Dave Rich: The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism

In The Left’s Jewish Problem Dave Rich offers a careful and scholarly (but unfailingly readable) intervention into the highly charged topic of the left’s relationship with antisemitism – a meticulous genealogy of the movements and ideological skirmishes that lie behind the most recent and familiar manifestations of the problem:

As this book will explain, while Corbyn’s rise to the leadership precipitated the Labour Party’s problem with anti-Semitism, the political trends on the left that brought that problem about long predate Corbyn’s leadership, and stretch well beyond the Labour Party. His rise is a symbol of the problem; whether he survives or not, the issue of anti-Semitism on the left of British politics is unlikely to go away.

Rich reminds us that the British left used to view Israel favourably. Zionism was associated with socialism and, through its conflict with a British occupying force, was perceived as anti-colonial in nature. ‘The cause of Israel is the cause of democratic socialism’ asserted a Tribune writer in 1955. What changed? Rich cautions against overstating the role played by active antisemitism, but demonstrates some of the ways in which antisemitic tropes were able to infect the discourse, and the thinking, of people who saw themselves as part of an antiracist struggle.

An important factor in Israel’s perceived shift from socialist underdog to colonial oppressor was the Six Day War. This polarised opinion, exacerbating nascent left wing hostility to Israel, but strengthening an identity with Zionism amongst British and American Jews. Another significant factor was the rise of the New Left, less interested in bread and butter socialist concerns, driven instead by identity politics, single issue pressure groups and anti-American sentiment. Through this lens, Israel began to be seen as a colonial imposition on the Middle East.

Many of today’s familiar anti-Israel tropes began to circulate in the late 1950s and 1960s. The PLO compared Zionism to Nazism and the Algerian National Liberation Front blamed Israel’s creation on the monopoly of finance and media held by ‘magnate Jews’. Rich explains in detail how another trope – the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa – gained so much traction. Surprisingly, the Young Liberals play a major part in this story. The relationship between this group and the wider Liberal Party was bizarrely disjunctive in the 1960s. Their vice-chairman Bernard Greaves, for example, ‘dismiss[ed] Parliament as a hindrance to “the revolutionary transformation of society”’.

Some members flirted with Communism and others engaged in violent direct action as part of their campaign against apartheid. Among the key players was Peter Hellyer, Vice-Chairman of the Young Liberals. Through his campaigning he made connections with Palestinian and other Arab activists and this political environment exposed him to Soviet and Egyptian anti-Zionist – and antisemitic – propaganda. As Rich explains, the Soviet Union was a particularly important vector for anti-Zionist discourse. Examining these 1960s networks, and the way ideas circulated within them (rather like tracing the transmission of a virus) helps explain not just the preoccupations of today’s left but the precise arguments and images they instinctively reach for.

The British Anti-Zionist Organisation (BAZO) was seen as one of the more extreme groups. ‘It argued that Zionists collaborated with Nazis during the Second World War and that they encouraged anti-Semitism to the benefit of Israel.’ If that sounds familiar, so will the names of several of its members – Tony Greenstein, George Galloway, Richard Burden. Another significant grouping was Matzpen – but this Israeli anti-Zionist movement was viewed with disfavour by some, such as Ghada Karmi, because it acknowledged a place for a separate Jewish grouping within the socialist federation they proposed for the region. This particular fault line prompted charges of tribalism against anti-Zionist Jewish activists – accusations since nastily amplified by Gilad Atzmon.

While the anti-Apartheid movement functioned as a gateway to zealous anti-Israel campaigning, the NUS’s No Platform policy, intended to repel fascism and racism, became weaponised against Zionism and (in an ironic twist) had a discriminatory impact on university Jewish societies. These were deemed to be racist unless they renounced any expression of a Zionist identity. The impulse to outlaw abhorrent speakers is understandable. John Randall, a former NUS president, insisted:

There are some boundaries that a civilised society adopts, and there are some behaviours that clearly lie outside those boundaries.

But as Rich dryly comments:

As Jewish students would discover, the flaw in the policy is that those boundaries are movable.

