Can the Corbynite left make peace with Zionism?

How does the current Labour antisemitism debate relate to potential states in the Middle East?

Kieron Monks
13 August 2018

Palestinians being expelled from Ramla in July 1948. Image, wikimedia.

At the bitter heart of the antisemitism saga tearing Labour apart is a question over the legitimacy of Israel.

Within the crowded section of the Venn diagram where the Labour left and Palestine solidarity overlap, there is widespread and steadfast refusal to accept the events of 1948. The brutal expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians, the razing of hundreds of towns and villages, and the massacres of Deir Yassin and Lydda remain unpardonable sins that must be redressed. From this perspective, the solution is obvious: a reversal of Zionism, the unmaking of the Jewish state as it is presently constituted, and the return of refugees languishing in the camps of Beirut and Amman, still holding their keys to lost homes across the length and breadth of Mandatory Palestine, in accordance with UN resolution 194.  

The moral and legal case for the rights of refugees, and the people that remained to suffer slow erasure and systematic subjugation, is watertight. Palestinians were victims of historic injustice as surely as were the Native Americans and Aborigines of Australia. No just solution to the conflict could exclude their claims for liberation and restitution. But their supporters may have to think a little harder about what rigid opposition to Zionism means to Jewish people, and whether efforts to keep fighting the war of 1948 are politically useful for Palestinians.

Zionism is a term that is loose enough to allow for any number of interpretations, serving as a Rorschach Test for beholders to project their values upon. The common basis is a belief in the right of Jews to a home in the Promised Land but the form and nature of that home is fiercely contested.

The dominant form of Zionism today is that of the ‘Iron Wall’ doctrine theorised by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and practiced by Likud, based on the use of military might to secure a position of unassailable strength for the Jewish population from which to dictate terms to defeated Arab adversaries. Some hardliners go further and subscribe to an expansionist vision of a Greater Israel that takes territory from neighbouring Arab states. Labour Zionists envisaged a utopian society built around communes by and for the proletariat. Liberal Zionists emphasise the need for a two-state formula with the establishment of a Palestinian nation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

Decent pro-Palestinian activists are assiduous in separating Zionism from Judaism, striving to prevent critique of the Jewish state spilling over into attacks on Jewish people, even where opponents glory in demolishing that distinction such as in Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim to speak for “the entire Jewish people.” A British court affirmed the distinction and the right to oppose Zionism in a 2010 tribunal that ruled “a belief in the Zionist project, or an attachment to Israel or any similar sentiment, cannot amount to a protected characteristic.”

But the awkward truth is that the vast majority of Jewish people are committed to some form of Jewish homeland. Arguing against Zionism makes an impossible demand of them, not least for the uncomfortable blank space that exists when we consider exactly how the Jewish nation might be dismantled in practice, a space that is readily filled by the nightmares and scars from a history of pogroms and the attempted extermination that led to the creation of Israel.

Pro-Palestinian activists are often frustrated by the refusal of liberal Zionists to support their campaigns and positions when they should in theory be natural allies in a fight for universal human rights. Instead, particularly at times of war and crisis, liberals often align more closely with right-wing Zionists whose hawkish and often openly racist attitudes to Palestinians should not be possible to square with their own values. One major contributor to this state of affairs is that anti-Zionism is a red line that few Zionists, and by extension few Jews, are willing to cross no matter what horrors are perpetrated by the Israeli state, and what chauvinism takes hold among its supporters. To take an unyielding position against Zionism is to make an opponent of all Jews who cannot countenance the dissolution of a Jewish homeland, and drives progressive Jews into the orbit of the ultra-nationalist right.

Fresh thinking is required to break the impasse and isolate the hardliners. Given the flexibility of Zionism, it should be possible to fight for justice for Palestinians without making an enemy of the term. Calling for a Palestinian state is an explicitly Zionist position as it assumes a Jewish state alongside it, a position that is endorsed by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, as well as Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation back in 1988. Even Hamas has tacitly accepted the two-state formula.

Given that the breakdown of the peace process, the spread of settlements, the rightward drift of the Israeli government, and the uselessness of the Palestinian leadership have greatly diminished any prospect of a Palestinian state, solidarity activists could even campaign for a binational state without rejecting Zionism. To use Naftali Bennett’s logic against him, Israel could be encouraged to annex the West Bank and declare sovereignty from the river to the sea. This would remove the issue of competing nationalisms at a stroke and shift the focus to a campaign for equal rights for all citizens, which the Israeli government could either grant or administer a permanent and undeniable system of Apartheid. Pursuit of equal rights need not entail anti-Zionism as a Jewish homeland would remain, albeit a shared homeland.

solidarity activists could even campaign for a binational state without rejecting Zionism.

Beyond the final status formula of one or two states, every other issue that Palestinians and supporters campaign on can be pursued without being couched as anti-Zionism. Activists can attack the destruction and disruption caused by the Separation Wall, the rigged justice system that imprisons Palestinians without charges or recourse, the massacres in Gaza and the crushing of dissent in the West Bank, the demolitions of homes and villages, the illegal land grabs of settlements, the expulsion of Palestinians from Jerusalem, and the segregation of Hebron without needing to preclude any form of Zionism. To accept Zionism, activists need only accept that Jews also have a right to live in the Holy Land.

Neither do campaigners need to positively affirm Zionism. Certainly, it is asking a lot for Palestinians to endorse a movement that has entailed 70 years of dispossession and subjugation. Whatever forms Zionism might be able to take in the abstract, the reality experienced by Palestinians has always been brutal. Several of the radical, pro-Palestinian activists of the Jewdas collective have skirted the issue by identifying as non-Zionists, neither signing up to an ideology that has wrought so much destruction, nor antagonising the many Jews who support at least the idea of a Jewish homeland.

Supporters of the Palestinian cause should see opportunity in the present controversy over the language used to describe the conflict, which Labour is seeking to codify. Lazy and offensive language, obviously undesirable in itself, is a gift to opponents seeking to derail conversations about Palestinian grievances and discredit supporters of Palestinians. Invoking Zionism will generally have more validity than Nazi metaphors in criticism of Israel. But activists would benefit from accurate descriptions of the abuses they object to without recourse to a nebulous and inflammatory concept that obscures more than it illuminates.

On a pragmatic note, the precarity of the Palestinian position supports the case for a new approach. If Palestinians are to avoid the fate of Native Americans and Aborigines, herded into isolated enclaves with only a residual, diminished identity, urgent action is required to forestall that ongoing process. Since much of the Palestinian liberation strategy is invested in efforts to build international solidarity, inspired by the example of South Africa, the imperative to expand and mobilise an effective global movement is clear. Dropping the requirement for anti-Zionism would lift a major barrier to participation in the movement for progressive Jews as well as people who sympathise with both sides, while exposing the intransigence of hardline nationalists who refuse to recognise the validity of Palestinian claims. The fantasy of reversing Zionism is not one that Palestinians have time to indulge, the better strategy is to shape its course.

On another pragmatic note of lesser but still great importance, an explicit acknowledgement by the Labour left of the right of Israelis to remain in the Holy Land – defanging the lurid claims of an “existential threat” and of Jews being “driven into the Sea” – has a chance of breaking the impasse that risks splitting the party and maintaining power for a Conservative government in thrall to the surging nativist right. Presently there is little prospect of a unified and effective Labour movement while opposing factions snipe at each other from impenetrable bunkers.

A statement from Jeremy Corbyn that Labour is not opposed to Zionism would at least give embattled progressive Jews a reason to believe in the party, and give his critics something to think about.

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