The storm of accusations against Jeremy Corbyn on the issue of anti-Semitism, while politically motivated, has raised questions on how to define and combat it. It has also renewed debate about Zionism and Israel – both the policies of successive Israeli governments and the existence of the Israeli state. JUDY BEISHON looks at anti-Semitism in its historical context as well as the situation today, approaching it and the ‘Jewish Question’ from a Marxist standpoint. Originally published in Socialism Today, Issue 222 (October 2018), the political journal of the Socialist Party (sister party of Socialist Alternative in England and Wales).
One of the shortest and simplest definitions of anti-Semitism is hostility or prejudice towards Jews as Jews. Incidences of it range widely in severity, from abusive comments to property damage, violent assault and killings, and all cases must be strongly condemned and countered.
How prevalent is it in Britain today? The Community Security Trust recorded 1,382 incidents in 2017, the highest number since it began monitoring in 1984. Fortunately, it did not have to classify any of these incidents as ‘extreme violence’, defined as grievous bodily harm or threat to life. Verbal and written abuse was the most common occurrence.
A 2016 House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK stated that police-recorded anti-Semitic hate crime in England and some parts of Wales increased between 2010 and 2015. But the report admitted that “there is no way of knowing for certain whether the increase is real or due to a change in reporting habits”.
Also, in more recent years many of the alleged incidences of anti-Semitism directed at Labour’s left wing have not in substance indicated hostility to Jewish people, yet some might have been included in the recorded incidents, among real and serious cases which must be denounced. Convictions for anti-Semitic behaviour are estimated to have numbered only 24 last year, but this low figure does not mean that more cases could not have been prosecuted.
While the end parts of the Home Affairs Committee report echoed the tirade of slurs directed at Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, it emphasised in an earlier section: “The majority of anti-Semitic abuse and crime has historically been, and continues to be, committed by individuals associated with (or motivated by) far-right wing parties and political activity”. It referred to figures which “suggest that around three-quarters of all politically-motivated anti-Semitic incidents come from far-right sources”.
The police reported that MP Luciana Berger had received 2,500 anti-Jewish tweets in a three-day period but, while she has used the anti-Semitic vitriol against her to attack the Labour left, the Home Affairs Committee report stated in relation to the three days in question that “the barrage was linked to a campaign run against her by a US-based neo-Nazi website”. The report also commented that “the UK remains one of the least anti-Semitic countries in Europe”.
While there have been cases in Britain involving desecration of Jewish cemeteries and physical assaults, in France there was the shocking killing of four Jewish people in a Paris kosher shop in 2015. The same year a Jewish man was shot dead in Copenhagen outside a synagogue. In Germany, reports of anti-Semitic incidents and violence carried out by the far-right have increased this year.
As most anti-Semitism comes from the far-right, the electoral growth of far-right parties in a number of European countries – benefiting from the lack of clear left alternatives being put forward – is a danger that must be taken very seriously. While most of these parties formally avoid anti-Semitic policies, they encompass members and leaders who have promoted neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic positions and as such can be a real threat to Jewish people.
Anti-Semitism has existed in varying forms for centuries. What are the main types of it today? It tends to either be based on prejudices carried forward from the past, or on holding Jewish people responsible for the crimes of the Israeli government or for the existence of Israel.
Before the medieval period migrations of Jews were mainly a result of invasions and conquests from which many different populations, from a wide range of ethnicities and religions, suffered. By late medieval times, however, a great many terrible anti-Semitic killings and expulsions of Jews were documented.
Belgian Trotskyist Abram Leon, who died young in Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis, authored an insightful book, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation. He explained how in the Middle Ages in Europe Jews often tended to play specific socio-economic roles, especially as traders, financial intermediaries and administrators. When the feudal economies began to decline: “With the development of exchange economy in Europe, the growth of cities and of corporative industry, the Jews are progressively eliminated from the economic positions which they had occupied. This eviction is accompanied by a ferocious struggle of the native commercial class against the Jews”.
In addition, the closing off to Jews of the central trading roles – servicing the aristocracies – forced them into other roles, including selling small goods and lending money to the peasantry. This led that oppressed layer working on the land to associate Jews with their suffering under feudalism and to scapegoat them too. The result was large migrations of Jews in the 15th and 16th centuries to eastern Europe, especially Poland, and the Ottoman empire, escaping brutal persecution and mass expulsions in western Europe.
