The Electronic Intifada / October 3, 2023
The statement that you can’t be a supporter of the Palestinians unless you are an anti-Zionist may seem dogmatic, even sectarian to some.
But it is the failure of Britain’s Palestine solidarity movement to understand this simple truth which is responsible for so many of our recent setbacks. It is this which has enabled the successful weaponization of anti-Semitism.
Subjectively speaking, it is perfectly possible to support the Palestinians and the “right of Israel to exist” at the same time. In theory, there was no reason at all why good men and women could not sit down and draw the boundaries of a two-state solution equitable to all.
There was only one problem. Such a solution failed to take into account the dynamics of settler-colonialism and of Zionism in particular.
Many supporters of the British Empire, liberal imperialists such as Thomas MacCaulay and the Labour Party Fabians, really did believe that there could be a benevolent imperialism that was compatible with supporting the rights of the colonized. It was called “trusteeship.”
Many honest people believed that the colonies were the “White Man’s Burden,” as the British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling infamously put it, and that we were only in India and Africa out of the goodness of our hearts.
The Church Missionary Society and people like John Philip would have been aghast if you had accused them of supporting white supremacy. Yet that is what they did.
Holding contradictory ideas inside one’s head is what most people do, for much of the time. It’s called “cognitive dissonance” or as George Orwell termed it, “doublethink.”
However, for a solidarity organization to do the same renders its task impossible. Sooner or later a choice has to be made.
Solidarity with the Palestinians, although it involves opposing many egregious abuses of human rights, is not at bottom a question of human rights. Just as apartheid in South Africa was not primarily about human rights but Black liberation from white minority rule, so too is the Palestinian question primarily about liberation from Zionism and a state of Jewish supremacy.
In 2022 I resigned, for the second time, from the organization I had helped found, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, because it had adopted in March of that year a new constitution which eliminated its previous opposition to Zionism. If the truth be told, opposition to Zionism had long been abandoned by PSC. But by removing this from its constitution PSC made explicit what before had been implicit.
Prior to its March 2022 annual general meeting (when the PSC executive railroaded through the changes) the PSC’s old constitution had included an unambiguous clause stating that one of the group’s objectives was “opposition to racism, including … the apartheid and Zionist nature of the Israeli state.”
The new constitution has watered this down significantly, stating only that Israel’s system of apartheid and settler colonialism is “motivated by Zionism,” without explaining PSC’s position on Zionism. The argument privately used by the PSC to “justify” this change was that Zionism means different things to different people.
Zionism is the racist creed and movement which led to the dispossession and expulsion of the Palestinians.
It was the failure of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and much of the Labour left to combine support for the Palestinians with opposition to Zionism that was their Achilles’ heel. It was no surprise that the Jewish Labour Movement and its faithful poodle Jon Lansman wanted to abolish any mention of Zionism.
Their reasoning was that some people used the term “Zionist” when they really meant “Jew.” But it was the Zionists themselves who had deliberately sought to confuse the distinction in the minds of people.
Their other argument was that “Zionism” covered a multitude of sins – from left to right, obscuring the fact that all wings of Zionism agreed on establishing a Jewish state with a large majority of Jews.
Corbyn was undoubtedly a supporter of the Palestinians but he had no understanding of Zionism and could not therefore explain why or how the Palestinians had become marginalized and oppressed in Israel.
When the “anti-Semitism” campaign first began, Corbyn effectively became a Zionist.
He supported a Palestinian state but also recognized the legitimacy of the Jewish Labour Movement’s claim to represent Jews in the Labour Party. Instead of seeing the JLM as a lobby group, the primary purpose of which was support for the Israeli state and therefore the oppression of the Palestinians, Corbyn accepted that the group’s purported concerns about anti-Semitism were genuine.
Having spent 30 years as a campaigner for Palestinian rights, Corbyn above all was familiar with the Zionist accusation of “anti-Semitism.” Yet when he became leader he forgot all of this.
Support for the two-state solution enabled Corbyn to both support the Zionists and support the Palestinians. Saying, as he did, that there was a place for both Zionists and anti-Zionists in Labour was in effect saying there was a place for both racists and anti-racists in the party.
Corbyn’s human rights concerns disappeared as he lent his support to the very organization, the JLM, which was formed to remove him.
