then justifies further conflict up to and including ethnic cleansing. In the foreseeable future, it is two states that has a chance, whilst the one state solution has none.
To me, what is revealed most starkly from this exchange is Ilan Pappé’s writing off of the Israeli Jewish working class: this population has no meaningful and progressive role to play unless, and only unless, they renounce the nation state of Israel. Pappé places a great emphasis on an international boycott movement to shame Israel into dismantling itself. Uri Avnery insists: one, the nation state of Israel on 1948 borders exists and should continue to exist because a vast majority of its population wants it to; and two, we cannot have peace without bringing the Israeli Jewish working class – alongside the Palestinian Arab and Israeli Arab working class – with us.
Ilan Pappé (Wikimedia Commons)
Uri Avnery (Wikimedia Commons)
The debate (an edited transcript)
Pappé: The moment it was decided that the only territory where Jews could be assured of a safe haven, the only territory where a Jewish nation state could be created was in Palestine, this humanistic national movement turned into a colonial project. Its colonial character became all the more pronounced after the country was conquered by the British in the First World War. […] But the problem – and the source of the Palestinian tragedy – was that the leaders of Zionism did not want only to create a colonial project, they also wanted to create a democratic state. And why was it a Palestinian tragedy that Zionism at its early career wanted to be democratic? Because it still wants to be democratic. Because if you put together Zionist colonialism, Zionist nationalism and the impulse for democracy, you get a need which still dictates political positions in Israel up to the present […]. It is the need to have an overlap between the democratic majority and the Jewish majority. Every means is fair to ensure that there will be a Jewish majority, because without a Jewish majority we will not be a democracy. It is even permissible to expel Arabs in order to make us a democracy. Because the most important thing is to have here a majority of Jews. Because otherwise the project will not be a democratic project. It is not surprising that not far from here, in the Red House on the seashore of Tel Aviv, eleven of the leaders of Zionism gathered in 1948 and decided that if you want to create a democratic state and also to complete the Zionist project, i.e. to take over as much as possible of the land of Palestine, and if you have no majority and you are only a third – than the only choice is to implement an ethnic cleansing, remove the Arab population from the territory you intend for a Jewish State. […] Had this act of the Zionist movement taken place now, no international body would have hesitated to label it a Crime Against Humanity.
The UN Partition Resolution of November 1947 and the attempts to effect a division of the land after the 1948 War were not based on the ideals of justice – i.e., there is justice and rights to the indigenous people, most of whom had been expelled, and there is justice to the new settlers. No. The basis for the impulse to effect a Two State Solution then, as at the basis of this impulse now, there was the idea that the Zionist Minotaur could be satisfied by letting the Jewish State have control over only part of Palestine – not the whole. The UN had proposed giving 50 percent of Palestine. For the Zionists that was not enough and they took 80 percent of Palestine, and there was a feeling that that would be enough for them. But we know that this territorial hunger did not end in 1948. When the historic opportunity came, a hundred percent of Palestine came under the rule of the Jewish State. But here the great Palestinian tragedy manifests itself once again. Even after 100 percent of Palestine became the Jewish State, there is still a real impulse to create and preserve a democratic state.
This is the background for the creation of a special kind of peace process, a peace process based on the assumption that the Zionist territorial hunger and democratic wishes can be assuaged by leaving part of Palestine – the West Bank and Gaza – out of Israeli control. This gives a double profit: on the one hand, the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs is not disturbed; on the other hand, the Palestinians are imprisoned where they would no longer threaten the Zionist project. […] Already in the 1980s, the mantra of the Palestinian State beside the Israeli State – as a good solution to the conflict or as a way to assuage the territorial hunger of the Zionist movement and preserve Israel as a Jewish State – this mantra was encountering increasing difficulties. One factor was that the ‘facts on the ground’ were steadily reducing the Palestinian territory, by creating and extending settlements. And from a different direction, there was the natural wish of the political movements to extend the ranks of those who supported the Two States Solution. Gradually, they found new partners, and these new partners gave new meanings to the term ‘A Palestinian State’. In fact, the connection gradually disappeared between the Two States idea on the one hand and the idea of solving the conflict on the other. Suddenly, the Two States Solution became a way of arranging some kind of separation between occupier and occupied, rather than a permanent solution which should have dealt with the crime committed by Israel in 1948, with the problems of the twenty percent of Palestinians inside Israel, and with the refugee population which has steadily increased since 1948. In the 1990s, and since the beginning of the present century, the Two States idea has become common currency. The respectable list of its supporters finally came to include, among others, Ariel Sharon, Binyamin Netanyahu and George W. Bush. When your idea gains such adherents, that is far from a bad historical moment to rethink the entire idea. […] Under cover of the Peace Process, you can say under the cover of the slogan of Two States for Two Peoples, the settlements were extended, and the harassment and oppression of the Palestinians were deepened. So far so that the `facts on the ground’ have reduced to nothing the area intended for the Palestinians. The Zionist racist and ethnic hunger got legitimacy to extend itself into nearly half of the West Bank. […] If the principle of justice be the basis for those who support the partition of this country, there is no formula more cynical than the Two States Solution, as it is now presented in the Peace Camp. 80 percent of the country to the occupier, and twenty percent to the occupied. That is, 20 percent in the best and utopian case. More likely, no more than 10 percent, a dispersed and surrounded ten percent, to the occupied. Moreover, where in this solution do you find a solution for the refugee problem, to where will return those who were the victims of the ethnic cleansing of 1948? […] If we trust in the international and regional balance of forces as the decisive factor we would give the Palestinians a tiny piece of land, hermetically enclosed with barriers and walls. Because we are not guided by moral principles, we are pragmatic people.
