September 6, 2008

Green Left conference fringe on ‘Anti-Zionism – a Jewish Perspective’

Posted in antisemitism, british greens at 1:37 am by Mira Vogel

For more on the historical election of Caroline Lucas as the Greens’ first elected leader see the report on the Green Party site.

Shortly before this announcement, there was a Green Left off-programme Fringe ‘Anti-Zionism: a Jewish Perspective‘. I did some leafleting (for our fringe meeting about antisemitism) but it turned out that most of the recipients were non-Greens from the anti-Zionist circuit. There were also a few interested members of the public, but very few Greens. At any rate, when a member of identity politics group Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods started off with “I’m only sorry there are so few Greens here – ” you got the impression she knew most of the faces in the audience. The turnout was a shade over 30, including the Green Party members who joined us after their more pressing engagements (the fringe was off-programme). I got the impression practically everybody was anti-Zionist.

The Chair Joseph Healey gave some necessary background. He explained that the fringe had been suggested because of the height of feeling about the Green boycott of Israel and the subsequent allegations of antisemitism. He didn’t explain why one of its organisers advertised it with a dodgy cartoon. It was strange too that the two speakers were both anti-Zionists. There is, after all, a Jewish consensus on anti-Zionism – namely that it is just an inappropriate response to a very sticky conflict. This omission was a problem – the prevalent ‘Jewish perspective’ was caricatured over the course of the evening with nobody to explain it.

During his presentation Tony Greenstein didn’t define ‘Zionism’ and neither did Simon Lynn who spoke next. It functioned as a code-word for something heinous, yet two examples of anti-Zionism cited by Greenstein – Trotsky’s biographer Isaac Deutscher and the Jewish worker’s movement The Bund – gave up their anti-Zionism in the aftermath of the Holocaust and supported the creation of a Jewish state. The reasons are obvious. Zionism (my basic definition of this is ‘the movement for a Jewish state’) seems to be something past: the Jewish state has been established and exists. Nobody defined Zionism adequately for the present day.  I don’t know of any anti-Zionist who is not for ending the existence of Israel – either by merging it with Palestine or by opening its borders to a critical mass of Palestinians. For these reasons I’m inclined to use ‘anti-Israel’ rather than the obfuscating code term ‘anti-Zionist’.

Tony Greenstein gave a standard presentation, thin on facts, full on polemic, which boils down to (in bold with my comments in normal weight)

  • Anti-Zionism is a specifically Jewish phenomenon; Zionism is alien to Jews
    But what about Hamas, for example?
  • It is the suppression of dissent in the Jewish community which prevents anti-Zionism from gaining ground
    Is everybody really dishonestly trying to suppress the anti-Zionists  – or is it more that their analysis is bad?
  • The minute anti-Zionist minority excepted, Jews require and welcome antisemitism because it makes their claim to Israel seem more reasonable.
    This amounts to a charge of collective Jewish dishonesty.
  • Antisemitism is used as “ideological political terrorism”
    He said this quite blandly. I can’t remember anybody providing a single example to substantiate this very serious allegation – one Caroline Lucas is has also made, claiming without substantiation, that “Israel has been able to act with relative immunity, hiding behind its incendiary claim that all who criticise its policies are anti Semitic.” Who? When? What did they say?
  • A real antisemite must also be a Zionist (because antisemites want to be rid of Jews – thus the BNP are rebranding as Zionist).
    This isn’t right but at any rate it doesn’t follow that an anti-Zionist can’t be antisemitic – oh hang on:
  • “…if you are anti-Zionist you cannot be antisemitic”
    Does anybody find this convincing? Or even logical? I fear they do. This is why we decided to name our fringe ‘Criticism of Israel Can be Antisemitic’.

And also, coming out in the questions:

  • The only reason Israeli Jews didn’t get rid of the Palestinians “like the Nazis” were to do with political conditions
  • There is something wrong with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which contains the kind of people who have antisemitic attitudes. We should oppose them because… they help the Zionists!
  • The Green Conference motion raising concerns about antisemitism is strange because antisemitism isn’t a problem – after all, Tony has never experienced it. And after all, Jewish children aren’t getting their heads kicked in on the street.

Tony Greenstein lives in a parallel world to most Jews – one in which history isn’t full of warnings and one in which Israel is a pantomime villain. He didn’t acknowledge any of the threats to Jews in Israel today. He was a poor panellist who moved us no further in this debate. We’re less serious if we take on his analysis or values.

