Debating Apartheid

Sparked by discussion of Rage Against the Machines proclamation of support for the activists onboard the Gaza Flotilla at their recent victory concert in Finsbury Park, myself and two others entered into a lengthy and interesting Israel/Palestine debate, beginning with the apartheid analogy and moving onto issues ignored in normal discourse on the subject. Below is a transcript of the debate;

What aspects of Israel do you feel make it an ‘apartheid state’? I see institutional racism in Israel and the actions of many Israeli settlers and military in occupied territories are clearly racist. I struggle, however, to detect a system of formalised, legal racial hierarchy that could accurately be described as apartheid.
When you have two sets of people living next to one another, driving on separate roads (one fast and efficient, the other long and winding), subject to different legal systems (one democratic, the other military) and paying different amounts for water (one 4 times the amount of the other), where one side has freedom of movement, the other checkpoints, where one side can build houses anywhere, the other find their houses demolished for building in the wrong (roughly 90% of
the) area. That is apartheid.

The parallels in South African and Israeli apartheid can also be drawn in the origin of the apartheid. Apartheid South Africa was like Israel a colonial project, where outsiders, predominantly European, came to take over to take over foreign land and construct a state predominantly for the benefit of the settler population. In that situation the settler population is charged with the problem of how to retain control of the new state. One way is mass expulsion of the native population, which Israel achieved in 1948, attempted in 1967 and was possibly considering in 2009. Another is committing a genocide of the native population, which was achieved in the US for example. A third way is to construct an apartheid regime, where a minority settler population dominates a majority native one through various legal channels, and excludes them both physically from settler land and from the running of the state, hence apartheid. This is what happened in South Africa.

The apartheid analogy doesn’t extend too well into Israel proper itself, although slightly, as after the mass expulsion of 1948 Palestinians only made up 20% of the population, so Jewish dominance could be preserved without full apartheid, so Palestinians there can vote for example (although suffer discrimination and don’t have full land rights, as land is predominantly controlled by the Jewish National Fund). However, when the occupation began in 1967 Israel found it controlled too many Palestinians to grant citizenship too without compromising Jewish dominance, had failed in an attempted mass expulsion (only 300,000 Palestinians were expelled in 1967), so created an apartheid regime in the Occupied Territories. All of the symptoms of apartheid described above stem from Israel’s colonial nature, and inability to comprehend either granting the natives in the occupied territories equality, or hand the occupied land back to the natives.

Apartheid in South Africa was notably overt. In Israel the system of apartheid is less formal, the results are similar nonetheless.

A clear example would be settlers and soldiers who can kill with impunity whilst Palestinians (including children) are imprisoned without trial and sometimes tortured. Expediency determines whether Arabs are subjected to IPS proceedings or administrative detention.

The identity card system underpins the logic of Israeli apartheid. They dictate where Arabs and Jews are permitted to live, and more importantly how they are likely to be treated by civil servants, the police, and the military. Jews can speed through checkpoints where as Arabs are made to wait for hours. Arabs are declined planning permission for homes and civic amenities (just one pretext for home demolitions) whilst Jews don’t suffer such problems. Palestinians who
marry Israelis do not receive Israeli citizenship and residency permits whilst everyone else does. A wall has been built to annexe land owned by Palestinians for use by Jews. Six times as much is spent educating Jewish children than Arab children.

The Israelis have a demographic problem: in order to create and maintain the ethnic purity of Israel they require these racist and barbaric policies. Policies which make Palestinians want to leave, which render them dead or injured, which slow the birth rate of Palestinians all server Israel’s greater aims. If you look at
Operation Cast Lead (in which hundreds of children were murdered), and the blockade of essential food and medical supplies through this prism, Israel’s policies are entirely logical.
Suffice to say I agree with some of your points re the occupation, but struggle when applied to Israel as a whole. I think it boils down whether you see the area that was mandate Palestine as one nation, in which case the apartheid analogy is closer, or two nations, where it no longer makes any sense.

The areas under Israeli military administration, while not formally having an apartheid system, have such obvious and blatant double standards in the way laws are implemented for your analogy to hold true.

Israel itself is not an apartheid state. Citizens are free to challenge laws and practices they feel to be racist, and several have done so successfully recently, including the ‘Israeli only’ (not Jewish only) road and the impact of JNF land ownership.

To me what is necessary is to end the occupation as quickly as possible. This has been offered in the past, and is most likely to happen by expressing solidarity with progressive Zionist forces in the hope of a more moderate Israeli government. Equally support must be given to those Palestinians who desire such a peace, rather than bolstering the likes of Hamas.

As for your version of the narrative of the events concerning the Zionist / Arab nationalist struggle, I think we differ. I actually teach these events to students as an example of how there are two truths, depending on viewpoint and the argument is trying to prove. J, you point to 1948 and 1967 as attempts by Zionists to expel Palestinians, they could equally be framed as attempts by Arab nationalists to liquidate the Jewish presence in the middle east. Certainly this was the rhetoric of many Arab leaders at the time. In 1948, for every two Palestinians who left what is now Israel, three Jews arrived having been expelled from Arab lands. In the creation of an ‘ethnically pure’ Israel, Zionism had some willing accomplices.
Yea I agree that the analogy only really holds up when applied to the area of mandate Palestine, but the occupation is 43 years old now, I think that’s enough time to wait before we call what may have once been a temporary arrangement formalised apartheid.

