The last straw

My philosophical engagement with religion did not last long. Despite going to a Jewish Primary School in Hackney, and attending kheder (Jewish supplementary classes) two nights a week and on Sunday mornings until I was 14, I can’t remember believing in God. My synagogue attendance – decided by my family rather than me, tailed off rapidly after my barmitzvah. From the age of 8, going to football on a Saturday afternoon was the ritual I really looked forward to on a Saturday, and the only place where I actually  prayed – though I am not sure to whom. Of course I was not alone. When I stood on the terraces at West Ham on a Saturday afternoon I would see faces I had seen two or three hours earlier in shul (synagogue). For those who think synagogues – even those that are nominally orthodox  – are places purely of worship, let me disabuse you. While prayers were being alternately sung and mumbled, at least as far as the khazan (cantor),the rabbi and other synagogue officials believed,  I would be listening in to some of the conversations going on around me in the men’s section – family gossip, work troubles, horse racing and football news. My late friend and comrade Charlie Pottins used to describe the United Synagogue (mainstream orthodox) the kind which I attended as a place where “Jews pray in a language they don’t understand to a God they don’t believe in, for the security of a state they don’t want to live in.”

But, I had a sense of family obligation, and even in my early 20s, when it came to the High Holy Days – Rosh Hashona (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) I would return to my parents’ home and go with them to the synagogue. That all ended after Rosh Hashona 1982. that was The. Last. Straw.

In addition to a bizarre prayer for the Royal family intoned every shobbos (Sabbath), the state whose security we prayed for was Israel. Only by now I was no Zionist. Just a few weeks before I had marched, in a large contingent, behind a large yellow banner of the Jewish Socialists’ Group in a demonstration some 25,000 strong, to protest the horrendous war Israel had unleashed in Lebanon that summer, its tanks roaring through the homes of terrified Lebanese and Palestinian villagers, heading for Beirut where Yasser Arafat and Palestinian forces were concentrated. It was the first time our group had taken a banner on a Palestine Solidarity demonstration, and it was the sole Jewish banner there.

Just days before Rosh Hashona that year, there was the most sickening event of this whole war of destruction. Israel had allies within Lebanon – right-wing Phalangist Christian forces who hated the Palestinians with as much vigour as the Israeli commanders. Israel had asked local Phalangist forces to “clear out” any PLO fighters based in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The Israeli army stationed troops at the exits of the camps and, at night they lit flares to assist the Phalangists in their task. Over a period of 36 hours a gruesome massacre of the residents of the camps children, women, men took place.  Israeli officials acknowledged that there had been 700-800 deaths. The Palestinian Red Crescent estimate was 2,000. More than 1,200 death certificates were issued to survivors. Horrific photos in the aftermath showed indisputable evidence of mass executions.

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after the massacre

It could not but be on the minds of those attending synagogues that Rosh Hashona. At that time the Jewish community where my parents lived, in Redbridge, was still expanding, and we went to High Holy Day services in a makeshift synagogue in a large room of the Redbridge Jewish Community Centre, nearer to our home than Ilford’s main purpose-built synagogue. Perhaps we came in a bit late but I remember sitting right at the back in the corner.

It was a period of transition in many branches of the United Synagogue. Those leading the services, and longstanding rabbis of some congregations, were being replaced by young, and sometimes charismatic adherents of an entryist, more orthodox, fundamentalist, movement, the Lubavitch. One of their rising young men, “educated” at a yeshivah (seminary) in Gateshead, was taking our service.  Three-quarters of the way through the service came the sermon. This moment was usually marked by a few older people deciding they needed a toilet (actually cigarette) break, some temporarily taking their hearing-aids off, others gently closing their eyes for a few minutes. But most of the congregation would at least give the appearance of listening.

Having heard so many anodyne, safe sermons over the years, with stock religious platitudes that meant nothing to me, I was mentally switching off, when my ears pricked up. In his sermon this young Lubavitcher had started to comment on the war in Lebanon and the massacre that had just taken place at Sabra and Shatila. His words are still burned into me. “Jews have suffered 2,000 years of persecution. We should worry about a few hundred Palestinians who would grow up to be terrorists?” There was an audible intake of breath, then his sermon meandered off and people relaxed again. I wanted to run out screaming but was stuck right at the back in the corner with rows of people in front. I felt sick inside and my head was thumping. I struggled to sit through the rest of the service.

That was the last straw for me. Judaism, Jewishness, Israel, are all separate phenomena. You can appreciate Jewish culture without being religious. You can be a pious Jew and reject Zionism and so on… but what this person did was manipulate his position of power in a local Jewish community to tangle things together, in a religious context, to propagandise his racism, his fascistic variant of Zionism, his utterly inhumane political position.