Simon Lynn’s presentation can be sketched as follows:

  • Being anti-Zionist is a matter of conscience
    For me, finding out what is actually going on in Israel, Palestine and the wider region before deciding on action and policy is a matter of conscience – in the absence of that then at least engage with the views of the majority of the population, even if you think you disagree.
  • Many Jews privilege Israel
    Many Jews have a complex relationship with Israel, and many have relatives there. Many of those relatives were refugees, or the descendants of refugees. Jews (not all, but many and probably most) with a sense of history are prone to feel somewhat perched in the countries where they live, and identify Israel as a life raft state, or bolt-hole. You can’t wish this away.
  • Zionism implies Jews can’t live equally with others
    This is a strange claim – can British people live equally with others where they have converged in Andalucia, or should they renounce British citizenship and call for the dismantling of the UK first? Israeli Jews have no other home than Israel, and Israel exists in a region where antisemitism is tolerated and even encouraged. The Hamas Covenant is one example. Anti-nationalism doesn’t look nice when it’s selective.
  • Pro-Israeli activists are trying to scare the anti-Israeli ones
    For pete’s sake. Who? Me? How?
  • Motion 15 is flawed because it suppresses dissent
    There is nothing in that motion which suppresses dissent. It is highly qualified.
  • Motion 15 is flawed because it pre-empts Palestinians and Jews opting for one state
    It doesn’t, there’s an amendment which makes this interpretation even less justified – and speaking for myself I don’t mind if they do. Pressuring them in this direction (by boycotting Israel without realistic objectives, for example) would be unjustifiable and counter to the current wishes according to every poll. Few other than the expansionist Israelis and Palestinians want one state.
  • Israel uses and abuses solidarity for its own means
    More than likely, but there is nevertheless a clear Jewish interest in supporting Israel against those who are trying to cancel it.
  • It is wrong that Jews have the right to return to Israel and Palestinians don’t.
    Under the current negotiated peace plans – Palestinians would have the right to return to Palestine, and Jews to Israel. Negotiations about compensating displaced Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews notwithstanding, like it or not this is a normal way to go about things – my neighbours are here on a Heritage Visa.
  • We must reject hierarchies of oppression
    Agreed but ironic considering it is quite often that pro-Palestine activists subscribe to hierarchies of oppression. Tony Greenstein saying that antisemitism “isn’t a problem” but racism against Palestinians should be our central concern, and that it is impossible to worry about both, is one example. Simon Lynn was somewhat better at acknowledging antisemitism than Tony – but he did not here acknowledge it on the left, perhaps because he considers it to be incontrovertably virtuous.

My perspective:

  • The anti-Zionism I encountered tonight is a highly self-absorbed and sectarian movement which is destined to remain marginal because it proposes no viable, attainable, reasonable solutions to the conflict
  • The internecine quarrels between Jewish anti-Zionists at the meeting and the open antisemites in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign are very important, but the mutual commiserations looked strange.
  • There are plenty of critics of a two state solution – such as former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti  – and no end of Jewish dissenters who are not excluded. In the absence of any examples from the two panelists, my theory is if these people feel marginalised in the Jewish community it is that the Jewish community got tired of being told it was racist, Hitlerian, dishonest, affront to civil rights etc and told them where to go.
  • The absence of any examples of Jews dishonestly invoking antisemitism leaves the people who make that claim on very flimsy ground.
  • I think this is a hideously complicated conflict. I would not want to undermine pro-Palestine activism, and thankfully most of the effective work is going on doggedly without us. The way the case against Israel was made tonight was highly ideological, practically evidence-free, unrelated to the actual circumstances and consequently inadequate as activism.


  1. Tony Greenstein said,

    The distortion of one’s opponents arguments is a familiar device, which is why blogs like this have so few customers. E.g.:
    ‘It is the suppression of dissent in the Jewish community which prevents anti-Zionism from gaining ground’

    There is certainly suppression of dissent in the Jewish community as Antony Lerman, who has faced repeated calls for dismissal from his job as Direction of Jewish Policy Research will testify. However I’ve never said that this is why anti-Zionism is in a minority. Being a Marxist I look to material causes!

    No doubt the anti-fascist boycott of Nazi Germany (which the Zionists broke with Ha’varah’) or the boycott of South Africa were ‘ungreen’. I think not

  2. miravogel said,

    Argh! Well, I suppose you had to come round here sooner or later.

    Lerman is a big bloke! He’s done really well for himself and he has profile. What do you mean, suppressed? We never stop hearing from them. Are you mixing up suppression with criticism again?

    Anyway. I’ve watched better people than me bashing their heads against your unshakeable opposition to Israel (i.e. Israel, the whole package from concept through Oslo, to where we are now). Certainly, you will let us know when there is something new to say to you.


    Lies, damn lies and Tony Greenstein

    David Hirsh

    Defend Tony Greenstein (however counter-instinctive this may be!)

    More Nazi comparisons – they are a very amenable demon aren’t they.

    There’s more, but is it really worth it?

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