This note focuses on these two aspects of the Inquiry’s remit:
• to establish boundaries of acceptable behaviours and
• to ensure that the party is a welcoming environment.
There is a world of difference between the sort of anti-zionism that protests Israeli Government policies or the occupation of the West Bank and existential anti-zionism. Existential anti-zionsim denies the legitimacy of Israel and insists that Zionism is a form of racism. The former is a reasonable position, the latter is a cause of the political hostility that we now see in the Party towards those Jews who hold to the mainstream communal opinion.
The need for a tolerant Labour Party
It is extremely unfortunate that the current conflict over the legitimacy of Israel and definitions of antisemitism threatens to be a defining battle within the Party’s larger left-right war. It is already established as a defining left-right issue within the youth wings. A good row, with all its rough, tumble and rancour, is well within Labour’s traditions. This is not one of those healthy rows. We seem to be heading for embedded and lasting intolerance to difference and that will make us an uninhabitable space for dissenters. The Party as a whole – the members and the machine alike – needs to become a tolerant party that can cope with different opinions.
We should aim to become a party in which free and fair debate about the Palestine/Israel conflict is perfectly possible. Being a Zionist would not be out of bounds in a tolerant party, and members within a tolerant party would be comfortable to campaign against the Israeli Government and the occupation of the West Bank. When members complain of Jew baiting and the mobilisation of antisemitic tropes then a tolerant party assumes they speak in good faith. A tolerant party assumes they are not dissembling to protect Israel. We are a long way off such a state. It is hard to be a Zionist in today’s party and it shouldn’t be.
Properly managed, this crisis might prove to be a blessing. Cleaning up the Party so it becomes tolerant and welcoming to Jews who share the dominant communal attitude to Israel could be a collaborative and unifying process. (Latest figures show that 93% of UK Jews see Israel as important to them.) Handled properly, the cleaning up process could allow activists and leaders of the left and the right to build trust, tolerance and to find a way to co-exist.
Action for a tolerant party
The current problem in the Party is not caused by a few over- excited, misguided, loose-tongued, foolish or ignorant people. It is not caused by people who are motivated by hostility to Jews nor by most of those Party members who see themselves as anti-zionists and who want to see a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It is not caused by dissembling Jews.
The problem is rooted in the growth in popularity of a particular strand of anti-zionism – existential anti-zionism. In today’s Party, existential anti-zionism runs alongside a form of antisemitism-denial which insists that Zionist Jews deliberately and dishonestly use the charge of antisemitism to silence criticism of Israel.
Existential anti-zionism frames Israel as a settler, racist, illegitimate state; it considers Zionism to be a racist ideology and it considers Zionists to be racists who are not welcome in the party. (The anatomy of existential anti-zionism is at appendix one.) Existential anti-zionism has its own gurus (including the discredited writers of history, Lenni Brenner and Roland Rance), its own language, its own codes, its own buzz words; and it mobilises anti-Jewish motifs and legends for use against Zionists. Existential anti-zionists are driven; they behave much like the entryists of the 80’s: they go hunting; and since most UK Zionists are Jews and most Jews are Zionists, Jews are their targets. The existential anti-zionists hound Jews in ways which they themselves would call racist if any other minority were involved.
And so, once an existential anti-zionist defines a fellow party member as a Zionist then the trouble begins for him or her. After all, so their argument goes, we don’t treat racists well and we certainly don’t want them in the Party: hence a Zionist is fair game for baiting, aggression and marginalisation. To the existential anti-zionist, both the Zionist and Zionism should be removed from the social democratic consensus. Fired by this self-ascribed moral authority, existential anti-zionism crusades with shrill and self-righteous aggression. Non-Jewish Zionists tend not to be the focus of this aggression and baiting. As most Jews are Zionists and as most UK Zionists are Jews then existential anti-zionism tends to target those Jews who share the dominant communal attitude to Israel.
The trouble gets worse because existential anti-zionism deploys antisemitic tropes that non-Jews are unlikely to understand. It baits Jews. See below the cartoon from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, a campaign which is financed by Labour activists and trade union affiliations. This image, in beautiful and arresting colours, tells us that the Israelis are trying to sell you food to eat which is made with the blood of Palestinian children.
Most reasonable people can feel the cartoon’s hostility, but not many non-Jews will feel the bite that comes with knowing it is a mobilisation of the blood libel. It would be surprising if more than a tiny percentage of the UK population even knows about the blood libel. It is mobilised time and time again in existential anti-zionist materials. It is a dog whistle; it baits Jews. And so, when Jews respond negatively to the dog whistle it is easy for existential anti-zionists to paint the objections as a whinge, obscurantist, or more importantly, as cover to protect Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
So, thank God for Livingstone’s loose tongue. Livingstone mobilised a favourite device of existential anti-zionism – the conflation of Hitler’s desire to rid Europe’s social, cultural, political and economic life of Jews with the politics of Jewish nationalism and the desire for a Jewish homeland. Livingstone was understood by reasonable people to be offering a hostile and disingenuous interpretation of a defining feature of the 20th century. It wasn’t the usual existential anti-zionist dog-whistle; it was fully audible to every reasonable listener. Ken confirmed on national TV what some party members have reckoned on for a long time: he baits Jews. He and the other existential anti-zionists reshape historiography into a narrative that sits between argument and abuse and gets right to the insecurities of most Jews.