There will be neither reconciliation here, nor justice or a permanent solution, if we don’t let [the] Palestinians have a share in solving the questions referring to reconciliation and to defining the sovereignty, the identity and the future of this country. […] We will find an alternative model. All of us, including the old settlers and the new – even those who got here yesterday – including the expellees with all their generations and those who were left after the expulsions. We will ask all of them what political structure fits all of them, which would include the principles of justice, reconciliation and coexistence. Let’s offer them at least one more model, in addition to the one which failed. […] In conclusion: in order for this dialogue to start and flourish, let’s admit one more thing. Let’s admit that the occupation which they are increasing daily, we – with all our important efforts – can’t stop from here. The occupation is part of the same ideological infrastructure on which the ethnic cleansing of 1948 was built […]. The most murderous manifestation of this ideology occurs now in Greater Jerusalem and the West Bank. In order to stop the extension of these war crimes, the extension of this criminal behaviour, let’s admit that we need external pressure on the State of Israel. Let’s thank the associations of journalists, physicians and academics who call for a boycott on Israel as long as this criminal policy continues. Let us use the help of civil society in order to make the State of Israel a pariah state, as long as this behaviour continues. So that we here, everybody who belongs and who wants to belong to this country, could conduct a constructive and fruitful dialogue.
Avnery: There can be no dispute that Zionism, which had implemented a historical project, had also caused a historical injustice to the Palestinian people. There can be no dispute that ethnic cleansing took place in 1948 – though allow me to remark, in parenthesis, that the ethnic cleansing was on both sides, and that there was not a single Jew left residing in whatever territory was conquered by the Arab side. Occupation is a despicable condition which must be terminated. There is certainly no debate about that. We might have no debate about the far future, either, about what we would like to see happening a hundred years from now. […] We do have a debate about the foreseeable future.
Should we concentrate our efforts in the struggle for the Israeli public opinion, or give up the struggle inside the country and struggle abroad, instead? I am an Israeli. I stand with both legs on the ground of the Israeli reality. I want to change this reality from one side to the other, but I want this state to exist. Those who deny the existence of the state of Israel, as an entity expressing our Israeli identity, deny themselves the possibility of being active here. All their activity here is foredoomed to failure. A person might despair and say that there is nothing to do, everything is lost, we have passed the point of no return. As Meron Benvenishti said many years ago, the situation is irreversible, we have nothing more to do in this state.
It happens that you sometimes despair. Each one of us had such moments. Despair destroys any chance of action. Despair must not be made into an ideology. I say: there is no place for despair, nothing is lost. Nothing is irreversible, except for life itself. There is no such thing as a point of no return. I am 83 years old. In my lifetime I have seen the rise of the Nazis and their fall, the peak of the Soviet Union’s power and its sudden collapse. One day before the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was not a single German believing this would happen in his lifetime. The experts did not foresee it – none of them. Because there are subterranean currents which act below the surface, and which nobody sees in real time. That’s why theoretical analyses come true so rarely.
There are three basic questions about the One State idea. First: Is it possible at all. Second: If it were possible, is it a good idea. Third: Will it bring a just peace. About the first question, my answer is clear and unequivocal: No, it is not possible. Anybody who is rooted in the Israeli-Jewish public knows that this public’s deepest aspiration – and here it is permissible to make a generalization – the far, far deepest aspiration is to maintain a state with a Jewish majority, a state where Jews will be masters of their fate. This takes precedence over any other wish and aspiration, it takes precedence even over wanting to have a Greater Israel. You can talk of a Single State from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, define it as bi-national or supra-national – whatever the term used, in practice it means the dismantling of the State of Israel, destruction of all that was built for five generations. This must be said out loud, without any evasions. That is exactly how the Jewish public sees it, and certainly also a large part of the Palestinian public. This means the dismantling of the State of Israel. I am a bit disturbed by the fact that these words are not said explicitly. We want to change very many things in this country. We want to change its historical narrative, its commonly held definition as “Jewish and democratic.” We want to end occupation outside and discrimination inside. We want to build a new framework in the relations between the state and its Arab-Palestinian citizens. But you cannot ignore the basic ethos of the vast majority of the citizens of Israel. 99.99% of the Jewish public do not want to dismantle the state. There is an illusion that you can achieve this by outside pressure. Would outside pressure force this people to give up their state? I suggest a very simple test. Think for a moment about your neighbours at home, colleagues at work, fellow students. Would any of them give up the state because somebody outside demands it? Pressure from Europe, even pressure from the White House? Short of a decisive military defeat on the battlefield, nothing will induce Israelis to give up their state. And if Israel is militarily defeated, our debate will become irrelevant anyway. The Palestinian people want a state of their own, too. This is needed in order to satisfy their most basic aspirations, the restoration of their national pride and the healing of their trauma. Even the Hamas leaders with whom we spoke want it. Those who think otherwise engage in daydreams. There are Palestinians who speak of a Single State, but for most of them this is simply a code word for the dismantling of Israel. And even they know it is a utopia. There are those who delude themselves that if they speak of a bi-national state, that would frighten the Israelis so much that they will immediately consent to the creation of a Palestinian State at the side of Israel. But the result will be the opposite. This frightens the Israelis, that’s true – and pushes them into the arms of the right-wing. This arouses the sleeping dog of ethnic cleansing. About this I agree with Ilan: this dog is sleeping, but it is still there. All over the world, the trend is opposite: not the creation of multi-national states but on the contrary the division of states into national units. […] There is no example in the world of two different peoples voluntarily agreeing to live in one state. There is no example in the world, except for Switzerland, of a really functioning bi-national or multi-national state. And the example of Switzerland, which has grown for hundreds of years in a unique process, is the exception which proves the rule. After 120 years of conflict, after a fifth generation was born into this conflict on both sides, to move from total war to total peace in a Single Joint State, with a total renunciation of national independence? This is total illusion.
