The setbacks in the movement for solidarity with Palestine and the failure of militant anti-racism is a catastrophe for the left, and one that must be quickly rectified, argues David Jamieson
In 2014 hundreds of thousands thronged the streets of London and other British cities in protest at the latest atrocities perpetrated by the Israeli state in the Gaza strip. These may have been the largest demonstrations, but they came after years of growth for the Palestine solidarity movement.
It had been raised to a new level by the appalling massacres of 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, which saw chemical weapons dropped on trapped civilian populations, and the BBC rocked after its refusal to broadcast charitable appeals for the mounting numbers of wounded, traumatised and destitute.
It’s often forgotten today that the British student movement was brought back from the dead by a nationwide wave of occupations against Cast Lead, and the deep complicity of the British university sector with the colonial state; no 2009, perhaps no militant student movement in 2010-11. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign was also picking up pace, causing Israeli diplomats to bemoan the strength of the British movement, which they viewed as a dangerously potent model for export around the world.
The British establishment were stunned by the rapid growth of the movement, and placed firmly on the back foot. The advantages for the left were beyond question: solidarity with a people victimised by British and US imperialism over decades, going back to the founding of Israel in which Britain played midwife, the further raising of mass political consciousness already strong since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and alliances built and consolidated between communities around the UK and with the broad movement around the world.
From the vantage of 2014, one could easily ask, as I did: “Surely the British establishment cannot pull this situation back? Mass support for the Palestinians has made a generational shift, and Israel will never re-establish its prestige.”
And yet just a few years later, the movement has indeed been pushed back. This is not to say that public sympathy for the Palestinians has significantly diminished, or indeed that Israel has repaired its image. Nor that persistent and diffuse organising does not continue. This is a failure not of public sentiment nor of grassroots effort.
Instead, it is a pernicious failure of leadership both at the top of the Labour party, in which so much faith has been invested in recent years, and among movement intellectuals and media actors.
A campaign to smear supporters of the Palestinian cause in particular, and the left in general, as antisemitic, or harbouring antisemites, reached its zenith at a Labour leadership hustings jointly organised by Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement (Thursday 13 February) at which all of the Labour leadership candidates described themselves as either ‘zionists’ (Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry (now mercifully out the race)) or as sympathetic to Zionism (Keir Starmer).
The phrase is not, or should not be, ambiguous. This isn’t the turn of the twentieth century, Theodor Herzl is long dead. Rather than a popular movement attracting disparate ideologies and aspirations, it is the official ideology of an established state with a racialist doctrine and brutal record.
Less ambiguous still was all the candidates affirming that to “describe Israel, its policies, or the circumstances around its foundation as racist” constitutes antisemitism.
We have therefore reached a point so many commentators said would never come. Any criticism of Israel, including any given policy at all, and even the ethnic cleansing by which it was established, is now to be considered racist.
We have further reached the point where, as per the Board of Deputies’ 10 point pledge, Labour politicians, activists and members may no longer associate with socialist and anti-zionist Jewish groups.
This moment has been long-coming and long-predicted. Those who want to dismiss the notion of a ‘smear campaign’ simply cannot withstand the weight of empirical evidence for its existence laid out in a the new study Bad News for Labour. Between June 2015 and March 2019, major British newspapers printed approximately 5,500 articles on Corbyn and antisemitism. That is before we include a galaxy of television, radio and online content. The figures only spiked after Labour outdid expectations in the 2017 elections.
This relentless effort produced results. 0.06 per cent of the Labour’s half a million strong membership faced disciplinary action over antisemitism, but voters believed the figure to be a third of the Labour membership.
From the same corners pushing the campaign, it has become fashionable to question the passion with which defenders of the Palestinian people take up their cause. Why Palestine over so many other sites of oppression the world over?
It’s an ugly line of questioning that seeks to pit the oppressed against one another. But in any case there are important reasons why the Palestine cause excites so much passion around the world.
Firstly, it is one of the most morally unambiguous question in the world today. The Israeli state is openly racist, with completely different legal standards for members of its population on the grounds of their racial, religious and ethnic identities. It is a violent colonial state based squarely on concepts of racial supremacy. It is the last stand-out example of the colonial state form that was abolished in South Africa and ‘Rhodesia’ among other places. But unlike those examples, the oppressed racial minority in Palestine are not viewed as cheap labour, but as a useless and troubling obstacle to the stability of the state.