I made a vow to myself never to return to synagogue for a service, save weddings, barmitzvahs etc. that I am invited to, which I’ve kept to. Many people are still fooled by the Lubavitch movement, who present themselves as vibrant, and charismatic in contrast to the more staid, conservative rabbis. But they are a cult of true fundamentalists, enticing people into their narrow ideological world which incorporates support for the most revanchist, intransigent, elements in Israel.

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Israelis of “Yesh Gvul” (There is a Limit) protesting agaisnt the Lebanon invasion, 1982

The 1982 war in Lebanon, though, was also a watershed moment. The honeymoon period of diaspora Jewish support for Israel was starting to come to an end, and support for Israel among diaspora Jews has slowly declined since then. Within Israel itself, the Yesh Gvul movement of army refuseniks began in earnest during that war. Huge demonstrations of a wider peace movement condemned Ariel Sharon – Israel’s military chief – for his role in that war. A small but growing number of young people are now refusing all army service for Israel on political grounds and expressing their open support for justice for Palestinians. Two more of them – young women – have recently been thrown in jail. The times they are a-changing.

 

 

 

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Tables turning?

“I didn’t see that coming!” has been the repeated refrain of the last two years. Political shocks and tremors have taken place in several countries, challenging expectations and surprising those who have taken their eye off the ball. Just now, another one seems to have happened that affects the Israel/Palestine conflict, and many activists who have following developments there much more closely than me are unsure how to react.

The most right-wing government in  Israel’s history, whose tired mantras that it has no one to negotiate with, that it is the only democracy in the Middle East, that it is constantly faced with existential threats, has just suffered a body blow. But no one died or was injured. There was no rocket or suicide bomb. The weapon on this occasion was a piece of paper. A piece of paper that undercuts Israel’s position and holds out the promise of a more united struggle by the Palestinian people that the Israeli Government continues to oppress. For many years, the fiercely expressed internal political divisions between Palestinian parties and factions have suited Israel well, and historically it had a part in fomenting them. But perhaps the tables are starting to turn.

Israeli leaders always claim that their citizens are in fear of military attack, but they are actually much more frightened of peace than war. There real existential fear is having to account for and face up to the injustices they perpetuate. The most hopeful time for a breakthrough for the Palestinians in recent decades was towards the end of the 1980s at the time of the first intifada – an uprising by all of Palestinian society from the ground up – which engendered a build-up of sympathy and support around the world for a people suffering under a brutal and long-running military occupation. The exiled Palestinian leadership, based in Tunis, played a role, but in many ways this was a locally organised popular grassroots rebellion on the political principles the PLO had helped to establish.

The Israeli Defence Minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, famously ordered his soldiers to “break their bones”. His internal opponents on the more explicitly right-wing of the Zionist movement, called Palestinians “cockroaches” who needed to be crushed. But the deep Israeli state had softer, more cynical methods too to disrupt the Palestinian resistance. As the PLO – a secular resistance movement with Muslims and Christians and less religious people in its leadership – grew in stature, despite operating from exile, the Israelis began covertly funding an Islamic religious organisation, led by Sheikh Yassin, to help establish a religious counterweight to the PLO; one that would undermine its ability to represent the vast bulk of Palestinians. Yassin’s organisation eventually developed into Hamas.

It was a risky strategy for the Israelis. As the PLO became more trapped in talks about talks about talks, that were going nowhere, but not wanting to miss out on gaining even a  minimal and fragile autonomy within the Occupied Territories, Hamas became something of a Frankenstein’s monster for Israel, developing an increasingly militant and fundamentalist politics. It adopted a charter that did not distinguish between people and governments, or between Jews in the world and Israeli policy makers and military representatives. Indeed the charter, drawn up by one person within Hamas, borrowed from the infamous antisemitic document, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion

As Hamas incorporated terrorism into its methods, the lives of ordinary Israelis and also Jews outside of Israel suddenly became more perilous. But for increasingly desperate Palestinians on the street, with the PLO’s main faction, Fatah, laying emphasis on diplomatic manoeuvres, Hamas’ militant stance became attractive. There was a sense they were actually fighting back, even if Israel greatly exaggerated the threat from their rockets. Israel’s establishment basked in the continued divide, knowing also that Hamas’ conception of the struggle as a religious struggle could not bring political successes against it, and it would be easy to cast it as antisemitic rather than simply anti-Zionist.

There have been several unsuccessful attempts over the years to broker some kind of pact between Hamas and Fatah, but until now there has been a gulf between the aspiration of Hamas to liberate all of Palestine in the name of Islam and the de facto acceptance of two states by Fatah in the name of realpolitik.