How is this supposed to be implemented in practice? Ilan did not talk about it. This worries me. I suppose it should look like this: The Palestinians will give up their independence struggle and their wish for a national state of their own. They will announce that they want to live in a Single Joint State. After that state is created, they would have to struggle in its framework for their civil rights. Many good people around the world will support that struggle, as they did in the case of South Africa. Israel will be boycotted. Israel will be isolated. Millions of refugees will return to the country, until the wheel turns a full circle and the Palestinians assume power. If that was possible at all, how much time would it take? Two generations? Three generations? Four generations? Can anybody imagine how such a state would function in practice? […] There are those who say: It already exists. Israel already rules one state from the sea to the river, you only need to change the regime. So, first of all: There is no such thing. There is an occupying state and an occupied territory. It is far easier to dismantle a settlement, to dismantle settlements, to dismantle ALL the settlements – far easier than to force six million Jewish Israelis to dismantle their state. No, the Single State would not come about. But let us ask ourselves – should it somehow be erected, would that be a good thing? My answer is: absolutely not. Let’s try to imagine this state – not as ideal creation of the imagination, but as it might be in reality. In this state the Israelis will be dominant. They have an enormous dominance in nearly all spheres: standard of living, military power, level of education, technological capacity. Israeli per capita income is 25 times – 25 times! – that of the Palestinians, 20,000 dollars per year compared to 800 Dollars a year. In such a state the Palestinians will be “cutters of wood and hewers of water” for a long, long time. It will be occupation by other means, a disguised occupation. It will not end the historical conflict, but just move it to a new stage. Would this solution bring about a just peace? In my view, exactly the opposite. This state would be a battlefield. Each side will try to take over a maximum of land. Bring in a maximum number of people. The Jews would fight by all possible means in order to prevent the Palestinians from gaining a majority and taking power. In practice, it would be an Apartheid state. And if the Arabs do become a majority and seek to gain power democratically, there would start a struggle which might reach the scale of a civil war. A new version of 1948. Also those who support this solution know that this struggle would last several generations, that a lot of blood might be shed and that there is no knowing the result. It is a utopia. In order to achieve it, you need to replace the people – perhaps the two peoples. […] Precisely a beautiful utopia can bring about terrible results. In the vision of “The Wolf lying down with the Sheep” there would be needed a new sheep every day.
The Two State Solution is the only practical solution, the only one which is within the bounds of reality. It is ridiculous to say that this idea was defeated. In the most important sphere, the sphere of consciousness, it is growing ever stronger. After the war of 1948, when we raised that banner, we were a small handful, which could be counted on the fingers of a single hand. Everybody denied the very existence of a Palestinian People. I remember how, in the 1960s, I was running around Washington, talking with people in the White House and the National Security Council. Nobody wanted to hear of it. Now, there is a world-wide consensus that this is the only solution. The United States, Russia, Europe, the Israeli public opinion, the Palestinian public opinion, the Arab League. You should grasp what this means: the entire Arab World now supports this solution. This has enormous importance for the future. Why did it happen? Not because we are so clever and talented that we convinced the whole world. No. The internal logic of this solution is what conquered the world. True, some of the declared adherents are only paying lip service. It is quite possible that they use it to distract attention from their true purposes. Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert pretended to be supporters of this idea, while their true intention was to prevent the abolition of the occupation. But precisely the fact that such people need to resort to such a pretence, that they are now outwardly committed to it, exactly that proves that they realize it would be futile to go on fighting it. When all peoples, the whole world, recognize that this is the practical solution, it would finally be implemented. The parameters are well-known, and about them too there is a worldwide agreement. One: A Palestinian State will be created, side by side with Israel. Two: The border between them will be based on the Green Line [pre-1967 border], possibly with agreed exchanges of territory. Three: Jerusalem will be the capital of both states. Four: There will be an agreed solution to the refugee problem – meaning that an agreed number will return to Israel, and the others will be absorbed in the Palestinian State or in the present places of habitation while getting generous compensations, for example like what the Germans paid us. […] Five: There will be an economic partnership between the two states, in whose framework the Palestinian Government will be able to defend the interests of the Palestinian People, unlike the present situation. The very existence of two states will to some degree diminish the gap in the imbalance between the two sides. […] Six: In the longer range, there should be a Middle-Eastern Union on the European model, which might eventually include also Turkey and Iran. There are big obstacles. They are real. Real obstacles can be overcome. They are as nothing – I want to emphasize this – they are as nothing compared with the obstacles on the way to a Single State. […] Opting for the One State since it is difficult to gain the Two States is like being unable to beat a lightweight boxer and therefore choosing to contend with a heavyweight; or failing to run a hundred metres, and therefore shifting to the marathon; or being unable to attain the peak of Mont Blanc, and therefore trying the Everest instead. There can be no doubt that the One State Idea gives its holders a moral satisfaction. Somebody told me: OK, perhaps it is not realistic but it is moral. This is where I want to stand. I respect this, but I say: this is a luxury we can’t afford. When we deal with the fate of so many people, a moral position which is not realistic is immoral. It is important to repeat this: a moral stance which is not realistic is immoral. Because the final result of such a stance is to perpetuate the existing situation.