This is no two-way ‘conflict’. The colonial settler-state is systematically impoverishing, disenfranchising, brutalising and often killing the Palestinian people, who lack a state of their own for self-defence against a powerful military and repressive machine.
Secondly, the nature of the state provides a key insight into the nature of British, US and European power in the world. Israel is an outpost of US and western influence in a vitally important geostrategic region. This is the reason for its warlike posture, and western support for the suppression of Palestinian rights – which cannot be recognized if Israel is to perform its ‘forward’ role.
Thirdly, the Palestinian cause exposes the nature of the Arab dictatorships. The west funds dictatorships all over the world. But nowhere is this more clear than the Middle East – named by western powers in the high imperialist period for being halfway between themselves and the desired possessions of India and China. Still to this day, it is the essential frontier of the Eurasian landmass, so crucial to western global dominance.
Israel is paid to represent western interests (which it does with an eye to its own). To achieve this it must suppress the Palestinians. It cannot do this without the acquiescence of the Arab dictatorships from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, who are also paid handsomely by the west – with enormous aid payments, weapons and trade deals – for their compliance.
The interests of the Palestinian people are therefore deeply interwoven with those of the massive Arab working class, who share a common enemy in western hegemony.
The most shameful aspect of the indulgence of attacks on Palestine solidarity in Britain, is that they took place at such a time of need for the Palestinian people; during the push by the Trump administration against any idea of Palestinian statehood.
The present retreat from these perspectives is intolerable and must be reversed. Likewise, a pushback by the Palestine solidarity movement is badly needed. Furthermore, it should be stressed that while all efforts within Labour to assert solidarity with Palestine are welcome, the Labour party will not be the key terrain in that fight. It will instead be in the extra-parliamentary sphere where the cause made such headway in recent years.
Socialism of fools
Of course, all the above politics stuff is not the real root of support for Palestinian rights, according to those who have so successfully pushed the left antisemitism narrative. Rather, the obsession derives from the deeply ingrained racism of the socialist worldview, which today manifests as opposition to Israel.
Moshé Machover, the Israeli-British mathematician and philosopher whose expulsion from the Labour party – as part of the smear campaign – was overturned in 2017, put it well when he argued:
“Are there antisemites in the Labour Party? This question is like the question: ‘Are there zebras in Norway?’ The answer is ‘Yes, there are a few. In fact, the Oslo zoo seems to have had a few too many.’
“But Norway, unlike the Serengeti, is not the natural habitat of zebras. The claim that the LP is a habitat of antisemites like the Serengeti is a habitat of zebras is a malicious lie.”
More than just an argument against the concept of a specifically left wing antisemitism, it actually points to the real origins of modern antisemitism and its construction as a phoney anti-elitism. In the ignorant minds of many on the liberal left, from Guardian columnists to Labour leadership hopefuls, antisemitism informs anti-capitalism. Both share a conspiratorial world view, where tiny elites manipulate global events, control banks and the media and provoke wars.
The slight of hand here is the implication that the conspiracist antisemitic idea predated and informed the anticapitalist idea. It is, of course, quite the reverse.
Modern antisemitism, with its bugged-eyed ‘scientific racism’ and claims for the insidious power of a Jewish over-class, was precisely a response to the growth of socialist consciousness in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. In place of the capitalist class (which of course actually does own industry and banks and media outlets, profiteer in war and influence political parties) was substituted a people who had long faced enmity from Christian authorities in Europe – and who could be presented as an exterior threat, warping an otherwise healthy western civilisation.
In was this reaction from the right that German social democrats termed “the socialism of fools”, for that is precisely what the right intended it to be; a stand-in for the anti-capitalist critique.
It is then, quite literally an attitude foreign to the socialist movement. Indeed it is a reaction against the socialist movement. Which is not to say that no one within the left has ever endorsed or been influenced by this foolishness (particularly in the period discussed). Of course, reactionary attitudes and ideologies have always had an impact in the left – an inevitable consequence of the left being part of the society it seeks to change.
What are the predominant reactionary influences in the present period?
Today’s ‘socialism of fools’ is one which endorses racist myths about the Palestinians and the wider Muslim community, denies the right to self-determination of peoples oppressed by the western order, and attacks and banishes those who maintain principle in the face of the kind of cynical collapse observed at a Labour leadership hustings. It badly needs to be cast aside.
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