In terms of different world view, you are right in saying that there are different ways to view the events of 1948 and 1967, but then there are different ways of viewing any historical event.

There are those that still believe (including the mayor of London) that British colonialism brought civility and prosperity to the backwards east. The Ottoman Turks cited security reasons for their genocide of Armenians in the earliest 20th century. Robert Mugabe and his supporters accuse those who want representative democracy in Zimbabwe as being tools of western imperialism. There are always two sides to the story but it is sometimes totally fair to choose to
ignore one side, the side of the oppressor, if facts and reason destroy their argument from a humanitarian worldview.

In 1948 the mass expulsion in accordance with plan Dalet was clearly long planned, and took place before the surrounding Arab armies invaded after Israel declared independence, not after. Yes, Jews were expelled from Arab countries during these events. This was clearly completely morally wrong, and those Jews should receive compensation and/or their right to return home during any peace settlement. However, more focus is on Palestinian refugees as they arguably have had a much worse fate post-expulsion. The Gaza Strip and Lebanese refugee camps are no joke.

In 1967 Israel attacked Egypt, not the other way round. I think the best reading of 1967 is that it was a series of escalating empty threats from all sides, a situation that got out of hand and resulted in war. I think it is also fair to say that ‘in the fog of war’, the Israeli military which seemed to have become completely detached from civilian command decided to attempt an ethnic cleansing of the West Bank. Whatever your reading about the origins of the war, or events in
it, ethic cleansing is never acceptable. It is also highly possible that Israel was planning an ethnic cleansing of the south east section of the Gaza strip during operation cast lead.
Your account is also problematic in that it casts Israel as the only actor in the region, reducing Palestinians and other Arab participants in this tragedy to mere victims, lacking any choice or agency. It also sees Israel and Zionism as monolithic, rather than multifaceted. Amos Oz, the veteran Israeli peace activist, sums up the situation well when he says this is not a battle between right and wrong, it is a battle between right and right and, unfortunately, a battle between wrong and wrong.

Both sides are right in that they seek to govern themselves and live securely free of oppression; both sides are wrong in that in doing this they all too often fail to recognise the rights of the other community and engage in rhetoric and practices that are murderous and oppressive. The extreme rejectionism, anti Semitism and even flirtation with Nazism that characterised much of Arab Nationalism had the impact of strengthening the more extreme forms of Zionism and often gave Zionists little choice other than to be aggressive in defence of their communities and lives. Likewise the racism that emerged in Israeli policy, it’s failure to recognise the validity of Palestinian nationalism and the overwhelming influence the military came to have in Israel helped fuel the type of extremism we now see in Hamas.

By portraying the history of the Middle East in black and white terms commentators merely prolong the conflict. Those who seek to portray Israel as an island of democracy and its neighbours as terrorist despots are wrong headed and racist. Those who lay all the ills of the region at the feet of Zionism, ignoring context and casting this national movement as a false nationalism, a mere colonial project (whose colony?) are equally wrong headed and often racist.

In the violent confrontation that has ensued one nationalist movement has clearly triumphed over the other. As the victorious power Israel is the partner more able to make concessions and for its own long term good needs to magnanimous in victory. The Palestinians in their turn need to accept Israel and Zionism as valid, legitimate and permanent. Ideally they would both rid themselves of past bad feeling and national identities and embrace one another as brothers. As this is a highly unlikely scenario a separation and acceptance of one another will have to do as a start.

If anyone new to this conflict was to read your account they could be forgiven for thinking that the Palestinians were not living in Palestine before they were massacred in their thousands, ethnically cleansed, and their land stolen. Do you recognise that ethnic cleansing took place in 1948?

Your account is problematic in that doesn’t validate the fact that Zionism is indetachable from the massive land grab which has, and still is taking place. Israel has a choice between land or peace, and it has chosen land. Isn’t this a case of a dispossessed people fighting to get back stolen land rather than ‘one nationalist movement triumphed over the other’.

You couch your argument as if there is an equality of power between Israel and Palestine. The state of Israel is militarily immensely stronger than the Palestinian resistance. Israel’s policy has been ‘an eye for an eyelash’ in the words of Avi Shlaim. Simply look at the death count on both sides.

If you are frustrated at not seeing Palestinian peace activists then perhaps you should read this;

Your Palestinian Gandhis Exist … in Graves and Prisons..


Can you name one colonised society that took kindly to colonisation?

Modern day America was colonised by all kinds of people and movements, puritans, people fleeing oppression etc… didn’t stop the natives wanting to scalp them and violently resist being thrown from their land.

Blaming Palestinians for turning Zionism rightwards by not taking kindly to colonisation, violently resisting (sometimes going too far, perhaps like the Native Americans) is a severe case of blaming the victim. Just because Zionism was/is not monolithic (what movement is? In my office, a charity employing 20 people, we cant agree on which way to go), does not make the situation too complicated to attribute blame, especially when one side is actively dispossessing the other
every day, and kills with much higher frequency than the other.