Pappé: The One State idea does not proceed from despair. […] There is hope. You can see it, for example, in the Galilee – where Jews and Arabs live in a region relatively free from state interference. It is interesting to note that exactly where there is a demographic balance between Jews and Arabs, there are also business partnerships, joint schools, suddenly there is a budding common life of the two nationalities. It turns out that you can fight segregation. Why is it possible to fight it? Do you know why? Because the idea that nationalism is bound to win around here is the result of manipulation and education – not of human nature. You can educate otherwise. It’s true – there is an enormous difference between the Two State Solution and the One State Solution. For two states you need politicians, for one state you need educators. […] The real Two States formula […] is the one which we see being implemented in front of our eyes. It means fifty percent of the West Bank annexed to Israel, and the other fifty percent as a Bantustan surrounded by walls and fences, but with a Palestinian flag. That is the state, with apparently some kind of tunnel connecting it to the other concentration camp which is called the Gaza Strip. This is what will be signed in a ceremony on the White House lawn, about which the Zionist Peace Camp will come and say: nevertheless, this is a bit better than what we had until now. We have already seen the results of this kind of thinking.
There is a need for persons who struggle with their society. The kind of person who says to his society: I am sorry, the collective ideological identity which you have chosen is despicable and impossible to maintain. It does not stand the test of Judaism or of common morality. This idea that Jews have an ethnic preference, ethnic majority, ethnic superiority – for a state which is supposed to represent the victims of the Holocaust. Am I supposed to accept all this because the majority thinks so? Because this is the result of past education? Even if I am left as the only Israeli who thinks otherwise, I will go on saying it! What are you trying to say? That in the name of the collective consciousness as it was under the Apartheid regime, it was forbidden for a white person to come and say out loud what certainly did not sound realistic in the 1960s and 1970s – that Apartheid was a despicable ideology? Zionism is not the ideology of a national movement. It is an ethnic ideology of dispossessing the indigenous people and denying them the possibility of going on living here. If we do not start changing the discourse, the general public certainly will not. There ARE points of no return in history. Yes, there are points of no return in history. I am sorry to say, Uri, that genocide is a point of no return, an irreversible act. There is no lack of examples. Let me tell it to you as a historian, there is no lack of historical examples where ethnic cleansing turned into genocide. You should give a thought to the depths of this national consciousness, this Jewish consciousness from which you draw such hope for the implementation of the Two State Solution. I don’t like to contemplate these depths, the possible transition from ethnic cleansing to ethnic extermination. […] Is it possible? It is not possible tomorrow, nor is it possible the day after tomorrow. I am sorry to say that it is far more possible that the Zionist Project will succeed to create here a state without Arabs. This is far more possible. It is on the cards, among other things because of the mistake of the peace camp and the support for “Two States for Two Peoples”. Because with the help of the slogan of “Two States for Two Peoples” it is possible to start talking of a transfer of population, it is possible to talk of reducing the Palestinian territory, it is possible to cleanse the Israeli territory of Palestinians. “We are here and they are there” said Ehud Barak. They can also cleanse the Palestinian minority in Israel, in the name of the sublime idea of Two States. […]
Do we have no partners on the Palestinian side for building here a joint state? Are there no Palestinians in Israel with whom we want to build a joint state? Are there no Jews in Israel with whom we DON’T want to build a joint state? So let us already make the division as between normal Jews and Arabs on the one hand and Jews and Arabs who are bastards on the other side. Let us stop dealing with the nationalist discourse which perpetuates occupation, alienation and oppression.
Avnery: I am in a bit of an embarrassing situation – because in the debate between emotion and logic, it is always emotion which gets the applause. In the debate between absolute morality and relative morality, absolute morality gets – and rightly so – the applause. I have listened attentively to what you said, Ilan, but I also listened attentively to what you did NOT say. You did not say how you can bring about the dismantling of the State of Israel. You did not say how the One State will come about. You did not describe how it will look in reality. You have described ideal things. […] There are many good people in Israel. Many, who do good things. There are a hundred peace organizations and more, each one of which does important things in its own way. There are teachers who educate for Jewish-Arab coexistence, there are kindergartens which start this even earlier in life, all true. But you yourself said that the solution which you propose will not come about in their lifetime. You propose planting an almond tree of which your grandchildren will get to eat. But God Almighty, all this frightens me terribly. You talk of ethnic cleansing, of the terrible danger of ethnic cleansing. You talk of the terrible dangers which threaten the Palestinian people in the present reality, and I see this situation as darkly as you see it. I am even more sombre than you. In this reality, we have no fifty years to wait for a solution! I said that there can be no compromise between our positions. But let’s offer you a compromise anyway: work with us for the creation of the two states. After the two states will be there, after these dangers would be averted, go on struggling to get them united into a single state. I say this seriously. Struggle for it that the two states will become one, voluntarily. […] It is absolutely true: On the ground we see that reality is terrible, that it is even getting worse – if that is possible, and we know that it is always possible. We deal with all that every day. But below the surface other things are happening. There was a time when 99% of the Jewish-Israeli public denied the very existence of the Palestinian People – now, nobody speaks like that anymore. Once, the big majority opposed the idea of creating a Palestinian state. Now, according to all opinion polls, the great majority in Israel accepts this idea as part of the solution. When we said that Israel should talk with the PLO, they said we were traitors. Afterwards, the government made an agreement with the PLO. Now we say that there should be talks with Hamas. I am sure that Israel is going to talk with Hamas, and that it will not even take too long before that happens. We said that Jerusalem was going to be the capital of two states. That was terrible, unacceptable. Jerusalem is the Eternal Undivided Capital of Israel, blah, blah, blah. But when Ehud Barak proposed a kind of partition of Jerusalem – and it does not matter whether he meant it or not, and precisely what he meant – what was the public reaction? The public was silent. […] It is not easy, the obstacles are enormous. But I am not mindlessly optimistic. I am optimistic on the basis of reality. I think that we will get to the creation of a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel. And I think that Palestine will be a proud national state. I know that for many people the word “national”, the word “nationalism”, are dirty words. You can open a big additional debate on that, and take up a whole new evening with it, but I will say only this: anybody who ignores the enormous power of national feeling lives in an unreal world. Reality is nationalist. […] Ignoring the irrational element in politics is not a rational behaviour. Irrationality exists. It is rational to take the irrational into account. We need to think how, despite this irrationality, we can reach a solution which can be lived with.