This is just one of many moments in the book where the reader may experience an uncanny sense of déjà vu. In the 1971 words of Kate Hoey, vice-president of the NUS we can read a foreshadowing of the stance taken by current NUS President, Malia Bouattia.

Unquestionably the mass media has given no prominence to the Palestinian case which is understandable because of the Zionist influence among the people who control it.

Although much in this book was unfamiliar to me, all too familiar was the sense of disbelief and frustration that so many on the left, sensitive to other forms of prejudice, have a seemingly limitless capacity for glossing over or blanking out antisemitism except on the right. Here’s one example of this selective obtuseness. Jeremy Corbyn (who refused to campaign alongside David Cameron to Remain) shared a platform with Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Hezbollah supporter who posted Holocaust denial material on his website. When complaints were raised, Corbyn’s response was careless and arrogant.

I refuse to be dragged into this stuff that somehow or other because we’re pro-Palestinian, we’re antisemitic. It’s a nonsense.

This is an example of a manoeuvre I see increasingly often – the invocation of Israel/Palestine to shut down accusations of antisemitism that have nothing to do with that topic.

Although the possibility of a left-wing antisemitism just doesn’t seem to compute for Corbyn and his ilk, the problem’s roots can be traced back to the early years of socialism in the nineteenth century. Jews became strongly identified with capitalism and there grew up the idea of ‘a specifically Jewish network of power and wealth that needed to be broken.’ Capitalism and Jewish power become dangerously interchangeable ideas, both perceived as barriers to a just society. The left needs to face up to its patchy record on this front, rather than brush it under the carpet. Here Rich reminds us of just one blot on our copybook.

The Trades Union Congress in 1900 passed a resolution decrying the war as one ‘to secure the gold fields of South Africa for cosmopolitan Jews, most of whom had no patriotism and no country.’

I wholeheartedly recommend this illuminating and timely study – there are so many more examples and observations I’m tempted to quote, but I’ll end with some strikingly prescient words from Jeremy Thorpe, speaking in 1968:

Britain suffers little from the disgrace of anti-Semitism. But the amiable weakness for the underdog, which is part of our national character, can all too easily allow us to become sentimental about political problems, while the perverse British characteristic of preferring our foes to our friends often corrupts our judgment.


BDS South Africa: Esakov responds to antisemitism at Wits

Here’s an interesting response to recent events at Wits University, when a concert given by an Israeli musician, Daniel Zamir, was met with protests, including chants of ‘shoot the Jew’, echoing a well known anti-Boer song. The writer, Heidi-Jane Esakov, is a BDS activist.  In this piece she explains that her support for this policy is driven by her hopes for justice and equality for the Palestinian people, and ‘a just peace for Jewish Israelis’.  However much I disagree with BDS (particularly when it targets cultural and academic exchanges) I take her explanation at face value, as well as her repudiation of racism:

“Of course we recognise that there are those who use the Palestinian struggle as a way to camouflage their anti-Semitism, and this needs to be dealt with unequivocally. Not because it is bad for the movement, but because, fundamentally, anti-Semitism should never be tolerated.”

This seems quite a strong statement.  I have more than once felt that expressions of disapproval for antisemitism in Palestinian solidarity circles have been driven (primarily) by strategic motives – ‘bad for the movement’ as she puts it – so it is good that she addresses this possibility head on, although I am not sure she succeeds in dealing ‘unequivocally’ with the issue in the rest of the article.

The next bit is – from my perspective – not so good:

Those of us who support the struggle for Palestinian freedom and justice constantly find ourselves up against attempts to conflate challenges against Zionism and Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. These accusations are an attempt to silence criticism, and dangerously distract from real acts and expressions of anti-Semitism.

The Livingstone formulation.  With any kind of prejudice, it’s inevitable that people’s thresholds are going to be set slightly differently, and one can disagree about these without accusing people of speaking in bad faith.

Although Esakov condemns the ‘dubula e Juda’ song, she tries to (partially) excuse those responsible, by explaining that in the original ‘Boer’ song:

… the word ‘Boer’ [was] commonly understood as representing an oppressive system, not a particular ethnic group.  However the song has in fact been officially declared to be hate speech within South Africa, so this claim seems dubious.

