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Churchill, Livingstone and all the rest: Reflections on anti-Semitism and the left by Shlomo Sand

Shlomo Sand 9 May 2016

“The onslaught on the Labour Party regarding Israel and Zionism is not innocent. It is a part of a deliberate defamation campaign against the left wing heading the party now.” 

Shlomo Sand, historian and author of  The Invention of the Land of Israel, The Invention of the Jewish People and How I Stopped Being A Jew comments on the allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour party. 

Winston Churchill is said to have stated that “An anti-Semite is one who hates the Jews more than is necessary”. There is no proof of the Conservative leader uttering such a statement. It is, however, true that he wrote about Jews in 1937, that “they are inviting persecution...they have been partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer…The central fact which dominates the relations of Jew and non-Jew is that the Jew is 'different'. He looks different. He thinks differently". In spite of these erroneous and misleading words, Churchill was no anti-Semite. Ken Livingstone and his friends in the Labour Party nowadays are also no anti-Semites. However, one must admit that in both cases there is verbal inflation and even, one suspects, an essentialism which one should not hesitate to criticize. But before one does so, it would be appropriate to pay attention to several nasty details.

The onslaught on the Labour Party regarding Israel and Zionism is not innocent. It is a part of a deliberate defamation campaign against the left wing heading the party now. This time, the onslaught was also a part of an aggressive election campaign. And if, in the past, patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel, there is hardly any doubt that for many in Britain, as well as in other Western countries, accusing political opponents of anti-Semitism has become the convenient refuge of the common pro-Zionist conservative. What is especially evident and troubling in this debate is the continuous conflation of criticism of Israeli policy with the hatred of Jews. Imposing an embargo on Iran for its intentions of arming itself with nuclear weapons is, as we all know, an action for peace. A call for demilitarizing the entire Middle East of all nuclear weapons is, apparently, propaganda in the service of anti-Semites. Imposing sanctions on Russia for the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, whose inhabitants overwhelmingly support the move, is an action for democracy. Supporting sanctions against the Israeli occupation of a Palestinian population, deprived of all civil rights for nearly fifty years, is an anti-Jewish action. In France, even activism for the boycot of Israeli settlement products is now a criminal offense. In the British Labour Party, one is expected to continue Tony Blair’s policy on Israel rather than break with it, lest one be considered an avid Jew-hater.

Is anti-Semitism intensifying in the Western world, as argued incessantly by the Israeli government and its supporters? Anyone making this claim is downplaying and blurring the intensity of Judeophobia in the Christian civilization throughout centuries and its intensification during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the 1950s, animosity towards Jews has ceased to constitute lucrative political potential. One cannot be a respectable journalist, TV broadcaster, fashion designer, filmmaker, popular politician or MP (or even a member of the Labour Party) while voicing anti-Jewish views. If one looks at the extreme right wing, such as UKIP or the Front National in France, which had historically been Judeophobic, one sees this right wing courting Jewish votes and supporting Israel in recent years. Foolish and dangerous anti-Semitic ignorance surely exists on the social margins. However, one must recognize that its roots are different, the central one being the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The perpetuation of this conflict is poisoning numerous frustrated young people, who are witnessing the hypocrisy and double standards as to Israel’s presence in the Occupied Territories on the one hand, and the desperate Palestinian struggle on the other hand.

And this is a good reason to meticulously follow a wiser, more prudent politics with respect to Zionism and Israel. Naz Shah was no Judeophobe when, during the last Gaza war, she raised, bitterly and humorously, the possibility of relocating little Israel into the vast area of the US. One can assume that at least 80% of Israelis (not the Zionists residing in the UK) would agree with her wholeheartedly. However, alongside that, she should have stressed that, in spite of Israel’s colonizatory origin, this ironic proposal casts no doubt as to its right to exist nowadays in the Middle East. Ken Livingstone was not factually mistaken when he made his comments as to the ties between the Zionist agency in Germany and Hitler. But even if Livingstone is a brave politician, he is still a bad historian. When German Zionists reached an agreement with the Nazis in 1933, regarding the removal of Jews from Germany, their intention was to save them from the claws of anti-Semitism rather than persecute them. Zionist ethnocentric nationalism regarding the Jewish people-race surely has a lot in common with the Nazi tenet of exclusive nationalism. But the two are in no way identical: The former is ethno-religious while the latter is ethno-biological. The Zionist project, in spite of its colonizatory exclusive nature, did indeed reject any notion of assimilation into the indigenous other, but has never developed in the direction of the cruel idea of total extermination of that other. And if one wants to resort to analogies: the conduct of British imperialism towards indigenous populations often resembled Nazi conduct towards occupied populations in Europe, but differed from it at the same time. An automatic conflation of the two would also be a historical mistake.

The left wing of the British Labour Party does not really have a Jewish problem. But sometimes it does have the problem of being anti-Zionist “more than is necessary”, a politics which is cynically exploited by Israel’s vociferous followers. However, one should make things clear: Although overstated anti-Zionism may harm, and does harm, the struggle for the Palestinians, this does not mean that one should cease to demand from Israel a withdrawal from all occupied territories. This does not mean that boycott and sanctions should not be imposed on Israel until it finally recognizes the Palestinian people’s right to full self-sovereignty. This does not mean that one should recognize the State of Israel as a state belonging to the Jews of the world rather than as a democracy belonging to all its Israeli citizens. Being anti-Zionist “more than is necessary” means failing to stress, alongside these legitimate views, that the struggle against Zionism is not intended to destroy Israel, but rather, among other things, to save it from itself.

Translated by Ofer Neiman

- Read more: On Israel and Anti-Semitism: A Reading List

- For more on the Labour anti-semitism allegations
Tariq Ali: Notes on Anti-Semitism, Zionism and Palestine
Jamie Stern-Weiner: on Israel David Cameron's 'dodgy friends' and onthe media coverage of the allegations
The Jewish Socialists' Letter to the Guardian: Labour, antisemitism and where Jeremy Corbyn goes from here
Independent Jewish voices statement on Labour anti-semitism
Alain Badiou: On Anti-Semitism real and imagined
Follow Norman Finkelstein's blog

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