At a time when anti-Zionists on the Left are helping to drive up hate crime statistics, those of us who truly oppose racism have a duty to speak out.
Until recently, describing myself as a Zionist would have felt like describing myself as pro-tomato. I quite like tomatoes, but it doesn’t seem like something that needs drawing attention to. Also, in this instance being non-Jewish is like not being a famous chef: I don’t expect anyone else to find particular relevance in my spaghetti all’arrabiata. Unfortunately, my Zionism is no longer like my relationship with tomatoes. It now calls for emphatic restatement as a result of the sorry state of our party.
Since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader a debate had been swinging backwards and forwards over whether the party had a problem with anti-Semitism. I will admit that I’ve had my doubts at points, especially when the allegations have come from some more opportunistic Tory politicians, but after the 2017 conference there can be no question. This year’s gathering in Brighton saw, among other highlights, media coverage diverted by a speaker inviting his audience to question whether the Holocaust actually happened. The fact that even Momentum came out in support of a rule change, originally proposed by the Jewish Labour Movement, to strengthen condemnation of anti-Semitic hate speech is a testament to the severity of the situation.
Historically, our movement has been implacably opposed to racism. The Battle of Cable Street and our close involvement with the global campaign against apartheid – at a time when Margaret Thatcher was denouncing the ANC as terrorists – are especially proud moments in our history. In general terms, this tendency is as strong as it ever has been in Labour: our final victory in government was to pass the Equalities Act, and last year we elected the first Muslim mayor of any major European city. The main difference nowadays is that some in the party want to exclude one particular ethnic group. Racism is unacceptable, except when Jews are the victims – then it counts as legitimate action against Blairite conspirators.
Ah, but you say, wagging a self-righteous finger: anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not the same thing. And you would be right, in theory. There should be a clear distinction between the criticism of an idea and an attack on an individual or group motivated by their ethnic or racial identity (“protected characteristics”, in the parlance of the Equalities Act). Nevertheless, in reality it is often very difficult to draw a line between the two. Anti-Zionist rhetoric frequently employs anti-Semitic tropes to further its arguments, like the Jewish capitalist jetting between New York and Tel Aviv to plot the expansion of his shadowy empire. We should also remember Europe’s long history of militants crossing from the far-Left to the far-Right, the bridgehead between the two often being their shared contempt for the rootless Jew.
Perhaps the worst aspect of all this, however, is that the anti-Zionism of the university seminar room is not a victimless pursuit. Just as lazy Islamophobia in the wake of an Islamist attack leads to a spike in hate crimes against Muslims, so the rise of loud anti-Zionism correlates with a greater risk to Jewish communities outside Israel. The Community Security Trust recorded 767 anti-Semitic incidents across the UK in the first half of this year, the highest number over the same period since records began in 1984. Arguing that Israel should not exist is not the same as arguing that the railways should be renationalised. There are very real human consequences.
To be clear, as Zionists go I’m a fairly reluctant one. I don’t like nationalism of any kind; even in the age of Brexit, I’m still convinced that a multicultural federation is the political structure most suitable for the 21st Century. Nevertheless, the existence of Israel was and remains an essential response to the persecution of Jews in Europe and the wider world. We should stop treating that pluralist democracy as a single unit and start focussing our criticism where it is deserved: the disgraceful record of Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud in stoking intercommunal suspicion and sanctioning grotesque human rights abuses against Palestinian civilians. Like British Labour, Ha’Avoda cannot boast an entirely clean record, but they and other groups like them are committed to a peaceful and permanent resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the spirit of international socialism we should be supporting them.
At a time when anti-Zionists on the Left are helping to drive up hate crime statistics, those of us who truly oppose racism have a duty to speak out. I am a socialist, I am not Jewish, and yes, I believe that the state of Israel has the “right” to exist, whatever that means. I see no contradiction there.