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Marwan Barghouti

Now that Hamas has abandoned its charter, distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, described the struggle as an anti-colonial struggle against Zionism, not a fight against Jews, and now that it has spoken of an aspiration to create an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West bank on the pre-67 boundaries including East Jerusalem, and the return of refugees, both it and Fatah are increasingly working on the same page.  Both movements remain strongly committed to the welfare of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. The current hunger strike by more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in Israel, led by Marwan Barghouti, who maintains the traditional secular Fatah philosophy, is helping also to prepare the ground for greater political unity.

Hamas’ move will surely be regarded as constructive by many states around the world, and will increasingly isolate Israel’s apartheid rulers. The Israeli government, which thought that with Trump at the helm, it could get away with more land-grabbing and establishing more new settlements, now has to justify once again on the world stage why it should maintain the occupation, let alone build more settlements. That is a significant gain for the Palestinians. But it is also uncomfortable for large sections of the anti-Zionist Left in the world who are now wedded purely to a single state solution.

I suspect a number of them will denounce Hamas for “selling out”.  I’m more relaxed about it. It is the principles of self-determination, equality, democracy, not the number of states, that counts for me. These principles can be fought for in either a one or two states arrangement. I would prefer one state, but a fight for two secular democratic states, to be states for all their citizens on an equal basis, instead of one state, would liberate a large chunk of Palestine, would challenge Israel as an ethnocracy, and still represent a progressive agenda in my book. We need to follow events closely and intervene in supportive ways, but in the coming period it is very important for the Palestinians themselves to determine their mode of united struggle. In a world where currently so many situations are stacked against progressive forces, this is a rare chink of light. There are dangers and traps but, at last, there are also some real opportunities.

 

 

Hero or villain? The Livingstone question

My favourite political image among the protests and street activism that has marked the first three months of 2017 is a banner held on the St Patrick’s Day parade. It proclaimed:”More Blacks! More dogs! More Irish!” – mocking the daily racism of the 1960s when people looking for homes were confronted by openly discriminatory window signs rejecting applicants from these categories. The first Race Relations Act of 1968 finally knocked that appalling behaviour on the head, but not the sentiments behind it. It took another 20 years of grassroots campaigns led by victims of racism, finally aided by another layer of government, to normalise anti-racism and explicitly promote multiculturalism.

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GLC leader Ken Livingstone addressing  GLC London Against Racism rally 1984.

That layer of government was the Greater London Council (GLC). Under a visionary Left Labour leadership from 1981 it railed against continuing inequalities and discriminatory practices and the mindset supporting them – whether it was racist, sexist, homophobic or disablist. Through a generous grants programme it gave grassroots  campaigners including Caribbean, African, South Asian, Irish and Jewish groups, the resources to make their voices count. The GLC also brought those groups and campaigns together through its Ethnic Minorities Unit, whose activities dovetailed with those of the GLC’s Women’s Committee. These policies were denounced at the time as “loony left” by the right-wing press. Maggie Thatcher felt so threatened by this equalities agenda that she dictatorially closed down the GLC.

The imagination and determination to push this agenda through was rightly identified very strongly with the GLC’s leader – one Ken Livingstone. In place of the old paternalistic grants policy which mainly favoured rather conservative existing groups, the GLC under Livingstone developed a grassroots strategy whereby innovative groups without resources were encouraged to identify a need in London, make a plan for addressing it and ask the GLC to fund it.

I  was a beneficiary, appointed as sole worker for the Jewish Cultural and Anti-Racist Project, a Jewish Socialists’ Group initiative funded by the GLC.  Our two years of funding came to an end through Maggie’s act of destruction. But I remember a delicious moment one year in, when our project grant came up for renewal. Alongside other groups we were invited to the public gallery. Labour had a solid majority on the council, so at the meeting confirming renewal Ken Livingstone read through a list of groups that the grants committee had approved. The Tories could express their objection but they had no power to stop any of the approved grants going through. Most did so without objection but every so often – a lesbian project, or an Irish project –  the Tory would say “We object!”. Livingstone read out “Jewish Socialists’ Group” in a manner which suggested he enjoyed the particular combination of those words as much as we did. The Tory rose: “We object”. Livingstone retorted, smiling, “You don’t like the name!”

How can it be that three decades on, the person who played such a pivotal role in the fight for equality came within a hairsbreadth of expulsion by the Labour Party for bringing the party in to disrepute over the issue of anti-Jewish racism, having made dubious comments about Hitler and Zionism; and for defending another MP’s comments, which she herself apologised for, after she recognised they had crossed a line into antisemitism?

The knee-jerk reaction of many left wingers, tired of cynical, manufactured and distorted accusations of antisemitism was to leap to his defence,  Others who harboured doubts about the veracity of Livingstone’s comments and his tact were more reticent. He claimed that the real reasons he was threatened with expulsion were his support for Palestine and for Jeremy Corbyn.  As someone who admired his earlier work, I’m not convinced. I believe that his controversial and completely unnecessary intervention – based on a very poor quality source – undermined Jeremy Corbyn and was detrimental to the Palestinian cause. It was also a free gift to right wingers in both the Labour and Conservative parties, and to pro-Zionist and pro-Conservative elements in the Jewish community determined to do Labour and Corbyn down.

