When Ntokozo Qwabe – law student and activist in Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall movement – bragged on social media about reducing a white waitress to tears back in his home country of South Africa, refusing to tip her until she ‘returned the land’, he reflexively dismissed any and all criticism of his actions (later revealed as his friend’s) as an effort to attack and delegitimise the noble struggle of anti-racism.
No doubt there was some of that around. But in his most recent ‘final word’ on the matter, Qwabe delivers a covert justification of the rights of wealthy members of elite universities to intimidate and harass female workers – provided that they are white, and provided that it ‘disrupts whiteness’:
This incident was not about class, and the bullying of an innocent white worker. That it has been made about class has mostly been a result of an inability to comprehend that the political act was not about Ashleigh or the fact of her being a waitress. As a person who has worked first as a “trolley boy”, then as a till packer and lastly as a cashier at a supermarket for a substantial period of time, where I was reliant on tips from customers, tips, I should add, that were nowhere close to what Ashleigh gets in a restaurant – they were usually more like anything from 10c to R2, if anything at all. I know exactly what it means to be in a position of “an exploited worker”…
This whole class furore speaks to the insufficiency of class analysis in our particular context, and in other contexts more generally where the means of production have historically lied with the coloniser. The idea that Ashleigh is some vulnerable, exploited, working class person needs to be closely interrogated, and in fact speaks to the irrationality of whiteness’ image of who forms part of the exploited working class and who does not. In the context of South Afrikan society, Ashleigh is actually way more privileged than most black working class people.
Sure, many black people have it worse than Ashleigh.
But Qwabe, a law student studying at a global elite university on a highly-paid scholarship, is not one of those people. It is his private accumulation of labour power produced by members of the South African working class – black or white – that allows him to sit in fancy restaurants making the conscious decision not to tip a low paid waiter, whose living standards and job security are dependent on his willingness to leave satisfied with her service.
Saying that he can’t oppress restaurant workers because he used to be one is like Lord Sugar trumpeting that he’s a member of the working class just because he hasn’t lost his northern accent.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that Qwabe is indeed a black restaurant worker – and that he could only afford to eat in Ashleigh’s place because more rich white South Africans than normal happened to tip him that month. Can Ashleigh (who is still white and poor) ‘return the land’ then?
Yes ‘the means of production have historically lied with the coloniser’ but that’s precisely why ‘the coloniser’ could ever be so the first place: powerful European states, through force of arms, seized land and economic production, and so forced black workers to surrender the entire political arena to their white bosses and landowners.
But capitalism doesn’t care about race. Since the end of Apartheid, some white people (like Ashleigh) have fallen on hard times while a number of black people (like Qwabe) have, by exploiting the competitive spirit of neoliberal economics, risen to the top of the social order. Seizing land for himself and for other black people without any conception of what they might share with white workers does nothing to challenge the class dynamics that oppress the majority of his countrymen.
Sure, black people are still by far and away the greatest victims of South Africa’s deeply entrenched economic inequality. But the answer to that isn’t black people (rich or not) humiliating white people in their place of work, ‘disrupting whiteness’ while reinforcing systems of economic oppression – it’s in the entire working class organising in their collective and unique economic self-interest to take control over land and the means of production.
If they did so, would Qwabe be on their side?
This was originally published on Left Foot Forward.
Cowering innocently under the shelter of ‘anti-Zionism’ is not a serious response to the charge of antisemitism. The BNP have long done so; we should expect better from the Labour left.
Criticism of Israeli chauvinism and the occupation of Palestine is self-evidently not antisemitic. Incendiary and historically illiterate polemics denouncing ‘Zionism’ often do, however, draw cruel caricatures of the Jewish quest for self-determination which it embodies, and the fierce racial oppression it was intended to defy.
One has to understand Zionism before it is possible to critique it.
In the late nineteenth century, much of Europe’s educated Jewry emerged from Haskalah – the so-called ‘Jewish Enlightenment’ – secularised and aspiring to integrate into societies no longer governed by the ethics of clerical antisemitism.
But they were not permitted to do so. Everywhere nationalists, revitalised by the pseudo-intellectualism afforded by racial Darwinism, inveighed against Jewish assimilation and ‘the degradation’ to which they lowered European civilisation, as journalist Édouard Drumont had it.
