27 December 2020

How Identity Politics Turned the Victims of Sabra & Chatilla into the Antisemitic Oppressors of Zionist Feminists - A Reply to Erica Burman

 Looking back - the Attack on Spare Rib Prefigured Labour’s ‘Anti-Semitism’ Crisis by nearly 40 years

On June 6 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon. An estimated 20,000 civilians were killed and over 70,000 injured. The savagery of Israel’s attack gave birth to Hezbollah, the Party of God, which is the only Arab force to have defeated Israel militarily.

In 2000 the war of attrition waged by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon forced Israel to abandon its ‘Christian’ mini state in the south of Lebanon, under Major Saad Haddad and General Antoine Lahad and end its occupation of Lebanon. In 2006 Israel was forced to pull its troops out of Lebanon after another invasion.

The Lebanon war was a pivotal moment for the Palestine solidarity movement, in Britain and internationally. It convinced large sections of the left, especially in the Labour Party, that Israel was no socialist oasis in the Middle East and that its army was no citizen army but an army of genocide and occupation. An army whose major ‘victories’ had been against the indigenous population of the West Bank and Gaza.

Zionist women maintained they could be both Zionists and feminists - but only by excluding Palestinian women

Both Tony Benn and Eric Heffer resigned from Labour Friends of Israel. Tribune and even the New Statesman became hostile to Zionism and Israel. It was also when I got to know Jeremy Corbyn personally, who became an MP the following year. Corbyn spoke frequently at meetings of the Labour Committee on Palestine later Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine, which I chaired. 

A group of us met in the University of London Union in the spring of 1982, after an initial Israeli attack on Lebanon, to form Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

The Zioness group in the USA, which maintains that you can be a feminist and a Zionist, borrowed the image of a Black woman (left) and whitened her for their poster!  

Palestine and the Women’s Movement

Nothing angered the Zionist feminists of the time more than the statement by Aliza Khan, the Israeli woman in Women Speak Out Against Zionism in Spare Rib 121 of August 1982 that

 ‘if a woman calls herself feminist she should consciously call herself anti-Zionist.’

It was saying that feminism and Zionism were incompatible.

This was a red rag to Israeli and Zionist feminists (who masqueraded as representing all Jewish women). Zionist feminism was based on the idea that women should be equal participants in the oppression of the Palestinians. They had no quarrel with the racism of Zionism and its othering of Palestinians. Their only disagreements were on their subordinate role in the oppression of the Palestinians.

This racism reached absurd proportions in the United States with the Zioness Group. As Electronic Intifada revealed [Fake feminist group Zioness used rapper’s image without her approval] the Zionesses produced a fiery picture of 3 Zionist Amazons. The woman in the middle of their poster with her arms folded was Black South African hip hop artist, Dope Saint Jude. Or at least she was until the Zionesses whitened her face! Zionists simply can’t help their racism.

DOPESAINTJUDE  makes it clear she has no ties to the racist Zionesses

The issue of Palestine and Israel had a major impact on the British women’s movement which had largely ignored questions of racism and imperialism. Racism, like sexism, was seen primarily as a question of personal interaction as in the slogan ‘the ‘Personal is Political’. Institutional racism, western colonialism and imperialism was a ‘men’s’ issue.

As Jenny Bourne wrote in Jewish Feminism and Identity Politics:

feminism allowed us to: conflate the political and the personal, the objective and the subjective, the material and the metaphysical; and escape into Identity Politics. And the New Marxism gave'it refuge. (p.4)

The personal was held to be political rather than the political being personal. What this meant was that every woman’s personal experience was equally valid. They could be fascist women, Zionist women or just very rich, they were still women, despite the fact that they participated in the oppression of Black and third world women.

There was no understanding of how women’s oppression is magnified by class and race For example abortion is easily obtainable if you are well off but if you are Black or poor then it may be impossible to obtain legally in which case you may seek a back street abortion with all the possible risks.

The real enemy for middle class feminists was patriarchy, which men had created, an overarching ideological framework which subsumed race and class. The answer of western feminists was an all-encompassing sisterhood and consciousness raising. What this left out was the fact that women can also be the exploiters and oppressors of other women. Issues such as race and class were seen as divisive, a threat to women’s unity. 

As I showed in my recent post White Women as Slave Owners and the Myth of Sisterhood – Stephanie E. Jones women slave owners played their full share in slavery. Under Apartheid White women were equal participants in the oppression of Black people. So too in Israel where Jewish women identify with Jewish men not Palestinian women.

In all settler-colonial societies women are part of the settler colonial population. Of course within these societies White/Jewish women were oppressed by male settlers but their demands were not for the liberation of all women but for their right to equality with men in the oppression of the indigenous population. In Israel the demand that women have an equal role with men in the army and in combat duties is used to portray Israel as an equal society. Women too can kill Palestinians with impunity.