They have been having a field day denouncing Labour for not expelling him, claiming that it proves that the Labour Party is not serious about tackling antisemitism, that the Jewish community has been let down by Labour’s disciplinary process and so on. Why pro-Conservative elements such as Jewish Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush, who rushed to congratulate Trump on winning the US election, or Chief Rabbi Mirvis who penned a vicious attack on Labour on the front page of the Daily Telegraph the day before London’s mayoral election while saying nothing about the Tories openly Islamopbhobic campaign against Sadiq Khan, feel they have the right to comment on Labour’s internal disciplinary processes is beyond me.

The bad blood between Livingstone  and self-proclaimed Jewish leaders, however, goes back a long way. It is nothing to do with Israel/Palestine or Nazis, and it shows those “leaders” in a poor light. I will say more on that further down.

But those of us in the left and centre left of the Labour Party, who certainly do have the right to comment on those procedures, have every reason to be cynical about those individuals put in place under Tony Blair who still dominate the bodies enacting these disciplinary  procedures. While they act against loose cannons such as Livingstone, who unfortunately has form when it comes to speaking first and engaging his brain second, they completely ignore the daily acts of Labour right-wingers, which bring the party into disrepute and harm its electoral chances. I am talking here of the likes of tblair_mandelson_36092bMandelson, Blair, Wes Streeting, Michael Dugher and Ruth Smeeth, who deliberately and repeatedly insult, demean and seek to undermine a Labour leader overwhelmingly elected twice to lead the party by its members. And they often take to the columns of the anti-Labour right-wing press to do so. They are surely the people who deserve to be at the front of any queue of those who might be legitimately charged with bringing the party into disrepute. In that context I am glad Livingstone was not expelled. And, indeed, rather than suspend him for a further year, maybe, as other Jewish left-wingers have suggested, he should be challenged to go for a year without mentioning Hitler.

But what is the real story with Livingstone and the Jewish community? What are the merits of what he has said, and the “academic” source he based them on? Did the timing of his intervention help or undermine Jeremy Corbyn at a time when Labour was being assailed with charges of antisemitism? Has it helped or hindered the Palestinian cause?

Livingstone took power in the GLC in 1981 at the same time as the Jewish Board of Deputies (BoD) was increasingly falling in with Thatcher’s government and its reactionary norms. Thatcher  was extremely hostile to the GLC’s anti-racist agenda. Nevertheless the BoD initially co-operated with the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit.

As Livingstone democratised and revolutionised the GLC’s grants procedures, a range of  politically independent groups among both secular and religious Jews, including dissident and marginalised groups, applied for funding for their projects. The BoD, which saw itself as the sole legitimate political representative of Jews in Britain, wrote to Livingstone insisting on its right to vet any applications to the GLC for funding by Jewish groups. Livingstone quite rightly refused, on democratic grounds, and was never forgiven. As well as being involved with the Jewish Socialists’ Group’s (JSG) application, I was also part of a small group of four people called the Jewish Employment Action Group, which was taking up cases of antisemitism in the workplace. One of the four was a maverick member of the Board of Deputies. We asked for and received a grant of £220 (that’s all!). That maverick BoD member was hauled over the coals by the BoD’s paranoid leaders. Whenever the BoD got a hint that a particular Jewish group was applying for funds, it sent in unsolicited “references” to try to dissuade Livingstone’s GLC from funding them. I was shown the unsolicited “reference ” on the JSG, by the Grants Officer dealing with our application. It was a filthy document, full of lies and unfounded smears and allegations linking us to organisations described as “terrorist”. Fortunately the GLC disregarded it, but it revealed the BoD’s methods.

In 1983 the Board suspended its participation in the work of the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit, an entity  that was developing an imaginative, inclusive agenda for tackling all forms of racism in London and actively promoting multiculturalism. I have a leaked copy of the internal minutes from the BoD’s Defence Committee which agreed this action. It sets out five charges against the GLC, listed a to e, including: “The use of County Hall by pro-PLO factions and by terrorist representative groups”.

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Avnery and Sartawi at GLC County Hall

In 1983 the GLC’s County Hall had indeed hosted the first public meeting in Britain in which an Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery, shared a platform with a leading PLO representative, Issam Sartawi. I was among the organisers of the meeting. Also in the early 1980s the GLC hosted Sinn Fein members accused of direct links withe IRA.

However the leaked minutes explained that the BoD’s decision to break off relations  with the GLC Ethnic Minorities Unit was taken because of (e), “a grant to the Jewish Socialists’ Group, against the advice of the Board”.

