The Dangers of Zionism

Solidarity with Palestine is shaped by our understanding of Israel and its history, writes Henry Maitles.

As a Jewish socialist academic and activist, let me begin this article by saying that two things are an absolutely essential responsibility for the left: support for Palestinians against the Israeli war machine and its apartheid and ethnic cleansing policies; and rooting out antisemitism wherever we find it. Antisemitism, like other forms of racism, is deadly not just for the minority community but for all of us. Not only is it morally unacceptable, but it makes it harder to develop unity and radical alternatives if these ideas take hold. We need to be clear, however, where the real threat comes from.

Across the world, there has been an unrelenting attack on the radical left as being antisemitic. It is almost beyond irony to see right-wing Conservative MPs who are vehemently anti-immigration and racist leaders such as Le Pen in France, Meloni in Italy and even Victor Orban in Hungary touted as friends of the Jews.  The left also needs to ensure that there is no conflating Zionist and Jew, or using Zionist when they mean Jew. This conflation has led some Palestinian activists to produce banners equating the Star of David with the swastika and in Scotland to demand that Jewish groups which support Israel should not be allowed on demonstrations against racism and antisemitism. This is a profound mistake. It isolates the Palestinian support movement and makes it harder to build a broad campaign in support of the Palestinians. The left must reject hierarchies of racism, which suggest that Jews do not suffer racism because they are ‘well off’.  And one final point here. It is important that we understand Israel’s role in the imperial world order and do not put some powerful Jewish lobby as the key driver of Western policy. Israel is supported because it upholds Western interests.

It is naïve, however, to think that these attacks on the left are not part of a political agenda.  In particular, there is an attempt to discredit those of us on the left who make legitimate criticisms of Israeli policy or Zionism as a political ideology, or who call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. The critique is that our criticism is overt or secret antisemitism. At a conference I attended in Vienna, a number of delegates and speakers were adamant that the main danger to Jews was from the left and Palestinian activists, even claiming that human rights was the ‘new language of antisemitism’ and that UN resolutions condemning settlement-building on occupied territories in the West Bank and Jerusalem were to be ignored, since the UN was an Arab controlled institution! We hear very similar from the Israeli government. There was almost no acknowledgement that in many countries in Europe parties of the far right (infiltrated or led by neo-Nazis) have gained parliamentary and even government positions, and march openly through the streets. The conference took place in Austria where the then coalition partner Freedom Party has a virulent anti-immigration policy and is led by someone who defends his youth in a neo-Nazi organization. The party is touted to make gains at the election in 2024. In Germany, the AfD is now the official opposition in the Bundestag. And in Hungary, the anti-immigrant Fidesz party won a large majority at the last election, with the slogans ‘No immigrants here’ and with a hostile anti-Roma agenda. Jobbik, another virulently anti-immigrant party, won 23 seats. Just before Covid, a demonstration in Warsaw calling for an ‘Islamic Holocaust’ attracted some 50,000 participants. There is the Front Nationale in the French Assembly and the Brothers of Italy. Meanwhile, as I write, Gurt Wilders is attempting to put together a far-right coalition in the Netherlands. These islamophobic and racist parties are the real threat to Jews. We need to understand the link between the islamophobia of the right and its impact on Jews, as the events in Charlottsville in USA in 2019 showed. The open Nazis and their supporters marching through the city were clear that their targets were Muslims and Jews. The scenes of Jews in a synagogue being protected by the police from a mob are far too reminiscent of the 1930s. The rise in hate crime is taking place all over Europe and USA and affects Muslims, Roma and Jews. Indeed, all social survey attitudes show much stronger racist, islamophobic and antisemitic views are in the parties of the right than of the left. Those who hate Muslims also hate Jews. Those creating hostile environments for refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants tend to demonise a powerful secret hand undermining Christian values. Soros is just one example.