Israeli feminists have fought to play an equal part in the oppression of the Palestinians - which is what the Jewish Feminist Groups were also fighting for     

Dr Idit Shafran Gittleman of the Israeli Democracy Institute speaks of

The view that women are drafted because the IDF is a people’s army and should therefore apply the principle of equality to all segments of society remains unchallenged,

Israeli Palestinians are not drafted into the IDF. The principle of equality that Gittleman speaks of is applicable only to relations within Israeli Jewish society not to Arab Israeli women still less the Palestinians of the Territories.

The majority of the largely White British (and American) women’s movement concentrated on the oppression of Israeli Jewish women and ignored the role of Israeli women in the oppression of Palestinians and African refugees where women took a leading part in pogroms in South Tel Aviv.

Spare Rib

Black women and Women of Colour had long been unhappy with the narrowness and parochialism of Spare Rib, the magazine of the women's movement. In particular they challenged the mindset that separated off women’s oppression from all other forms of oppression and began to challenge their White sisters to change their ways.

Spare Rib  had always found it difficult dealing with issues of racism, which it relegated to the personal. The problem being that racism in British society is mostly manifested through state racism and is not primarily personal. In September 1980 Spare Rib’s editorial stated that 'controversial topics have always been a problem for SR'. With Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 it became a crisis.

This was the context for the battle that erupted in Spare Rib as a result of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The article that triggered off the crisis was ‘Women Speak Out Against Zionism’. In the words of Bernice Hausman ‘Spare Rib became an arena for the fight over the changing nature of feminism and feminist politics.’ [Anti-Semitism in Feminism: Rethinking Identity Politics]

One of the collective Linda Bellos resigned claiming that her sense of Jewishness (although she was also Black) was offended by an article supporting Palestinian women. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle on May 30 1982 she supported the right of Jews to emigrate to Israel even though Palestinian refugees had no such right.

I took this photograph in the Sabra and Shatilla camps in 1979 - most of those who are featured in it would have died at the hands of the Phalange, in a Nazi-style attack that Israel's army enabled

The article caused an explosion of fury amongst Zionist feminists who claimed that support for the Palestinians and the Lebanese was ‘anti-Semitism’ (shades of Labour today!).

Roisin Boyd, an Irish member of the collective, interviewed 3 women for the article – an Israeli anti-Zionist, a Palestinian and Lebanese. Both Nidal and Randa went out of their way to distinguish between Jews and Zionism. Nidal began the interview by stating that ‘There is an enormous difference between being Jewish and being Zionist.’ She explained that the main idea behind Zionism was that Jews should gather together and form a nation (state) because they are in danger from non-Jews. Nidal’s went on to say ‘Which is so similar to the Nazi ideology that the Jews should not be with the Gentiles.’ Today that would fall foul of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

About 40 letters were sent to Spare Rib in reply to the article, mostly from Zionist women, some of which were overtly racist. The Collective decided, given the divisions amongst them, between the White women and Women of Colour, not to print any of the letters. The cry went up of ‘anti-Semitism’ but it had nothing to do with discrimination against Jews but opposition to racism.

Outwrite - the paper of Women of Colour was formed in response to the racism of the majority of the Spare Rib collective

On one side of the Spare Rib debate there were virtually all the white members of the collective, bar Roisin Boyd and on the other side the Women of Colour. I spoke to Roisin during the affair and she confirmed to me where her sympathies lay. The divide in Spare Rib also led to the founding in 1982 of Outwrite a paper written by Women of Colour which lasted until 1988. A good history of this conflict is Bernice Hausman’s Anti-Semitism in Feminism:  Rethinking Identity Politics and Corinne Malpocher’s Sexuality, Race and Zionism - Conflict and Debates in Spare Rib, 1972-1993].

The Zionist feminists responded by trying to shift the terms of the debate from imperialism, racism and Israel’s attack on the Palestinians to Jewish feminist identity and anti-semitism within the feminist movement. If you have a sense of déjà vu that’s because the same tactics were employed in the Labour Party 15 years later when Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Instead of focusing on Labour’s abysmal record on racism and imperialism, the party became embroiled in a fake campaign around Labour ‘anti-Semitism’.

In issue 123 (September/October 1982) the London Jewish Lesbian Feminist Group responded to the Women Speak Out on Zionism article with an article ‘About Anti-Semitism’. Except that it wasn’t about anti-Semitism except in the sense that the members of the group detailed the history of their families escape from anti-Semitism in Europe as a means of constructing their Zionist identity as an oppressed group. It was a classic example of how the oppressor mobilises the memory of oppression in the service of oppression.

It is not unusual for the oppressor to use the memory of past oppression as justification for their current role. The Boers used their experience of British concentration camps in the Boer War as a justification for Apartheid and many British socialists supported them.