Following the initial skirmishes which were about the GLC being able to function democratically without unwanted and unwarranted interference for the BoD, there were further clashes which related also to pro-Palestinian comments that Livingstone made in the aftermath of the Lebanon war of 1982.

In that period, Livingstone was guilty of a misdemeanour which does link directly to much more recent controversies. He was one of the editors of a left-wing newspaper called Labour Herald which published very crude denunciations of Israel and cartoons of its very right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin dressed in Nazi uniform, which drew accusations of antisemitism.  It also carried a review by one Harry Mullin of three publications alleging Zionist-Nazi collaboration. This review crossed a line from anti-Zionism to antisemitism. I was co-writer of a letter from the JSG, showing how this line had been crossed, and how it also served to diminish Nazi responsiblity for the Holocaust. Our letter demanded an apology from Labour Herald for publishing this review. The letter was published but no apology was made. In a private letter Livingstone remarked that Harry Mullin was a respected labour movement writer. It was no great surprise to me to learn that a few years down the line Harry Mullin had found his more natural home in the fascist British National Party, through which he increasingly peddled Holocaust denial. Perhaps this was an early hint of – at best – Livingstone’s lack of sophisticated judgement in this area.

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Lenni Brenner

During the recent controversy, when Livingstone was pressed for the source of his claims that Hitler “was supporting Zionism… before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”, he told the Evening Standard, “Everything I said… was true and I will be presenting the academic book about that to the Labour Party inquiry.”. That “academic” source was Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, written in the early 1980s by Lenni Brenner, an American freelance journalist.  Brenner’s book reads much more like tabloid journalism than any serious academic study. It makes crude allegations of Zionist-Nazi collaboration, treats the actions of some Zionists as representing all Zionists, and utterly distorts the power relations between Zionists and Nazis.

In truth, there were attempts by some Jews in Germany to make deals with the Nazi dictatorship that was hostile and repressive towards all Jews. In Germany’s case these were Zionists (an ideological minority among German Jews), who were criticised by other Zionists and other Jews for doing so. Further attempts to make deals with Nazi rulers were made by some Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, but these attempts do not break down on simple Zionist/anti-Zionist lines. Some bourgeois Jews who were not Zionists also attempted to extract concessions from their oppressors, to save some lives through such deals. On the other hand, many left-wing Zionists participated in the anti-Nazi resistance, especially in the ghettoes. But, whatever deals were attempted in Germany after Hitler came to power, Hitler had already made crystal clear his absolutely poisonous hatred towards all Jews when he published Mein Kampf in 1925, and a second edition in 1926.

When Lenni Brenner came to London in 1983/84 to promote his book the Jewish Socialists’ Group was unimpressed with the publicity but nevertheless invited him to speak to one of our meetings about it. He was terrible. He gave an extremely crude analysis which tried to make facts fit very thin pre-ordained theories. When he was challenged on his “analysis” he reacted with aggression. When audience members argued that his comments were antisemitic he flew into a further rage and told us that he could not be racist or antisemitic because his wife was Black. That, I’m afraid, is the calibre of Livingstone’s prime source.

Of course, if you do serious research you can find many examples that would show that in terms of combating antisemitism and fascism, whether in Germany or, for example, in Poland Europe’s largest Jewish community pre-war, the 1930s and ’40s were not Zionism’s finest hour. And the willingness of Zionists to seek cooperation with the most reactionary regimes towards its goals has a long pedigree that stretches as far back as Theodor Herzl’s meeting with Plehve, a minister in Tsarist Russia, a representative of the murderous oppressors of Jews, radicals and revolutionaries.  Herzl promised  Plehve, on no authority at all, that Jewish radicals and revolutionaries would cease their struggles against Tsarism for 15 years if he would give a charter for Palestine. Nothing came of it, but not for want of trying.

However, this whole effort to try to find evidence of Zionists behaving badly in the 1930s in order to expose the way Zionism behaves today, is such a poor way of supporting the Palestinians and their just demands. It rests on too many crude generalisations. You do not have to go back to Hitler and the 1930s in order to expose and challenge the oppression of Palestinians by Zionist ideology and practice today. As Shami Chakrabarti rightly pointed out in her report, from the Inquiry that followed in the weeks after Livingstone’s remarks, critics of Israeli policy could “use the modern universal language of human rights, be it of dispossession, discrimination, segregation, occupation, persecution and … leave Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust out of it”. I agree with her wholeheartedly. The case against Israel’s occupation and ill-treatment of the Palestinians is unanswerable. Trying to base that case on what some Zionists did in Germany in the 1930s will always end up diverting the argument towards accusations of antisemitism, and ultimately lets both the Israeli government and the Zionist movement in 2017 off the hook.