Pappé: I do not deny the right of the Jewish People to a state, as I do not deny the right of the Palestinian people to a state. I do deny the right of the Jewish People to dispossess the Palestinian people of their homeland. If the political solution which is being proposed would enable the Jewish people to continue dispossessing the Palestinian people, this is not only morally unacceptable – it also means that the conflict would be perpetuated. Therefore, what I seek is a solution which in the final account will enable everybody who lives here to feel that their historical rights are respected, and that their civil and human rights are respected, too. If this sounds like absolute morality, I shudder to think what relative morality would consist of.
Avnery: The solution which you propose like the solution which I propose have one thing in common: neither could be implemented except with the common consent of Israelis and Palestinians. Anything but that would mean either the destruction of Israel or the perpetuation of Israeli occupation. This solution or that, the one you consider realistic and the one I consider to be such – both need the consent of both peoples. And if you want to include the refugees in the decision, too, I am certainly not opposed to that.
Pappé: Uri, the story is not complicated – unlike what you say and what is written in this brochure prepared by Gush Shalom. The story here is a simple story, a story of white people who were persecuted in Europe and who drove away the black people who used to live here. It happened in many places. The difference is that here the white people stayed, and surprisingly the black people who are left here are willing to build a single state together with them. So, we should be grateful to them for that, rather than start accusing them again and look for ways of locking them into impossible enclosures.
Avnery: Here, the Palestinian People found itself faced with a formidable movement which progressively took over the country. I define this historic, tragic and painful conflict (to whose Jewish side I am also sensitive) as a collision between an unstoppable force and an immoveable mass. It is, in my view, not a completely one-sided story. When you, Ilan, show high sensitivity to the injustice done to the Palestinians, I accept this fully and more than fully. But when you completely ignore the fact that there is a Jewish side to that story, I don’t think this is true. And it is also not useful. You could not affect the Jewish-Israeli public if you have no sensitivity to what this public thinks, to its fears and anxieties. All this exists. It exists, and you must take it into account, if you want to influence these people. Also to influence in your direction, also to bring six million Israelis to dismantle this state and accept a common state with another nation – a nation which they now hate and fear. If you want to influence the Israeli public, you must understand these fears, understand where they come from. Only if we look at both peoples, see them at every moment of our struggle, see their anxieties and aspirations – only then do we have a chance of succeeding.
Pappé: It is always the occupier, the dispossessor, the oppressor who claims that the story is complicated. The victim always says: In fact, it is not so complicated. You have taken my home, you imprison me, you don’t let me breath – all this does not sound complicated to me It is hard, it is terrible and horrible, but it is not complicated. The occupier says: it is complicated, it is far more complicated, you have to understand also my side. The side of the occupier is something to which we will show understanding when the occupation is over – not a minute before. […] There is only one way to deal with a regime like the Israeli regime, which is based on an ideology which creates a separation between the Jewish population and the local population – a population whose cleansing started in 1948 and never stopped for a single day since then. There is only one way of conveying that the message that this ideology does not pay, that the occupation is too expensive to sustain. The only way is a clear message from conscientious people, of peace movements all over the world. Israel should get the same message which was delivered to South Africa: “You will stay a pariah state as long as you continue committing these crimes”. This is an important message, a message which should be supported. It does not contradict the Palestinian struggle, it does not contradict the peace struggle. On the contrary, it strengthens these struggles, it gives it a chance. Without that, the first victims will be the Palestinians but we too will be victims, everybody in this room.
Avnery: The question is where the Israeli peace movement should direct its main thrust, its main effort. Where is its main battlefield. I say, unequivocally: that is here, in this country. As to outside pressures: there are pressures which can help, and there are pressures which might cause damage, even grave damage. If the outside pressure would be of such a kind as to make normal, sane Israelis feel that the entire world is ganging up on us because we are Jews, this pressure will bring an opposite result. If the pressure will be selective, if the boycott will be focused on bodies which support the occupation and take part in it, then it would be excellent. I am all for that. In fact, Gush Shalom pioneered this way, calling already ten years ago for boycott of settlement products. Occupation will not end without peace. We have to see that in the most clear way possible: there is no way of putting an end to all this injustice, of ending the occupation, except in the framework of peace. […]
Let me tell you what I find most frightening in your proposal, more than anything else. You say that the Two States Solution is inherently bad and should be rejected. Your alternative is a solution which 99 percent of Jewish Israelis do not want, and which has no chance to be accepted. What does that leave? It leaves the slogan of the Israeli right wing: that there is no solution to this conflict. That is what I am afraid of: of those who say that “There is no solution to the conflict”, the conflict will last forever, that it is our fate to suffer an eternity of it. This is what I am afraid of, because it can serve as justification to all horrors, up to and including ethnic cleansing. To sum up: I am not pessimistic. I am optimistic. I think that nearly everything is possible. The one thing which is not possible to convince the Israelis to dismantle the state of Israel. This simply will not happen, not under any conceivable set of circumstances, even in situations which go beyond the most wild imaginations. It will not happen in the foreseeable future. Well, it might happen beyond the foreseeable future. […] A single state means the dismantling of the State of Israel. The adherents of this idea should say this loud and clear. You cannot walk around on a tiptoe and wrap it in a million disguises. What is up for discussion on the table is the existence of the State of Israel. Nothing else. If anybody here has found the way of how to convince six million Israelis to dismantle the State of Israel for which five generations had fought, I raise my hat to them. There is no such way.
