Dave Osler’s Review of Colin Shindler’s “Israel and the European Left”

Dave Osler’s blog  is one of the more interesting far left  blogs. I have serious disagreements with Dave with regard to his view that a single state  (albeit a bi-national state)  is the only solution (or any solution)  to the Israel – Palestine conflict. But none the less, Dave certainly doesn’t go in for the vulgar anti-zionism of much of the far left and he takes anti-semitism on the left seriously. So it’s unfortunate that when he posts a review (much of which i disagree with) of  Colin Shindler’s new book  “Israel and the European Left”, the comments section, instead of providing a forum for an interesting debate on an interesting subject, turns into what can only be described as a cess-pit of abuse. So i’m cross-posting his piece below and hope that there’s an interesting debate in the comments section here at Engage.

Book review: ‘Israel and the European Left’ by Colin Shindler

THE allegation of ‘delegitimization’ is a particular shapeless charge to find oneself having to plead against. Yet as the subtitle to this book indicates, such is the broad brush accusation facing all sections of the European socialist movement over the last century, with Colin Shindler making the case that leftists have been in the business of delegitimizing the state of Israel even before the state of Israel came into existence.

It is of course true that some of those in the dock do have form. Even so, I must direct any fair minded jury to acquit the bulk of the defendants.

This volume is largely written backwards from the final chapter, which documents the peculiarly British – and not, to my knowledge anyway, Europe-wide – alliance between some socialist traditions and offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK, which has often been accompanied by anti-semitic rhetorical flourishes.

Shindler’s essential contention is that, at some level, ‘twas ever thus. The troubled history of the relationship between Marxism and Zionism since the inception of both creeds is accordingly given a thorough airing.

But his definition of ‘delegitimization’ is never spelt out. At one level, any criticism of anything can be portrayed as delegitimizing its target. And there are many things that the state of Israel does that are surely worthy of moral opprobrium.

There are the illegal settlements on the West Bank, the blockade of the Gaza Strip, the war crimes witnessed during Operation Cast Lead and the ‘separation fence’, to name just a few of the ignominies perpetrated by successive administrations. Professor Shindler seemingly doesn’t like to mention these things: for the left to leave them out of the equation would be an unforgiveable dereliction of duty.

Nor does it ‘delegitimize’ Israel to insist that the specific circumstances of its birth necessitate its reconstitution as a binational secular state. Israel exists and has the right to exist: what it does not have is the right comprehensively to dispossess Palestine.

Such was the position of much of the early Zionist left, as well as such luminaries as Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber. It remains the only basis for a just and durable settlement of the Israel’s manifest oppression of another nation.

This continues to be a coherent stance for democratic socialists. To use a quotation from Richard Crossman that Shindler highlights, there is no requirement for us to be ‘emotionally pro-Jew’ but rather ‘rationally anti anti-semitic’.

The Stalinist tradition, of course, could save the court’s time by at once entering a guilty plea. The evidence against it, from the Slansky Trial and the Doctors’ Plot on to the purges that swept Poland in the late 1960s, will be all too familiar to anyone who has read, say, Paul Lendvai’s instructive ‘Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe’.

That the Workers’ Revolutionary Party whored itself for the petrodollars necessary to sustain a daily newspaper is also a matter of record. But while it was a leading sect in its day, it was a sect, limited in influence beyond its few thousand adherents.

Nor do I care for some of the formulations in some of the literature published by the Socialist Workers’ Party since it discovered Islamism as a revolutionary force, somewhere around the time the WRP gave Healy the boot.

But let us not exaggerate the influence of an organisation that, in cahoots with wider forces, secured just 0.8% in the recent London assembly vote, and would get less than that nationwide were it even remotely capable of fielding a full slate in a general election.

Shindler’s work is obviously one of polemic rather than scholarship. This can be seen by its regular lapses into downright sloppiness: the dictatorial head of East Germany in the 1950s and 1960s was not Walter ‘Ulbrecht’, and the Indian National Conference went out of business long before 1940. There are also numerous grammatical infelicities that sometimes leave meaning unclear.