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Bradford MP Naz Shah

Livingstone was also apprehended for his defence of tweets made by Bradford Labour MP Naz Shah, which were considered by Jewish “leaders” such as  the BoD as offensive. The BoD  apparently believes it has the sole right to define, on behalf of the community, what is offensive to all Jews. It does not have that right. One of Shah’s tweets recycled an innocuous old joke suggesting that Israel should solve its problems by relocating to America. It pokes fun at the mutually sycophantic relationship between Israeli and American governments over the last few decades in which Israel has served the interests of that superpower very well.  My friend, the Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina, pokes fun similarly when he says in his shows, “I think Israel should give back the Occupied territories… but keep New York!” That is edgy but not antisemitic.

The only actually offensive, indeed antisemitic, tweet by Shah was in relation to an online poll regarding Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014, when she tweeted that “the Jews are rallying”. Not “Zionists”, not “supporters of Israel”, but “Jews”. That is antisemitic, and she rightly apologised.

The day after she did so, Ken Livingstone appeared on Vanessa Feltz’s  radio show, of his own volition, to discuss this matter. The timing is crucial and tells us much again about Livingstone’s lack of judgment and his apparent desire for notoriety, whatever the cost to those whose causes he claims to be promoting. The London mayoral elections were approaching and the Tories were running an Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan. If  Livingstone had had the nous, he would have simply noted Shah’s acknowledgement that she had crossed a line into antisemitism, welcomed her apology and then used all the weight of his background in anti-racism in London to utterly condemn the Tories for their thoroughly racist campaign against Khan. That could,  and should, have been the story. Instead he tried to excuse Shah’s tweets as “completely over the top but … not antisemitic”. Immediately after this came his infamous remarks about Hitler and Zionism.

Livingstone’s claims that he is being targeted partly because he supports Jeremy Corbyn don’t stack up well. Corbyn was under massive pressure on this issue from an unholy alliance of Blairites, the mainstream media, Jewish community “leaders” and Tories. A spokesperson for Corbyn had already welcomed Shah’s apology. Livingstone’s intervention further undermined Corbyn. And some who know him well have suggested that this was deliberate – whether for reasons of jealousy or some petty sectarianism.

I do not believe Livingstone is antisemitic. Nor do I believe that right-wing Jews whom the media treats as spokespersons have any right to define what is offensive to all Jews. I respect the integrity of the longstanding socialist and Labour Jewish activists who gave supportive testimony at Livingstone’s hearing, several of whom I know personally. However  I do believe that Livingstone deliberately invites controversy and notoriety, that his judgement on these issues is very poor, that he has set back the Palestinian cause by his utterances, and made life more difficult for the embattled left-wing Labour leadership.

I hope that those of us fighting for justice for the Palestinians, fighting racism in all its forms, including antisemitism, and fighting to strengthen Labour’s progressive leadership will reflect on this episode and ensure that we are directing our fire on our enemies in ways that are both principled and effective.

We know nothing about walls…

img_1157I spoke this afternoon as a representative of the Jewish Socialists’ Group and the bloc of Jewish organisations that marched together on the anti-Trump demonstration in London today. After the massive mobilisation for the women’s demo on 21 January and the huge emergency protest at Downing Street on Monday night, it was important to keep the pressure up on Trump and May. The Stop the War Coalition and Stand Up to Racism allied with several Muslim organisations in calling today’s demonstration.

img_1140It was a lively demo with a young demographic, despite poor weather at the start.  The mobilisation received a blow yesterday when one of the prominent organisers of last Monday’s demo, who has a significant media profile, (Owen Jones), tweeted that he wouldn’t be marching today, citing his strong political criticisms of the groups calling today’s protests  – groups he has been very happy to work with in recent years.

It was a deliberate, cynical, arrogant and egotistical attempt to sabotage the march. If he felt that strongly he could have stayed away and told us why on Monday. Or, alternatively, he could have come along to show solidarity with the victims of Trump’s policies and discussed his misgivings while protesting. I was not impressed, nor were any people I discussed it with.

IMG_1136.jpgThe movement against Trump is involving new forces who want to publicly show their revulsion at Trump’s aggressive actions so soon after he assumed the presidency, and they want to show their anger at our Prime Minister’s obsequious attitude to the new incumbent of what she keeps describing as “our most important ally”.  Of course the organisers of a demonstration influence the tone of it, but the people who come are not robots and will show if they do not appreciate how it is being run. It was very clear to me from the platform that what the diverse speakers were collectively saying was very enthusiastically received and touched the mood that many feel. It wasn’t as large as the earlier protests, and inflated claims of numbers are unhelpful, but it was young, it was lively, it was united  and it felt meaningful. Here was my speech:

“I bring greetings from the Jewish Socialists’ Group and from all the Jewish organisations who are here today. We live in a world where too many people would like Jews and Muslims to be enemies. We are here as Jews to express our complete solidarity with Muslims threatened and victimised by Donald Trump’s racism. You are our sisters and brothers, our friends and neighbours and as Jews we stand by you.