There have been allegations by BDS supporters of ‘racial profiling’ against those who sought to ensure the concert would not be disrupted.  Esakov describes this background to the events with a confusing blend of honesty and prevarication:

 In order to prevent any disturbance of the concert by protesters, concert organisers, primarily, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), had block-booked the venue to ensure control of who could – and, more accurately, who couldn’t – attend. Simply put, concert goers were racially profiled.

The Palestinian solidarity movement takes great pains to distinguish between Zionism and Judaism. This time, however, they got it very wrong, with various media statements asserting that they would be protesting a ‘Jewish only’ concert. This was an irresponsible oversimplification of the racial profiling that was indeed taking place. A more accurate description would have been a ‘Zionists only concert’. It is thus somewhat understandable that some of the protesters may have understood that they were protesting against Jews, and not the racism of ‘racial profiling’.

She begins by implicitly acknowledging that reports of racial profiling were misleading. But she then seems to suggest that it was in fact an instance of racial profiling – not of Jews but of Zionists.  What this really means is that people were trying to make sure the concert passed off smoothly – by Esakov’s logic any event staffed by the CST involves ‘racial profiling’.  Then in a particularly convoluted move she uses the fact the event was tendentiously described as ‘Jewish only’ to excuse the chanting – see the final bizarre sentence in bold.

But at the end of the article she returns to her starting point, and to the important fact that too many have remained silent over this issue:

Although a number of individuals and organisations linked to the Palestinian solidarity movement came out in strong condemnation of the use of the ‘shoot the Jew’ slogan, it was deeply concerning to see how many organisations aligned to the movement have remained silent. There seems to be a lack of awareness that you can only challenge racism from within a principled, anti-racist position. Challenging all expressions of racism also means challenging anti-Semitism. Not doing that severely undermines the movement and the principles it upholds.

Although it is true that she is not the only BDS activist to condemn the song, she glosses over the fact that Muhammed Desai, Chair of BDS South Africa, has not simply brushed aside criticism, but actively belittled people’s concerns about antisemitism:

He said there was no evidence of Jews being harmed because of anti-Semitic impulses, – “the whole idea anti-Semitism is blown out of proportion”.  He said if there were anti-Semitic sentiments they would flatly challenge it even if it came from within their protest

St Andrews J-Soc Ball cancelled following threats

It was reported this morning that the Golf Hotel in St Andrews had cancelled a J-Soc Ball, scheduled for tonight, because of pressure from protestors who objected to the fact that proceeds from the ball were going to support charities which included the Jewish National Fund and Friends of the Israeli Defence Forces, as well as Elem, which seeks to help homeless Jewish and Arab youth in Israel.

The hotel manager explained that he had received threatening phone calls and emails, and felt that a planned demonstration by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Committee raised health and safety concerns for the hotel’s staff and guests.  Although people should be free to demonstrate, the SPSC typically goes further, and tries to disrupt and close down events of which it disapproves. In 2011 a member of the SPSC was found guilty of a racist breach of the peace after he abused a Jewish student’s flag of Israel.

A spokesman from the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council expressed his great disappointment that a ‘hotel of its stature had caved in so easily to intimidation’.

Update: The ball eventually went ahead in an undisclosed location.  Here’s some more information about the more aggressive responses it attracted.

Fears arose that the protest would turn violent when anti-Semitic comments were posted on Facebook. One protester wrote: “Friday we send them into hell.” Another, commenting on the police’s presence at the ball, said: “Mi5 Mossad boot boys don’t stand a chance.”

The SPSC spokesperson condemned any threats.

A brave campaign from the Union of Jewish Students

This is a cross post from Jak at Reduard

The Union of Jewish Students have announced a new Israel campaign for the upcoming academic year, one which signals a radical break from past UJS hasbara efforts.

