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Jews, Israel & Zionism – background
The issue of the relationship between Jews, Israel and Zionism is extremely complex. The Jewish people are originally from Israel and have for 2000 years (since they were progressively exiled) dreamed of and prayed for a return to their homeland. Jews formally pray three times a day and in each service, as well as the remembrance of that origin, there are pleas to return to Jerusalem, Zion, the Temple etc. This also occurs in the prayer said after eating a meal, several times a day.
The following short history is to demonstrate the relationship Jews have always had with the land of Israel, even before the modern political Zionist movement was born in the later part of the 19th Century. Despite the end of self-rule, exile and widespread dispersion around the Mediterranean, Europe and further afield, Jews have in fact lived continuously in the historic Holy Land. They were the majority there until the 4th Century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This sparked anti-Jewish persecution which led to many Jews leaving. Some returned in the 7th Century, when Muslims conquered Jerusalem and Caliph Omar allowed them to live in Jerusalem for the first time in centuries.
Jews tended to fare better under the rule of Muslims, who had a place for Jews in their Ummah (community), although often as second class citizens paying the Jizyah tax. The medieval Crusades were bad news for Jews as well as Muslims. In the 16th Century, mystics in northern Israel (Tsfat), many of whom had arrived from Spain after the expulsion in 1492, invented Kaballah, a mystical form of Judaism which to this day has had a massive impact on world Jewry. Jews had a continuous presence in other parts of the holy land including Hebron (which is now a major flashpoint in the Israel/Palestine conflict).
In the 17th Century, belief in a ‘false messiah’ called Shabbatai Tzvi swept across Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The diarist Gluckel of Hameln wrote that her uncle had packed his bags to return to Jerusalem, waiting for this messiah to take them. For many Jews in Europe at that time, the return to Israel was a palpable event that they expected in their lifetimes.
The term Zionism has had many meanings over the years. Zionism historically is the belief in a right to a Jewish homeland. It’s fair to say that the current definition, a Jewish state in the land of Israel, was not always so clear. One of the pre-state Zionists, for example, was Martin Buber, who wanted a single ‘Hebrew humanist’ state but with equal rights for all its inhabitants, whether Jewish or Palestinian. https://medium.com/@jayshams/what-kind-of-zionist-was-martin-buber-a1bb7c4863c. To most Jews, the term Zionism now simply means support for the establishment and continued existence of the State of Israel, and they believe this was and is the free will of the majority of the Jewish people. It’s not surprising that, according to polling, over 90% of British Jews have a strong attachment to Israel (with over 60% identifying as Zionists).
Many people identify as anti-Zionists because they acknowledge that the Palestinians suffered a fundamental injustice at the time Israel was established, when hundreds of thousands of their people were displaced, often by force, and were not permitted to return. At a minimum, anti-Zionists are opposed to the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel and settlement of the former, and support an independent Palestinian state. Some however would like Israel dissolved into a single state for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Of course, many Zionists also support Palestinian rights, and so are offended by the use of the word ‘Zionist’ – or worse ‘Zio’ – as an insult. This lack of understanding of the basic meaning of the word ‘Zionism’ has led to much division and hostility. We say more in the first Example below.
Example 24: Zionist/Zionism used as a pejorative substitute for “Jew(ish)“:
As we have explained above, a majority of Jews do regard themselves as Zionist, at least in the basic sense of support for the establishment and existence of the state of Israel. As such, they do not see the words Zionist or Zionism as any form of insult per se. However, it is often wrongly believed that Zionism is synonymous with whole-hearted support of the policies being enacted by the Israeli government at any one time; this is simply incorrect. Zionists can range from having extremely right-wing positions (including approving annexation, occupation and accelerated building of Jewish settlements outside the internationally-agreed borders of Israel), all the way to socialist opposition to annexation and a strong desire for Israel to withdraw back to its pre-1967 borders. Many Zionists are bitter opponents of the present Likud-led administration. To many, indeed, Zionism nowadays means little more than the acceptance of the existence of Israel and a rejection of any notion of abolishing it and starting a new state in the area. Shami Chakrabarti (2016) pointed out that the term ‘Zionist’ should be used ‘advisedly, carefully and never euphemistically or as part of personal abuse’, because of this potential for confusion and offence, https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Chakrabarti-Inquiry-Report-30June16.pdf, see p.12.