Also, although there was/are arguments within Zionism, consensus has been formed around maintaining racial exclusivity and Jewish dominance over Palestinians. Near consensus has also been formed around territorial expansionism. These are the two things that drive the human rights abuses and injustices that we see today. As a test for what I have just said, can you name on self professed Zionist who is ok with the right of return? So it is perfectly legitimate to
criticise Zionism, to stand with the weaker party, the victim.

I think the worst thing you can do in terms of ‘prolonging the conflict’ is adopt the woolly, comfortable ‘extremists on both sides’ narrative. This simply allows the Israeli establishment, which is perfectly happy with the status quo, carte blanche to continue as is. Israel is technically capable of delivering peace and justice in a heartbeat, it just lacks the will to do so as serious concessions (from their POV) will be needed to achieve this. The best way to shorten the ‘conflict’ is to apply pressure, of which BDS is one way.

I have no illusion that there is an equality of power between Israel and ‘Palestinian resistance’.

Let us emphasise the views that we share: Palestinians are oppressed in that they are denied national self determination as a collective and they are also the subject of individual acts of racism that range from petty bureaucratic humiliation to death. In this struggle they deserve our full support. Part of this support is harsh criticism of Israeli government policy.

I am active in this struggle. I support Israeli groups like Peace Now in their campaigns, both financially and through letter writing. I contribute to Palestinian education and community programs please do not think I take this issue lightly.

There are however two struggles, the one outlined above and the one to defend Israel from demonisation and delegitimisation. One that opposes those who seek to exclude Israeli Jews and only Israeli Jews from the cultural, sporting and economic life of the world. One that opposes those who champion the right to national self determination of one group, while saying that the wishes of another to have the same right is racism or colonialism. Perhaps worst is the ease with which some make common cause with fundamentalists and anti semites, turning a blind eye to their hideous views. I don’t expect Palestinians to be Ghandis, but championing the fascists amongst them helps no one, least of all ordinary Palestinians.

Yes ethnic cleansing took place in 1948, on both sides.

Yes Israel has a choice between land and peace, let us support those Israelis who wish to make the right choice.

Palestinians have the choice between peace alongside Israel or subjugation by it. Those who encourage them to fight for more lock them into a death match they cannot win.

I must say I completely one hundred percent support Boycott Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until a) the occupation ends b) Palestinian citizens of Israel receive full equality c) the refugees receive their right to return home. I don’t think there is anything there those conditions that ‘champions the right to national self determination of one group, while saying that the wishes of another to have the same right is racism or colonialism’ yet those are the conditions for the boycott to be lifted. For far from BDS activists urging Palestinians into a death match they can’t win, they are doing quite the opposite; following their instructions!

In 2005 an unprecedented coalition of Palestinian civil society groups called for BDS until those conditions are met, they have shown national consensus on the way forward for international solidarity activists. Disagreeing with BDS means either disagreeing that the Palestinians are fundamentally the victims in this situation, or believing that they shouldn’t have to the right to choose how to fight their own struggle.

In terms of singling out Israel, well, no one is doing that. There are lots of states subject to sanctions and embargoes, including Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe etc.. the BDS movement simply recognises that world governments are not going to add Israel to a list it sorely deserves to be on through people power, not government action. There are more states that deserve to be boycotted; but only once their victims have demanded the boycott. Ill boycott China once the Tibettan and Uigars demand I do so. I’d even urge a boyocott of the UK if the Afghans asked me to. But not before. Nobody is singling out Israel due
to anti-Semitism or such, Israel is just unlucky to have colonised quite a well organised bunch of people.

I think supporting peace now et al is a slightly, and I don’t mean to be insulting here, naive way of supporting ‘peace’. I mean, I challenge you name one truly successful peace movement in history. What did peace movement against the wars in Iraq achieve? Vietnam even? Not very much is the honest answer, because people are mostly selfish creatures. They will fight and make sacrifices for their own interest, but not so much others. There is no reason why the Israeli peace movement should be any different. The peace now platform doesn’t go nowhere near far enough in delivering a real peace, peace with justice, to the Palestinian people, and they will never convince the majority of the platform anyway. They are almost irrelevant.

I am familiar with the BDS movement as I am an activist in the UCU (formerly AUT), where the academic boycott originated (somewhat before the PACBI call BTW). I abstained on the motion at the first union congress I attended and voted against the motions since. I think there is a huge difference between the type of boycott you mention against Korea and co, or South Africa even, and the one against Israel. No one ever refuses to even watch an Iranian film, or share a stage with a Zimbabwean artist because there are sanctions in place against his or her government. The Israeli boycott seems much more total and personal than that, or has been in the way it comes across within my union. It does not come across as the measured response you describe, but as a wish to make people pariahs on the basis of their nationality.

You are right about ordinary Palestinians being the victims, but I think you are wrong to single out Israelis as the sole perpetrators of the crime. The leaders of surrounding Arab nations and Palestinian leaders themselves are all complicit in the failure to find peace.