As the JC reports:

Jewish students arriving at universities in the next fortnight will be asked to pledge their support to “two states for two peoples”, hand out Israeli and Palestinian flags, and support “freedom, justice and equality” for all.
There is a belief within UJS that standard advocacy efforts “do not cut it any more” because “students are not stupid”. Students will be encouraged to back the “liberation” of Israelis from Palestinian terror, and Palestinians through the formation of a new state.

To say this has stoked up debate online would be the understatement of the year. A Facebook group is doing the rounds, calling the campaign ‘disgraceful’ and ‘utterly crazy’.

Now, I was on campus for four years at a university widely consider to be a hotbed of extreme anti-Zionism and led a wide variety of Israel campaigns. We did all the standard campaigns that anyone who has been on a UK campus will recognise – we handed out falafel, had speakers from the Israeli Embassy, had film showings, talked about how welcoming Israel was to women/homosexuals/religious minorities etc etc. All were good campaigns, well organised and relatively successful. But what they didn’t do is change the narrative on campus. Hateful  anti-Israel diatribes would still appear in the student rag on a weekly basis, the Palestine society would still shout outside university buildings about the ‘holocaust’ in Gaza, and any ordinary student with any sense whatsoever simply ran a mile in the opposite direction – and understandably so. We are facing a new reality on our campuses – the old arguments about settlements or the security barrier are being replaced by a debate about the mere existence of Israel as a Jewish state. Zionism is a dirty word for many students – associated with oppression rather than liberation. Explaining Israel is no longer enough – what is needed is a dialogue, not just about Israel but about the very ideas behind Israel – Zionism, liberation, and self determination for the Jewish people. UJS is in a sense implementing is a back to basics campaign, focusing on ideas and concepts rather than specific policies.

As for those annoyed that UJS is advocating a Palestinian state, I would say this: it is morally dishonest to advocate self-determination for one group of people and not the other. Jews and Palestinians both need and deserve a homeland. Yes there may be a debate about the future borders or composition of those states, but the idea of self-determination is a universal one. It’s why groups like the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and their ilk will always be hypocritical, bigoted and discriminatory organisations – they vehemently support the self-determination of one nation whilst completely ignoring the rights of others. UJS should be proud of taking such a principled stance on the issue, especially as they must have been aware of the potential backlash it could cause.

The campaign is a brave step for UJS, and it may or may not work. But at least it is attempting something different. The naysayers and critics should step back and honestly ask themselves whether they really think the current strategy is working. Surely all evidence suggests that it is not? Burying heads in the sand and pointing to Golda Meir being a female as an example of Israeli progressiveness frankly no longer cuts it.

A drunk man looks at the Israeli flag – Stan Crooke

Paul Donnachie and his friend, students at St Andrews University, turned up at Chanan Reitblat’s flat in a university hall of residence in the small hours of 12th March to check up on their friend, Reitblat’s flatmate. Donnachie saw an Israeli flag above Reitblat’s bed and flew into a rage. There followed a court case which saw Donnachie found guilty of racially aggravated breach of the peace (i.e. that he acted a manner which was racially aggravated and which caused, or was intended to cause, a person alarm or distress), sentenced to community service and fined. Through his tears Donnachie protested in all sincerity that he was an anti-racist. St Andrews was unimpressed and expelled him.

From the BBC,

“Sentencing Donnachie, a history student and member of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, sheriff Charlie Macnair said: “This flag was his personal property. I consider that your behaviour did evince malice towards Mr Reitblat because of his presumed membership of Israel.

“I’m satisfied that you said Israel was a terrorist state and the flag was a terrorist symbol and I also hold that you said that Mr Reitblat was a terrorist.””

An account of the incident and its aftermath, with particular focus on the vindictive fury of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the anti-Israel fellowship, by Stan Crooke at the AWL.

Natalie Rothschild – potted Pappé

Natalie Rothschild begins her review of Ilan Pappé’s new book,

“The most astute observation in Israeli historian Ilan Pappé’s book Out of the Frame: The Struggle For Academic Freedom In Israel is that writing about himself was an ‘embarrassing’ experience. Rarely has so much poorly structured, skewed and conceited tripe been squeezed into 220 pages.”

Read on.