Eastern Europe brought new horrors. While they tried to adopt productive roles in the development of capitalist industry, the weakness of capitalist development in eastern Europe – held back by western European imperialism – meant that Jews were, in Abram’s apt words, “wedged between the anvil of decaying feudalism and the hammer of rotting capitalism”.
In a situation of economic crisis, with widespread unemployment and poverty, it was useful for the regimes in power to divert blame onto Jews. Those rulers presided over horrific pogroms at the end of the 19th century in the tsarist empire, including Russian-occupied Poland, which forced another wave of Jewish emigration to many destinations around the world. The highest number went to the United States, where the Jewish population rose from 230,000 in 1880 to 1.5 million by 1904.
In that period many activists from Jewish backgrounds became an integral part of the workers’ movements, entering into common struggle, including Rosa Luxemburg in Poland and then Germany, and Leon Trotsky in Russia. There was also a layer of Jews involved in mass struggle while maintaining a degree of separation from the main workers’ parties, in particular those in the Bund, the General Union of Jewish Workers of Lithuania, Poland and Russia, founded in 1897. Lenin, later a crucial leader of the 1917 Russian revolution along with Trotsky, while not criticising the existence of the Bund, did criticise its programme, which was tainted with bourgeois nationalist tendencies.
A third category of orientation among European Jews at that time, involving only a small minority, was the Zionists. Rather than fighting against anti-Semitism and capitalism in Europe, they supported the idea of a Jewish homeland being created elsewhere on the planet. From the start, the approach of their leaders was to try to win the main imperialist powers over to the project, with the idea that those ‘masters’ could use their economic and military might to secure the Zionists’ objective.
Theodor Herzl, a Vienna Jew who was a central founder of modern Zionism, envisaged a mutually beneficial relationship with imperialism. In 1896, with his eye on Palestine, he said: “For Europe, we could constitute over there a bulwark against Asia, we would be the advance post of civilisation against barbarism… we would remain in constant touch with all of Europe, which would guarantee our existence”.
Formation of Israel
In 1902, British ministers considered whether the Zionists could have part of the Sinai Peninsula and, in 1903, proposed an area of Kenya. The first Zionists also considered land in Argentina. But they settled on the aim of Palestine, with British imperialism eventually conceding to it in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, to “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.
The Zionists pressed on with encouraging Jewish emigration to Palestine, but it was the horrific Holocaust carried out by the German Nazi regime in the early 1940s that added impetus to their plan. The policies of British imperialism, although not in a straight line, had already aided increased Jewish colonisation in Palestine. Then in 1947 the world powers voted in a United Nations resolution for partition to create Israel – ie, they dictated a land division – which led to the founding of Israel in May 1948.
This, as well as under pressure from Zionism, was in their own self-interest. They were competing for influence. Stalin initially backed Israel’s creation and helped arm it via Czechoslovakia, hoping to use it against western-backed Arab regimes. The western capitalist powers saw an Israeli state under their sponsorship as a potential geopolitical assistance against the threat of Arab revolution, which they feared would gravitate towards the Soviet Union. Also they did not want a big influx of Jewish refugees into their own countries – they had been denying entry to many since the 1930s.
In addition, Zionist terror acts in Palestine had become a problem for British imperialism. British soldiers were being killed and infrastructure and institutions destroyed. A wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem was blown up in 1946, killing 91 people.
Trotsky had referred in December 1938 to the “gigantic dimension of the evil burdening the Jewish people” – the growing tide of anti-Semitism – and warned remarkably: “It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without war the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews… Now more than ever, the fate of the Jewish people – not only their political but also their physical fate – is indissolubly linked with the emancipating struggle of the international proletariat”. He called for “audacious mobilisation of the workers against reaction, creation of workers’ militia” and “direct physical resistance to the fascist gangs”.
He also warned in the same month that migration to Palestine would not be a solution for Jews and could eventually become “a bloody trap” for them. Tragically, this has been an accurate prediction given the rounds of Jewish-Arab bloodshed in subsequent decades, which will continue for as long as capitalism exists in the region.
Jewish people should be able to live anywhere in the world without persecution and anti-Semitism. If that had become the case – had the Russian revolution been followed by successful socialist revolutions in Europe, opening up a democratic socialist future – there would have been no basis for Zionism to develop further. The Zionist premise that anti-Semitism cannot be defeated would have been completely undermined, along with its solution of a Jewish homeland to escape from it.
