Don’t blame Israel for the tyranny of its right wing, and don’t condemn Naz Shah for being human
No genuine socialist could justifiably oppose self-determination for the Jewish people, and no socialist Zionist could deny the same right to the people of Palestine. Zionism isn’t the problem. Rightwingers are the problem. Rightwingers are always the problem...
Netanyahu is a hawk, his government rife with opposition to the very nature of a Palestinian state. Despite his maiden endorsement of a two-state solution in 2009, his career is characterised by sustained opposition to negotiations with Palestine, and it is not unreasonable to assume these will never substantially develop under a Likud-led government. Netanyahu is the incumbent Prime Minister of Israel, and yet to accept him as a representative figurehead for the nation would be a mistake.
The last 6 years of government in the UK has seen inequality skyrocket, attacks to the young, old, and disabled, vans drive around towns and cities encouraging residents to inform on their neighbours, and a new wave of bombs falling on ravaged, desperate populations in the Middle East. But does David Cameron, a man who said that, “For too long, we have been […] saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.” Speak for the people of Britain? No. And Netanyahu, with his similar 24% of the vote (which, crazily enough, isn’t enough for an overall majority in Israel), doesn’t speak for Jews, Israelis, or even Zionists.
This comparison struck me earlier this year when Cameron moved to prevent local councils and public sector organisations from boycotting Israeli goods. The principle is understandable, but it’s largely impossible to tell if the workers that produce and sell such goods are supporters of Israeli settlements in Palestine or not. There would be plenty of justification for nations to boycott British goods by the same logic, but we all know who would be hardest hit by such action – ordinary people. Would this be fair? No. But in any case, local councils should be afforded the democratic right to boycott whomever they please.
Recently – indeed as I write this – there has emerged a renewed concern of antisemitism in UK politics, and unfortunately it is the left that is under scrutiny. Antisemitism, an everyday tool for tabloids to use against Ed Miliband during his Labour leadership, is now lamented by the same publications as Jeremy Corbyn is labelled a “terrorist sympathiser” (remember, favouring negotiation over bloodshed is a weakness for the likes of Cameron and Netanyahu). The story grew in recent days after it emerged Bradford West MP Naz Shah had shared anti-Israel comments on social media. But Shah, rightfully, despite her current suspension, will find herself reinstated. I agree fully with the JLM’s (Jewish Labour Movement) position on the matter:
Naz Shah is a politician who is clearly on a political journey, from a Respect firebrand in the choppy waters of local Bradford politics to the Labour Party. She courageously stood up to George Galloway’s bigotry at the General Election. However, her historic remarks and posting were repugnant and completely unacceptable.
Her contrition expressed over the past day seems to be genuine and sincere. This is part of that journey. We are optimistic that she will now take steps to deepen her understanding of Jewish identity. We do not ask or expect her to mute her criticism of the actions and policies of the Israeli government. We do ask and expect her to build upon her apology and contrition with a programme of education and action that includes standing up to anti-Semitism on the left and within the Palestine Solidarity Movement.
It is a priority of the highest regard that the left, and Labour in particular, are able to address these issues with such pragmatism. Not only can we take a great deal of pride in the fact that our party is comprised of members from all walks of life, but it is also our greatest strength. We are represented across the country, in council chambers and in Westminster, by people like Shah – members of the public that got into politics to give a voice to their communities. They are unpolished, enthusiastic, and idealistic, and if we wish to build enough momentum to improve the lives of working people across the country then we cannot afford to measure our candidates in the same currency – of PR training and debating societies – that our opponents have in abundance.
On the surface of this issue is the perennial semantic debate concerning the Jewish people, Israel – the Jewish state, and Zionism, which Ken Livingstone (who cannot be defended in the same way as Shah – he should know better by now) was attempting, albeit poorly, to articulate today. To criticise Zionism is not necessarily to criticise Israel, or the Jewish people, but antisemitism flourishes as the boundaries are blurred, and a quick look at the comments on articles about Livingstone and Shah is enough to remind us that there is real antisemitism, not just semantic or indirect, still at large in the UK. But even the term “Zionism” itself must be considered in context before leaping to its condemnation.
Zionism is essentially a form of nationalism, concerned with self-determination for the Jewish people. Like nationalism in the broader sense (or most other words for that matter), its usage has changed over time and it takes on a different meaning depending on how or where it is invoked. Just as nationalism has different connotations in Scotland, England, and Ireland, so too does Republicanism in the UK, Ireland, or the USA, and in Israel opposing parties are self-avowed Zionists with conflicting ideologies. Nationalism is acceptable, as it is in Scotland, when the self-determination of a nation or people does not exist. No genuine socialist could justifiably oppose self-determination for the Jewish people, and no socialist Zionist could deny the same right to the people of Palestine. Zionism isn’t the problem. Rightwingers are the problem. Rightwingers are always the problem.
Let us not forget that our Israeli comrades have to contend with this toxic, rightwing, ostensibly fascist brand of Zionism on a daily basis, and their largest political tragedy of recent times is arguably the same for peace, democracy, and Palestine. In 1995, Israel’s Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize the previous year alongside his deputy Shimon Peres and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, was assassinated. His work in creating and pursuing the Oslo Accords, a peace agreement that recognised the PLO as the representative of Palestine and that sought to establish limited self-governance for Palestine with a commitment to withdrawing Israeli troops from a number of settlements, had earned him this accolade. It also signed his death warrant.
For those that are unfamiliar with the assassination, This American Life produced an excellent podcast on the event and its aftermath. They described it as the most “successful” assassination in political history, and that’s a fair point. Labor and Rabin’s successor, Peres, lost the following election to Netanyahu, and five years later the Oslo process ended with very few fulfilled objectives. To varying degrees, we are all at the mercy of fanatical rightwingers with a threadbare majority; in Israel, in Palestine, and in the UK. Only in local and international solidarity, among religious and secular Jews and Muslims, among the working class of all colours and creeds, men, women, the LGBTQ community, Labour, and Trade Unions will this change.