Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
1 May 2016
The Labour Party has become embroiled in a row about anti-Semitism. Why the row? After all, the Labour Party is committed to challenging racism and anti-Semitism – which is a particular form of racism. It’s a row because the anti-Semitism in question concerns anti-Zionism – and not everybody in the Labour Party agrees that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. At the heart of the current row, a tweet re-tweeted by Labour MP Naz Shah, which suggested that Israel be relocated to the United States. For those who shared the tweet, it seemed fair comment, given the support of the United States for Israel – and the fact that the second largest Jewish population in the world resides in the United States. Of the 14.2 million Jews living in the world today, six million live in Israel and over five million live in the US.
The tweet was anti-Semitic for at least two reasons. Within living memory, the Jewish communities of Europe were made Judenfrei, ‘Jew-free’, or Judenrein, ‘clean of Jews’, as the Jews who lived in them were systematically deported to ghettos, concentration camps and death camps in Eastern Europe. The ghettos themselves, where hundreds of thousands were penned into walled areas of cities, were simply holding places, from which the Jews were sent on to the death camps. After the defeat of Hitler, those who survived became displaced persons, the majority of whom were collected into camps – most notably on Cyprus – with nowhere to go. To suggest that Israel, which became the principal place of refuge for the Jews who survived the Shoah, should be relocated elsewhere suggests either an inane forgetfulness or a shocking indifference to the annihilation of six million Jews – at the time, one third of the world Jewish population – which took place in the space of just six years from the onset of the violent persecution of the Jews of Europe on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.
The tweet was also anti-Semitic in the context of the way in which, again and again, regardless of the oppression of peoples across the world by numberless nations, Israel is singled out for special condemnation because of its on-going oppression of the Palestinians. Where is the protest against the murder of the Tamils by the Sri Lankan regime? Where is the protest against China’s occupation of Tibet? Why is it that these nations and others like them have not been subject to boycott and disinvestment campaigns? Of course, the anti-Palestinian policies of the Israeli government must be challenged, and support must be given to the Palestinian people, in their struggle for self-determination, and the establishment of an independent state of Palestine. Equally, the regimes of China and Sri Lanka should also be challenged, and the Tibetans and Tamils should be supported in their struggles for self-determination.
And there is a larger issue connected to this singling out of Israel that demonstrates that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. How can it be that in theory, at least, the left supports the self-determination of oppressed peoples the world over, but that many groups on the left – including within the Labour Party – do not recognise that Zionism arose in Europe in the late nineteenth century as a movement for the self-determination of the Jewish people, in response to virulent anti-Semitism. Instead of acknowledging this, we have the repeated trope – in my memory, repeated since the early 1970s, when I was involved in Marxist politics as an undergraduate student at LSE – that ‘Zionism’ began life in the late nineteenth century as a form of colonialism, akin to French and British colonialism, and that the creation of Israel was motivated by American interests in the region.
To be an anti-Zionist is to deny the experience of the Jewish people as an oppressed and persecuted minority in Europe, which gave rise to the Zionist movement. That is not to say that all Jews then – as now – were Zionists. Not all Jews then – or now – were convinced that creating a Jewish nation would solve the problem of anti-Semitism. Many Jews in the nineteenth century – in particular in Eastern Europe – saw socialism as the answer, hence the establishment of the Bund – shorthand for the General Jewish Workers’ Union in Lithuania, Poland and Russia. However, being a non-Zionist, who is committed to enabling Jewish life to thrive in the diaspora, is completely different from being an anti-Zionist.
Of course, Zionism and socialism are not simply alternative expressions of the determination to live as Jews without the scourge of anti-Semitism. I grew up in a home in which my mother, the daughter of refugees who fled pogroms in Eastern Europe, was an ardent socialist Zionist, for whom the kibbutz movement was the ideal way of living as a Jew – an ideal she never realised in her own life. As it happens, both my parents were Labour Party supporters. However, my father, a Viennese Jew, whose father was incarcerated in Dachau on November 13, 1938, and managed from South Africa to get his parents and his siblings out of Austria on domestic visas, so that they could come to Britain, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, was an ardent internationalist. His response to Nazism was to leave his ‘refuge’ in South Africa in 1949, when the Nationalists came to power, and to reject all forms of nationalism – including Zionism. Nevertheless, recognising the existential threat to Israel, both my parents, together with my older brother, went to our local synagogue to give blood, when the Six Day War broke out in June 1967.