So Zionist growth resulted from the failure to achieve socialist transformations, at that stage, and following the nightmare hounding of the Jews by anti-Semitic laws, repeated pogroms before and after the second world war and, above all, the appalling Holocaust.
Today, one of the disputed ‘examples’ of anti-Semitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) to accompany its definition of anti-Semitism, is: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”. Although elsewhere in its definition the IHRA refers to ‘the’ State of Israel, the use of the word ‘a’ in this particular clause gives it a different meaning.
The State of Israel created in Palestine was on the basis of a racial divide and forced expropriation of the land of much of the Arab population. Those who opposed its creation, as our Trotskyist forerunners did, were right to do so. But they, and Trotsky himself before he was murdered in 1940, did not oppose the idea of ‘a’ new state which could give the right to self-determination to Jewish people who wanted it. However, Trotsky did not think this possible on the basis of decaying capitalism within which, he said, such a project “will have a utopian and reactionary character (Zionism)”. Under socialism, though, with its “unimaginable resources in all domains… The dispersed Jews who would want to be reassembled in the same community will find a sufficiently extensive and rich spot under the sun”.
In 1937, regarding the Soviet Union’s designation of an area, Birobidjan, for Jews who wanted to go there, while Trotsky recognised it would not be democratically run under Stalinism, he commented: “Not a single progressive thinking individual will object to the USSR designating a special territory for those of its citizens who feel themselves to be Jews, who use the Jewish language in preference to all others, and who wish to live as a compact mass”.
Nature of Israel
Mass expropriation of Palestinians was forced in 1947-48, and then again in 1967, followed by 50 years of brutal occupation and increasing Jewish colonisation of Palestinian land. The intensity of the oppression on the Palestinians has varied over the decades, but there have been regular cycles of bloodshed, and in recent months threats of a new onslaught on Gaza have been stepped up.
The category of anti-Semitism that links all Jews to the crimes against the Palestinians began with the first battles between Arabs and Zionists in Palestine and has surged every time wars and atrocities against the Palestinians occur. Unsurprisingly, this has particularly been the case in Arab and Muslim countries, where there have often been expressions of anti-Semitism during protests since the creation of Israel. After 1948 the brutal reactions in the wider Middle East to Israel’s creation triggered the mass migration of the long established Middle Eastern Jewish populations to Israel.
Israel’s present government, a right-wing coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is marked by nationalist reaction, racist incitement and attacks on democratic rights. The recently passed Nationality Law is one of many laws in Israel that discriminate against non-Jews. As well as measures in the new law such as reducing the status of the Arabic language and declaring Israel’s capital to be “the complete and united Jerusalem”, it contains several clauses aimed at boosting the connection between Israel and the Jewish diaspora.
This emphasis on a ‘connection’ is not new. The Zionist narrative of Israeli capitalism has long been that Israel is the nation-state of Jewish people worldwide, as the Nationality Law formally declares. It is one of the ways with which the Israeli ruling class still points to anti-Semitism globally to justify its governments’ policies to an international audience and domestically.
But this drive to identify all Jews with Israel – which a large number of Jewish people do not agree with – complicates the task of countering the brand of anti-Semitism which blames all Jews for the actions of the Israeli regime. Israeli journalist Gideon Levy put this difficulty bluntly, when he warned: “Israel has enacted a law saying it is the nation-state of the Jewish people. In other words, anything Israel does represents the entire Jewish people. This has a price. When an Israeli sniper shoots dead a legless man in a wheelchair, and a nurse – the Jewish people is a partner. Thus Israel’s policy is inflaming anti-Semitism in the world”. Further: “The labelling of any criticism as anti-Semitism… increases anti-Semitism and the feeling that the Jews are acting like bullies and using their power of emotional blackmail”. (Haaretz, 9 August)
So the Israeli ruling class outrageously uses anti-Semitism to justify its crimes and tries to make all Jews complicit in them. At the same time, Netanyahu has been willing to host the racist Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán who has used explicitly anti-Semitic language, and the Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte. In 2016, Duterte said that he would be happy to slaughter three million drug addicts in his country in the way that Hitler had carried out slaughter.
Some left organisations internationally, while rightly not linking the Jewish diaspora with the deeds of Israeli governments, are not so willing to absolve Jews in Israel. However, while the overall level of nationalist chauvinism in Israel is presently high, it is a class-based society like other capitalist countries, with the working class and middle layers exploited by the super-rich ruling elite. Workplace struggles and strikes take place against casualisation, job losses, etc, and over the last year there have been large demonstrations against corruption, against deportations, for LGBT rights, and against the Nationality Law.