Anti-Zionism can also mean a number of different things – condemnation of the original idea of an independent Jewish state, condemnation of the actual historic foundation of Israel and its effect on the Palestinian people, or condemnation of the continued future existence of a Jewish state. Some ‘anti-Zionists’, indeed, condemn the further expansion of Israel into occupied territories and its human rights abuses, while actually supporting the continued existence of Israel alongside an independent Palestinian state. This in fact makes their position identical to that of many ‘Zionists’.
Very often, anti-Zionists on the left and in the Muslim world who support the Palestinian cause employ the terms ‘Zionist’ (or worse, ‘Zio’) or ‘Zionism’ only in the sense of whole-hearted support of current Israeli government policies, and in association with other ‘bad’ words like ‘racist’, ‘apartheid’ and ‘imperialist’. It is hard then for Jews who regard themselves as Zionists, possibly only in the more basic sense of the word, not to hear this usage as insulting. While this rhetoric is sometimes repeated out of ignorance, it can definitely be antisemitic in effect.
Worse, antisemites may cover up their antisemitism by dressing it up more respectably as anti-Zionist politics. We will expand on this in the ‘Conspiracy’ section, where we describe how ‘Zionist’ may be used as a code-word to mean ‘all Jews’. In our first example below, the writer excuses their antisemitic conspiracy theory of Rothschild world control by saying these are not ‘manipulating Jews’ but ‘manipulating Zionists’. Some will deny that they are attacking Jews by pointing out the facts that many Zionists are non-Jews, and that a significant minority of Jews are non-Zionists. Despite this excuse, antisemitic intent is often clear, and demonstrable in the person’s other publications.
In our second example, the writer indulges in Holocaust minimisation but gives a thin excuse for this by saying he is not antisemitic but anti-Zionist. He may be alluding to the common belief that the Holocaust was or is ‘weaponised’ by Zionists or Israel. Regardless of views on this, all Holocaust minimisation is undoubtedly antisemitic.
Example 25: Blaming Jews generally for the misdeeds of Israel:
If Jews are equated with Zionists, and in particular if Zionism is equated with support of the most extreme policies of the State of Israel, then Jews can be blamed for the misdeeds of Israel, and actively targeted in their religious and community facilities or as individuals. In the first example below we see an assumption that religious British Jews are “#Zionists” (hence Iranian-controlled Press TV sees a synagogue/mosque interfaith event as betraying Palestinians). In the second example, a British Jew travelling peacefully has had a Palestinian flag stuck on his mouth by a Palestinian activist.
Example 26: Expecting Jews to denounce, or state their opinion on Israel:
No member of an ethnic minority should be expected, as a precondition to any non-hostile conversation, to dissociate themselves from acts perpetrated by a government which has a majority of members of the same ethnic group. For example, it would rightly be regarded as racist if someone of Black African ethnicity were forced to denounce the past atrocities of Uganda’s Idi Amin. It is similarly unacceptable for Jews to be forced to denounce acts perpetrated by Israel. Conflating the Israeli government with Jewish people as a whole is a racist act.
A particularly concerning example of this was on a tram in Manchester in 2019; a man of obviously Jewish appearance – he was dressed in clothing associated with Haredim – was harassed very loudly and told to give his opinion on what Israel was doing in the occupied territories, when the man was quietly minding his own business. This was seen as completely unacceptable by other passengers, however, and some made sure that the harasser was kept apart from the victim so that the latter could have his tram journey in piece. The video can be seen on the Socialists Against Antisemitism Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=407043843283565
The following tweet describes how Mr Kasimov, an elderly Jewish Holocaust survivor was forced by his audience to state his position on the Middle East (this is also an example of inappropriate Holocaust comparison, see Holocaust section): open the link for the video.