At the age of nineteen, soon after I joined the organisation Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, I remember entering the students’ union at Newcastle University while being heckled by a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, who called me “a fucking Zionist”. I confess, at that moment, I had no idea what the word Zionist meant, but I gathered immediately that it was a left-wing slur: the delivery felt just as venomous in its derogatory intent to being called, by racists, “a fucking Paki”. Soon after, I learnt more about my organisation’s ‘two nations, two states’ position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a stand-alone position in relation to the majority of the rest of the British revolutionary Left.
Over the years since, the unease I have had with much of the revolutionary and academic Left vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict stems from their historical and contemporary representation of Israel as a uniquely demonic state. There are several features of this, which I have observed:
The conflation of the Israeli state and military to the entire population of Israel;
A writing-off of the Israeli working class;
A litmus test for sections of Israeli society (take, for instance, Israeli academics) to prove themselves as properly critical of Israel (a test not required of any other academics in any other nation-state);
A definition of Jewish nationalism, i.e. Zionism, as colonialism, imperialism, and racism;
An equivalence of the nation-state of Israel proper to apartheid South Africa;
An equivalence of the Israeli state and military to Nazi Germany;
A proposal to ‘logically undo’ the existence of the nation-state of Israel (cloaked under the demand for one secular Palestinian state / one shared space, or the right of return).
This singling out, this conflation, this testing, this writing-off, and this equivalence of exceptional barbarity, all signify a particular, left-wing anti-Semitism: is no other nation-state in the world racist and exclusionary? Is no other nation-state in the world guilty of oppressing minority groups inside and/or outside of its territory? Is no other nation-state in the world expansionist and imperialist? Is there any other working class in the world which is dismissed as non-existent or too-far-gone? Is there no other working class in the world that succumbs to the reactionary ideas of their hegemonic state? Is there any other nation-state in the world that is demanded to be undone?
The following two sections offer an interesting juxtaposition. In section I, I identify the dominant leftist narrative on the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as found in the academic social sciences literature. In section II, I quote extracts of two articles (one from India’s The Hindu newspaper and the other from The Washington Post) that compare Pakistan to Israel. There is no room for section II in the narrative of section I since Israel as a modern nation-state is deemed exceptional.
The crimes committed by the Israeli state and military against the Palestinians, the colonial occupation and expansionism outside of Israel proper into the West Bank and Gaza, and the perpetual denial of a meaningful ‘two nations, two states’ settlement on pre-1967 borders by the Israeli ruling class (and its growing religious fundamentalist wing) must be condemned, and solidarity with the secular Palestinian plight for their own nation-state must be made. All of this is possible without exceptionalising Israel.
I. ‘Israel is exceptional in its unique equivalence to South African apartheid and Nazi fascism’, so says the cross-Atlantic academic Left…
The cross-Atlantic academic Left offers a particular history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has much in common with a dominant section of the revolutionary Left. A central theme is that of a premeditated Zionist ethnic cleansing. This takes up and develops the new historian Pappé’s (2006) call for the paradigm of war to be replaced with a paradigm of ethnic cleansing in scholarly and public debate on 1948, in order to redress the erasure of this Zionist crime from global memory and conscience. In other words, Pappé (2006, page 9) rejects the notion that the exile of three-quarters of a million Palestinians was an outcome of the 1948 war itself, but rather “the result of long and meticulous planning” by the Zionists to ethnic cleanse the Palestinian population. He reveals the objective of a Zionist “Plan D” as the systematic elimination of Palestinians from Palestinian territory in order to make possible the nation-state of Israel, with the 1948 war providing the means to carry this out (Pappé, 2006, page 6). Following Pappé’s call, Finkelstein (2002) argues that the 1948 war was exploited by the Zionists in a manner similar to the Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo during the 1999 NATO intervention. Falah (2003, page 206) characterises this “ethnic cleansing” as part of a pre-1948 Zionist ‘enclaving’ of Palestinian land that combined immigration and land purchase, military terrorism, a strategy of creating ‘facts on the ground’, and a settlement frontier, wherein the early Zionist settlers, Said (1985) contends, either totally overlooked the Palestinians or actively plotted to get rid of them.
On the character of Zionism and the nation-state of Israel, the cross-Atlantic academic left narrative asserts, “[t]he Zionist dream of uniting the diaspora in a Jewish state was by its very nature a colonial project” (Gregory, 2004a, page 78; see also: Anderson, 2001; Falah, 1996, 2003, 2004; Khalidi, 2003; Piterberg, 2001; Said, 1985). The assessment of the pre-1948 relationship of British imperialism to Zionism ranges from that of “an unambiguous product of inter-imperialist calculation” (Anderson, 2001, page 7) to that of “Janus-faced” collaboration (Gregory, 2004a, page 80). Anderson (2001, page 15) claims that “the imperial baton” passed from Britain to the United States in 1948, whereas Gregory (2004a, page 77) suggests “fitful” interest on the part of US imperialism until the 1967 war. Nonetheless, consensus exists on the post-1967 era, in which the link between the Israeli nation-state, the US Zionist lobby, and US imperialism is given high significance: particularly in “the unprecedented munificence that the United States bestows on Israel”, that is, “the moral equivalent of a blank cheque to do what it likes” (Said, 1986, page 79; see also: Said, 2000). Given the Zionist intention to expel on a mass scale was “inherent” long before 1948 (Piterberg, 2001, page 34), the nation-state of Israel is thus defined as originating in “racist national ideals” cloaked “often in ‘socialist’ guise” (Falah, 2003, page 187) – a semblance made of the early kibbutzim settlement (see: Said, 1985), for instance. It is claimed that, while many Israelis continue to desire the expulsion of Palestinians, ethnic cleansing is now no longer a politically viable option so apartheid takes its place (Finkelstein, 2002). Israel’s legal foundations (specifically, the Law of Return, the Nationality Law, the status of present-absentees, and the prevention of the right of return for Palestinian refugees) are seen as a continued part of a pre-1948 quest for national and racial purity which is “tantamount to organized discrimination or persecution” akin to apartheid South Africa and/or Nazi Germany (Said, 1985, page 41; see also: Falah, 2003; Finkelstein, 2002; Piterberg, 2001). [For further comparison of the ideology and practice of Israel (including the Israeli Defence Force) with that of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, see, for instance, Graham (2002, 2003); Gregory (2004a); Jamoul (2004); and Roy (2002). On the unique ‘democratic fascism’ of the Zionist state and military, see Falah (2001).]