We stand also with the Mexican people – mainly catholic –  bearing the brunt of Trump’s racism. And, as Jews, who know something about being refugees, we give total solidarity to all refugees, of all nationalities, and of all faiths and none, who are being kept out of that tiny overcrowded country called the USA, and enduring humiliating and inhuman border controls.

We are proud that American Jews voted overwhelmingly against Trump. They recognised him, and the white supremacists and Christian fundamentalists he collected around him during his campaign, as anti-Semites. But this wasn’t just self-interest. American Jews were very prominent in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. When they reject Trump today, they are also rejecting his racism against others, his sexism, his attacks on the environment, and the naked greed of corporations that he will strengthen at the expense of the poor.

We know our history. When we heard what he was doing to Muslims we remembered the Jewish refugees during the holocaust turned away by America, and sent back to Europe to add to the funeral pyre. We also know  how few Jews were allowed to enter Britain after Hitler came to power in Germany. When they finally allowed some to enter in 1938/39 the Daily mail, and Daily Express were screaming and shouting about “Alien Jews pouring in, over-running the country”, and all that shit.

Before she became PM Theresa May spent six years as Home Secretary. Her appalling record towards refugees than was as bad as her predecessors in the 1930s towards Jews. Trump and May are made for each other.

We know from the brilliant demos over the last couple of weeks – the women’s march and the huge demo here on Monday, that Trump has very few friends in the world. And a lot of enemies. But one of his friends will be here on Monday, the prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, butcher of Palestinians, prime minister for the settlers, for the occupiers but not for the ordinary people of Israel and certainly not for the Jewish diaspora. Netanyahu is no friend of ours. This warmonger does not speak in our name. Be here to greet him on Monday!

Last point. May and Trump can talk about how to help rich corporations grown richer. Netanyahu and Trump can talk about building walls. We are the Jews who know nothing about walls but who know everything about barricades. And our message to Maggie May, to warmonger Netanyahu, to racist Trump, is No Pasaran! They Shall Not pass!”
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Fighting antisemitism or aiding it?

In 1981, a wise Israeli journalist called Boaz Evron observed that the Jewish people endured two tragedies in the 20th century. One of course was the Holocaust. The second, he suggested more controversially,  was what he termed “the lessons drawn from it” by those in power in Israel. These were the narrow nationalist lessons that “Never Again” applied to the Jews alone, rather than humanity in general; that antisemitism was different from other forms of racism; that threats to Israel were always existential; that critics of Israel were always motivated by antisemitism, and many of them really wanted to perpetrate a second Holocaust. In Evron’s view, the main aims of Holocaust awareness perpetuated by Israeli politicians and mainstream media, and through Israel’s education system, were “not at all an understanding of the past  but a manipulation of the present.” (my emphasis)

My mind drifted back to Evron’s wise words when I heard that Theresa May has decided that she wants to adopt a definition of antisemitism drawn up by a grouping called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and turn it into law in Britain. She says this will enable the government to tackle rising antisemitism. But you wouldn’t draw much confidence when you look down the list of 30 countries that have also signed up to this approach. These include several where antisemitism is rising in terms of incidents, and in some, such as Austria, Poland, Greece and Hungary, politicians and leading commentators seem to indulge in antisemitism themselves.

It’s not very international either. The 31 countries signed up to the alliance are, with just four exceptions, confined to Europe. Those four exceptions are Argentina, Canada, Israel, and the USA. The USA  has just elected a president not only endorsed enthusiastically by  dozens of far right organisations in America, but who has personally indulged his antisemitism in his election campaign, and appointed individuals widely accused of antisemitism and other forms of racism to key posts. Is this coalition saying that African and Asian countries (other than Israel), despite long histories of exposure to racism and its terrible outcomes, and the fact that several have diasporic Jewish communities, have nothing to contribute on tackling antisemitism?

But returning to Evron’s points, this definition by the IHRA is also an act of manipulation. It draws heavily on an earlier attempt in Europe, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) definition of 2005, which was dropped by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency in 2013 because of the way it had stretched and twisted that definition to include various forms of criticism of Israel and opposition to Zionism. The IHRA seeks to revive the worst aspects of the EUMC definition, for the main purpose, I believe, of defending the Israeli government’s increasingly indefensible policies from attack by supporters of human rights, by anti-racists, and by growing numbers of dissident Jews in Europe, America, South Africa, and also in Israel! If you can label such critics as antisemites, you can hope to nullify their impact among the wider population and on political actors who might challenge the continued oppression of the Palestinians.