Sweeping assertions are made on the basis of secondary sources. I do not pretend special expertise on the political thought of early twentieth century Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer, but I would need substantiation before accepting that a sophisticated intellectual ‘understood Jewishness only in the imagery of the non-productive Jew and believer in religious supernaturalism in the poverty-stricken shtetl’.

But most of all I object to the obviously silly claim that Britain’s revolutionary socialists would have collaborated with Nazism had Britain been conquered by Germany in 1940. This nonsense is advanced in the very opening sentences of the foreword, presumably to set out the idea that these people were irredeemably tainted by anti-semitism.

The track record of Communists and Trotskyists in this regards compares favourably with that of the Stern Gang, which actually did propose alliance with the Nazis, and Rudolf Kastner, who came to terms with Hitler’s representatives, albeit under duress.

Let us not forget that the left led the resistance to fascism in occupied Europe, and many comrades bravely laid down their lives to that end. Frankly, they do not deserve to have the likes of Shindler spit on their graves for the sake of catchpenny advantage in British Zionism’s contemporary bust up with the SWP.

14 Responses to “Dave Osler’s Review of Colin Shindler’s “Israel and the European Left””

  1. David Olesker Says:

    “[It does not] ‘delegitimize’ Israel to insist that the specific circumstances of its birth necessitate its reconstitution as a binational secular state. Israel exists and has the right to exist: what it does not have is the right comprehensively to dispossess Palestine.”

    What many supporters of Israel identify as axiomatically antisemitic — the denial of the Jews the right to national self determination in their ancient homeland (a right that would be granted to other groups) — is identified by Osler as axiomatically legitimate. His assertion that Israel has the right to exist is meaningless because he qualifies it to mean that it can only legitimately exist if it gives up it’s role as nation state of the Jewish people.

    Osler accepts the legitimacy of a non-existent Israel and rejects the legitimacy of the one that does exist. And for this he wants to be excluded from the delegitimatizers?

  2. Michael Ezra (@MichaelEzra) Says:

    I could make a number of comments on Dave Osler’s review, but the key points I wish to make are in relation to what he most objects to in Shindler’s book. I have done that previously as a result of one of Osler’s previous posts. It can be seen here.

    I shall make one other point and that is this: Osler claims that Shindler’s “volume is largely written backwards from the final chapter.” Osler implies that form this that what Shindler had done was start with the matters of the recent boycott against Israel and matters surrounding the SWP and the Muslim Association of Britain etc and use that position to work backwards. This is, of course, nonsense and demonstrably so. Colin Shindler was made a professor at SOAS in 2009. His inaugural lecture was made at that institution on November 18, 2009. The title was “The Road to Utopia: The Origins of Anti-Zionism on the British Left.” While I cannot locate a copy of the text of that lecture on line, I was at the lecture, I also have a copy of the text, and the lecture was very much not about the recent period. In fact, the Jewish Chronicle published a lengthy article by Shindler based on that lecture on December 23, 2009. As can be seen the lecture was based much more on the early period.

    • Dov Says:

      MIchael, could you possibly comment on this extract from the review?

      “The track record of Communists and Trotskyists in this regards compares favourably with that of the Stern Gang, which actually did propose alliance with the Nazis”

      What is that all about?

      • Michael Ezra Says:

        Dov,

        I did not bother commenting on the Stern Gang or Kasztner because it was a tu quoque argument by Osler and irrelevant to Shindler’s book.