Those who accept Israel’s “right to exist” accept the legitimacy of Zionism. They fail to understand that a “Jewish” state, as an expansionist ethno-nationalist settler-colonial state, could never accept anything more than a set of mini bantustans.
When Corbyn decided to commission the Chakrabarti inquiry he set the seal on this process. He accepted that there was a problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
The resulting report, authored in 2016 by human rights lawyer Shami Chakrabarti, found no evidence that Labour was dominated by anti-Semitism as was being claimed at the time. Nevertheless, it made some key concessions to this false narrative.
Chakrabarti defined Zionism not as a political creed or movement but as a form of Jewish identity. In so doing she completely failed to understand where the accusations of anti-Semitism were coming from.
She wrote in the report that:
A further complexity comes from left-wing British Jewry, including, but not exclusively, young people becoming increasingly critical of, and disenchanted with, Israeli government policy in relation to settlements in the West Bank and the bombardment of Gaza in particular. This has led to some people personally redefining their Zionism in ways that appear to grant less support to the state of Israel and more solidarity to fellow Jewish people the world over … It seems to me that it is for all people to self-define their political beliefs and I cannot hope to do justice to the rich range of self-descriptions of both Jewishness or Zionism, even within the Labour Party, that I have heard.
Of course, anyone can self-define their political beliefs and what they understand Zionism means. However, there is no obligation on anyone else to accept such an identity.
The only meaning of Zionism that counts is that of those who suffer its ill effects – the Palestinians. People who define themselves as Zionists tell us nothing other than what is going on in their heads.
Confusion as a badge of honor
The ability to combine both support for the Palestinians with support for Zionism enabled political charlatans like the lawmaker Lisa Nandy to chair Labour Friends of Palestine whilst denouncing opposition to Zionism as anti-Semitic.
Just imagine that someone had said that although they supported the rights of Black South Africans they refused to oppose apartheid. They would have been ridiculed, yet that is precisely what is happening when people claim to support the Palestinians yet refuse to identify as anti-Zionists.
This is why I term support for a two-state solution, with its assumption that a racist “Jewish” state could co-exist alongside a Palestinian state, as support for the continued oppression of the Palestinians.
Jeremy Corbyn, with his support of the two-state solution, made his own political confusion over Palestine into a badge of honor. He also disarmed his supporters and gave confidence to his detractors.
By supporting the state of Israel, Corbyn also supported the idea that Israel was the nation state of the Jews.
If this was the case, and if Jews were indeed a nation, despite living in most of the world’s countries, then clearly Jews have the right to self-determination. Ipso facto, one must welcome Israel’s new neo-Nazi police minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Theirs is the monstrosity that is called Israel.
Instead of calling out the Jewish Labour Movement as supporters of a racist, settler-colonial state, Corbyn bought into the idea that Israel was guilty of nothing more than Jewish nationalism and its opponents were guilty of anti-Semitism. The tragedy was that the Palestinians themselves, in the form of the Palestine Liberation Organization, had abandoned their own anti-Zionism in the belief that Zionism could be confined within only part of historic Palestine – what the Zionists term Eretz Yisrael (Hebrew for the land of Israel).
To say you support the Palestinians while refusing to oppose Zionism, the movement with a primary goal not of fighting anti-Semitism but fighting the native Arab Palestinians, is to accept the left-Zionist narrative of a “conflict” between two peoples, a clash of right vs right. It renders any solution, other than a neo-colonial one, impossible and in practice it means surrendering to the existing power structure in Palestine.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Britain’s trade unions.
Nearly all major trade unions are affiliated to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. All of them claim to support the Palestinians.
Yet Gail Cartmail, the assistant general secretary of Unite – which calls itself Britain’s leading union – justified banning the film Oh Jeremy Corbyn: The Big Lie and a talk by Asa Winstanley covering his new book Weaponising Anti-Semitism (which documents the fake “anti-Semitism” campaign) all on the grounds that Jews have been hurt and even made afraid by journalism that seeks to tell the truth.
The reality is that by adopting Israel’s twisted definition of anti-Semitism, British unions are facing both ways at the same time. They support the Palestinians yet also support the Jewish Labour Movement and those who took down Corbyn.
The trade unions can only get away with this because supporters of the Palestinians in the Labour Party, including Corbyn, fail to understand how anti-Semitism has been weaponized in the service of state and nation.
Tony Greenstein is the author of Zionism During the Holocaust