Example 27: Supporting Hamas, Hezbollah and other organizations which believe in killing Jews:
This is a more direct form of antisemitism, as Hamas are explicitly antisemitic and their spokespeople have often said that they do not envisage any Jews living in Palestine in the future. In the first example the line of the (now-defunct) International Socialist Organisation (US) and that of other organisations and people that defend Hamas, is that the Palestinians are in an impossible situation and that, basically, any form of resistance to occupation, even that which takes an explicitly racist form, is defensible and indeed worthy of support. As socialists who are desperate to see justice for the Palestinian people, we cannot possibly agree with this analysis or even begin to do so.
Most Israelis today were born in Israel and the answer to the oppression of Palestinians cannot possibly be the extermination or forcible deportation of the majority of a legally-constituted country’s population. To support Hamas or Hezbollah means literally to support the death or deportation of millions of people. It is of course perfectly possible, indeed highly desirable, to support the aspirations of the Palestinian people to have a fully independent and viable state without advocating the mass-killing of the population of a country. This of course includes Palestinians living in Gaza, albeit at present, unfortunately, their government is run by Hamas.
The article featured below omits any inconvenient facts about Hamas. Although Hamas made some changes to its founding charter in 2017, the revision ‘reasserted calls for armed resistance toward a “complete liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea.”’ https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-hamas-charter-20170501-story.html
http://socialistworker.org/2009/01/21/behind-myths-about-hamas Please note this is the International Socialist Association (US), not the British SWP (Socialist Workers Party).
This article describes Yvonne Ridley, the Respect candidate in the 2012 Rotherham bye-election, admitting to supporting Hamas) https://leftfootforward.org/2012/11/yvonne-ridley-respect-rotherham-hamas/
This article expresses concern at a banner at the 2006 Stop The War coalition’s London march. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/aug/08/weareallhizbullahnowreall
Example 28: Making a false equivalence between Zionism and Nazism:
We dealt in the Holocaust section with inappropriate comparisons of the behaviour of the State of Israel to the Palestians with Nazi Germany.
Here we deal with a particular false equivalence between Zionism and Nazism which arises from misinterpreting the historical Haavara Agreement. This agreement between the Nazis and some German Zionists enabled some Jews fleeing persecution under the new Nazi regime to transfer some portion of their assets to British Mandatory Palestine and emigrate there. The Agreement is described here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haavara_Agreement
In 2016, however, Ken Livingstone, distorted the facts by saying that “he [Hitler] was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. The statement is fundamentally incorrect. Nazi ideology was, and remains, of the opinion that the Jews are a menace and should be disposed of, not merely sent forcibly to other countries, and the fact that a small number of Jews were allowed to go to Palestine does not change this. The implication is that Zionists colluded with the Nazis and thus that Zionism itself is fundamentally Nazi. Zionists did not collude with the Nazis: to regard the Haarava Agreement as collusion is either to misunderstand or wilfully ignore the situation of Jews within the Reich. Jewish people faced multiple and vicious discrimination against themselves, then deportation, followed by extermination of huge swathes of the population, as did some other groups targeted for genocide by the Nazis; they were not able to act freely but were forced to find ways to save as many lives as possible. Ken Livingstone’s failure to acknowledge these facts, with which he must have been familiar, suggests more of a wish to score political points than an understanding of what the true position was at the time. His repeated doubling down, despite authoritative refutation of what he had said by a number of respected historians (as in the article below) appears to us to be a gesture of extreme bad faith.