Marxists cannot take the attitude to Israel today that they took when it was created because, over the decades, an Israeli national consciousness has developed and a majority of the population was born there. It has also become a state with one of the strongest military forces in the world, including nuclear weapons, and the Jewish population has a ‘siege mentality’ which is nurtured by intense nationalist propaganda and constant warnings of possible military aggression from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. The only way forward for Israeli workers, therefore, lies in building a joint struggle of Israeli Jewish and Arab workers against Israeli capitalism and linking this to workers’ struggles and organisations in the Palestinian territories and neighbouring countries.
We in the Socialist Party, along with our sister organisation Socialist Struggle Movement in Israel-Palestine, support the right of self-determination for Israeli Jews – in any case, coercion against this would neither be possible nor capable of winning trust – but this must be alongside the same right for Palestinians. The only way of achieving this is through working towards a democratic, socialist Israel and an independent, democratic, socialist Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.
Attacks on Corbyn and the Labour left
Slanders of anti-Semitism have rained down on Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left from Labour’s right wing, the Tories, capitalist media and the leaders of a number of right-wing led Jewish organisations, particularly the Jewish Leadership Council, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Labour Movement. Many of their accusations have targeted comments by Labour figures associated with the left, including Jackie Walker, Pete Wilsman, Marc Wadsworth and George McManus – comments which have been critical of Zionism or Israeli government policy, or have been angry reactions to the attacks on Corbyn.
‘Facts’ in the comments are not always correct – as when Ken Livingstone mistakenly claimed that Hitler won an election in 1932. And the language used can sometimes be justifiably criticised, such as ex-Labour MP Jim Sheridan’s choice of words in associating the ‘Jewish community’ with the Blairite plotters, instead of recognising the class divisions and different political positions among Jews. But the context and motivation behind most of the publicised remarks have not been anti-Semitism. And this is taking into account the point made by some of the denigrators that anti-Semitism can differ from other forms of racism by painting the victim as controlling and conspiratorial. Anti-Semitism does have some unique features – as do other forms of racism, including towards Muslims.
Everyone will sometimes read or hear opinions expressed by others which they strongly disagree with or find wrong or offensive. These criteria, though, must not become benchmarks that limit freedom of speech, in the absence of firm evidence of racism, anti-Semitism or abuse. When incidences of real anti-Semitism do occur, appropriate action should always be taken.
The political nature of the anti-Semitism attacks on Labour is clear from surveys which show there is no more anti-Semitism in Labour than in other political parties, which the Home Affairs Committee report acknowledged. The hypocrisy of the chorus of demands for Labour to adopt the full list of ‘examples’ attached to the IRHA’s definition of anti-Semitism is shown in that several of the IHRA member countries include top ministers who have expressed some neo-Nazi sentiments.
In reality, there is no universally agreed definition of anti-Semitism. Neither do the authorities in Israel or Jewish organisations internationally have agreement on what defines Jewishness – which is hotly debated in Israel because of its consequences on discriminatory legal rights.
Jeremy Corbyn resisted the adoption of all the IHRA examples because they are ambiguous. For instance, QC lawyer Geoffrey Bindman said: “Some of them at least are not necessarily anti-Semitic. Whether they are or not depends on the context and on additional evidence of anti-Semitic intent”. They were not originally drafted with the aim of setting boundaries of behaviour, as one their authors, US lawyer Kenneth Stern, has pointed out, and there have been incidences where they have been cited to restrict freedom of speech.
The main part of the IHRA definition can also be misused in this way. It states: “Criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic”. Yet this suggests that unique features, such as the occupation of the Palestinian territories, cannot be criticised, because that criticism can’t be applied to other countries.
One of the IHRA ‘examples’ is: “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”. Fascism and Zionism are very different forms of capitalism. Fascism in Germany in the 1930s and 40s was a form of capitalist counter-revolution. It rested on the middle class as a social base, destroyed workers’ organisations, and used anti-Semitism as a divisive tool to divert hostility from capitalism in general to the Jewish capitalists in order to whip up nationalism and attack the ‘foreign Jewish ideology’ of Marxism, on the basis that Karl Marx and many leaders of the workers’ movement were of Jewish origin.