Professor Yehuda Elkana, a child survivor of Auschwitz , understood this well when he wrote an article in Ha’aretz (2.3.88.) ‘The Need to Forget. Elkana was Rector of the Central European University in Budapest which was forced out of the country by Viktor Orban, the anti-Semitic  friend of Netanyahu. Elkana wrote:

The very existence of democracy is endangered when the memory of the dead participates actively in the democratic process.  Fascist regimes understood this very well and acted on it. We understand it today, and it is no accident that many studies of Nazi Germany deal with the political mythology of the Third Reich.

What the Lesbian Zionists didn’t write about was contemporary anti-Semitism. That was hardly surprising since they would have been hard pressed to find any. The timing of the article by the Zionist feminists was more than unfortunate because on September 16 the Israeli army presided over the Sabra and Shatilla massacre.

The Zionist Feminists began by saying that ‘As Jewish feminists the focus on ‘Zionism’ seems to us in itself anti-Semitic and hardly feminist’ before going on to say that

‘The recent upsurge in ‘anti-Zionism’ while it has actively intensified our experience of anti-Semitism by legitimating Jew hating, also seriously threatens to make our experience and history completely inaudible and invisible.’

What the Zionist Feminists didn’t do was to explain why anti-Zionism  legitimised ‘Jew hating’ or eradicated their own history. It was mere assertion. These British version of the Jewish American Princesses (the spoilt, self centred brat whose world begins and ends with herself) expected to be taken on trust. To them mention of the Palestinians was a threat to their ‘Jewish’ identity, forgetting that anti-Zionism was the majority Jewish reaction to Zionism and that it was anti-Semites like Arthur Balfour who initially welcomed Zionism.

Whilst all Jews are brought up in the shadow of the holocaust, some of us are able to generalise from our own history to encompass the struggles and experiences of others. Feminist Zionists were not only incapable of understanding the Palestinian experience but they resented them for raising the subject. All mention of Palestinian and Lebanese women’s oppression at the hands of the Israel was ‘anti-Semitism’ by definition.

Sabra and Shatilla Massacre

On September 16 1982, after the departure of the PLO from Beirut and in the wake of the assassination (almost certainly by Syria) of the Phalangist President of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel, Israeli forces entered Beirut (another agreement broken) and surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla.  They then proceeded to allow the Phalangist militia to enter the camps, knowing full well that they were seeking revenge for the assassination of Gemayel.

The war criminal who enabled the Sabra & Shatilla massacres, Ariel Sharon (right) later went on to become Israeli Prime Minister

For two days the Israeli army lit up the night sky with flares in order that the Phalange could murder with knives and guns, castrating boys and cutting off the breasts of women. Up to 3,500 defenceless refugees were massacred. The Zionist Lesbian Feminist article appeared shortly after the massacre. No attempt was made to withdraw it from publication. These ‘feminists’ knew that Israel had been in alliance with the Phalangists, named after the Spanish fascist Falange. Their founder, Pierre Gemayel, had been an admirer of Hitler’s Germany. These are the polluted waters that these Zionist sisters swam in as they weaponised anti-Semitism.

Not only did the Israeli troops fire flares to help the killers but those people, mainly children, women and the elderly, who managed to flee to the perimeter of the camps were turned back by Israel’s military. You can read the account of Dr Swee Ang, a young doctor who was working in the camps’ Gaza hospital during the massacre.

I felt particular anguish having visited these camps 3 years earlier. I met some of the women and children in these photographs. Now I realised that they were almost certainly dead.

In the following issue (124) October 1982 an article ‘Women Against Zionism’, began by saying that

‘only the most callous and reactionary could remain unmoved by the slaughter of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese during the latest Israeli invasion of Lebanon.’

The article explained that what had happened at Sabra and Shatilla was a ‘consistent feature of Zionist history’ before describing a similar massacre by the Irgun militia in the village of Deir Yassin in April 1948. Hausman was wrong to suggest that this articleargued that Jews should be held accountable for Israeli imperialism.’

In issue 126 of January 1983 the Editorial Collective announced that it had received a large number of letters, ‘a high percentage from Jewish feminists’ many of whom alleged anti-Semitism. The Collective posed 11 questions, many of which went to the heart of the problems that they were confronting:

1.     How do we deal with extreme differences which exist between feminists? How do we criticise but not discount or despise each other?

2.     How does the fact that many of the questions we are asking which are tied up with patriarchal power, as well as imperialism and racism, affect our involvement as women?

3.     What does Zionism mean, both historically and today?

4.     Can women be anti-Zionist and fight anti-semitism?

5.     How can SR best combat anti-semitism?

6.     How can we find a way of criticising Israel's actions in Lebanon without being anti-Semitic or fuelling antisemitism?