I think demanding a right of return for all Palestinians is effectively denying Jewish national self determination. I am cynical that such a huge number of people could be peacefully integrated or that the resultant Jewish minority would be respected. The Jewish refugees of 48 are now settled citizens, that population transfer cannot be undone without harming even more innocent parties. There are numerous other population transfers that have been equally traumatic,
but have been accepted as permanent in the interests of peace (Germany / Poland, India, Greece /Turkey) It is also very easy for us to sit in England, where no one calls for our destruction or blames all the ills of history on our us and our ancestors, and lecture the Israelis about jealously defending their state. Nations without states tend to be easily bullied and oppressed, look at the Palestinians, the Kurds. Given the rhetoric of so many in neighbouring countries I understand
why the Jews wish to maintain their independence in the form of a nation state. What this should not do is deny Palestinians a similar privilege.

Your arguments have been very clearly made and are not without persuasion. You have avoided much of the shrill lecturing I often hear on this subject. You have also avoided a lot of the anti Semitism that tends to creep in to the language of Palestinian solidarity (although there were a couple of moments where I think you flirted). I have more respect for your point of view than I did before this discussion, but I think we still fundamentally differ. I think this comes down to the word ‘colonial’. I do not see Israel as a colonial venture, you do. To describe it in such a way ignores the centrality of the land of Israel to the Jewish nation including a large and continuous presence there. It also ignores the fact that millions of Jews fled to Palestine because it contained the only existing Jewish community able and willing to offer them refuge from violent persecution. This was not colonialism, but mass escape. To me the Jews are in Israel the same
way as the Welsh are in Wales, their claim to live there is as valid (but no more so) than that of the Palestinians.

If I had been a Jew in the 30s or 40s and didn’t live in the relative safety of the USA or UK I imagine (hope?) life would have led me to Palestine. As a socialist I like to think when I got there I would have sought class solidarity with the local Arab population against our common foes. I fear that the already existing divisions would have precluded that option and I would have ended out an Israeli, fighting Arabs not because I want to oppress them but because we found
ourselves on opposite sides. Would that make me a colonist?
Yes that would make you a colonialist and you wouldn’t be the first colonialist to have been forced to end up in the orient either; you would have been following the Irish fleeing famine or puritans fleeing religious persecution to get to America. Or Australians who were taken over in chains. I’m not saying that there wasn’t a serious ‘push’ factor in Zionism from European anti-Semitism, but it was still colonialism. Outsiders coming to an area, taking over and establishing a state for the benefit of themselves and the detriment of the natives is always colonialism, no matter why the people arrived in the first place.

In a way though it doesn’t really matter, arguing about the past, because the real problem is that Israel has yet to reach a post-colonial phase of its development, in a way for example New Zealand has begun to, renaming place names by their original Maori names and such.

Israel’s character as a state that defines itself as a home for the Jewish people, not a state for people under its control still drives it to acquire more land and exclude more (non-Jewish) people. This means that on the ground the refugees are still not allowed home, the occupation is still running, with all the brutality that entails and Palestinians in Israel are still discriminated against. All of these things are fundamentally wrong in my view. I think we agree on the occupation and discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, but disagree on the right of return. I’m not sure you understand just how attached the refugees are to their homeland though, and how there will never be peace without the right of return being sorted.

I have spent quite a lot of time in Palestine, and let me tell you when you stand in the hills above Nablus and realise you can see Haifa, Jaffa and the homelands of people who must stand regularly in that very spot before going back to the bullet scarred hellhole that is Balata camp, knowing that you can get Israeli citizenship and go and live in their old house just because you have one Jewish grandparent; well, when you do that you understand what a serious injustice the denial of the Palestinian right of return really is. The right of return is also something more than just an access pass; it is a sorry. It is an acknowledgment of the Nakba, without which people can’t move on and attain peace. To deny this in the name of Israeli self determination I think is fundamentally wrong, as self determination can take many forms, and the ethocratic model is the worst available.

For example, Here in Britain we have self determination, but Britain is not officially a state for white protestants; Britishness is officially (I know racism and discrimination still exists, but serious, largely successful efforts have been made to purge that from the state) defined by whether you are born here and not your skin colour. In America they forged national identity not on race but on the belief in lassez faire capitalism. You accuse supporters of Palestine of a double standard of supporting Palestinian but denying Jewish self determination, but Palestinian identity is built on attachment to the land, having physical roots in mandate Palestine, not on race or religion. Hence you have Palestinian Christians, Muslims, Druze, Bedioun, Samaratans, Jews even. Supporting Palestinian
self determination is simply supporting the right of people who are demanding to live under a democracy not under military rule, not supporting the rights of Arab Sunni Muslims to run an ethnocracy. And to say that the refugees must continue to live in their camps to preserve Israel’s ethnocratic character seems very unjust to me.

In terms of the nature of the boycott, it is a common misconception that it is in any way personal; it is a boycott of institutions and a ban on travelling to Israel. Israeli artists are free to come to the west so long as they aren’t supporting any government organ. Academics are free to pick up the phone and have a chat with Israeli counterparts, just not take part in projects that link their institutions. It is coercion, it is collective punishment, but in an infinitely more mild form to the collective punishment laid down on the people of Gaza for example. After 43 years of occupation, and 62 years of Nakba, I think enough is enough, things need to change, and if that takes a mild form of collective punishment to push the Israel people and establishment towards peace and justice then that’s what it takes.

I think you are hopeful if you think the boycott will not become personal and racist. I am not saying it is planned that way, or that you are not mindful and watchful enough to make sure that your actions are not personal and racist, but I am still cynical.