In conclusion, for Gregory (2004a, page 138), echoing Said (1985), the Palestinian-Israeli conflict comes down to a question of “justice” for the Palestinians. Gregory (2004b, page 602) argues that “the key date” for “many on the Israeli Left” is not 1948 (like for the majority of the Palestinians) but 1967, yet this latter war (occupying, to date, the West Bank and Gaza Strip) was merely further military advance by Israel. In other words, the outcome of the 1948 war, the al Nakba, was and remains a colonial occupation of Palestine (Falah, 2003; Gregory, 2004b; Sidaway 2000; Young 2001), and the ultimate issue on the conflict is one of redress and liberation for the injured, oppressed, and occupied side. Because Israel is historically based on a principle of return and non-return for Jews and Arabs respectively, if this disappeared, Piterburg (2001, page 36) postulates, the Zionist nation-state of Israel would “lose its identity”. Or, as put by Karmi (2007), one should question why this nation-state continues to exist at all.
II. Israel is not exceptional, take, for example, a comparison to Pakistan…
Both Pakistan and Israel were carved out through partitions of historically and culturally unified territories within a year of each other: Pakistan in August 1947 and Israel in May 1948. Pakistan was created by splitting the Indian subcontinent, tearing asunder people who, while belonging to different religions, shared a common cultural heritage and had together fought their war of Independence. It created fissures even within ethnic communities – Punjabis in the west, Bengalis in the east and, a year later, Kashmiris in the north. The same happened when Israel was carved out of historical Palestine, dividing Arabs to the west of the Jordan river for the first time.
Two, neither partition was peaceful. Hundreds of thousands of people had to leave their homes in both instances to become refugees in what, just days earlier, had been their own land. Pakistan’s creation saw more than 10 million people migrate on either side of the border, many driven away by their neighbours. Nearly a million are believed to have died in the pogroms that ensued. While eloquent espousals of nationalism and patriotism poured out of leaders at bully pulpits, the slit throats of citizens spattered blood in the streets.
Israel’s creation was similarly gory. More than 700,000 Palestinians were hounded out of their homes by Zionist militias in what the Arabs have since called the Nakba, or catastrophe. Thousands perished. Many migrated to West Bank, Gaza and the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan and the Sinai; many others fled to Europe and the United States – places from where harried Jews had been moving to Palestine in preceding decades to escape persecution. One diaspora replaced another, and Arab became the new Jew of the West. The irony was profound.
Three, neither Pakistan nor Israel has clearly defined its borders since its creation. It’s not just that their neighbours don’t agree with them, but both these nations have themselves stopped short of stating precisely where they want their borders to be. While India categorically specifies the borders it claims in Kashmir, Pakistan’s position is ambiguous at best. It calls the portion it conquered in 1947-48 “Azad Kashmir” (Independent Kashmir), but Pakistan’s army exercises even more control over the lives of Azad Kashmiris than over the average Pakistani. It even has an Azad Kashmir Regiment – headquartered in Punjab.
Israel has also desisted from stating exactly how large or small it intends to be. For more than 20 years, even the Palestinian Authority has recognised the so-called Green Line – which defined Israeli territory until the 1967 war – as the international border subject to a two-state solution (that would create a Palestinian state). Israel itself, however, does not recognise the Green Line anymore. Nor does it say where it would draw its own Line, all the while grabbing more land in the West Bank for Jewish settlements.
Four, both Pakistan and Israel have fought wars of aggression against neighbours. The India-Pakistan conflicts of 1947-48, 1965 and 1999 were the result of Pakistani aggression. It also waged a proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a misadventure from which it is yet to dissociate itself. Israel’s wars are still more numerous. It attacked Egypt in 1956, Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza on numerous occasions. Gaza remains under Israeli siege even today.
Dominated by religion, military
Five, being born in blood and bred in wars, both Pakistan and Israel have developed societies and polities that are dominated by religion and the military. The green uniform has been at the helm of Pakistan’s affairs for nearly half its independent history, and lords over politicians even when not formally in charge. Its hand has been strengthened by the appropriation of Islam as a political ideology, and the nation is effectively run by a nexus of generals and mullahs.
Israel’s military has similarly clawed its way into the heart of the nation’s society and politics in the name of protecting its Jewish character. Making a name for yourself in wars is the surest way to a successful political career, ministerial posts and prime ministership. Just like Pakistan, Israel seems to be run by a league of generals and rabbis.
Six, both Pakistan and Israel nurture exclusivist national identities, concerned more with who does not belong to them than with who does. Created as a homeland for Muslims, Pakistan has always treated Hindus, Sikhs and other non-Muslims as second-class citizens. But that isn’t all.
Various categories of Muslims – migrants from India, Ahmadis, Shias, Baluchis and so on – have also found it difficult to integrate into Pakistani society and are perpetually blamed for all its social and political ills.
Israel was created as a homeland for Jews, and it treats Arabs as second-class citizens. But many Jews too – black Jews, Sephardic Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Russian-origin Jews and so on – face rampant discrimination. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Jewish ancestry are simply not considered Jews by law and struggle to be a part of Israeli society.