Example 29: Taking the extremist views of individual Zionist Jews as representative of Zionists generally:
It is always wrong to blame an entire people for the actions or words of one person, and it is far from being a new phenomenon. One past example is the atrocities carried out in the 1970s in Uganda by the country’s then dictator, Idi Amin; at the time, the National Front attempted to use these atrocities to insinuate that they were somehow typical of Black people worldwide, and to justify the party’s racism against Black people. Of course, every ethnic group includes people with evil and discriminatory views, and the Jewish people is no exception. Such views need to be denounced in the strongest possible terms, but any attempt to extrapolate them to the entire ethnic group concerned is racist both in motivation and in effect.
Here Eddie Leonard strongly implies that the ‘true face of Zionism’ – and by extension of all Jewish Zionists – is to be deeply exceptionalist and racist. This is of course tremendously offensive to the majority of Jews who identify as Zionist. It is at minimum facilitating antisemitism, since it is only a small further step to thinking or even saying ‘All Jews are exceptionalist racists’, a step which many reading this post will have made. Perhaps it does not need to be said, but the racist remarks made by Ben-Dahan were extensively criticised within Israel, see for example https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-the-human-hierarchy-1.5305946.
Example 30: The “Israel lobby”:
Although like any other state – and indeed many organisations worldwide which are not states – Israel does have a lobby, the phrase is frequently, in fact we would submit in a vast majority of cases, used in a manner which ascribes completely disproportionate power and influence to Israel, and has either a completely or partially anti-Semitic motivation. In the UK, organisations such as Labour or Conservative Friends of Israel, or the Zionist Federation, are indeed dedicated mainly to providing political support for the flourishing of a state of Israel within secure borders, even if at times they may be critical of some current Israeli policies (recently LFI, for example, have been very critical of the Netanyahu government).
The problem comes, in our opinion, when the phrase is used in too general a sense, stretching the meaning beyond what is actually accurate. Some organisations are supportive of Israel’s right to exist within secure borders, but have many other functions besides. These could be said to include not just Jewish or predominantly Jewish organisations such as the Jewish Labour Movement, the Community Security Trust and the Board of Deputies, but also successive British governments, the main political parties and countless others. In our experience, many of the people who talk of the “Israel lobby” are using the expression in this wider sense, which stretches it effectively to breaking point.
This is shown in the example below: Baroness Tonge attributed the Tory victory in the 2019 General Election to the ‘pro-Israel lobby’, following Chief Rabbi Mirvis’s call for people to vote against Labour because of its antisemitism problem. There are two issues here. First Rabbi Mirvis was speaking explicitly on behalf of British Jews about their concern about antisemitism in Britain, completely separately from any views he might hold on Israel. Second, the votes of British Jews, or the opinions of the wider public about Labour antisemitism, were certainly not major factors in the election result. To state therefore that the ‘pro-Israel lobby’ ‘won the ‘election’ is definitely antisemitic, playing into tropes of excessive Jewish power and conspiracy.
We deal in Example 36 in the Conspiracy Section with the issue of the ‘Israel lobby’ in the wider world.
Example 31: Accusing those who fight antisemitism of doing so in bad faith to defend Israel, or actually being in the service of Israel:
This is a common phenomenon nowadays. Most people will say they are against antisemitism, but some will simultaneously attack those who are actively engaged in fighting antisemitism.
It is of course hurtful to be accused of antisemitism, as of any kind of racism. The proper response however is to consider whether the accusation may be justified, before responding. We have seen examples of people who were willing to learn more about what constitutes antisemitic behaviour, acknowledge they had been – if unwittingly – antisemitic, apologize and mend their ways. The often automatic defence of claiming – usually wrongly – that the allegation of antisemitism is spurious, and then of discrediting the critic by saying they have some kind of ulterior motive – including being only concerned with defending Israel, or, worse, being paid for or in the service of Israel – can be seen as a form of antisemitism. This has been particularly common in the context of Labour Party and other left politics in recent years, and has been amplified by social media into considerable attacks on some prominent opponents of antisemitism.