I think your accounts of both Palestinian and Israeli nationalism are caricatures. And I would point out that nations based much more strictly on ethnic and religious lines than Israel is are very common in the world outside of western liberal democracy, especially the middle east. However I think it’s fair to say that you view Zionism as theft and colonialism, I see it is as a valid expression of nationalism and with these starting points we are going to come across many different views of the area.

What is more interesting, as you say, is how we think the current status quo can be best changed. I have spent extended periods in Israel and feel I have some kind of handle on the hopes, fears and aspirations of a number of Israelis. You would no doubt say the same about Palestinians. I think our core differences outlined above are probably representative of those that divide the two peoples. Some of these appear impossible to bridge.

I know you have said you think Israel could end this whole affair ‘in a heart beat’ and clearly believe that unilateral Israeli action would be sufficient. However I am sure you admit there is much that would need to be sorted out by negotiation, compromise and reconciliation, even if you regard these issues as the details. I am interested to hear how you envisage the process unfolding, in your ideal world.
The way I see things progressing is that BDS plus increased Palestinian resistance can go some way to addressing the power discrepancy between the sides, giving Israel reason to offer settlement terms more in line with international law than the bantustans it has offered in the Oslo era.

Currently, it is not in Israel’s interest to offer anything approaching justice to the Palestinians, they hold all the power and lose nothing maintaining the status quo. No amount of reasoning or negotiating will change this, but measures taken to address the power difference between the sides will allow real negotiations to take place. As for the exact mechanism, well there are so many variables I think it’s impossible to say exactly what will happen.

One thing that would happen for sure though, in the event of a real peace settlement, would be a sea change of opinion inside Israel itself. People’s attitudes and opinions are heavily influenced by the prevailing political situation at the time, and quite a common feature of situations like these is that once justice has been delivered to the oppressed population, the civilian population of the oppressor quickly realises how wrong the old ways were, and distances themselves from their old opinions. Notice how in the 1980s only a tiny proportion of South African whites were in favour of the solution that happened, and post 1994 you could barely find a single person who would say that they were ever in favour of apartheid. I think the same thing would happen in Israel, which is why it is wrong to focus to much on Israeli public opinion, that will change en masse after justice has been achieved for the Palestinian people, but not before.

Your sketched outline of a solution I think is typical of many I have heard. It expresses a faith that once the demands of the Palestinians are met everything will be fine. It also falls into the trap, which I believe started this whole debate, of trying to bash a South Africa sized peg into an Israel sized hole. While there are lessons to be learned from the South African experience, the disanalogies are too huge to imagine a similar route to solution.

It is a mistake to think one should not focus on Israeli public opinion. I imagine if you have been to Palestine you have met Israelis. Have you talked to them? Have you asked them their viewpoint on why things have ended out the way they have? It is a slightly disdainful attitude to take that they will simply realise the error of their ways. To many Israelis this attitude is what hardens them to International condemnation. Rightly or wrongly many see it as the Goyim deciding what the nature of their nation will be, where they can live, who will govern them. When other people have defined these parameters in the past it has invariably been disastrous for Jews. They need to be full partners in any solution.

You may be right about BDS and increased Palestinian resistance pushing Israel towards a better offer to the Palestinians. You may also be wrong in that it may harden Israeli attitudes and strengthen the right wing. This is often the case with sanctions.

What it cannot do is force Israelis to give up what their independence. They have faced a complete double boycott by the Arab world; the combined armies of their neighbours, impressively armed by the USSR; they have faced mass murder in their streets and pariah status among large sections of the world’s population. While the creation of Israel spelled dispossession and misery for many Palestinians it has brought liberation and empowerment to half of the
world’s Jews. No stick will be big enough to beat the Israelis into going back to the situation before 1948. If you try to force them into a corner they will fight back, and given the state of their military it will not be pretty.

Instead you must offer a way out that gives them enough of what they crave to bring peace, while giving the Palestinians enough of what they want to also bring peace. From peace a permanent and more just solution can be found.

Alternatively you remove all the reasons why Jews turned to Zionism in the first place. Which would be a very tough task.

I agree fully that Israelis have to be full partners in any solution, but as equal and not dominant partners, it must be in both sides interests to find a just solution. I also disagree with the view that granting Palestinians their rights would necessarily deny Israeli Jews their independence.

I think addressing the root causes of Zionism as a route to bringing a solution to Israel/Palestine is problematic. It was Zionism that drove the Jews to Zionism en masse in the first place. Zionism was a minority movement within the Jewish community right up until 1948, when the establishment of Israel created a new reality for Jews to form opinions around. Plus the European anti-Semitism that drove many of the early Zionists has largely disappeared and mostly replaced by
new forms of racism, especially Islamophobia.

I think perhaps in the last reply it was you that was providing a caricature of Israeli national sentiment, admittedly I haven’t spoken to enough Israelis about Palestine to form a general picture of the state of the Israeli psyche (I have mostly spoken in depth to a small, far left subset of the Israeli population, whilst talking to other Israelis I have kept the conversation non-political due to the nature of the work I do in Palestine), but any national grouping of people will swing to the right under external pressure, even if they haven’t had the history that the Jews have had.

