Review of Dave Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism (Biteback 2016) pp.292
Dave Rich has written an insightful overview of the troubled relationship between Jews and the British Left.
The Left’s Jewish Problem traces the tortuous path trodden by the far Left during past decades – from the 1968 student revolts to the messianism of the Corbynistas today.
Zionism did not fit into Marxist theory. Israel did not fit in the decolonisation discourse of the 1960s – and all this was before the Six Day War, the settlement drive on the West Bank and successive Netanyahu governments. The fractious but conformist far Left could not cope with a different narrative for the Israel-Palestine conflict, nor were many Jews on the Left willing to stand up to them.
Rich makes the point that the old Left was characterised by living through the epoch of home-grown fascism in the 1930s, the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel in 1948, as well as being defined by the class struggle. The new Left of the 1960s did not have such experiences. They did not separate Arab nationalism from Arab socialism – as did Nye Bevan in his criticism of Nasserism. Instead they disconnected the survivors who reached the shores of Palestine in 1945 from those who chose to live in the United States and western Europe. They regarded the Israelis not as Jews, but as amorphous white colonists whose sole motive in going to Palestine was to enact the Nakba and to expel the indigenous population.
Significantly the Corbynistas of 2016 often hail from a bourgeois background – and have been embarrassed by Ken
Livingstone’s unsubtle perorations on Jews and Nazism. Indeed, the working-class Livingstone occupies the space where the
far Left and far Right meet.
Rich writes about organisations such as the International Marxist Group and the International Socialists, the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, but he also covers the radicalism of the Young Liberals in the 1970s under the guidance of the late Louis Eaks and Peter, now Lord, Hain who commented in 1973 that “the case for the replacement of Israel by a democratic secular state of Palestine must be put uncompromisingly”.
Yet the fight for a democratic Palestine in those days was fuelled by funds from unsavoury sources. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign of the late 1960s was housed in the Egyptian Embassy – an Egypt ruled by ex-military and nationalists. Eaks’s Palestine Action was funded by Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was suspected of funding the British Anti-
Zionist Organisation, which took young radicals such as George Galloway to the Middle East. Both Libya and Iraq were happy to donate large sums to Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party, which worked with Livingstone in the 1980s to promote the cause of the Palestinians.
Publications such as Black Dwarf and Red Mole, which influenced many ‘soixante huitards’, often featured articles from
members of Matzpen, a Trotskyist split from the Israel Communist Party. Matzpen proposed a socialist federation which
recognised “the right of the Hebrew nation to self-determination”. This was opposed by Arab nationalists, whose views have been inherited by the Corbynistas.
The book highlights how Corbyn has placed anti-imperialism at the heart of his politics. In August 2015 he told the
Electronic Intifada website that a onestate solution was a more likely option,‘’but it was up to the people of the region to decide”. He has shared platforms with Holocaust deniers such as Dyab Abu Jahjah and a host of reactionary Islamists – and
explained afterwards that he simply did not know. He has attended conferences in which the Iraq war was regarded as part of a Zionist plan to delineate the state of Israel as stretching “from the Nile to the Euphrates” and remained silent.
He has described Hamas as bringing about “peace and social and political justice to the entire region”. Yet Hamas rejects any
recognition of the Israeli peace camp and refuses to meet its members. Moreover Corbyn has never acted as a mediator
between progressives on both sides of the conflict, but only as a propagandist for one.
Corbyn’s election in 2015 provided a psychological green light that anti-racist boundaries regarding Jews could now be
breached. The reaction to a plethora of comments eventually moved Corbyn to establish the Chakrabarti commission on
antisemitism. For some, antisemitism did not easily fit into today’s understanding of racism. It was seen as belonging to the past, to the museum of overcome discriminations. Jews were viewed as white and wealthy, past purveyors of the slave trade – in the notorious words of Margaret Thatcher, not “one of us”.
So when anti-Zionism tips over into primitive antisemitism, it is regarded as the stupidity of a few individuals and not the culmination of a mood that has been developing for decades. Rich has recalled the evolution of such attitudes and documented it in fine detail. His book should be recommended reading on the training courses for Labour party members that are advocated in the Chakrabarti report.
Jewish Renaissance October 2016