7.     What is a critical feminist support of Israel?

8.     What is a critical feminist support of PLO?

9.     How should European feminists support Third World, national liberation struggles?

10.   How do we define imperialism?

11.   Can any of these questions be discussed usefully without referring to the power and influence of the USA, Soviet Union, western European countries, and to the Arab states?

However they wouldn’t be answered until an article by Israeli anti-Zionist Nira Yuval-Davies in SR 146, September 1984. ‘Zionism, Anti-Semitism and the Struggle Against Racism – some reflections on a painful current debate among feminists.’ Its theme was that:

‘the struggles against Zionism, anti-Semitism and racism are complementary, rather than competing as has been assumed all too often.’

Nira also argued that the Women of Colour should not simply argue from their own experiences of oppression and the fact that they were Black, but that they should transcend those differences. She put her finger on the central problem with identity politics, namely the impossibility of distinguishing between different experiences and identities if all are equally valid. Identity politics means blurring the difference between oppressor and oppressed.

The identity of Zionist Jewish feminists is as valid as that of a Palestinian woman.  Nira wrote that:

Taking personal experience into account is an organic part of feminist philosophy and practice. ... However, it is not without its problems. If done uncritically, it can develop extreme relativisation — there is no valid criterion from which to judge between the different perspectives developed by women who have undergone different personal experiences.

On the self-definition of Black Women Nira wrote:

the definition of colour is social and historical, not biological — this is why Turks are considered white in Britain and black in Germany; why Asians are considered black in Britain but not in Africa. Moreover, victims of racism can be targetted in ways other than skin colour — it can be an accent, a way of dress or a more subtle mannerism.... But most importantly — skin colour and other 'characteristics' are not really important in themselves — they are just the means of identifying the objects of racist discrimination and oppression. Fighting against racism means first of all fighting against that discrimination and oppression rather than just the ways the victims are selected

Clearly the events of the past year had taken their toll on the Collective. They had experienced what a Zionist campaign can be like. The Zionist Lesbian Feminists were backed to the hilt by the Jewish Establishment and the Jewish Chronicle.

In Issue 130 there was a pained Editorial which revealed the refusal to print the 40 letters. It also revealed that there was no consensus on whether to publish the letters. All of the White women (bar Roisin Boyd) favoured printing some of them. In a curious phrase that gave ground to the Zionist attack the Editorial stated that:

we should confront our own anti-semitism. Part of that confrontation is recognising that anti-Zionist coverage can conceal anti-semitism. On the other hand it does not inevitably do so, and we feel that in the course of the last year's debate there have been some unjustified criticisms made with the intention/effect of immobilising support for the Palestinians.

Spare Rib was again reducing racism to the personal: ‘confronting our own anti-Semitism’ as if people walk around with a pocketful of anti-Semitism. It was coupled with an unthinking repetition of the cliché that ‘anti-Zionist coverage can conceal anti-Semitism. On the other hand it does not inevitably do so.’ The opposite is the case. It is non-Jewish Christian Zionism that is anti-Semitic.

Anti-Semitism is rare amongst supporters of the Palestinians precisely because it is an anti-racist struggle whereas overt racism is extremely common among Zionists because the whole basis of the Zionist idea is that Jews and non-Jews cannot live together.

The issue also included a 4 page article ‘We Shall Return’ from Women for Palestine. Despite the agonising, Spare Rib had in practice abandoned its previous neutrality on Zionism and the Zionist feminists effectively gave up, founding a short-lived magazine Shifra.

In issue 132 there was more than a page of letters in reply to the editorial in Issue 130. Most supported the collective and were anti-Zionist such as Shelagh who wrote that the Irish liberation struggle was the same as the Palestinian struggle. A few, including Heather Dale were pro-Zionist.

In Issue 132, July 1983, all was revealed in a hastily produced 4 page article from the Collective inserted during the printing so that it did not even feature in the contents page of the magazine.

Titled ‘Sisterhood.... is plain sailing’ the contributions were divided into 2 sections – one from the White women, who signed their contributions and a separate box from the Women of Colour. The Women of Colour’s contributions were angry and to the point whereas those of the White women were defensive, agonised and guilt-ridden. The Women of Colour took up 2/3 of a page whereas the White women’s stretched over 3 pages! The Women of Colour contributions were unsigned. Excerpts included:

‘Since when has Zionism become a feminist concept?... there has been a Black and Third World peoples’ holocaust for centuries and its still continuing... when Palestinians become an extinct race (due to annihilation) then white women will study Palestinian women and get PhDs.’


‘When will the collective give time to racism in their own office before jumping every time a Zionist woman says jump?’

‘As a Black   woman I am convinced that it is pointless to explain oppression NO AMOUNT of explanation will satisfy the racists/imperialists and their allies’

‘I am amazed that you Zionist women feel that I have the power to silence you.’

The White women’s contributions began with Roisin Boyd, who was the only White woman who understood what the Women of Colour were saying. As a leading member of the National Front, the Ulster Loyalist Steven Brady once explained to me, Catholics are the Blacks of Northern Ireland!

‘As an Irish woman I feel angry that English and American feminists can so easily dismiss my experiences and those of thousands of other women, relegating us to the outer edges of the women’s movement in Britain.’

Roisin was the only one who supported the Women of Colour’s demand not to print the racist letters. Sue O’Sullivan accepted that

‘some white Jewish feminists are ignoring their own racism in their refusal to discuss white racism. Still, some of the letters should have been published.’

What did it mean to ignore one’s own racism? Once again there was a confusion of personal racism with the support of white Jewish feminists for the Israeli state. Their personal racism was immaterial.

Jan Parker who I had known, from memory she had belonged to the International Marxist Group, spoke about her identity as a lesbian ‘having been forged in the crucibles of ‘difference’. But difference was not the same as oppression. Jan wrote that Spare Rib had been experiencing ‘a withdrawal of support from the women’s movement’ accompanied by Zionist threats to their lives.’

Louise Williamson described herself as a socialist-feminist who saw Israel as ‘essentially imperialist’ and spoke of the

‘growing voice of Jewish feminists, who stand in various relationships to Israel, which they might want to discuss with other women.’

There was a mixed reaction to Sisterhood is Plain Sailing. In SR 134 there were 3 pages of letters. The letter from Faversham Womens Group was explicitly racist. Referring to the Inquest for Colin Roach, who died after being shot in the foyer of Hackney Police station, they wrote ‘We want news about women, not about men.’ These feminists presumably did not think that the death of a Black man had any relevance to women. In 1985 Cynthia Jarrett was murdered by the Police and in 1993 Joy Gardiner was also murdered by the Police.

What the issue of Palestine and Zionism had done was to bring the latent racism in the women’s movement to the surface.  It had always been there and people like Andrea Dworkin had been its public face. But there were other, supportive letters such as from Penny Pattenden

‘if we give imperialism a platform in what is meant to be a magazine for all women then we are in effect saying to Women of Colour you must compromise, you must put away your bad feelings because we whites need to show how tolerant we are, how fair, even to the forces of reaction.’

Magda Devas, a Jewish woman wrote that ‘Jews identifying with Jews does not have to take place in the oppressive context of Israel.’

There is no doubt that the Israel lobby and the Embassy, were supporting the Jewish Feminists alongside the Jewish Chronicle.

The issue of race and imperialism divided and nearly destroyed Spare Rib. Arguably it helped lead to its demise in 1993.

An editorial in the September 1983 Issue (134) detailed the threats that had been made by the Zionists against the Women of Color.

We have had numerous attacks on us while working at SR. We were addressed on the phone: 'Hitler', 'Foreigners go home'; pro-Zionist slogans were daubed on walls outside and a brick was thrown into the office next door.’

Curiously this abuse included a journalist from the Jewish Chronicle who ‘refused to speak with the Women of Colour. She only wanted to speak with white British born women working at Spare Rib.' Scratch a Zionist and you can usually find racism near the surface!

It was not until November 1987 that “Jewish Feminism and the Search for Identity” by Jenny Bourne of the Institute of Race Relations appeared, based on her pamphlet Homelands of the Mind: Jewish Feminism and Identity Politics”. Bourne analysed Jewish women’s responses to anti-Zionist feminism and located that response in identity politics, which had increasingly become the dominant paradigm within feminism:

The politics of equal oppressions, in sum, is ahistorical in that it equates oppressions across the board without relating each to its specific history, and so severs racial and sexual oppression from class exploitation, divorces the black experience from the Third World experience, dismembers racism from imperialism, and attempts, by some magic alchemy of the soul, to transmute the political terrain of the material world into homelands of the mind.

Jewish feminism arose as a reaction to anti-imperialist feminism and opposition to the Zionism and the invasion of Lebanon. It had no independent existence  or material roots because anti-Semitism was not a form of state racism in Britain. The identity of the Jewish feminists was inextricably bound up with the Israeli state which is why Jewish Feminism chose as their targets Black and Palestinian women. It was this that led to the picket of a Zionist Feminist meeting by Women for Palestine in April 1983. As Hausman wrote:

‘the international conflict posed by Israel’s imperialism was transformed by Jewish feminists into an identity crisis for feminism.’

Jewish feminists responded to this perceived attack on their identity by labelling it ‘anti-Semitic’ in order to avoid having to defend Israel’s Lebanon invasion and having to acknowledge their own complicity with Israeli racism. Hausman argued that

Identity politics can survive as a politically progressive and useful positioning as long as we understand “identity” to signify a constructed positioning of the self within a specific historical conjuncture, and not an essentialized concept of the self that must survive at all costs.’