However, when the oppressive elite of any population sees concessions as being in their interests, either financial or in regaining lost legitimacy, compromises can be still be found even if the majority population is hardened and right wing. Look at Turkey for example, and the relative improvements in the human and civil rights towards Kurds in recent years under EU pressure. Or again what happened in South Africa. I think that your point about South African sized pegs is
valid, but what I describe is a very broad phenomenon which I think would stand up in a lot of circumstances.


I think your first paragraph is great, I agree with it completely. I think it demonstrates that when people get away from accusation and counter accusation or arguing over the past, there is usually much agreement in what they believe. If you think Israelis are equal partners then you need to avoid giving the impression that they are in I/P as imposters whereas the Palestinians are the authentic people. Israelis see that land as their home and have a deep attachment to it, an attachment just as deep and authentic as the Palestinian one. Whatever your view of the past this needs to be acknowledged, just as Israelis need to acknowledge the Palestinian attachment.

You are also right to characterise early Zionism as a minority fringe movement. What changed this was not the creation of Israel, but the Shoah. The central idea of Zionism, that Jews would never be free in Europe, seemed to have been proven. Other movements for Jewish liberation, like the Bund, were wiped out. Even if you weren’t a Zionist, post holocaust there was nowhere else for Jews to go than Palestine. Europe could no longer be your home and the gates to the USA were closed. The dramatic rise in anti-Semitism in the Muslim world was the other factor. This can be seen as a reaction to the formation of Israel, but it was a violently racist reaction nonetheless. It was also fuelled by Arab nationalism. Zionism can be seen as both a reaction to, and an example of, the rise of exclusive and radical nationalisms across the world in the middle twentieth century. But there we are getting back to the past. It’s a moot point to some degree, those people are there, have nowhere else to go so are staying.

What is more worrying is your belief that anti Semitism has ‘largely disappeared’. It is true that Jews in the UK and USA live a largely prosperous life, free to follow their beliefs. There were, even so, several hundred attacks on Jews in the UK last year. Also stereotypes of Jews and warmed over tropes of classic anti-Semitism appear often. As discussions about Israel and the Middle East are the usual arenas where opinions on Jews are aired, it is often here that anti Semitism
occurs. The habit of seeing anti-Semitism as a solved problem combines with a belief that people raise fears of anti Semitism as a ploy to deflect legitimate criticism of Israel. The result is that anti-Semitism is too often ignored or excused. Sometimes it is positively encouraged. For an excellent explanation of this phenomenon I suggest you read Steve Cohen’s ‘That’s funny, you don’t look anti-Semitic- an anti racist critique of left anti Semitism’. Cohen was a staunch socialist and anti racist and supporter of Palestinian rights. He was also shocked at the level of anti-Semitism on the left and in the anti Zionist movement. I’ll happily lend you the book if you like.

Then there’s the anti-Semitism of the Muslim world. I’m sure you are familiar with the views of many Islamists on Jewry. I am sure you also know about the founding charter of Hamas. That the UN could invite someone who has openly denied the holocaust and peddled anti Semitic conspiracy theories to address their anti racism conference was also a shocker. Anti Semitism is alive and well.


I thought we would have some areas of agreement from early in the discussion, as left-Zionism and anti-Zionism do overlap to an extent, especially on the occupation. I mean, leaving the discussions about whether Zionism was justified by Jewish history in holy land aside, there are very few people that would argue that they have no right to be there now; many Israelis have been on that land for generations and an Algeria type solution is problematic because not only do the
Israelis have nowhere to go ‘home’ to like the pier noir, but mass forced population transfers are always deeply immoral. That’s also a view shared by the majority of Palestinians I’ve met by the way, most don’t mind the Israelis there they just want the same rights as them.

I think we should probably state how we define anti-Semitism before we discuss it. I think anti-Semitism is simply discrimination against a person simply because they are Jewish, or holding negative stereotypes about Jews in general. I think people’s attitudes to Israel in no way indicate whether or not they are an anti-Semite. Of course there are some that use anti-Zionism as a cover for anti-Semitism, but in fact there are also anti-Semitic supporters of Israel; Nick Griffin for

I never said I thought European anti-Semitism had completely gone away, just that it was reduced compared to yesteryear and against other forms of racism in Europe. I read the CSTs annual report on anti-Semitism and was sickened reading a lot of it, but over the same time frame 4 mosques were firebombed and I’m sure many more Asian people were physically attacked over their skin colour than Jews, we would obviously only know for sure if the Muslim community established a body like the CST. Also, it is patently clear that anti-Semitism is much lower in the West than before WW2. A major point as well is that anti-Semitism is not state sanctioned like in the past. Not that there isn’t still a problem with anti-Semitism in England that needs to be combated, but it isn’t what it used to be. I also think that it is the constant demonisation of those that stand up for Palestine as anti-Semites and self hating Jews by hardcore Zionists (and this is a real phenomenon; I myself have been called a Nazi for simply filming a settler in Hebron attacking a local Palestinian. Jonathan Hoffman and his gang called the Ahava demo organisers anti-Semitic for choosing to hold the demonstrations on a Saturday! These are just my personal experiences, the list goes on and on) that has unfortunately made people sceptical whenever anti-Semitism is invoked against anyone pro-Palestinian.