Cast out at once as the impoverished anarchist and the voracious banker, ‘the Jew’ was the architect of all social malaise. Jews were not welcome – ‘loyal patriots in vain’, as Zionist father Theodor Herzl described them. Whether in Argentina or the Ottoman Empire, only a new state might enfranchise the Jewish people – with whatever utopian spirit – from the manacles imposed on it by political racists.
In the years that came, hundreds of thousands of Jews migrated to Palestine. Their kibbutzim became the social blocks of socialist Zionism around which the Israeli state would cluster, and from which Herzl’s hope to build not just a ‘new social system’ but a ‘more righteous one’ appeared to have promise.
None of this is intended to romanticise the project – only to understand it.
For the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who had long typified the many brilliant contributions that Jewish thinkers had made to secular thought, there was famously ‘no special corner in my heart for the ghetto’. Of all the struggles and oppressions in the world, she believed that Zionism distracted Jews from their true vocation in the labour movement with solipsistic and ill-fated nostalgia for a homeland.
Sadly, Luxemburg was prescient. Over the decades, the ruling tendencies of Zionism have mutated into an unpardonable chauvinism; bolstered by the paranoia of national security and the crushing of the labour movement, the tragedy is that Israeli society has come to bear the imprint of so many of the racist nationalisms from which its founding settlers had fled.
But that history is a warning against all nationalisms, and rightly; it says nothing about the specific legitimacy or otherwise of Zionism itself, whose various incarnations share only the distinct belief that Israel ought to exist. Even today, antisemitism pushes thousands of Jews to the Israeli state.
Anti-Zionism, from this perspective, operates as the unique denial of an historically oppressed minority’s right to self-determination. No such attitude would be taken of any other national group.
This is the logic from which antisemitism is bred; and its historical antecedents should have long warned us against it. From the 1950s and beyond, Stalinists of the Soviet Union vulgarised Zionism as ‘settler-colonialism’ as a way of legitimating their obsession with Russian Jews whom it routinely paraded as power-hungry mercenaries of the West.
To have any sense of the oppression that motored the early waves of Zionism means rooting out these absurd and deadly caricatures.
Reflexively dismissing the charge of antisemitism as a plot to unseat Jeremy Corbyn comes from precisely the same conspiratorial logic as antisemitism itself: it is a denial of agency over our own ideas and methods of political organisation.
So far, the centrist plan to ‘tackle antisemitism’ in the Labour Party has amounted to a heavier reliance on internal party bureaucracy – more investigations and more powers to a ‘Compliance Unit’ to root out activists far beyond the pale of any democratic accountability.
But antisemitism is a problem with faulty ideas, not individuals; it corrupts our solidarity with foreign peoples and estrange one of the world’s most historically oppressed minorities from the cause of labour. There are better ways to build internationalism – and better ways to ‘criticise Israel’.
Labour’s left flank has had some astounding victories over the past few months – now we need the intellectual integrity to be worthy of them. If we do not call out our own prejudices, then those who would return us to the footnotes of history will do so on our behalf.
They may very well succeed, and perhaps they would be right to try.
Of all the parodies of the Jeremy Corbyn campaign, the most ridiculous is the attempt to scare it away with the corpse of Michael Foot. It begins with the infamous ‘suicide manifesto’ of 1983; moving left as the country moved right, Labour’s crushing defeat in that year is invariably cited as hard proof of the British electorate’s instinctive hatred of socialism. However moral and correct a Labour under Corbyn would be, so the argument from ‘pragmatism’ follows, its achievements would amount to nothing more than an indefinite party of protest. If you wish to understand the future, take a glance at the past.
To put it politely – this is not how history works. Even discounting the nationalist euphoria surrounding the Falklands – a miraculous war which Foot himself had supported – as well as the SDP’s brutal and essentially narcissistic hacking of the Labour Party into two, the anti-socialism that motored working class Toryism in the 1980s has long been spent; it only really exists now as a ghost to beat down those for whom the reality of accelerating inequality and deprivation has thoroughly discredited any economic orthodoxies that once promised the opposite.
Foot’s ‘suicide note’ landed in the midst of counter-revolution. Following a decade of economic stagnation, Margaret Thatcher’s answer to administrative incompetence was not to reconstruct and democratise the state’s services, but to slash and privatise. Trade unions were bullied into submission; industrial warfare was not to be pacified, but defeated. Only with collective bargaining rights under siege and the market freed from the shackles of the public interest, so Thatcher promised, could people seize upon profit and advance their lot in life.
The ultimate goal of Thatcherism was, however, to break apart the collective working class by exploiting momentary panic; betrayal was inevitable. The middle-class have monopolised access to housing and higher education, depressing the opportunities of the very individuals whose vulnerability Thatcher had pledged to secure. As a result, the hopes invested in her politics of aspiration have decayed into cynicism and despair; UKIP’s myopic campaign against immigration rides largely on the residual anger of an old working class Toryism, aged, demoralised and disenchanted. If the antidote is to have any chance of success, it will have to be socialist and class-based.
But it’s so much bigger than UKIP. The vast majority of people today either chose not to vote for Thatcher or were not alive to do so; and with a smaller turnout at the 2001 election than for the better part of a century, it’s not a coincidence that so much of the white working class stopped voting once Labour decided that ‘we are all middle class’, as John Prescott loftily had his party’s rapprochement with neoliberal Britain. While having few of the policies to show for it, Ed Miliband’s leadership was, it’s true, something of a reach to the left; but with his entire campaign still underwritten by the propriety of austerity, Miliband’s Labour amounted to nothing more than some slightly naïve paternalism. Aspiring to govern for everyone, he inspired no one.
Believing that the right is guaranteed to endure will only ensure that it does. For Liz Kendall – the Blairite extreme with whose politics Cooper and Burnham incoherently flirt – the electorate, ‘the British public’, is just that classless and mentally impenetrable mass with whom debate is futile; its politics immutable, the pinnacle of democratic decency is not to argue and discuss but to accept uncritically the political centre as a diluted and arbitrarily nuanced vision of economic orthodoxy as it stands. In practice, this sends Labour into a futile chase after the Tory vote, inexorably retreating rightwards and cocooned away from the millions of people, especially young, either in desperate search of an escape from austerity or, in its absence, embracing whatever hollow comforts are offered by the nationalists of the day.
The British working class isn’t ‘instinctively’ anything – the right has been successful because it has waged determined and efficient campaigns for decades while the left has sat lost in a state of dismay. The working class has continued to fragment, but the entrenchment of social inequality and poverty has, in other ways, made it more physically tangible than in decades. Whether or not a Labour under Corbyn can recollect the shards of the labour movement won’t be known until it’s tried; but to throw aside the batten before the race has even begun is as disabling as it is dangerous, for both Labour and the country at large.
As all good stories begin, a tweet:
— Cosmic Landmine (@cosmiclandmine) August 25, 2015
Geography might be a weakness of the Corbyn campaign, but it isn’t the worst. What appears to be is how a wide variety of sloppy and false critiques of the Israeli government have led to a glib disregard for the welfare of the Jewish people.
When the left is faced with the charge of antisemitism, its instinct is self-defence: to blame an hysterical media campaign by the right to sabotage anything that threatens it. But we need the integrity to realise that it’s far more than that. It was nice to see Owen Jones try:
There are those who imply that Jewish people are somehow synonymous with the Israeli government (a slur echoed by some uncritical cheerleaders of Israeli state policy). And some use terms like “Jewish lobby”, a classic antisemitic trope suggesting there is an organised Jewish cabal exercising behind-the-scenes influence worldwide. And so on.
But left-wing antisemitism is both broader and subtler than this – mostly because those who espouse it genuinely do not recognise their politics to be racist. However unintentional, the campaign against Israel typically operates on a logic that uniquely discriminates against the Jewish quest for self-determination, whose ‘Zionism’ is routinely vulgarised to the extent that it becomes synonymous only with the most regressive forces of ultra-Orthodox, sectarian expansionism.
This will not promote social justice. There are better ways of critiquing Israel.