Existential anti-zionism is a significant threat to the tolerant party because it could catch on and become the dominant way of thinking. It is attractive, with its smart bon mots and catchphrases that guarantee a reaction and reward the belligerent with an anti-hegemonic frisson. It feels radical and it feels like a courageous blow against the status quo. We shouldn’t underestimate the enjoyment which some people gain from legitimised hatred of Jews when those Jews are framed as racists. Existential anti-zionism provides an alibi and excuse for something very dark – the pleasures of intolerance and hating those who we regard as wrongdoers.
Watered down existential anti-zionism gets everywhere and before we know it the Oxford Labour Club is singing bonding-songs that celebrate the bombing of Israeli civilians – indeed such Jew baiting seems to have been an important part of the Club’s culture. So casually, and one hopes through sloppy thinking rather than by design, civilian Israelis are re-categorised. No longer are they the Tel Aviv version of those ‘ordinary, hard-working families’ that Labour supports. They have become enemy agents active in the oppressor camp, supposedly undermining decent human values in the Middle East and hence fit objects for lethal attack.
A clean up of the youth wings of the party is now urgent. It is in the nature of youth movements to take on an exaggerated expressions or caricatures of the parent body. If the politics of existential anti-zionism and its Jew baiting practices becomes dominant in the youth movement then a generation of party members, the future opinion formers and leaders, will be mis-educated and will create a Jew-free party.
The party leadership needs to defend Jews and the party from existential anti-zionism. Corbyn’s team should extend the hand of friendship to socialist Zionists within the party and say to the membership that existential anti-zionism is outside acceptable boundaries because:
• Zionists have played an important role in the history of the party and we will make it our business to ensure they continue to do so: Zionists/mainstream Jews are welcome here. ‘Zionist’ is an unacceptable term of abuse.
• Zionism was/is a reasonable nationalism which offered sanctuary and a political solution to European and Middle Eastern antisemitism. Israel was a life-raft state, both for European Jews and Middle Eastern Jews.
There is room for argument about the advisability of Zionism as a response to the holocaust. But regardless of one’s thoughts on that issue, it needs to be made clear by the party leadership that the Zionists who created Israel were shaped by the murderous antisemitism in Europe and beyond. In the light of that, the party leadership needs to explain how horrifying the existential anti-zionist rhetoric of ‘settler-colonialist state’ is to the majority of Jews who are conscious of the history of Jewry in the 20th century.
• Resolutions to the Middle East conflict should be based on a two states solution, one each for the two belligerent nations. Israel is a legitimate state and the party has no truck with those who seek to replace it with an Arab state.
• It is outside the boundaries of acceptable behaviour for party members to demonise Zionism, to assume that Zionists are outside the social democratic or socialist consensus and so treat them as some kind of external enemy. This is unacceptable not simply because it negatively impacts on most Jews but critically because it is an unreasonable framing of Zionism: Zionism is a response to murderous antisemitism.
• It is far outside the boundaries to use fascistic terms like, ‘zio’; to use concepts of Jewish power to explain foreign policy; and even in the cause of Palestinian rights it is out of bounds to mobilise anti-Israel imagery that is loaded with antisemitic tropes.
Knowing the problem: Existential anti-zionism
Understanding existential anti-zionism is a requirement for mapping out an effective response to the party’s problem. Existential anti-zionism is pernicious. It insists that:
• Zionism was/is not a reasonable response to antisemitism. Israel is necessarily an illegitimate state, because it is supposedly a colonial state; it forever will be so and therefore it should not exist. It insists that Israel must be dismantled. If necessary, (and it will be necessary, because Israelis will not agree to it), that dismantling will be against the will of the majority of its citizens.
• The existential anti-zionist would commit the party to the forcible replacement of Israel with a state that Israelis don’t want to live in and would be unlikely to survive in. It would also commit us to support for clerical-fascist organisations that would enchain women and do appalling things to social and democratic rights in the space we now call Israel and the Occupied Territories. Labour would be far outside the 2nd International consensus and the global democratic consensus – which is for two states. It is best not to let that happen because mainstream Jews would leave the party quickly, and the Labour party would then be seen by many as a racist party.
• Existential anti-zionism holds that Israel is also, and again necessarily, a racist state and so Zionists are necessarily racists too. Socialist Zionism is, for them, an oxymoron. Consequently, to the existential anti-zionist and to those imbibing such polluted water, Zionists (of the left and of the right) are definitionally not simply ‘wrong’ but ‘WRONG’ in capital letters: they are the enemy, racist, false-accusers of antisemitism, and so are suitable objects for the type of aggressive baiting that is not usually dished out to fellow party members.
• It insists that the Zionist desire for a Jewish homeland where Jews can be safe from racist hatred is actually Jewish exclusivity; that Jews collaborated with the Nazis and sacrificed other Jews in order to achieve a state; that Jews take delight in murdering Palestinian children.
• Existential anti-zionism identifies a special role for Jewish Zionists in the diaspora: they supposedly form a fifth column that is tasked with whitewashing Israel’s reputation by crying ‘antisemitism’ whenever Israel is criticised.
• The only antisemitism which existential anti-zionists recognise is the antisemitism of Nazis and the right – the left itself is felt to be somehow thought to be immune, perhaps in virtue of its self-ascribed high moral standards. Sometimes it is held that the left is immune by definition, because the left is, by definition, antiracist.
Jane Ashworth OBE