Non-Zionism is a respectable and acceptable political stance. Anti-Zionism is not. And there is another way in which the anti-Semitism underlying anti-Zionism is expressed: in the manner in which criticism of Israel is couched in terms which draw on anti-Semitic rhetoric and tropes. Binyamin Netanyahu is a right wing leader, relentlessly pursuing an anti-Palestinian agenda, but he is not ‘Hitler’. The people of Gaza are being subjected to horrendous collective punishment, meted out by both, Egypt and Israel, for having elected Hamas, an Islamist government, but they are not living in a ‘concentration camp’, or even a ‘ghetto’. To use this terminology is to equate Israeli government policy with Nazi policy. In concentration camps, those Jews, who were not sent instantly to their deaths in gas chambers, were exploited as slave labourers. Jews were forced to live in ghettos, where they were locked in at night for centuries. The ghettos established by the Nazis were used for collecting populations of Jews together in the East in readiness for their deportation to the death camps. Which brings me to that other recent anti-Semitic incident in the Labour Party: Ken Livingstone’s remark – which he has refused to repudiate – that Hitler supported Zionism. Quite apart from the fact that there is no historical evidence that Hitler supported Zionism, making such a slur involves, yet again, the equation of Nazism with Zionism. Once more, Zionism of all the nationalist movements for self-determination is singled out for repudiation.
So, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism – but criticising Israel isn’t. Those who challenge Israeli government policy towards the Palestinians and the continuing occupation are, indeed, part of a very long tradition that began with the biblical prophets, who, witnessing the practice of injustice in their own time, and, in particular, the trampling of the most vulnerable and marginal groups in society, challenged the leaders of their day. As it happens, Jews the world over remind ourselves of the prophetic challenge to confront injustice on a weekly basis, in the readings from the prophets, that follow the weekly Torah reading each Shabbat (Sabbath), and on every festival, not least on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the principal fast day. On Yom Kippur we read from the Book of Isaiah chapter 58 (5-7):
Is this the fast I choose, a day for human beings to afflict themselves? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day which is favourable to the Eternal One? / Is not this the fast I choose: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every chain? / Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your home? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?
In the Book of Isaiah we also find the call for the people to be ‘a light to the nations’ (47:6) – which may partly explain the singling out of Israel for special attention. Do people expect better behaviour from Jews than from other people? Exemplary conduct? Does the call to be ‘a light to the nations’ that we find in a text written after the return from Exile in Babylon in 538 BCE, explain why everyone – many Jews included – expect more from Jews? As it happens, Jews have been and are disproportionately represented in progressive movements the world over – and the reason for this can probably be traced back to the emphasis on ethical conduct and the pursuit of justice found, not only in the prophets, but first, in the Torah. Nevertheless, the reality is that Jews have been a minority people living a marginal existence in other peoples’ lands for most of our 4000 year history. After successive conquests by imperial powers in the region, the last Jewish state before the present one, established after the overthrow of the imperialist regime of the Assyrian Greeks in 140 BCE lasted just 85 years until the Romans marched in and occupied the land on the eastern border of the Mediterranean in 55 BCE. It is one thing for a powerless people to maintain an absolute commitment to justice, quite another for a people that assumes the reins of power to do so. The story of every nation throughout history tells us this. The particular story of Israel is no different – particularly, following the victory over hostile Arab neighbours in 1967 that resulted in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – and the Sinai peninsula (later handed back to Egypt in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979).
And that is one of the ironies of the particular story of Zionism and Israel. One of the main objectives of the early Zionists was the ‘normalisation’ of the Jewish people. After centuries, of being forced into ghettos, denied the right to own land and the membership of skilled Guilds, and left with no other option but to be merchants and moneylenders, the Zionist dream was to be a nation just like other nations, in which a Jew would be free to pursue any occupation, and where Jews could live a ‘normal’ life, like other self-determining peoples. Israel was not established in order to be ‘a light to the nations’. In the end, Israel was not established because the Zionists won the argument in the Jewish world. Israel was finally established after the Sho’ah because most of the nations of the world acknowledged the need for the creation of a permanent and secure Jewish refuge from persecution in the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people. That is why, after years of arguments and deliberations, the United Nations ratified a resolution partitioning the land into two nations for two peoples on November 29, 1947. And it is the need for a refuge that provides the rationale for Israel’s ‘law of return’, which gives any Jew anywhere in the world the right to live in Israel.
That infamous tweet re-tweeted by Naz Shah MP included a photo superimposing Israel onto the map of the United States. Israel, the only nation on earth with a Jewish majority: a tiny speck on the map of one of the most powerful nations on earth. ‘A picture’, as they say, ‘is worth a thousand words.’ Ultimately, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism because it denies the right of the state of Israel to exist, and hence the right of Jews to have a nation; a right anti-Zionists do not deny to any other people. The time has come for everyone on the left to challenge all the regimes of the world that are engaged in oppressing other peoples – including Israel. And as far as Israel’s occupation of Palestine is concerned, there is a solution waiting to be implemented: the two-state solution. Perhaps if people on the left, began to recognise Israel’s right to exist and stopped engaging in anti-Zionist rhetoric, we might find ourselves a few steps closer to international support for the establishment of an independent State of Palestine.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah