Supporting Palestine is an anti-racist, anti-colonial struggle; Israel is and always has been a racist state, argues Shabbir Lakha
The origin of Zionist thought in the late 19th century was a response to rising antisemitism in Europe. It was part of a debate on a form of self-determination of Jewish people. There were different strands of thought within Zionism and the sum of these strands was still a minority position within European and world Jewry. But even then, like now, they claimed to speak for all Jews.
In the first decade of the Zionist movement, there were territorialist and socialist strands that supported the creation of a Jewish state outside of Palestine and even backed Britain’s offer of the Mau Plateau in East Africa.
But Zionist leaders and the World Zionist Organisation made the creation of a state for Jewish people in Palestine and not anywhere else a fundamental part of Zionism. This was with full knowledge that “the bride is beautiful but she’s married to another man”. This phrase which was reported by a delegation that visited Palestine meant that the land of Palestine would be ideal, except that it was already populated.
They therefore acknowledged - as did a host of British politicians during discussion of Balfour’s infamous declaration and then facilitation of Jewish mass migration to British-occupied Palestine - that the settlement of European Jews and creation of a Jewish state in Palestine would necessitate colonisation and the dispossession of Palestinians.
The founding of Israel was indeed inherently based on the colonisation of Palestine, with the displacement, murder and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. The creation of the State of Israel was a racist endeavour and tied to Britain’s, and later the US’, imperialist aims in the Middle East. In the words of Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, the aim was to create "a loyal Jewish Ulster" which could protect Britain's interests in the Suez Canal and provide a connection to the Persian Gulf via Iraq and Jordan.
The occupation and the apartheid policies that Israel practices today were not borne of unforeseen circumstances or ‘Arab hostility’; they are the necessary development of an ethnocratic state that doesn’t recognise the right of self-determination of the indigenous population.
The land usurped by the Israeli State, the refusal of the right to return for Palestinians, the formation of an economy that was exclusive to Jewish labour and the domination of natural resources were very much planned, deliberately institutionalised in the Oslo peace process and are the inherent features of Israel that make it the apartheid state it is today.
The Histadrut, for example, which is the Israeli equivalent of the TUC, was founded as an exclusively Jewish organisation that campaigned for the exclusion of Arab workers and began by providing strikebreakers to help defeat Palestinian workers' strikes in the 20s and 30s. It was former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir who described it as not “just a trade union organization. It was a great colonizing agency”.
This is what Zionism is. It isn’t an abstract political debate on Jewish self-determination - it is what Israel is. The realisation of Zionism is at the expense of the lives and the basic freedoms of Palestinian people and the brutal military occupation they live in today.
So yes, Zionism is racist. Those who describe themselves as Zionist, even liberal Zionists and post-Zionists, accept the Nakba as legitimate.
Zionism is also not limited to Jewish people. The British politicians who backed the creation of Israel, the American politicians that pushed the UN to partition Palestine, the Evangelical Christians who proudly call themselves Zionist are not Jewish.
It’s what makes the recent accusations that Corbyn referring to a specific group of Zionists was actually code for Jewish people so crass. While there are obviously a small number of pro-Palestinian people who have used “Zionist” to describe Jewish people and as a term of abuse, which is completely unacceptable, it is often pro-Israelis and those on the right (like Sajid Javid) who conflate the two and use them as if they are interchangeable.
Furthermore, there is a growing discord between British and American Jews and Israel. A 2015 survey found that 59% of British Jews call themselves Zionist, down from 72% in a 2010 survey. 71% support Palestinian self-determination, 75% oppose settlement expansion, 42% support negotiations with Hamas and 24% support sanctions on Israel. It’s a similar picture in the US, accelerated by Trump and the clarity with which he has been vehemently pro-Israel and the best friend of Netanyahu whilst at the same time giving a platform to antisemites from his alt-right core support base.
While there might be people who consider themselves both Zionist and anti-racist, those of us who support Palestine should aim to point out this contradiction. The reality is that supporting the Palestinian struggle is very much an anti-racist, anti-colonial struggle: it means supporting the right to self-determination, freedom and equality for both the Palestinian and Jewish peoples.
The Labour Party
This is why the NEC voting to adopt the full set of examples of the IHRA definition, and against most of the modest caveat proposed by Jeremy Corbyn, is a defeat for the left and a setback for the Palestine solidarity movement.
Those who have led the witch-hunt have tried to claim that Jews are a monolithic group synonymous with Zionism and that the definition does not stifle criticism of Israel. They’ve claimed it’s possible within the definition's framework to describe Israeli policies as racist, even though prior to this debate not one of them would.
But racism in Israel isn’t limited to Netanyahu or the recently passed nation-state law. The Israeli state is racist at its core. And no, the state of Israel does not have the right to exist as an apartheid state that occupies and kills Palestinians.
Since the NEC’s decision (which was still denounced by Labour Friends of Israel), the PLP voted the following day to accept the IHRA definition with no caveats and was opposed by only 8 MPs. John McDonnell later denounced activists who put up billboards calling Israel a racist endeavour.
Compromise leads only to more attacks, and more compromise. Palestine solidarity activists inside and outside the Labour Party should make enforcing of the problematic examples of the definition in Labour unworkable by openly defying it. They must be on the offensive in making these arguments and pushing some of the Labour left, who have been abysmal in recent weeks, back towards the left.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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