The right have it wrong, criticising Israel is not antisemitic

We are in the final weeks before the 3 May local elections and need to be out there talking about the Windrush scandal, the Syria missile attacks, Theresa May’s war-profiteering husband, Grenfell Tower, the plight of the disabled…. But we are having to face The Daily Express’, “Jeremy Corbyn supports anti-semitism again and again” and the Daily Mail’s “Jeremy Corbyn downplays anti-semitic abuse”.

The headlines have been hijacked by those desperate for distraction and, let it be said, with a questionable relationship to racism and fascism.

That ‘heavyweight’ historian, Michael Gove states, “At a time when people say that ‘I’m not an anti-Semite, I’m just anti-Zionist, it is important that we should say no, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

He is not alone in this but, not only is Gove wrong, he is ignorant of the historical antagonisms between Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews.

If we follow Gove we’d find a long, distinguished list of ‘anti-semitic’ Jews, from Albert Einstein to Natalie Portman.

It’s time for Gove to receive a history lesson.

Founder of Zionism at the end of the 19th century and a proponent of a Jewish homeland was Theodor Herzl. He was an admirer of the British Empire and wrote to Cecil Rhodes, he of the white settler colony named after him, Rhodesia, “You are being invited to help make history … it does not involve Africa but a piece of Asia Minor, not Englishmen but Jews … I turn to you … because it is something colonial ..”

Chaim Weizmann, who suceeded Herzl, wrote to the Manchester Guardian: “Should Palestine fall within the British sphere of influence and should they encourage Jewish settlement … we could develop the country, bring back civilisation and form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal.”

Opposed to their colonialism were those who set up the Jewish Bund in Poland and Russia. They stressed the four principles of socialism, secularism, Yiddish and doyikayt or “localness.” Doyikayt was encapsulated in the Bund slogan: “There, where we live, that is our country.”

“We Bundists”, wrote one of their early leaders, Viktor Alter, “wish to shatter the existing economic frameworks and show the Jewish masses how a new society can be built not by escape, but by struggle. We link the essence of the Jewish masses’ life to that of humankind.”

The difference between the Zionists and the Bund was class. The Bund saw their liberation linked to the universal struggle against exploitation. They wanted to fight the pogromists and the bosses at the same time. The Zionists developed their movement amongst middle class Jews, frustrated by the barriers of anti-Semitism to their social ascent. Their solution was to be the creation of a colonialist state linked to existing Empires.

Today that struggle between Zionists and socialists is replicated in the Jewish ‘homeland’ itself. On the one side we have the Israeli Defence Force shooting at Palestinian children. On the other Miko Peled, the son of an Israeli General, declaring, “I don’t call it Israel … The country has a name – its called Palestine.”

In the past the tradition of struggle and anti-Zionism included not only the Bund, but the many Jews who didn’t know a Yiddish from a raddish. One of them was the leader of the Jewish Warsaw uprising, Marek Edelman. He survived the destruction of the ghetto and, in his later years, supported Palestinian liberation.

Most socialists Jews today come from this tradition.

Some of those hounded out of the Labour Party by the Labour Right and the media, Jackie Walker and Cyril Chilson for example, join a long and honourable line of Jewish activists who do not view Israel as anything more than an ‘effective guard’ for imperial interests.

That is what lies behind the attacks on Corbyn’s ‘anti-semitism’ – Support for Israel.

As Jewish and non-Jewish socialists, homage should be paid to a tradition which started with the founding of the General Jewish Workers Alliance in a Vilnius attic on 7th October 1897. The eleven people present declared the need to form “a distinctive Jewish federation of workers, which will lead and educate the Jewish proletariat in its battle for economic, civil and political liberation.” And proudly, “There, where we live, that is our country.”

In their memory and with attention to the issues I highlighted at the start of this article vote Labour on 3rd May.


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