Report of Conference on Jews and Palestine
It’s not often that you go to a conference and come away feeling that that was a really worthwhile and positive experience. Too many conferences are waffly and woolly and often set up to benefit primarily the speakers’ egos. Maybe it was because this was the first ever conference of its kind in Britain but I found the conference both beneficial and also moving.
As I said in my contribution from the floor, when I first became an anti-Zionist when I was all of 16, I felt as if I was the only one in the world. I found it difficult to articulate even why I found my socialist views conflicting with Zionism. Having gone to a Jewish school with a rabbi for a father I'd been brought up with the myths that the Arabs ran away in 1948 so that the Arab armies could conquer the territories. All I knew was that socialism recognised no divisions in the working class, it argued for unity across racial and religious lines. Zionism emphasised the Jewish not the universal and for me that was the starting point.
The Conference started with an excellent speakers panel consisting of the veteran co-founder of Matzpen, Professor Moshe Machover, who argued against the idea that the Palestinian conflict can be solved within the ‘box’ of Palestine. For Moshe the only solution is a Palestine or Israel or both as part of a larger socialist confederation of the Arab East.
Haim Bresheeth, a film maker and Professor at the University of East London and who was also a member of Matzpen, clashed with Moshe as to whether Matzpen, the Socialist Organisation in Israel, ever supported, even implicitly, a 2 states position. Haim also disagreed strongly with Moshe's position, supporting a secular unitary and democratic state of Palestine.
Mike Marqusuee, a noted writer on cricket and Bob Dylan (!) as well as a much praised book on the Journey of an anti-Zionism Jew [see my review] gave an excellent overview of the situation of Jews in the movement and the wider solidarity movement, emphasising in particular the role that India plays in support of Israel, its military links with Israel and how both use ‘anti-terrorist’ rhetoric to demonise of Muslims.
Tony Lerman, ex-Director of the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, who was witch-hunted out of his job in the IJPR, an organisation he helped found, by people like Stanley Kalms, owner of Dixons, because of his refusal to spout Zionist rhetoric and give unflinching support to anything with a Zionist tag on, gave an excellent talk about the background to the European Monitoring Committee’s ‘Working Definition’ of anti-semitism, which in fact came from the American Jewish Congress. This has now been taken over by a group calling itself the Federal Rights Agency, but as was pointed out this semi-legal definition, which the British government hasn’t adopted, paves the way to the criminalisation of anti-Zionism and anti-Israeli actions. He also gave us a very useful history of the background to this 'definition' of anti-Semitism and how it fits in with the 'new anti-Semitism', although I disagree with his view that anti-Semitism in the West is on the increase.
The EUMC definition is in fact , as I pointed out from the floor, ironically anti-semitic! It holds that denial to the ‘Jewish people’ of the right to national self-determination in the Israeli state, was anti-semitic. In fact the belief in one single Jewish people, wherever they live and whatever language they speak and culture they adopt, is itself anti-semitic and the basis of the anti-Semitic world Jewish conspiracy theory. Likewise its suggestion that comparisons of Nazism and Zionism is anti-semitic is a piece of Zionist nonsense, which fits in with their idea that there are no lessons to learn from the Holocaust because it was unique in every aspect. I also made the point that the reason Zionism talks about ‘new anti-semitism’ is because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the 'old' anti-semitism, i.e. pogroms, attacks on Jews as Jews and other manifestations of racial hatred.
Although the Zionists think they are being clever with their new definition and the EUMC definition, which only the National Union of Students has adopted, it is in fact useless. When the Procurator Fiscal tried to adopt it in Scotland to prosecute those who had disrupted the concern of the Jerusalem Quartet, the Sheriff threw it out. No jury will convict on the basis of these weasel words because there is a world of difference between opposition to the Israeli state and hatred of Jews as Jews.
I also made it clear, in supporting Haim Bresheeth and opposing Moshe’s viewpoint, that we have to set an idea of what it is we are working towards. It is the first question that people ask – what do you want? It is not good enough to talk of a socialist federation, given that socialism has not been achieved anywhere in the world. The overthrow of Palestine, and Moshe is correct, cannot be conducted within the confines of Palestine. It is a regional struggle against the Arab dictators and the junior allies of US imperialism. But that doesn’t mean that the struggle will take a socialist form or that it will result in socialism.
It was also good to see people like Ghada Karmi at the conference, although she could only stay a short while. Sue Blackwell, with whom I led a workshop, helped prepare the food and was the ‘shabbas goy’ for the meeting! But it was also important that though this is a Jewish group, non-Jews are made to feel welcome. We organise as Jews solely because we can be more effective doing so.
This is the first such conference of anti-Zionist Jews and those involved in solidarity that I can remember in Britain. Moshe suggested that J-Big, which officially hosted the conference, should not become an anti-Zionism organisation but I’m not so sure about that. Either way a steering committee of 9 was elected.
It was gratifying to see that the conference was packed without a single spare seat. Over 50 people attended during the day and we focussed, not on Jewish identity or other forms of naval gazing, but seeing how we can, in the words of the first J-Big literature, kosher the Boycott movement. How obviously we can support each other but also how we can deflect the charge that anti-Zionism equals anti-semitism back onto the Zionists, whose movement is anti-semitic in its origins and ideology.
Below is a report which was compiled after the Conference.