This can stem from various motivations. Some people have progressed from strong support of the Palestinian cause to a strong suspicion that those who are fighting antisemitism in a worldwide context are mainly interested in defending Israeli policy; but some move from an ingrained suspicion of Jewish people into expressing support for the Palestinian cause to give cover to their antisemitism. Whatever the motivation, it is discriminatory against Jews to state, without very strong supporting evidence, that someone who is opposing antisemitism is not acting in good faith, and this applies even if the ‘someone’ is not themselves Jewish.
The first two examples below state in general terms that Israel or the ‘Zionist lobby’ employs false accusations of antisemitism against those who oppose Israeli policy. Eddie Leonard’s accusation that this occurs within the Labour Party is misleading. Complaints within Labour of antisemitism were not of criticism of Israeli policy and government, even of Zionism, per se, but of the use of antisemitic tropes and expressions when making those criticisms, as we are seeking to explain. The third example is aimed at an individual, Miriam Mirwitch, implying that she only criticises left-wing antisemites because she is ‘pro-Israel’. This is untrue and deeply unfair.
Sometimes, there is the further accusation that the campaigner against antisemitism is not just a supporter of Israel, but is actually in the pay of, or under the orders of Israel, or ‘the Israel lobby’. (We dealt with the issue of the ‘Israel lobby’ in Example 30 above, and in the Conspiracy section of this Gallery Example 36 we also discuss how inflated ideas of the power of Israel enter into grand conspiracy theories.) These malicious accusations are usually made on the basis of no evidence at all. They have even occasionally been made against Socialists Against Antisemitism.
The following examples refer to the Jewish and (then) Labour MPs, Dame Louise Ellman and Ruth Smeeth, who both suffered from antisemitism themselves and strenuously opposed antisemitism in the Labour Party; here, they are accused respectively of being a Mossad agent and of being ‘bought and paid for’ by Israel/Netanyahu.
To fully explain these examples, we must describe the conflict in recent years over antisemitism in the Labour Party. There has been a great deal of denialism, which SAAs does not share, about the degree and significance of antisemitic incidents and attitudes within the Labour Party. This has included accusations that they were invented or inflated by the right wing of the party in concert with Tory interest, in order to bring down leader Jeremy Corbyn; as well as the suggestion that the ‘Israel lobby’ was similarly involved in using the antisemitism issue to discredit Labour and Corbyn (who is a strong supporter of the Palestinians) in order to promote the interests of the Israeli government. While these interests and political pressures undoubtedly exist, Jewish Labour MPs have found themselves in the cross-fire.
In the case of Louise Ellman, her Chairmanship of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) is brought up as an issue. LFI support the existence of Israel as a state but do not necessarily approve of its current government and policies. Much has been made of the Al Jazeera film ‘The Lobby’, which filmed, undercover, the former Chair of LFI, Joan Ryan, speaking with an Israeli embassy employee who told her that funding was available for young activists – not MPs – to visit Israel. No money was provided to Ryan personally or to LFI, and the trip never actually took place. https://www.thejc.com/comment/opinion/al-jazeera-the-lobby-labour-antisemitism-israel-conspiracy-theorists-1.486494 Of course many countries promote their own interests and fund visits. But it is completely incorrect to suggest that Ellman’s concern about antisemitism – including that directed specifically at her – was motivated by defence of Israeli interests, and there is no evidence at all of her – or indeed Joan Ryan – being ‘bought’.
In the case of Ruth Smeeth, the ‘incident with Marc Wadsworth’ referred to by Wear Red occurred at the launch of the Chakrabarti Report on Labour antisemitism, when Wadsworth launched an unprovoked verbal attack on Ruth Smeeth (who was in the audience), saying she was working ‘hand in hand’ with the Daily Telegraph and right-wing press in general. Smeeth understandably believed this to be an antisemitic accusation of disloyalty or conspiracy. She was later pictured as insincere, and of ‘crying antisemitism’ in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn (a friend of Wadsworth). We do not of course believe Smeeth’s reference to ‘vile conspiracy theories’ are nonsense. In any case, no factional considerations can possibly excuse accusing her of being a ‘Mossad agent’ deserving of a bullet in the head.