Identity politics by definition looks back not forwards.

A Reply to Erica Burman

The reason why what happened at Spare Rib nearly 40 years ago is relevant today is because of an article ‘Reading “That’s Funny…” now: and why it’s different from then’ on JVL’s blog by Erica Burman. In 1982 Erica was at the centre of the Zionist feminist onslaught, including producing the Zionist feminist magazine Shifra.

Erica has now declared herself an anti-Zionist but for all the wrong reasons! In her devotion to identity politics she now sees anti-Zionist Jews as victims of anti-Semitism (which they are to some extent) and she makes the comparison between Jewish anti-Zionists today with the Zionist feminists of 1982. Erica comprehensively distorts what happened in 1982. An anti-Zionism based on a selective memory is not anti-Zionism. 

That’s Funny, You don’t look Antisemitic [TFYDLA]

Erica was editor and co-publisher of a booklet by Steve Cohen That’s Funny, You don’t look Antisemitic.’ which has been consistently used by those like John Mann to expose ‘antisemitism’ on the left. It has since been reprinted by David Hirsh’s anti-BDS group Engage. Hirsh recently called for JVL to be expelled from the Labour Party.

Erica never explains why and how Steve’s pamphlet came to become the bible of the Zionists other than to claim that meanings change over time. Steve had given them permission to reprint it.

I should declare an interest. For nearly 20 years Steve and I had a polemical debate about Zionism and anti-Semitism in the pages of left wing papers such as Big Flame and The Leveller. Steve was a member of the Jewish Socialist Group but as a result of the ruction caused by his pamphlet he left the JSG, at least for a time.

TFYDLA argued that anti-Semitism was a constant in the labour movement and that the opposition of the British trade unions to Jewish immigration in 19th century and 20th centuries was because of their anti-Semitism.

I would argue that it was not so much anti-Semitism as a backward political culture of the British labour movement, which rested on the crumbs of imperialism, that saw migrant labour as a threat. Steve played down the growing rapprochement between Jewish workers and non-Jewish workers and dismissed the reversal of its position by Manchester Trades Council which opposed anti-Alienist legislation from 1903 onwards.

Steve’s explanation was that instead of renouncing anti-Semitism these workers ‘concealed it behind a newly discovered economic identification with Jewish workers.’ Steve failed to understand how the interplay between workers' struggles and that of migrants can lead to the overcoming of their own political backwardness, such as racism. Racism is not fixed. Workers’ unity is the best antidote to racism.

It was as if anti-Semitism was a virus that once caught can never be cured. Steve reified anti-Semitism failing to understand the process by which workers throw off the racist ideas.

Steve’s pamphlet described the anti-Semitism of some of the founders of the British labour movement like Henry Hyndman of the Social Democratic Federation. It told us nothing new. In the 19th century Jews were considered synonymous with capitalism owing to their historical role as money lenders. To therefore claim as Steve did that

‘anti-Semitism as an ideology has nothing to do with the behaviour of even one single Jew… It is a view of the world based on myths and fantasies’

begs the question, where did anti-Semitism come from? According to the Zionist fable Jews suffered from 2,000 years of continuous persecution. As Abram Leon, the Belgian Trotskyite who died in Auschwitz and to whom TFYDLA is dedicated, put it:

‘Zionism transposes modern anti-Semitism to all of history and saves itself the trouble of studying the various forms of anti-Semitism and their evolution.’ [The Jewish Question – A Marxist Interpretation]

The memory of Jews role under feudalism was weaponised in the 19th and 20th centuries by German nationalists and the Nazis continued to peddle these ideas long after they had any material basis.

What Steve didn’t mention was that when the Tories campaigned in the 1900 General Election around support for anti-Alienist legislation, they were supported by the English Zionist Federation who even supported their candidate in Whitechapel, David Hope-Kydd, who

‘cleverly coupled his desire for an aliens’ immigration bill with heart-rending support for the infant Zionist movement’ referring to Jewish immigrants as ‘the very scum of the unhealthiest of the Continental nations.’ (Geoffrey Alderman, The Jewish Community in British Politics). 

Steve mentioned the proto-fascist British Brothers League without mentioning their support for Zionism. Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader and Israel’s first President defended in his autobiography Trial & Error, the leader of the BBL, William Evans-Gordon, MP for Stepney:

‘our people were rather hard on him. The Aliens Bill in England and the movement which grew around it were natural phenomenon which might have been foreseen... Sir William Evans-Gordon had no particular anti-Jewish prejudices... He acted as he thought, according to his best lights and in the most kindly way, in the interests of his country… he was sincerely ready to encourage any settlement of Jews almost anywhere in the British Empire, but he failed to see why the ghettos of London or Leeds or Whitechapel should be made into a branch of the ghettos of Warsaw and Pinsk. (my emphasis) (pp. 90-91)

Steve does not deserve to be remembered by what was a weak and ill-thought out book even if it did serve the purposes of Zionist feminism in 1982 and the Zionists around Engage.