Report from Group Combating the Israel lobby and its definition of Anti-Semitism
Sue Blackwell opened this sessioin by drawing our attention to the threat inherent in the present FRA, previously EUMC definition of anti-Semitism. To aid deliberations, this group was provided with a print out of the EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism:
The preamble of this document states that its ‘purpose is to provide a guide for identifying incidents….and support.. the enforcement of legislation dealing with anti-Semitism’.
Although it is a European document, it was completed with the assistance of self confessed Israel lobby groups, both from Europe and from America, together with Kenneth Stern, an American, whose agenda was very definitely to make anti-Zionism and by implication criticism of Israel part of the anti-Semitic agenda. Alternative Jewish perspectives were not canvassed and amendments were not welcomed once the document was published. It has already been used as a definition in the All Party Parliamentary Group’s report on anti-Semitism in this country. It is now the definition used by the State department in the United States. The implication of this document is deeply troubling as it could be an intimidate and silence anti-Zionists. It is therefore imperative that we develop tools to address this issue.
Tony Greenstein explained how Zionism is supported by a motley collection of people, many of whom are not Jews; how Jews are a diverse people who cannot be characterised as one people. He argued against the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and outlined his view that the whole issue is one not about anti-Semitism, but about privileging Israel and silencing her critics.
He explained how Zionists from the time of Herzl to the Ben Gurion and even today express their distaste for diaspora Jews with classical anti-Semitic views, showing how much they despise diaspora Jewish cultures. Pinhas Felix Rosenbliith, who became Israel's first Minister of
Justice, described Palestine "an institute for the fumigation of Jewish vermin." [Classic zionism and modern anti-semitism: Parallels and influences (1883-1914 Journal of Israeli History, 4:2, September 1983). If a non-Jew had described Jews as vermin or 'hideous creatures' (Jacob Klatzkin) then who would deny that this was deeply anti-Semitic?
Currently far right and fascist/neo-Nazi groups in Europe, with the sole exception of Jobbik in Hungary, support Israel. The EDL, Britain’s home grown hate merchants, will mobilise together with the Israeli flag in support of Israel whenever protests against Israel’s behaviour are called.
There was discussion about the racism inherent in the Zionist ideology; how the EUMC/FRA definition lets Zionist racism off the hook; how often extreme Zionists are among the worst anti-Semites; how in fact Zionism itself is seen by many as the other side of the anti-Semitism coin and uses anti-Semitism to advance its cause.
While Israel may try to hold all Jews responsible for its actions, it is vital not to fall into that trap and feel responsible for what a state, to which we owe no allegiance, does. It is in fact anti-Semitic to imagine that all Jews have one view.
There was discussion about the use of Nazi analogies and the consensus was that they undermine arguments.
There was a discussion too about people in the Palestine solidarity movement, who are true anti-Semites and who feel that they can use their place in the movement as cover for their obnoxious views.
Zionism is a political ideology and it is thus reasonably easy to counteract anti-Semitic views held and circulated in public fora, by solidarity activists. Jews in the solidarity movement, who have pointed out anti-Semitic material and highlighted the difference between a political ideology and racial categorising, have usually been well received.
There was discussion about relationship with mainstream Jewish community, many of whom feel an existential anxiety about obliteration, thus creating a need for a safety net, namely Israel; whether these feelings were only found among Ashkenazi Jews, or whether this is a more universal Jewish phenomenon. There were those who did not feel that counteracting extreme Jewish views was worthwhile, but others argued that there is a wide variety of views and with encouragement, people could be slowly detached from unqualified support for Israel and once having left their comfort zone, it could be possible for them to move even further along the path. However it was pointed out that since the Jewish community has become more affluent, they are less attached to unions and workers’ organisations and more attached to synagogues and faith schools, which promote a Zionist agenda. Thus it might be more difficult to reach mainstream. Many secular Jews use Zionist organisations to signal their attachment to a Jewish identity.
There was a debate around developing our own definition of anti-Semitism. While this is contentious, it may be necessary in order to challenge this EUMC/FRA definition, which, in the absence of an alternative, could become a dangerous template.
There was also a warning that the use of history to support our views on Zionism can be problematic as historical evidence is nuanced and does not usually support any one particular interpretation.
1. Invite those who support the FRA/EUMC definition to a debate so that they can explain their position. We need to show how this position reinforces rather than challenges racism.
2. BDS is an ant-racist endeavour. One way to address the implication of this document is through BDS efforts.
3. Go on the offensive with our own Zionist narrative, showing how Zionism developed and its present function.
4. Reclaim Jewish/humanist values.
5. Demand consultation with the FRA as Jews.
6. Address anti-Semitism when it becomes part of the anti-Zionist discourse.
7. Publicise the use of hate speech by those complaining of anti-Semitism.
This document and its implications was discussed at a JFJFP signatories meeting on 25th July, where it was identified, not as an anti-discrimination document, but as a political document and should not be mistaken for one dealing with discrimination. Jfjfp is making further enquiries with lawyers to get a legal opinion on how this FRA formulation conforms to provisions in other anti-Discrimination laws, in particular those enacted in the United Kingdom.
It may be worthwhile to consider making a joint approach to the FRA together with all the alternative Jewish groups to demand that ALL interested Jewish groups be involved in developing a new anti-discrimination framework with respect to anti-Semitism.