Noam Edry – Zionist art at Goldsmiths

This piece by Karen Glaser is from Jpost.com.

Noam Edry

Artistic defiance

Noam Edry decided to challenge demonization against Israel on her campus in her own creative way by breaking taboos through ‘zionist’ art.

That this Israeli artist has ruffled British feathers is obvious from the moment I walk through the door of the world-famous art college.  “I’ve come to see Noam Edry’s show. Could you direct me?” I ask the student- steward at reception.  “Just follow the noise,” she replies with an ironic smirk. “It’s impossible to ignore.”

It’s true: Edry’s MA graduate show at Goldsmiths College is one noisy piece of installation art. But this is not why it has been impossible to ignore. Edry’s exhibition has been impossible to ignore because it is a Zionist take on the Middle East conflict — on display in an institution that routinely refers to Israel as an apartheid state.

Actually it’s more complicated. “Conversation Pieces: Scenes of Unfashionable Life” is an installation comprising paintings, drawings, video, sound, sculpture and performance that look at the Arab-Israeli conflict through the artist’s Jewish-Israeli eyes. In so doing, it tries to challenge the ways in which people arrive at their political opinions.  A lot of the individual exhibits are ambiguous and open-ended. But knowing how reviled the Jewish state has become on many British campuses, and preempting, surely, her detractors, Edry herself writes: “Call it a Zionist show, call it what you like.” She is, in short, being provocative.

You could see this provocation as a riposte to months of antagonism from the other side. When Edry moved to London to start her master’s in Fine Art, following a first degree at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, she thought she was on reprieve from the Middle East. The world’s most bitter conflict was certainly the last subject on which she expected to be making art.  “I had always thought of myself as apolitical,” she says. “I was sure of one thing only – that the conflict was not as simple or clear-cut as a black-and-white painting.”

But then, on her first day at Goldsmiths, the Ramat Yohanan kibbutznik was assailed by posters at the university calling her homeland an apartheid state.

It was a punch to the stomach: “Apartheid? In what way? I had gone to art college with Arab artists where we had built our exhibitions side by side. Before that I had served in the army with Beduin, sharing the same awful, oily food and consoling ourselves with Arab coffee that we brewed for each other in makeshift pots. My army commander was a Druse.”

EDRY’S INITIAL response was to lie low, a tactic that most Israelis at Goldsmiths, of whom there is a good handful every academic year, employ for the duration of their degrees. During her first year, she never brought up the Israel-Palestine question, and she certainly didn’t make art about her Israeli identity.

But it didn’t work. Edry was constantly confronted about the conflict – on the way back from a party, over lunch or a cup of coffee in the student union bar. And there were ever more posters plastered on the university’s walls – ostensibly about her homeland, but actually depicting a place that was “barely recognizable, so crass was the misrepresentation.”

When she attended a meeting of the Palestine Twinning Campaign, it felt, she says, like the clock had rewound to 1939.  “I was expecting real dialogue, but instead they were calling for an academic boycott of Israel, rallying young people who were desperate to be passionate about something to silence people like me – artists and intellectuals who believe in human beings and mutual tolerance, the very people who are, in fact, the real hope for peace in the region,” she says. “I was horrified.  What next? Would they start burning Israeli books?”

Not yet. But what she did next was to make a complex work challenging the relentless campus demonization of the Jewish state.

The show begins in a corridor outside the studio, where Jewish Israelis serve Arab-Israeli coffee to members of the public while wearing, and giving out, T-shirts with the slogan “I come from the most hated place on earth” – continuing on the back, “second to Iran.” Before you enter the room, a security guard checks your bag; he’s part of the show, but for me, at least, it took time for the penny to drop.  Inside, there is a massage therapist rehabilitating volunteers’ left sides.

The noise to which the student-steward sniffily referred comes from various sources: a video installation screened on an ’80s portable television, entitled Groovy Little War Mix and featuring war footage (including a simulated bombing of Goldsmiths College) mixed with music that scratches back and forwards; another video of Edry talking about her work; and a live performance that includes a screaming woman running into the room before hysterically throwing herself on the floor and disappearing in what looks like a pile of mud. Two words spring immediately to mind: suicide bomb.