        However, given you ask, the actions of the Stern Gang, have been documented reasonably well by Joseph Heller in his book, The Stern Gang: Ideology, politics and terror, 1940-1949 (Routledge, 1995). Heller explains (pp85-86) that Stern’s idea to make contact with the Nazis was based on the starting point “that Hitler had no intention of murdering Jews, but merely encouraging them to migrate from Europe.” Stern hated Britain being in Palestine and he saw what Heller refers to as a “common ground” with the Nazis. Stern would have liked to have had Hitler transfer the Jewish masses to Palestine. He therefore, in 1940, offered “active participation in the war on the German side.” The scheme was hair-brained, and obviously a failure. There was a further attempt to contact the Nazis in 1941 but that was an even greater disaster. Heller explains (p91) that Friedman-Yellin, who had the mission of contacting the Nazis for Stern, on this second attempt, “was arrested near Aleppo, prior to reaching enemy territory.”

        The following can be noted. I am not aware of any supporters of Israel or Zionists who believe that this was a sensible strategy by Stern and something to defend. I suspect that someone would struggle to find a single pro-Israel, Zionist Jew who has some sympathy with the Stern Gang who would defend this idea of Stern’s as a great idea. This can be compared to modern day Trotskyists: whereas Zionists today can look back at their own history and say Stern’s actions were wrong and can attack the policy, modern day Trotskyists defend the actions and policies of Trotskyists during WWII.

  3. Marko Attila Hoare Says:

    ‘Nor does it ‘delegitimize’ Israel to insist that the specific circumstances of its birth necessitate its reconstitution as a binational secular state. Israel exists and has the right to exist: what it does not have is the right comprehensively to dispossess Palestine.’

    The ‘specific circumstances’ of Israel’s birth are not really very different to those of many other nation-states. For example, Poland, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Greece and many other European states, with their current borders and ethnic composition, are the direct products of large-scale acts of ethnic cleansing and dispossession. By Osler’s logic, these states, too, should be reconstituted as binational states. It’s not completely clear from his formulation whether he means that Israel should become a binational state in its existing borders, or whether the whole of pre-1948 Palestine should become a binational state. But either way, the concept of a ‘binational state’ is itself problematic: what would be the place in it of ethnic groups that are neither Jewish nor Arab/Palestinian ?

    The problem is not that critics of Israel are wrong to highlight the moral ambiguities of its creation; the problem is that they treat it as a departure from the norm, whereas in fact, Israel is the norm. The modern world and liberal democracy are based on nation-states whose creation involved various forms of dispossession, ethnic cleansing, even genocide. People who single out Israel on these grounds are not necessarily being anti-Semitic, but they are being deeply unfair. Few of them mention the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries after 1948.

    All nation-states should be states of all their citizens, regardless of ethnicity. The controversial questions are: Where should their borders be drawn, and which ethnic groups should be in the majority, so as to ensure that the national rights of all are respected ?

  4. Larry Ray Says:

    Osler’s review does not do justice to the detail and nuances of Schindler’s book. For example “most of all I object to the obviously silly claim that Britain’s revolutionary socialists would have collaborated with Nazism had Britain been conquered by Germany in 1940. This nonsense is advanced in the very opening sentences of the foreword, presumably to set out the idea that these people were irredeemably tainted by anti-semitism”. This is not what Schindler says in the forward. He doesn’t mention ‘collaboration’. He raises the question, no more, of whether in 1940 in the context of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the CPGB would have actively resisted the Nazis or limited their activities in line with Moscow’s instructions. He also cites several Trotskyist groups (and Trotsky himself) at the time who argued against participation in the war on the grounds that the beligerants were all imperialists. His point is that the destruction of the Jews was not of particular concern either to the Soviet Union or various Trotskyist factions. Schindler also notes (p120) that the German invasion of the USSR resolved the hesitancy of Communist Parties about fighting fascism but no attempts were made by the Red Army to impede the Holocasust even as they moved through Poland nor were Communist Parties demanding they did (although this is not entirely true – communist partisans in Poland did request aid for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising). His point is one that has been made eslewhere and goes back to Marx’ ‘On the Jewish Question’ – that in general the revolutionary left has accepted Jews only so long as they assimilated and certainly did not assert any rights to nationhood (eg p17-18). Stalin’s support for the state of Israel was limited to evicting the British from Palestine after which it offered little strategic advantage. It is true though that the book can be ‘read backwards’ in the sense that Schindler places the boycott campaign against ‘normalization’ in the context of deep-seated far-left antagnism to Jewish nationalism (and Judaism in general) but this is an important story nonetheless.

