Reply to Hirsh and Ashworth on leftist “anti-semitism”

Two of the directors of Engage, Jane Ashworth and David Hirsh, have written a defence of Zionism and a critique of leftist anti-Zionism on the website of Progress, “the independent organisation for Labour party members and trade unionists”. The State They’re In follows the fairly predictable pattern of raising the spectre of anti-semitism, apparently disputing that the hostility to Israel on display from certain sections of the left and the labour movement are not “real racism”.

To begin with, we are told of the degree to which Jews feel under threat when practising their religion in this country:

When British Jews gather to worship, sing songs or educate their children, they have to be guarded by armed police and community security people. Cars are discreetly placed across entrances to impede suicide bombers. Attacks on Jews and synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are still at a much lower level in the UK than other racist attacks, but they are growing year-by-year, and anti-semitic attacks peak at times when the Middle East is in the news.

The question might be asked why armed police are necessary to defend a group which, by its own admission, suffers far fewer racist attacks than any other visible minority. Of course, a section of genuinely racist Jew-haters have long existed in this country: the far right and its violent micro-factions like Combat 18, who show themselves to be the usual culprits by spraying Nazi slogans on the graves. As discussed here in the past, from the section of society one might suspect to harbour most hostility, no organised violent anti-Jewish campaign exists and none ever has.

Hirsh and Ashworth mention a number of incidents which really have nothing to do with anti-semitism at all. The “Fagin” reference during this year’s election campaign may have come from someone who did not know that the character by that name in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, as opposed to the one in the musical based on it, was Jewish; Dickens’ books are notoriously densely written. The “flying pigs” poster similarly gave rise to accusations of anti-semitism when they in fact referred to a well-known saying. (If monkeys had been used elsewhere in the campaign, the accusations might have carried some weight, but nothing of the sort had happened.) These are irrelevances.

As for Ken Livingstone’s “warm embrace” of Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi (I wonder how warm it really was), it “shows a disregard for the importance of anti-semitism”, when (assuming the two do not have a personal friendship neither I nor those who criticise know about) the scholar was here to defend women’s hijab rights, and no doubt Livingstone intended to display his full support for such rights, as he did in his debate in the Guardian with JP Raffarin. While the Arab media confuse the issues by indefensibly rehashing European anti-semitic myths, Qaradawi himself isn’t a classic European anti-semite; he’s simply an Arab enemy of Israel.

Hirsh and Ashworth then tell us of all the undesirables who make use of anti-Zionist arguments emanating from the left: David Irving, David Duke, German skinheads, and sundry “Tory grandees” right-wing American isolationists, none of whose support was actually solicited in any of this. If opportunists on the far right make use of left-wingers’ arguments (if Galloway can be called a left-winger), it’s no real reflection on those who make the arguments in all sincerity.

The authors do not, of course, disagree with “just Palestinian aspiration to independence and statehood”, but with those who blame the mere existence of Israel for the oppression of the local Arabs. One could question whether any viable Palestinian state has ever been on the Israeli agenda, particularly given that the government which signed the Oslo accords was voted out of office a couple of years later, and that the scheme proposed by Barak, of which the Israeli lobby never misses an opportunity to remind us, was an insult, not affording the Palestinians the borderland between their state and the neighbouring Arab country, and was probably made anticipating rejection. One could also question Arafat’s motivation for signing Oslo; perhaps he saw Nelson Mandela’s successes, realised he was getting on in years, and had a desire to be a politician rather than a forgotten exiled former resistance leader. One might also argue that it’s too much to ask that a displaced people just accept that the fact of their displacement somehow justifies it.

The authors also take issue with the tendency to “deny that anti-semitism is a problem nowadays, particularly in relation to ‘real’ racism”. I’d say that given what the victims of real racism suffer, let alone with the anti-semitism of past eras in Europe, the attitudes of some left-wingers to Israel do not even compare. Jews, even the distinctive religious Jews, have never been harrassed in the street by police the way black people have, for example. Like any other English-speaking white minority, such as British natives of Polish ancestry, they are allowed to pass unhindered into business and academia - more than enough to form a substantial group like Engage. People do not throw their change at them when they buy things. People do not generally use the name of their people as a synonym for scum or riff-raff. The biggest supermarket chain in this country, Tesco, is a Jewish-owned company (it stands for Tessa Cohen, the founder’s wife) with well-known Israeli connections. And nobody disputes their right to all of this. People just dispute their right to occupy a tract of other people’s land in the Middle East.

Hirsh and Ashworth naturally take exception to comparisons with Apartheid, racism, imperialism or colonialism, yet when its history is examined, one finds that movements to set up Zionist colonies were always based on the idea of displacing one people or another, and this includes the Zionists’ own schemes like the Uganda scheme and anti-semitic ones like Eichmann’s hare-brained Madagascar scheme. The trend for Europeans to make plans for other people’s countries without thinking of the people living there - in this case explicitly, with slogans like “land without people for people without land” - is certainly in evidence here. The Jews were going to have their state and the Palestinians, the Ugandans or whoever would just have to budge up. (No doubt if the Ugandans had put up any resistance with help from their fellow Africans - “people who have only just come down from the trees” in the words of Yitzchak Shamir - similar excuses would have been found for the appropriation of their land, and anti-African racism would be vastly more acceptable now than it is.)

“Israel,” they tell us, “did not come into existence because of the utopian nationalist longings of early Zionists like Herzl. It came into existence because Europe tried to sweep itself clean of Jews.” Europe was in fact trampled over by one of its nations which was in the grip of a fascist dictatorship. True, there were other incidents unrelated to the Holocaust, but the Holocaust was perpetrated by Germans; most of their accomplices, however anti-semitic, participated not knowing what was actually going on (and in at least one case stopped co-operating when they found out). The situation for Jews had been steadily improving right up until World War II, and the Nazis were able to do what they did only because of a mixture of economic distress and the miscalculations of Weimar conservatives.

“It is particularly unpleasant, then, when some anti-Zionists argue that Israel is a colony of European settlers representing European ideals of ‘progress’ and racism,” they allege; but why then are Israel’s western political structures and culture persistently cited as a reason to support it? In most incidents where one people has occupied another, the excuse is made of the supposed inferiority or barbarity of the occupied people and their despotic rulers. Palestine is far from the only country which has experienced lawlessness or oppression; I do not hear of the presence of the Mafia being used as an excuse by anyone to occupy southern Italy (by contrast, it is a reason some northern Italians use to propose cutting it adrift), or the Catholic church’s hold on Irish society and its notorious slave-labour rackets (hardly unique in the western world at the time) being used to justify foreign occupation of Ireland. Yet supporters of Israel continually offer examples of despotism and brutality in both the Palestinians’ culture and their politics.

I am not a supporter of the boycott movement which brought about this article (and much of the content of the Engage sites). Boycotting knowledge, when that knowledge is beneficial and not frivolous, is stupid; but the article itself consists of standard Zionist assertions which smack of intellectual dishonesty. Of course, they can be expected to support the right of Israel to exist, while its leftist opponents are not the friends of Palestinians they might be assumed to be (we really don’t need any more Arab socialist experiments, do we?), but the facts of displacement are generally accepted only when they have been facts since time immemorial, which is why no native American or Canadian nation will have a seat at the UN General Assembly any time soon and why no great movement exists to reverse the reconquest of Spain. The process of getting there is bound to involve much opposition from the displaced, and much bloodshed and oppression, which is why the policies criticised by anti-Zionists are precisely “the necessary outcome of the existence of Israel”. Anyone who thinks Israel will break this norm is simply fooling himself.

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