As such, it is extremely disturbing that the Jewish establishment all over Europe sees the left as the main danger. This misconception is given legitimacy by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance statement, now adopted in principle by governments and public bodies all over the world, if not enshrined in law. The IHRA statement gives 11 contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere. Ten are relatively uncontentious, but one ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’ is highly problematic. For many years the left (both Jewish and non-Jewish) has argued that Zionism has been a disaster for the Jewish and non-Jewish peoples in Palestine/Israel and that the solution to the problems is a democratic secular state in the area for all Jews and Palestinians. It is not a completely unreasonable demand when one considers movements towards democracy in South Africa and Northern Ireland, for example. However, we are now told that both these contentions are examples of race hate and might be prosecuted as such. That is why the British and other Western governments claim that ‘From the River to the Sea…’ is  race hate, and that any attempt to put the Hamas attack on 7 October in a context of 75 years of oppression of the Palestinians is antisemitic. This response, I think, is profoundly dangerous and needs to be contested. Firstly, it denies 130 years of Jewish history and debate over the merits of Zionism as a solution to anti-Semitism (more on which below). Secondly, it legitimizes the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs from their homes in 1948, which has been highlighted by internationally respected Israeli historians with access to the files, such as Ilan Pape. Thirdly, it denies those Palestinians whose families have been in camps or exile for 75 years now any right of return or justice. Fourthly, the alternative to a democratic state – the two state solution – has been made highly problematic by the illegal actions of the Israeli state through its settlement programme. There are now some 600,000 settlers in the West Bank armed to the teeth, many of whom are determined to fulfill some biblical mission towards a greater Israel. Ironically, they use the slogan ‘from the river to the sea’. Until there is some recognition of the rights of the Palestinian refugees, peace becomes problematic. To claim that those of us who argue for a potential democratic solution are antisemites and hate criminals will ensure that real hate continues in the Middle East. The cycle of resistance being met by the overwhelming fire power of the IDF will continue. Wiping out Hamas will not wipe out the resistance. apparent Government policy inside Israel, apparently in pursuit of further ethnic cleansing, will not stop the violence. The breaking of the deadlock will require justice for the Palestinian refugees, the espousal of which is now deemed to be race hate.

Although police have been urged to use race hate legislation against those who transgress the IHRA definition, so far there have been no attempts to do this, and legal opinion suggests that such attempts would not stand up in court. The definition has however led to the suspensions, expulsions and resignations from the Labour Party of respected Jewish socialists, such as Moshe Machover, Glyn Seckart, David Rosenberg and hundreds of others, for expressing anti-Zionist or anti-Israel positions. The definition is thus being used to silence or at least to frighten the left and Palestinians. It is there to mute responses to the killings in Gaza, and to frighten people that they will be accused of antisemitism. This is exactly what the attacks and smears on the left are designed to do.

Zionism was developed in the Jewish areas (known as the Pale of Settlement) of the Russian Empire in 1893, the same year as the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (later to divide into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) was founded. Zionism was a reaction to the terrible pogroms and institutional racism perpetrated on the Jews. It was a response which argued that it was useless to oppose anti-Semitism where one was, and that rather the Jews needed to emigrate to a Jewish state. Herzl (the founder of Zionism, and its leading thinker) claimed that his guiding understanding was that he ‘recognised the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-Semitism’. (Hertzl, 1956, 6). Leo Pinsker, at the end of the 19th century, summed up Jew-baiting as being ‘not a quality of a particular race but common to all mankind. Like a psychic affliction, it is hereditary and as a disease has been incurable for 2,000 years’ (Pinsker, 1948, 33). Since it can’t be fought, the Jews need to get out. Indeed, Zionist leaders proudly worked successively with Russian imperialism, British imperialism and(after World War 2) US imperialism to offer Israel as a watchdog for Western interests.

We need to understand, though, that it was a minority of Jews who were attracted to this. Most Jews who were politically involved gravitated to the socialist parties of the RSDLP and the Bund (General League of Jewish Workingmen in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia). Both of these organisations were vehemently anti-Zionist. Isaac Deutscher (1969, 67) explains:

In Eastern Europe and especially in Poland, the Yiddish speaking workers who considered themselves Jews without reservation were the most resolute enemies of Zionism. They were determined opponents of emigration to Palestine. These anti-Zionists thought the idea of an evacuation, an exodus from the countries they called home, where their ancestors had lived for ages, amounted to abdicating their rights, yielding to hostile pressure, betraying their struggle and surrendering to anti-Semitism. For them, Zionism seemed to be the triumph of anti-Semitism, legitimising and validating the old cry – ‘Jews Out’. The Zionists accepted it; they wanted ‘Out’.