But this ‘example’ was used as a pretext to place restrictions on a meeting at Manchester University in March 2017 at which a Jewish survivor of the Budapest ghetto was speaking, because the speech had the subtitle, aimed at the Israeli government: “You’re doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me”. The right-wing narrative is that Israeli policy cannot be compared to that of the Nazis. Scandalously, however, it is OK for the Corbyn leadership’s policy to be equated with Nazism by a Labour MP, as Margaret Hodge did in response to being investigated for swearing at Corbyn and calling him an anti-Semite.
When various Israeli Jewish commentators, including Zionists, have over the years as warnings made comparisons between the direction of the Israeli regime and aspects of Nazism – such as the dangers of exclusivity and racial uniqueness – are they to be labelled as anti-Semitic?
Livingstone, who has resigned from Labour after two years of suspension, was falsely accused of anti-Semitism from another angle, after his claim that Hitler had supported Zionism. Hitler did not support Zionism, as Livingstone subsequently acknowledged, but the Nazi leaders did support Jewish emigration to Palestine for a limited period of time. There are also well-documented incidences of Nazi-Zionist collaboration which caused divisions in the Zionist movement in the 1930s.
Corbyn has been seen as a target particularly because of his commendable, longstanding support for the Palestinians’ cause and his participation in events on that issue. However, it is also the case that he, along with a layer of others on the left, have had political weaknesses on this issue which can lead to mistakes, some of which have been seized on by the right.
A clearly demarcated class-based approach to the Palestinian struggle needs to be taken. It is also important that a socialist road to genuine liberation is promoted, and the policies of the Hamas and Fatah leaders rejected. Hamas is based on right-wing Islam, while Fatah looks to western imperialism to deliver a capitalist Palestinian state.
One of the more recent attacks on Corbyn was over him referring, during a meeting in 2013, to a specific group of Zionists ‘not understanding English irony’. Corbyn was not directing his quip at all UK Zionists as the distorters have alleged, and certainly not at all Jewish people. However, among the subsequent attacks has been the argument that “anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are the same thing”, to quote former Tory Party chair Lord Feldman; and that Zionism cannot be separated from Judaism as a faith, according to Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
Even a cursory look at facts shows how wrong these arguments are. A number of religious Jewish groups strongly oppose Zionism, and over 40% of British Jews do not consider themselves to be Zionist (City University, 2015). Not all Zionists are Jewish, and Zionism is an ideology, not a race or religion. It is also the case that Zionism has encompassed many different political parties and positions – it is not a uniform ideology.
False allegations of anti-Semitism, far from combating it, create a climate of fear and insecurity in Jewish communities and shamelessly exploit it. For the right-wing led Jewish organisations that have jumped on this bandwagon, part of their agenda no doubt is trying to bolster Jewish identity and reduce fall-out from Jewish communities. But there are many people of Jewish origin who have been repelled by the slandering. Inside the Labour Party a new network, Jewish Voice for Labour, was set up to help counter it. Such organisations get virtually no coverage in the capitalist press.
Under pressure from the onslaught, Labour’s national executive committee caved in and accepted all the IHRA examples, just adding a short qualification in defence of free speech. Surrender on that issue will not stop further accusations and other concerted attempts to denigrate and remove Jeremy Corbyn. The only way to counter them is to resist the demands of the pro-capitalists in Labour, make sure they face reselection contests in their local areas, and stand firm on a pro-working class programme – including the labour movement democratically agreeing and setting its own codes of conduct.
Turning back to society as a whole, most anti-Semitism comes from the far-right, who prey on discontent and lack of prospects by whipping up prejudice and bigotry. Racially or religiously aggravated offences are illegal in Britain, as is incitement to religious hatred, but the police and courts cannot be relied on to counter neo-Nazi ideas. Historically, the socialist left of the labour and trade union movement has had to be active in fighting the far-right, racism and anti-Semitism and does so today. The right wing has not done this. Strengthening the role of the workers’ movement in fighting racism and the far-right is the only way to be effective in countering these potentially dangerous organisations and, very importantly, to be visible as a pole of attraction to disenchanted youth who might mistakenly turn towards them.
With the background of capitalist crisis and decay, the danger of reaction will not go away, with some level of anti-Semitism being one of the ugly by-products. The roots of anti-Semitism lie in the inability of unequal, class-based societies – feudalism followed by capitalism – to provide for the needs of all sections of the population. As such, as with all forms of racism and discrimination, it will only be through achieving socialism – with public ownership of the main industries and services, and democratic planning of the economy and society – that the basis can be laid for anti-Semitism to be removed forever.