Steve, a barrister by training, was a dedicated and committed anti-racist campaigner. Steve began his political life in the International Marxist Group however he became enmeshed in identity politics. You can read his obituary by Jenny Bourne, Dave Landau as well as my own appreciation. Steve was distancing himself from TFYDLA by the end of his life. He told me that he had made a mistake in letting Engage use it. Books such as Noone is Illegal and Deportation is Freedom should be his legacy.

I first met Steve in 2000 at the Barbed Wire Europe Conference in Oxford. I was shocked by his appearance. Steve had contracted polio from which he was to die in 2009. From that moment on we became friends, exchanging emails frequently. We me up again in Liverpool around 2007 at a conference called to campaign against immigration controls and it was there that Steve told me that he regretted his decision to let Engage get hold of the rights to TFYDLA. We also discussed whether or not Jews had a duty to speak out on Zionism. He had previously declared that it was anti-Semitic to expect any Jew to comment on Israel and Zionism whereas my opinion was that given Israel claims all Jews as its nationals there was a duty for Jews to declare that Israel did not speak in our name. He had no answer.

Steve’s views on Zionism and Israel were in flux. When he died I went up in July 2009 to a memorial meeting in Manchester. I hadn’t intended to speak but I was so incensed by the way that Engage had tried to hijack it with copies of his pamphlet on every seat, that I spoke, explaining that Steve was no Zionist. His view on a Jewish state was that it was inevitably racist.

Erica argued that ‘it is completely wrongheaded’ for Zionists to use the pamphlet today when the context is not the same as it was in 1984 and that the debates about Zionism and anti-Semitism and ‘how the left engages with, or indeed exhibits either or even both of these, are quite different.’ But are they? The allegations of ‘anti-Semitism’ that the Zionist Feminists alleged against Women for Palestine bear a marked similarity to today’s weaponisation of anti-Semitism.

Erica explains that the decision to publish Steve’s pamphlet was predicated on the fact that

‘Libby Lawson and I… were among those dozens of Jewish feminists whose letters of protest were refused publication. We were silenced because Spare Rib demanded that Jewish feminists declare their position on Israel and espouse anti-Zionist credentials..’

That is simply untrue. Reinventing the past is a Zionist stratagem. The letters were rejected because they were racist and Zionist. Erica fails to grant agency to Black women in asserting themselves against privileged White Jewish feminists. Erica says that:

‘Jewish feminists demanded the publication of That’s Funny… because it helped unravel how the then dominant political narrative – including feminist and left narratives – conflated Jews and Israel:’

It wasn’t those who wrote Women Speak Out Against Zionism’ who conflated Jews and Israel but their Zionist opponents. The IHRA is but the latest example of this.

Through reinventing what happened with Spare Rib Erica concludes that the attacks on anti-Zionists today are similar to the ‘suffering’ of Jewish feminists in 1982 writing that:

the context now is exactly the opposite. Then, our political voice was rendered conditional on adopting an anti-Zionist position, an enforced and conditional predication that, we argued, was antisemitic in its presumptions … Now, in contrast, it seems that anti-Zionist Jews are especially in the firing (or expulsion) line, and deemed especially culpable precisely as Jews.

It’s true that anti-Zionist Jews today are under attack, but it’s primarily because of their politics not their identity. Erica asserts that

What is also common to both contexts is that we were (in the eyes of various parties) the ‘wrong’ kind of Jews!’

No one was called the ‘wrong kind of Jew’ in 1982. It was Zionists that Black feminists objected to not the fact that some of them were Jewish. Clearly racists should have been unacceptable in any movement that fought oppression. Erica alleged that

‘Steve was always clear – and we (Libby and I, Steve’s co-editors) agreed – that the antisemitism in the women’s movement came from the left.’

If this was what Steve believed then he was wrong. But I don’t believe that he did accept that Black women, the victims of imperialism, were the cause of anti-Semitism.

Erica argued that Engage’s misuse of Steve’s pamphlet is because he

‘convinced himself that the text would speak for itself however it was framed by right wing Zionist reactionaries or left-leaning philosemitic apologists.’

This is not the whole story. The fact is that the text lent itself to such misuse. That is why it is sad that Steve is remembered for TFYDLA rather than his writings and campaigns around immigration and the impetus he gave to the idea that Noone is Illegal.

Erica says she moved from a non-Zionist to an anti-Zionist position as a result of the massacre at Sabra and Chatilla although she talks of

Israeli military’s support (through failing to intervene) for the Phalangists’ massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatilla camp had been exposed.