To Jacob Dubnow, a Bundist leader, writing in 1898, the danger of Zionism was that anti-Semites ‘… would then be able to say to the protesting Jews of the Diaspora, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go away and live in your own state?”’ (Dubnow, 1898, 167).  And even when there was mass emigration following pogroms, the vast majority of those went west to central and western Europe, Britain and USA. This strong leftist tradition within world Jewry continued. To give an example, it has been estimated that 17% of the International  Brigaders who fought for democracy and against fascism in the Spanish Civil War were Jewish, and that 50% of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from USA were Jewish. Indeed, even as late as 1938, Zionist leaders in Germany conceded that they were a minority amongst German Jews. Those Jews who did leave Germany under pressure from the Nazis tended to try to go west rather than to Palestine. And, even today, more Jews who leave France, where there has been a strong campaign to urge Jews to leave, go to Montreal than go to Jerusalem.

The Holocaust – the physical and indeed memory destruction of European Jewry – added to by the immigration polices of Western powers following World War 2, altered Jewish perceptions. For Jews displaced after the war and for Jews in the rest of the world, the failure of both the western powers and Stalinist USSR to save the Jews, allied to harsh immigration controls before and after the war, suggested that Zionism was no longer just feasible but necessary. Even to Jews not attracted by Zionism, such as Auschwitz survivor and author Primo Levi, Israel was a ‘lifeboat state’. And the Israel we now know, built on the philosophy of the ‘Iron Wall’, armed to the teeth, massively expanding its illegal settlements, supported unreservedly by US, Western imperialism and a rampant Christian Zionist movement in the USA, and harbouring behind a real wall, oppresses the human rights of the Palestinians on a daily basis.

So, what is the way forward? I think four things stand out. Firstly, we need to support struggles in the Arab world. Not only because those events of the Arab Spring of 2010-2016 showed the possibilities of challenging and defeating the dictatorships and developing fairer, more just, democratic societies, but because they all raised support for the Palestinians. They showed the world that the Palestinians had the support of the Arab masses, whilst their governments were complicit with the Israeli regime. Secondly, we need more demonstrations and rallies, involving Palestinian activists, Jews who oppose the violations of Palestinian human rights, and as broad a coalition of trade unions and political parties as can be mustered, in support of Palestinian defiance and against Israeli oppression. We have to show the Palestinians and our governments that there are people who oppose the discrimination towards and murder of Palestinians. Thirdly, Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions is crucial, despite the fact that Zionists make the case for this to be race hate. BDS has the potential (as did the campaigns in South Africa in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s) to isolate the regime. BDS is not just individual boycott of goods but rather a call to stop sending weapons used to kill Palestinians to the Israeli government, and to stop our pension and other funds being invested in industries which benefit Israel. Finally, to return to where I started, the defence of the left against calls of antisemitism is central, as the attack on the left is desiged to deter people from supporting Palestinian defiance of Israel, the call for a democratic state in the region, and BDS.  If the pro-Israelis win the argument that BDS is antisemitic (andthere is a Bill going through Parliament to make it so), trade union support will become very much harder and BDS is not viable without trade union support. The power to implement BDS lies with the trade union movement internationally. Weapons are made by union members, transported by union members and maintained by tools made by union members. Often it is pensions of union members that are invested in these industries. These essential campaigns are what can build the conditions for peace with justice in the region.

Deutscher,  I., (1969) The Non-Jewish Jew (London, OUP)
Dubnow, J., (1898), quoted in D. Vital (1982), Zionism, the Formative Years (Oxford, Clarendon)
Hertzl, T., (1956) The Diaries of Theodor Hertzl (London, Kessinger Publications)
Pinsker, L., (1948) Auto-Emancipation (New York, Rita Searl)

Henry Maitles is emeritus professor of education at the University of the West of Scotland.