  5. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    I have read Shindler’s book and also attended his talk (with Nick Cohen in the chair) at Jewish Book Week. Among much else of interest is that Shindler stated that he had never been seduced by the ‘internal’ far left within the Labour Party (and he was, may still be, a member), so that the first point of departure with Osler may well be a difference in definition as to what should be regarded as “socialist” and what might beyond it to the left. It further strikes me that Osler’s argument with Shindler may well lie with the careful tracing out of the malign influence Bolshevism had on Jewish aspirations for nationhood, following centuries of oppression, and that this led to those who wished to be part of the future according to Marxist-Leninism had to repudiate not just Zionism, but also their Jewishness.

    Indeed, as has been well documented, their Jewish background was used against certain leading Bolsheviks in various show-trials, both in the 1930s and into the 40s and 50s.

    With particular relation to Britain, Shindler shows this worked with individuals like Gluckstein (aka Tony Cliff, founder of the Workers Revolutionary Party), to the point the whole Zionist project in general and Israel in particular become an identifiable and identified enemy, to be denounced if one wished to be seen as a true believer.

    Not surprisingly, this leads (inevitably?) to the adoption of a (or more than one) variant of Bebel’s “socialism of fools”.

    Among much else, Osler refers to “…the war crimes witnessed during Operation Cast Lead…”, but fails to take account of the refutations argued as to whether these acts (presumably, he means those committed by the IDF, not Hams) actually amounted to war crimes, nor does he refer to the distancing of himself from his own report by Richard Goldstone. Failure to do so weakens Osler’s arguments, because it suggests that (despite his own words concerning some mythical fair-minded jury) he had already decided, long before putting fingers to keyboard, that those on the Left accused by Shindler had to be innocent. One suspects that it couldn’t be otherwise. One also wonders what Osler makes of Cohen’s book “What’s Left?”, which covers mush the same ground and reaches much the same conclusion.

  6. Zachary Says:

    “The track record of Communists and Trotskyists in this regards compares favourably with that of the Stern Gang, which actually did propose alliance with the Nazis, and Rudolf Kastner, who came to terms with Hitler’s representatives, albeit under duress.”

    The Stern Gang was a small faction within the Zionist movement. Communist (those with state power in the USSR) and their acolytes signed a treaty with Nazi Germany and participated in the invasion of Poland and fully cooperated with Hitler until June 22, 1941. Trotskyists in repeating their leaders’ “No War, No Peace” strategy of 1918 did their part to fight mobilization against the fascists. As for Kastner, his self-serving actions can be compared to a parent cooperating with a kidnapper’s demands to get his child back. Who had the power, who had the guns, who was killing whom in 1944 Hungary?

    I read Schindler’s book. What I get from it is that the Marxists of whatever type are stuck in a 1930s time warp. Zionism has succeeded and a Jewish state has sovereign and military power. The “Jewish question” which so possesses Marxists, esp. Jewish ones, has very different answers now. But as Schindler pointed out, these Marxists cannot abandon their ideology so they make facts and current events fit their beliefs. Reminds me of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other religious zealots in this country. The characters Schindler describes should abandon their “retrogressive ghetto provincialism” join the 21st century and deal with Israel as it is, not as their ideological blinders say it ought to be, or never have been.

    • Zachary Says:

      I would like to reply to my own comment. Schindler does point out the increased significance since the 1960s to Marxist attacks on Zionism of anti-imperialism/anti-colonialism. What has not changed is the result: Jewish nationalism does/should not exist and Jews are not “a people.” (see Shlomo Sand). In other words Zionism and “the Jewish people” are still targets; Marxists want to join a different group of shooters.


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