The basic definition that the IHRA works from is rather wordy but not so contentious: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred
toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed
toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish
community institutions and religious facilities.” Immediately after that, though, it leaps to: “Manifestations might include the targeting of Israel conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”
That is quite a catch-all. So it then steps back to reassure those of us who may be less than enthusiastic about the actions of the Israeli state, that “criticism of Israel  similar to that levelled against any other cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. But there are reasons why Israel attracts a qualitatively different kind of opprobrium to most other states, and it is not about antisemitism. It is about Israel being an ethnocracy and an occupying power. There is no doubt that many social democratic states around the world have a long way to go before we can say that their minority populations are treated equally. There is much institutionalised and indirect racism across the world but in most countries it is against the law; in Israel, though, discrimination is built into many of the laws. Palestinians within the pre-1967 borders of Israel are second class citizens, and those in the Occupied Territories are ultimately under Israeli state control and suffer daily acts of repression despite a certain measure of autonomy given to the Palestinian Authority.  Palestinian political activists (including children) fill Israel prisons, many of them under administrative detention with no date set for any process of justice.
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The IHRA definition  gives eleven examples of antisemitism, five of which mention Israel, while one refers to “it” meaning the State of Israel. This conflation of Israel and Jews has the potential to outlaw perfectly legitimate pro-Palestinian human rights campaigns as antisemitic. It is also dangerous for Jews. If opposition to Israeli policy and state action can be defined as antisemitic in such a manipulative way, those who will quite rightly continue to stand up for Palestinian rights will become less frightened of the label “antisemite”; as a result, the targets of their actions might spread from those directly identified with the Israeli state to more general Jewish targets. Theresa May deliberately added to the blurring of Jews and Israel by announcing her plan not at a Jewish community gathering, but at a luncheon organised by the Conservative Friends of Israel – a body that brings together right wing non-Jewish and Jewish supporters of Israel, no doubt, with more than a fair sprinkling of Islamophobes among them. It was not an anti-racist gathering
One of the sleights of hand which fuels that conflation is this clause:
“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.”
Let’s unpack this. Jewish people live in many different countries where they exercise their self-determination. They live as Jews, practising their Jewish life in each of them in their own way, in almost every single case with very few or no restrictions.  Most Jews in the world already have one homeland and don’t see the need for another. For many decades now, almost every Jew who wished to do so could go to Israel where they would automatically be granted citizenship to exercise their self-determination there, something denied to Palestinian refugees. The majority have opted to stay in the diaspora, and that diaspora has been swelled by a significant number of Israelis who find it much more tolerable to live outside of Israel.  Most Jewish self-determination therefore takes place outside of a “Jewish State”.
As for the accusation that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavour, you don’t have to believe that those who founded Israel were inspired by racism to recognise that racism has been an indisputable outcome of the creation of Israel, and that this racism has had more horrible manifestations  in each succeeding decade. Neither do you have to define all Zionists as racists  to acknowledge as a fact that Israel’s creation involved the displacement, the ethnic cleansing, of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
The creation of Israel solved a problem for many Jewish Holocaust survivors who languished for years in Displaced Persons camps in Europe with no countries offering to take them. But as their problem was solved by moving to Palestine/Israel, another tragic problem was being created for another people who had just as much or more right to live there.
Many Jews who settled in Israel were in fact left wing, anti-racist, anti-fascist  idealists who settled in kibbutzim and believed they were creating a new and just society. They sincerely  believed that they were striking a blow against antisemitism in the world, but they were blind to its impact on the Palestinians.
Israeli society is not monolithic, and there are a small but growing number of groups in Israel who challenge the status quo, who monitor human rights abuses, who stand up for Palestinian rights, who engage in solidarity activity despite repression from the authorities, and who are not afraid to call many actions of the Israeli state “racist” endeavours. It would be the height of absurdity to label these people and groups “antisemites” but that is where definitions like the IHRA’s take us.
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What kinds of attitudes towards Holocaust remembrance are likely to be engendered when a body whose very name commits itself to that, but in practice uses that name as a shield to defend an ethnocracy, a heartless occupying power, from perfectly legitimate censure? It will undoubtedly engender attitudes of cynicism and even hostility. That is bad for humanity.
Holocaust remembrance gains, rather than lessens, in its importance in a world that is sliding further and further away from the Declaration of Human Rights established just after the horrors of the Nazi genocide. Whether it is the treatment of longstanding minorities, newer migrants, or refugees, we see unambiguous processes of scapegoating, discrimination, exclusion, and dehumanisation unfolding in front of our eyes. Processes that must feel very painful to those, such as Boaz Evron, now nearly 90 years old , and to so many human rights campaigners, who have made an effort to learn and apply the lessons for humanity from the Holocaust.

Those lessons implore us to stand up and unite against all forms of racism and intolerance, whether directed against Jews, Blacks, Gypsies and Travellers, Muslims or, indeed, Palestinians.