Does the left have a problem with anti-Semitism?

The past few weeks have seen the Facebook-Twitter-verse abuzz with claim after claim, statement and counter statement, from the various forces currently aligned in pitched battle over the question of anti-Semitism. Rumblings, coming out of Oxford University’s Labour Students as their co-chair resigned saying that their club seemed ‘generally to have some kind of problem with Jews’, were widely dismissed as right wing manoeuvrings. Then there was the media explosion that threatened to overshadow the huge and unprecedented achievement of Malia Bouattia in becoming the first black Muslim woman to become president of the NUS [1], not to mention her track record as a genuine and committed campaigner for liberation and for Palestinian rights. And now we have the suspensions of Naz Shah, Ken Livingstone, and three Labour Councillors this week. Surely more examples of baseless right wing opportunism?

Unfortunately, there is more to this than such a convenient narrative. It is undeniable and frankly offensive that there are people out there who are trawling the blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook history of activists, MPs, and others in the public eye to construct a case of anti-Semitism for their own political gain. But there is also an issue in the discussion of ‘Zionism’, and it is unquestionably problematic if not outright racist when Labour party MPs talk about the deportation of Jews from Israel, about Zionist plots and conspiracies, and argue that Hitler supported Zionism. Let’s be explicit: the problem here is that Zionism ≠ the current state of Israel, it is a term with a longer history rooted deeply in an escapism nurtured by generations of blood and tears under European persecution. It means different things to different people. It makes no sense for serious people on the left, least of all socialists, to talk about anti-Zionism as a lazy short hand for the legitimate critique of the Israeli state and the fight for Palestinian freedom. We must be able to make a passionate and human case against Israeli state occupation and brutalisation of the Palestinian people, and for socialism, without becoming apologists for Labour councillors describing “Zionist Jews” as a “disgrace to humanity” and stating that “If Jewish people find it offensive then they need to think about what the rest of the world thinks” [2].

But this, in some ways, is not entirely unexpected. This space that so many of us inhabit, what we call ‘the left’, is not a consistent theoretical position; it is not the materialist critique of the complex intersectional forces of exploitation, but rather a looser array of activists, politicians, elements of the media, and vague forces aligning to call for something that is not-quite-this-but-definitely-a-bit-better. People are rightly pissed off, but when our anger lacks perspective it so easily falls into simplistic oppositions; East versus West, left versus right, black versus white, or even workers versus capitalists if that is reduced to perception or identity. There may be contexts where Jewish student groups in Russel group Universities are made up of people who support the Israeli state, are from comfortable or privileged backgrounds, and, for whatever reason, oppose their local Palestinian liberation group. But it then becomes too easy to fall into bad habits, and the language of anti-Zionism is dangerous for this reason because it becomes an attack on identity rather than a discussion of the issues.

Wherever we find sectarian struggle it is the difficult task of socialists to resist constituting ourselves only or exclusively on nationalist, ethnic, or religious grounds, but rather seek the third way that both celebrates our differences while dealing with the systematic structural issues of our oppressions. Socialism is the active struggle of the diverse and intersecting masses, in various contexts, against the materially exploiting minorities; it is a politics of unity that moves us together. This is why socialists in the CWI remained critical of the many elements of the ‘left’ who supported Sinn Fein and the IRA through the troubles in Northern Ireland. There will be those that dismiss this argument as hopeless idealism, but it is also our CWI comrades in Israel, who Socialist Students actively raise money for and organise alongside, who risk their lives on the ground fighting for this position based on their own material experience. At their most recent conference in December 2015, attended by 150 Israelis and Palestinians, Shahar Ben-Horin put it right when he pointed out that only about one third of the electorate voted for any of the parties forming the Israeli coalition government. “It is true that the situation in Israel-Palestine is different, and the challenges of the Left here are complex, but there are nevertheless opportunities… It should be remembered that the last two decades included not only a bloody conflict but also the largest workers’ strikes in Israel’s history and the largest social protest movement just in 2011”. [3]

There is a relative disillusionment among Israeli workers and a growing tiredness of the national conflict, he argues, finishing with a discussion of revolutionary struggle in the middle east and the two state transitional solution: “We have to emphasize that the road for democracy, peace and social justice in the middle-east does not go through weak alliances with corrupt monarchies and right wing dictatorships. It goes through the struggles that erupt in the earthquakes of history itself… It goes through Tahrir Square and Taksim Square, but it doesn’t stop there. When thousands of Israelis and Palestinians stand together, refusing to be enemies, calling to overthrow racism and oppression – they show the way forward. To lay the foundations for a Middle-East of democracy and peace and social justice, the struggle has to be for a root-change in society – to a society which would control democratically and rationally the production, the main services, and its wealth. This is the alternative. A struggle for a socialist change, with equal rights and independence for both nations that would throw to the dust bin of history that cycle of blood and despair.” [3]

If activists and socialists in Tel-Aviv can risk arrest, persecution, and sometimes death to call for Israelis and Palestinians to stand together then this needs to inform our perspectives. We can only hope to build a better society if our activism is led by, and is inclusive of, all struggles, all discriminations, and all oppressions.

James Moran, Birmingham Socialist Students