Benedict Anderson has called nations “imagined communities,” comprising people who share a deep bond of unity even with those they have never met or do not personally know. But Pakistan and Israel exhibit an extraordinary lack of imagination in the construction of their nationhood. Exclusivist identities, religious chauvinism, military dominance and a history of belligerence have rendered them societies that are perpetually at war – with their neighbours and with themselves. Their own uncertainty over their borders betrays this existential insecurity.
“Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state,” said then Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq in 1981. “Take out the Judaism from Israel and it will fall like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse.” It’s a strange thing to think about now. Pakistan and Israel are, on the face of it, not kindred spirits. […] But Zia, an instrumental figure in the Islamization of Pakistani society, was saying something quite obvious: Pakistan and Israel are historical twins.
They emerged as independent states one after the other – Pakistan in 1947, Israel in 1948 – following the retreat of the British empire. They were born in blood: Pakistan in the grisly Partition that cleaved British India in two, Israel in the battles of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. And ideologically, as Zia noted, they were both states whose raison d’etre was religion, or at least religious identity. Pakistan was dreamed up as a haven for Indian Muslims, a state that transcended geography itself with a western and eastern wing suspended in between thousands of miles of India. […] Israel was the product of decades of Zionist activism, brought into being after the horrors of the Holocaust as a homeland for Europe’s tormented Jewry. Even this cause had an echo in South Asia. Pakistan’s founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah was well-versed in the Zionist plight, since he too wanted to make a nation out of a religious community. As the Oxford historian Faisal Devji writes in his book “Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea,” Jinnah “seems to have possessed more books on the problems of European Jewry than on any Muslim people or country.” That’s not too surprising, given that Jinnah was not particularly religious and envisioned a Pakistani nation that, while defined by Islam, was not necessarily governed by its laws. A similar secular theme ran through the Israeli state.
More tellingly, Pakistan made a direct impression on Israel’s rulers in the first years of the country’s existence. In a Haaretz article excerpting work from a new book on Israel and the question of apartheid, South African-born author Benjamin Pogrund explored how Israel followed Pakistan’s lead when it came to administering lands and property captured from the Palestinians who had lived there before. Pogrund writes of the challenge that faced David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, in 1948:
“In the government debates to decide what to do with the Arab “abandoned property,” the prime minister’s special adviser on land and border demarcation, Zalman Lifshitz, argued for the permanent use of refugee property for the political and economic benefit of the new state. He said that countries in similar situations, such as Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, had taken on vast powers to liquidate refugee property for state use and he urged the Israeli government “to proceed in a similar manner” as “there is no shortage of precedents.””
The laws Lifshitz got enacted in 1949, Pogrund writes, were “based squarely” on Pakistani precedent. During Partition, millions of Hindus and Sikhs had fled what became Pakistan, leaving behind property and assets that could be appropriated on behalf of the millions of Muslim refugees streaming in from the other side of the border. For Lifshitz, Pogrund explains, a similar solution made sense for Israel’s Jewish arrivals.
“It cannot be said if Lifshitz was aware of the irony of the new Jewish state using the legal techniques of a new Muslim state to deprive its own mainly Muslim refugees of their properties. Whichever, he proposed “a new law, similar to the… Pakistani regulations and based on the principles they contain.” Pakistani lawmakers, he noted, had drawn on Britain’s Trading with the Enemy Act, but had also introduced new elements to assist expropriation and transfer of ownership: they had created a mechanism for seizing Hindu and Sikh refugee property in Pakistan and its reallocation for the settlement of Muslim refugees from India.”
This curious irony could be chalked off as a quirk of history. But both Israel and Pakistan are still grappling with their fragile ideological identities to this day. Jinnah’s dream has so far proved illusory: in 1971, East Pakistan split away following a brutal revolutionary war and became the independent state of Bangladesh. Ethnic and linguistic nationalism trumped a pan-Islamic identity. Subsequent Pakistani governments have both encouraged rampant Islamism and then struggled to contain its extremist, militant off-shoots. In Israel, the question of how to reconcile with the Arabs on its borders and in its midst remains as potent and vexing now as it did more than half a century ago. As WorldViews has written about before, the right-wing government of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown little will to enable the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Some of Netanyahu’s allies have specifically ruled it out. And Netanyahu himself is attempting to push through a controversial law that would cement Israel’s status as a “Jewish nation-state,” privileging the collective rights of Israeli Jews over the interests of Israeli minorities. It’s a proposal that plays well among Israel’s right-wing, including communities of settlers living in the West Bank. But it has its critics, too. “Israelis not in the thrall of settler fanaticism need to decide whether they want to be part of the democratic Western world or not,” wrote Israeli intellectual Bernard Avishai in the New Yorker this week. He then offered this tidy comparison: “The Jewish nation-state law puts the choice starkly: a globalist Hebrew republic or a little Jewish Pakistan.”
My sincere thanks to comrade Omar Raii for alerting me to the Tharoor article.
Further recommended reading / listening by me (Camila Bassi)
Anderson P, 2001, “Scurrying Towards Bethlehem”. New Left Review10 5-30
Falah G W, 2004, “Truth at War and Naming the Intolerable in Palestine” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography36(4) 596-600
Falah G W, 2003, “Dynamics and patterns of the shrinking of Arab lands in Palestine” Political Geography22 179-209
Falah G, 2001, “Guest Commentary: Intifadat al-Aqsa and the Bloody Road to Palestinian Independence” Political Geography20 135-137
Falah G, 1996, “The 1948 Israeli-Palestinian War and its Aftermath: The Transformation and De-Signification of Palestine’s Cultural Landscape” Annals of the Association of American Geographers86(2) 256-285
Finkelstein N G, 2002, “An Introduction to the Israel-Palestine Conflict” Global Dialogue4(3) 1-17