THE STEWARD isn’t the only person to object to the volume. Students in neighboring studios have complained that her noise is “infiltrating our space.” And a visiting gallerist asks her how she managed to get such a big room for her show. Not everyone understands her ironic answer to both questions: “I am Israeli. What do you expect?”

Irony born of bitter experience. When she was preparing her show, several of her tutors nicknamed her “The Zionist Terrorist.” She thinks they were being playful, but it can’t have been much fun. Other teachers said that because they disagreed with her political persuasion, they found it hard to discuss her ideas with her. To which she replied: “But this work is not about the politics of the Middle East – about who is right and who is wrong.”

Despite this, she says her tutors have generally been supportive and, more important, genuinely intrigued by the finished work. “They have certainly been asking me lots of questions. It shows, I think, that you can make art from an unpopular political position and it can still affect people and be open-ended.”

This open-endedness also affects, and baffles, many of the thousands of visitors who come to see her show. Yes, thousands.  This year at Goldsmiths, it is a Bezalel alumnus who has the art world talking – in all directions.

Here’s one exchange.  Visitor: “I don’t want to offend anyone, but I am pro-Palestinian. What position are you?” Edry: “Well, have a coffee, walk around and see what you think.” Visitor, after her walk-around: “You know, I don’t understand this issue of homeland. It’s not in my DNA, I’m Australian. l think I still have my prejudices, but maybe that’s because my friends are all pro-Palestinian. But I do, er, hate Zionists [pause]. Well, you wouldn’t be in favor of what’s happening in your country, that’s for sure… I guess?”

Or the man who comes in shouting, “This is just all propaganda! Everything you say about Hamas is rubbish [although nothing is directly said about Hamas in the piece]. I know what Israel is like. I read the papers” – but who, after extensive conversation with the coffee-stand volunteers, leaves saying, “Okay, maybe, I don’t know.”

And the student who tells Edry, “You seem to me to be someone who supports the demolition of Palestinian homes.” “Really?” she asks. “Why do you say that? Do you see that in my work?” “I don’t know,” the student says. “I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

Meanwhile, other Brits, perhaps more ignorant about the Middle East than they realize, can’t quite put their finger on the artist’s ethnicity, asking, “Are you Israeli or Palestinian?” And they certainly don’t know what to make of ironic graffiti such as “Zionist prick” and “The bad guys are coming.” The Hebrew graffiti scrawled across walls is, naturally, even more confusing. “For me, just writing in my mother tongue was to break a big taboo,” says Edry. “ As was writing the word ‘Zionist.’ I felt so good when I had done it.”

TABOO. THE word goes to the heart of this artwork. Zionism is arguably the most unpopular ideology in art circles, and Goldsmiths – the alma mater of artists such as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas – is at the center of the British art world. The London University college is also the birthplace of Engage, a campaign against academic boycotts of Israel, founded by sociology lecturer David Hirsh; its website has become a crucial resource for countering anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in British academia.

However, it’s fair to say that most Israeli artists at Goldsmiths deal with the discomfort of campus anti-Zionism by either keeping quiet or joining in the criticism – which some would call self-abnegation.

Edry has done the precise opposite. “In my first year at Goldsmiths, I felt voiceless. I saw the daily delegitimization of my country, the dehumanization of the place which made me who I am, and I felt powerless. I didn’t have the words, the flashy slogans and the fashionable labels,” she recalls. “This work has been my voice. I have forced dialogue to take place and I have shown Israel’s detractors the faces of the people [the coffee-stand volunteers] affected by their hate campaign.  There is now an Israeli voice in Goldsmiths, and it’s loud and won’t be silenced.”

And in the process, she has also been given a voice in her native land. Since the Goldsmiths show, there has been interest aplenty from British and American galleries and art collectors. This week, the artist also had calls from two major Israeli museums. In her (noisy) video, she says she thinks her kind of political art will ruffle Israeli feathers, too. We’ll see.

This piece by Karen Glaser is from Jpost.com.

%d bloggers like this: