Corbynistas and Zionists

Why have Jews always been involved disproportionately in the social activism of the times? Clearly a central reason must be the inheritance of historical memory; after the Shoah, all Jews are survivors. This was the reason why many Jews were shocked by Ken Livingstone’s inaccurate remarks that Hitler supported Zionism. That it emerged from a Labour man—whose party which has celebrated difference and diversity— was unimaginable.
During the 1960s there were between 35 to 40 Jewish Labour MPs over different parliaments—a totally disproportionate number, given the percentage of Jews in Britain. It was a party where Jews felt at home.

Labour leaders had witnessed the fate of European Jewry in the 1940s. Future cabinet minister Richard Crossman visited Dachau just after VE Day and was deeply affected; the Shoah was a salutary experience for his entire generation. Figures such as Nye Bevan, Jennie Lee, Harold Wilson and Anthony Wedgwood Benn became uber-Zionists because of their wartime experience. They also respected the fact that the Jews had climbed out of the lime pits of Dachau and were attempting to build a socialist society in Palestine—and they understood that it was the responsibility of all on the Left to assist them.
Such post-war revelations deeply affected even those Jews who formerly opposed Zionism—Trotskyists, Stalinists, Haredim and assimilationists. They now performed ideological acrobatics to enable camp survivors to go to Palestine—albeit without formally endorsing Zionism.
Crossman’s colleagues came to power in Harold Wilson’s governments. Wilson knew all the members of the Labour Zionist elite in Israel. His son stayed on kibbutz Yagur while Gerald Kaufman was his contact with the Israeli Embassy. Up until the Six Day War in 1967, Israel could do no wrong.
But Crossman’s successors saw things profoundly differently. The Corbynistas came of age during the era of decolonisation—the epoch of Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara. They understood the embryonic struggle of the Palestinians in the context of the liberation movements of the 1960s, and this was several years before the settlement
drive on the West Bank.

Yet for Jews who were born after 1945, they know that, but for the English Channel, their parents and grandparents would have been rounded up and deported “to the East” like their European cousins. It is this inherited memory that separates British Jews from Jewish Britons. Its centrality to Jewish identity separates the Jewish national Left from the Jewish section of the British Left.

Those seemingly halcyon days of the Wilson era were displaced by Israel’s conquest and colonisation of the West Bank—and its refusal to allow a territorially contiguous state of Palestine to emerge side-by-side with Israel. The establishment of the West Bank settlements catalysed the disaffection of figures such as Eric Heffer and Tony Benn.
Today the Likud is the seemingly permanent party of government and Netanyahu is well on his way to becoming the longest-serving Israeli prime minister. How has British Jewry reacted to this dramatic change?
Jewish communities are often liberal in character. Two thirds of American Jews have voted Democrat since time immemorial and 70 percent supported same-sex marriage. South African Jews continually returned Helen Suzman to parliament as the sole MP to oppose apartheid. In the USSR, there was a disproportionate number of Jewish dissidents in the human rights movement. In the UK, City University’s report Attitudes of British Jews Towards Israel (2015) indicated that 75 percent of British Jews opposed the settlements on the West Bank in 2015.
Yet liberalism in national interests is not universalism in non-national interests. From Pablo Christiani to Trotsky, the desire to transcend Jewishness has been a recurring phenomenon. Escaping Jewishness is also a sign of Jewishness. With the receding of the Shoah in public memory and the lack of attraction of Israel, some Jews have once more interpreted Jewishness in escapist terms. Some find their salvation in supporting the cause of the Palestinians—not simply because it is a question
of justice, but because it is also intrinsically bound up with Jewish identity and the meaning of Jewishness.
As the Livingstone outburst once more demonstrated, Zionism has become a pejorative term in 2016. But is Zionism wrong or is it just different? If it cannot be accommodated by post-colonial or Marxist theory, could it also be that such current thinking is limited? Could it be that it is easier for some to accept conventional wisdom rather than develop new modes of integrating the reality of a national movement which created a state?
Livingstone’s defenders pointed to the Ha’avara agreement, concluded between Nazi officials and the Jewish Agency in 1933. They implied that this agreement violated the very tenets of socialist morality and demonstrated the shallowness of Zionism. The agreement allowed some German Jews to leave for Palestine with £1000 in cash and to transfer up to 20,000 Reichmarks in the form of German goods in lieu of their life’s savings. The Germans were able to expel Jews and to boost their economy. As Francis Nicosia’s excellent book Zionism and Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany (2008) illustrates, this complex controversial arrangement divided opinion amongst both Jews and Nazis. Yet 53,000 Jews were saved from a probable extermination during the Shoah. Would it have been more palatable, theoretically and intellectually, if they had remained in Germany?
If Zionism is simply different—and not wrong—then it poses the possibility of two equally just narratives about the Israel-Palestine conflict. It implicitly suggests partition of the Land as the solution.
The Corbynistas do not entertain this possibility of difference. In 2013 Jeremy Corbyn suggested that the Balfour Declaration in 1917 was an historic mistake. Yet he was silent about the McMahon-Sharif Hussein correspondence of 1915–16 in which British imperialism offered national independence to the Arabs.
If there is an ingrained stubbornness about sticking to a different narrative such as Zionism—and its adherents do not go the way of the crowd—does this then produce a condemnation of difference? If there is no respect for the dignity of difference, does an all encompassing certitude produce intolerance? Does intolerance then morph into discrimination? And if the Zionists happen to be Jews, can rational criticism of Zionism tip over into stereotypical antisemitism?
The Attitudes survey indicates that some 93 percent of its Jewish respondents believe that identification with Israel forms a part of their identity. Who then are the “zios” in today’s Leftist parlance?
If selective outrage exists in the sense that Israel alone is singled out for condemnation whilst silence prevails over authoritarian states such as China and Russia and human rights abuses in many developing countries, then is this a one-issue campaign or a covert antisemitism?
One can rationally be anti-anti-Semitic, but that is not necessarily the same as being pro-Jewish. For leaders of the Labour Party who have associated themselves with reactionaries, who’ve tossed out anti-Jewish epithets in the past—this may indeed not be a measure of conscious anti-Semitism, but it is certainly an indication of an ongoing poor judgement if not an ideological superficiality.
Another feature of Corbynista arguments is that accidental Jews are implicitly representative of broad Jewish opinion. Yet the Attitudes survey indicated that only 7 percent of British Jews regard identification with Israel as an irrelevance—virtually the same figure as the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) survey of 2010. Accidental Jews, however, do act as a
convenient ideological cover in suggesting that anti-Zionism can never be anti-Semitic. This reticence in dealing with mainstream Jewry goes back to Lenin’s disregard of the plight of the Jewish masses and his ignorance about the existence of Marxist-Zionists.
It is also rooted in his belief that the solution to the Jewish question resided in assimilation and his close association with those Jews escaping Jewishness. It is also manifested in Corbyn’s embrace of the far-Left in Israel rather than a sister Labour party.
The Jewish desire to repair the world is a powerful one. The narrow nationalism which the current government of Israel espouses is unattractive to many thinking young Jews. It provides an incentive to transform Jewish Jews into non-Jewish Jews.
Originally protest against the settlements amongst British Jews came from groups such as Mapam and Peace Now organisations which did not disavow Zionism. Their successors in the twenty-first century have been more circumspect.
Significantly the number of respondents who regard themselves as Zionists in the Attitudes survey falls to two thirds of the figure of those who identify with Israel. Is it that they recoil from the fact that Zionism has been transformed into a pro-Israelism—and that public relations are intellectually inauthentic? Many on the Left, both Jew and non-Jew, have turned away disillusioned. Today some young Jews proclaim Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as the clear answer to Israeli policies.
Many young Jews sought a change from the men in blue suits that have characterised Labour. They wanted policies which dealt with the poor and the disadvantaged, the downtrodden and the marginalised— and many found their saviour in the unlikely figure of Jeremy Corbyn. Yet he also arrived with the baggage of convoluted approaches to the Israel-Palestine imbroglio.
While some speak of him with messianic fervour, others regard him as an ideological anti-Zionist who tries to look
the other way when the odour of anti-Jewish commentary pollutes political discourse on the Left.
As the Livingstone affair indicated, some commentary just cannot be explained away. Harold Wilson said that a week is a long time in politics. Jeremy Corbyn has slightly longer to convince the Jewish Left that he can deal with their genuine concerns.

Jewish Quarterly Summer 2016








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