My view is that a lot of perceived anti-Semitism isn’t anti-Semitism at all, it is justifiable anti-Israel sentiment, I’m with Norman Finklestein when he described the ‘new anti-Semitism’ as ‘neither new nor anti-Semitism’. I would be interested in reading the book you recommend but am sceptical about its conclusions; from spending a lot of time in left wing pro-Palestine circles I have personally seen very little anti-Semitism in accordance with my definition above, and when it has appeared (such as at a demonstration), I have seen people challenge it publically.

I agree there is much anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world, and agree Ahmadinejad is an anti-Semite who should never have been invited to Durban. However, I disagree with you slightly about Hamas. It must be noted that Hamas have pledged to drop all references to the protocols of the elders of Zion when they revise their charter. I am in no way a Hamas supporter, I’m a leftist I cant support any Islamism, but I think it is worth noting they are not a monolithic
movement, they are not al Qaeda, and they are open to compromise with Israel (their position is in line with other Arab states who all endorsed the Arab peace initiative), they simply are not willing to compromise enough for Israel and are not willing to give Israel concessions such as recognition in the absence of any counter concession such as an end to the occupation. Therefore they are demonised and promoted as total rejectionists, when it is fact Israel that is rejectionist.

You are right about the way you define anti-Semitism being an important starting point for this discussion. Openly expressed hatred for Jews is a rarity on the left. It happens, but all political movements attract odd balls and the groups of the far left have more than their fair share, but it is not these people to whom I refer. We have moved onto a more sophisticated understanding of racism when applied to other groups, we need to do the same for Jews. You will see no signs saying ‘no blacks’ outside businesses in this country and even groups like the EDL bend over themselves to avoid the language of overt racism. I think it is fair to say that the black British experience has moved on a long way in the last 20 years, yet no one would deny the continued existence of racism. In fact we on the left
are highly vigilant for its less obvious manifestations, including harsh self appraisal of our own organisations. Even though I do not believe my union is racist, it has standing committees of black members and is will always try to take into account the impact on all equality strands of any policy. This is not the case for anti-Semitism, despite the fact that there is a large campaign within many of our organisations that can often throw up examples of anti Semitism, concerns are quickly dismissed.

I find the raising of the issue of islamophobia in conversations about anti-Semitism confusing. When we talk about anti black racism we do not raise the fact that other groups now suffer more. We recognise that racism against a Sikh is the same as racism against a Jamaican or against a Somali. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are manifestations of the same prejudice. The victims of one no less hurt than the other.

Unfortunately anti Semitism is too easily dismissed. This is a difficult topic to raise for someone like me who has always been active on the left. I find myself accusing friends and comrades of racism Many of the people whose language makes me squirm are also those who are political allies and, if not heroes, then well respected figures.

One manifestation of anti Semitism on the left are theories of Zionist world domination. Zionism is a Jewish nationalist movement in the Middle East, it is not a world wide organisation controlling governments and the media. Clare Short, Jenny Tonge, George Galloway and Ken Livingstone have all expressed concern about the grips Zionism has on media and political organisations. Tony Benn and Tam Dalyell drop the Zionist bit and just complain about ‘cabal’s of Jewish advisors’ or being in hock to ‘Jewish money’. Hugo Chavez is quick to brand opponents as ‘Zionist agents’ These are not fringe players on the left. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding about a ‘lobby’ that supposedly operates behind the scenes and wields great power. This only makes sense if you lend credence to old anti-Semitic myths of Jewish world conspiracy.

Then there is the assumption of collective guilt of all Jews for the actions of Israel. A recent John Pilger article in the new statesman made this pretty crude accusation. In the 1980s there was an attempt by the fore runner of the SWP to have Jewish societies banned from NUS recognition unless they were anti Zionist. Jews will often tell you that in left wing circles they are quickly asked their attitude to Zionism. Imagine judging a Turkish or Pakistani Briton on their response to a far away government’s actions. This is reinforced by some anti Zionists speaking ‘as a Jew’.

Then there’s holocaust and Nazi comparisons. On radio 4 recently Ken Livingstone referred to Gaza as ‘EXACTLY like the Warsaw ghetto’ Clearly this is an exaggeration so huge as to be ridiculous and takes away from the genuine suffering of the people of Gaza. Only someone totally insensitive to Jewish sensibilities would not realise how shockingly offensive it is too. On the Gaza demo in Birmingham, which I attended, there were a number of placards combining the symbolism of Nazism and Judaism.

Then there’s the blood libel, the ancient belief that Jews murder non Jewish children for ritual purposes. Clearly any suggestion that Israeli medical teams were in Haiti to harvest organs is sick. Yet it was reported on a number of pro Palestinian outlets and backed by the lovely Baroness Tonge.

There are other elements too, (sharing platforms with open anti Semites, equating Zionism with imperialism in the same way as early socialists sometimes equated rich Jews with capitalism)but I guess you are getting the picture. I have no doubt that settlers and others of their ilk are quick to brand their opponents as Nazis, but that does not diminish genuine concerns about anti Semitism. I think it is very rare for anyone to ‘play the racism card’ whether they are Jewish,
Muslim, Black or whoever. It has always been an element of anti Semitism to suggest that Jews do this. I think you can hold a very radical pro Palestinian position and avoid falling into the traps above. I don’t think avoiding the practices outlined above would in any way limit your ability to criticise Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians. I have more respect for many of your views because you have not done so.