Israel did not ‘fail to intervene’. It was actively complicit. It lit up the sky with flares so the fascists could kill more easily. As Uri Avnery said, if someone puts a poisonous snake in a baby’s cradle then they cannot proclaim their innocence when the baby dies.

Erica describes Steve’s self description as an anti-Zionist Zionist as

‘wilfully provocative, designed to provoke critical reflection on the part of those who would presume to be, or to know what was, Zionist or anti-Zionist.’

This is also untrue. I told Steve that it was like describing himself as an anti-racist racist! Steve saw Zionism initially, in its reaction to anti-Semitism in the diaspora as an anti-racist movement and only later as racist in the colonial context.

Steve came to this conclusion because he didn’t understand that even from its inception, Zionism had allied with anti-Semites such as Edouard Drumont and the counter-revolution in Russia. Zionism was seen by Jews as a Jewish form of anti-Semitism.

Erica also mentions that the Beyond the Pale Collective, which published Steve’s pamphlet also published Gill Seidel’s book on Holocaust Denial. Seidel’s book, which was explicitly Zionist, defended the Zionist trade agreement with the Nazis on the spurious grounds that it was intended as a means of rescuing German Jews. The book added nothing to our understanding of the holocaust/

What Steve wrote about the campaign that resulted in the Aliens Act of 1905 was neither accurate nor original. A far better work is William Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914. If Steve was correct about the anti-Semitism of the British working class then it would be difficult to understand why thousands of non-Jewish workers joined, on October 4 1936, Jewish workers, against the advice of the Board of Deputies and the Zionists, to stop the march of Moseley’s British Union of Fascists through the East End. Steve did not explain it. He simply ignored it. Fishman described how:

‘We were all side by side. I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley. I shall never forget that for as long as I live, how working-class people could stand together to oppose the evil of racism.’

Fishman was an acclaimed historian. Steve was not. Steve was an expert on British immigration legislation. He understood little of the conditions facing Jewish immigrant workers in Britain and he grasped randomly at nuggets of information. E.g. he doesn’t mention that the best friend of the Zionists was the same Arthur Balfour who piloted the Aliens Act 1905 through Parliament. Erica is right to say that

‘A text is not, as Steve mistakenly thought, timeless in its meaning – a meaning controlled by the intentions of the authors. The fact is that, as Derrida says, meaning is conditioned by lines of force’

Where she is wrong is to suggest that

‘those lines of force are different now from what they were 36 years ago. Steve’s analysis was exactly the opposite of current cynical assertions of the priority, and thereby weaponisation, of antisemitism.’

The attempts to weaponise anti-Semitism then are no different from those today. Except that then they were unsuccessful. I remember being an invited speaker at a Union General Meeting at Sussex University. Some 900 students crammed into Mandela Hall, one of the largest meetings ever.

When it was proposed that I should be a guest speaker the Union of Jewish Students in the form of Nigel Savage (a sabbatical who was later no confidenced!) objected. I was an anti-Semite. The students found it difficult to accept the concept of a Jewish anti-Semite and the UJS motion was overwhelmingly defeated. The motion supporting a democratic, secular state was overwhelmingly supported.

Savage had tried to involve NUS with tales of my ‘anti-Semitism.’ In one letter he declared that I should be top of the list of ‘enemies of the NUS and the University of Sussex!’ I spoke at numerous student meetings. At all of them UJS tried and failed to bar me speaking on the grounds of anti-Semitism including their stronghold at the LSE. Their only achievement was to ensure that instead of a meeting of 20 people that I spoke to audiences of 100+! But anti-Semitism was certainly weaponised by the Zionists then as now.

Steve’s book mentions the anti-Semitism of some early British socialists. The first time I came across people like Robert Blatchford and his British Socialist Party was when the National Front issued leaflets quoting him. However Blatchford and Hyndman are in the past. It is Brexit and anti-Black racism that is the problem now.

Steve (and Erica) was wrong to say that Jews don’t have a responsibility to call out Zionism when it tries to speak in their name. Erica may today call herself an anti-Zionist but that does not mean that she is one! When she says that:

What is common to both cases, and is equally objectionable, is the demand that Jews uphold a specific, deemed ‘correct’, position because they are Jews, or in order to legitimately call themselves Jewish. This demand is antisemitic.

That is not the problem today. Rather anti-Zionist Jews are not recognised by creatures like Starmer as Jewish. We are invisible. But if someone is accused of a crime is it wrong to expect that they deny it? When Israel claims to speak on behalf of all Jews it is incumbent on Jews to dissociate themselves from such a claim. It is not anti-Semitic to expect Jewish people to say ‘not in my name’.

My main objection to what Erica wrote is that, for an academic she has committed the cardinal sin of omitting any evidence that doesn’t support her case! Nowhere does she mention that the ‘anti-Semites’ that she and her White Feminist Zionist friends confronted were the primary victims of racism in this country, Black people.

Tony Greenstein 

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