There are some who would go further than I and point out what they see as double standards towards Israel and the obsessive nature of Israeli criticism on the left compared to other injustices. I think they sometimes have a point, but I do not see this as anti Semitism. Perhaps it is ‘anti-Israelism’. Certainly it can seek to smear an entire nation with crude stereotypes. Israel ‘lacks humanity’, Israel is ‘THE terror state’ Israel is the cause of all the problems of the middle east, maybe even the world. There are many who do little to hide their hatred of Israel and Israelis. This could be fuelled by anti Semitism. As the people they hate so much more than any others in the world are all Jews, it is probably likely that some of it is. But this is more contentious ground and imagine you would counter with
examples of Israeli action that spurred on this hatred.


I think your last comment was largely pretty fair, I think that your right when you say anti-Semitism is too often ignored or dismissed. I agree with some but not all of the examples given as being anti-Semitism, but its probably best not to go into each and every example. Suffice to say I think that expecting different things from Jews and non-Jews and collectively holding responsible for the actions of Israel are always anti-Semitism, the other actions are context dependant. I also agree that most people rarely play the race card; I actually think that in situations where Israel supporters have branded non-racist Palestine supporters anti-Semites, most of the time they honestly believe they are witnessing anti-Semitism, even if they aren’t.

I also agree that racism against black people anti-Semitism has moved on and is now less overt than before. Of course that doesn’t make it acceptable but I made the reference to Islamophobia as we were discussing anti-Semitism in the context of removing the reasons Jews turned to Zionism, and in fact today’s anti-Semitism is not at the level that pushes Jews out of the country, in fact there are probably more Israelis moving to the UK than Jews moving to Israel.

I made the Islamophobia comparison as that form of racism hasn’t moved on, and is more akin to the black experience 30 years ago or the Jewish one 100 years ago; Balsall Heath has been designated a ’terrorist neighbourhood’ and been surrounded by cameras, fascists are marching on mosques, the state is disproportionately targeting young men from that ethnic background for arrest and repression, etc. I’m not saying that that makes other forms of racism acceptable, but puts into context the level of racism around at the birth of Zionism and now.

I asked about the definitions as in all honesty I haven’t seen such a nuanced definition of anti-Semitism before from a Zionist. Definitions such as the EUMC one seem to go too far in attributing legitimate anti-Israel activity as anti-Semitism, and this makes debate on the subject across the political divide hard.

One thing I would like to say is that I do not positively identify myself as a Zionist. Occasionally I have been tempted to in an ‘I am Spartacus’ sort of a way, but not often. In an ideal world I would rather there was no Zionism. But, in a world of nation states, which are all to some extent exclusive, and in a region like the Middle East where the majority of states are explicitly defined on ethnic and religious grounds, and given the experience of the Jews as minorities in those states, I find it hard to judge those who feel Zionism necessary. I also think rejecting this nationalist movement in particular over all others is at best inconsistent.

I don’t think this makes me a Zionist, but if I you feel it does, then I’m glad I am a nuanced one.

I think you make a fair point about the EUMC definition. I don’t necessarily think the definition itself went too far, but it tries to place hard and fast rules on what is a grey area. It would obviously be ridiculous if activists had to criticise every regime they disliked equally, or to brand a campaign racist just because it had well organised or popular backing comparative to other actions.

This issue need some very honest self examination from both sides. Something which is very rare in the confrontational atmosphere that so often dominates these discussions.

I don’t like to use too many analogies when discussing this topic, but I’m getting lazy. Japanese imperialism in the 30s and 40s resulted in massive suffering. Without doubt the manner in which the imperial army engaged in war was cruel by any standards. It deserved to be fought and criticised, vilified even. It was understandable that the US press and public reacted the way they did when they heard tales of rape and murder. Even then though, the image of the ‘Jap’, a man who holds life cheap, who lacks humanity, who believes himself part of a greater race, contributed to a dehumanisation of the Japanese that ultimately
made the terror bombing of 1945 an easy decision to make. I am not for a moment suggesting that demonisation of Israelis approaches that of Japanese, or that Israelis have done anything approaching what the Japanese did. What I am trying to say is that it would have been very tough to point out the racism of US attitudes to Japanese against the backdrop of Japanese imperial conquest, as so much of it would be contained within legitimate criticism.

It’s a far from good analogy, but do you get the point I’m trying to make? You can have racist criticism of evil acts that it is perfectly legitimate to criticise. One side needs to acknowledge that the acts were evil and not defend them. The other need to take a long look at how they criticise them and think how they criticise similar situations with other actors.
I think that’s fair, and also agree that the confrontational nature of discussions on Israel/Palestine creates an atmosphere where honest self examination is impossible as any admission of flaws in your movement will be seized upon by the other side, I think that also probably feeds into the in all honesty very real phenomenon of good people sharing the stage with anti-Semites as well, not wanting to denigrate your movement by admitting that someone on your side like is
racist. Think it swings both ways with the pro-Israel crowd giving a platform to Melanie Phillips and her ilk too.