Zionism as Jewish Nationalism
When Richard Dawkins is condemned for supposedly racist remarks against Muslims, he argues – rightly – that we should be free to interrogate religious texts free of any suffocating charges of racism. But the retort is that, if one works on the assumption that Islam exists as a single, essentialised body of codes to be critiqued, for example in some non-existent ‘book of sharia’, then the only logical corollary is that comparable generalisations can be made of all Muslims. Unfortunately, moreover, in much of the New Atheist mindset criticism of religion begins with its fanatics, where it is said to be most ‘real’. Through Boko Haram and Islamic State, clerical fascism becomes the body of Islam, and so the soul of Muslims. The result, whatever one’s intentions, amounts to the intellectual legitimacy of racism and bigotry.
While this doesn’t persuade me, for most of the left the concern is very well understood. But the ideology of ‘Zionism’ is rarely treated with comparable subtlety, shall we say. The ease with which poorly-defined critiques of the ‘Zio threat’ can legitimise the far right does not stop the left from borrowing from its vocabulary. Instead, and with beautiful Dawkins-esque logic, the risks of racism are reflexively dismissed as an effort to silence criticism of Israel:
@MarkCrawford0 You do know that Jewish and Zionist are not the same thing. Don’t you?
— Magpie’s View (@MagpiesView) August 25, 2015
Anyone is welcome to reduce their definition of ‘Zionism’ to – basically – illegal settlements and bombs. But it will amount to a libelous parody, and one for which there is no excuse.
At its most reductive, the spirit of Zionism is the closest that Jews have ever had to a national identity. Late nineteenth-century Europe was poisoned by antisemitic mass politics, recently secularised and made more vicious than ever by the pseudoscience of racial Darwinism. With Jews everywhere under siege, Theodor Herzl formulated a project to rouse his nation from its slumbering diaspora, and elected to do so by way of the ancestral home of Israel. In Herzl’s vision, moreover, Jews and Arabs would live alongside one another, each thriving under universal citizenship and total cultural independence. It was a dream, even if, unfortunately, it gravitated towards utopianism: to enfranchise Jews from the shackles of political racism.
But for Jewish revolutionaries, Zionism was a distraction from the class politics in which Jews had long made their greatest contributions to humanity. Rosa Luxemburg famously claimed that she had no place in her heart for the ‘ghetto’; a new state in Israel might liberate Jews briefly from the worst of European racial suppression, but it would inevitably find itself underpinned by the same social class system against which she battled from her prison cell in Breslau. With retrospect, her idealism carried with it stakes of impossibly high proportions. Her murder by the Weimar government in the early days of 1919 – after a failed revolution – played a significant role in destabilising the German left, the only force that might have had the momentum to stop the Nazis from seizing power.
Still, history has proven Luxemburg’s criticisms of Zionism to have been ominously prescient. Constantly obsessing over security, inequality has spread like a virus through an Israeli state founded upon the principles of collectivism; and with the typical income of an Israeli Arab family half that of the average Jewish family, it is not a coincidence that the will for peace has softened with the quiet humbling of the labour movement. A toxic mixture of racism and paranoia has elevated Israel’s populist right; in Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government sit members of the Shas movement – which opposes any freeze on settlement activity – and a justice minister from Jewish Home, which wants to annex the West Bank. It makes for a disturbing echo of the German Empire of the 1890s, when – as Geoff Eley has written – its leaders ran on fanciful adventures across Africa and Eastern Europe, its people persuaded that security and prosperity came not in social reform but in exploiting the industrial and technological superiority it held over other peoples. The tragic fate of Zionism is that, in its quest for national defence, a powerful current has mutated into the very predatory and chauvinistic forces of the Europe from which it was invented to escape.
But this doesn’t make sectarianism ‘true Zionism’ or ‘central to Zionism’ anymore than we would twin Islamic State with Tower Hamlets. Many Israelis, particularly on the left, simply refuse to abandon their national heritage to the forces currently so visibly triumphant in Jerusalem. Through the World Labor Zionist Movement and the World Union of Meretz, socialists across the world agitate for a Palestinian state and do so on behalf of the two largest left-wing parties in the Knesset. Consistent in calling for the cooperation of Arab and Jewish workers, it can hardly be condemned for refusing to pacify the proto-fascistic, Jew-hating forces ruling Gaza; in 2000, Israeli Labor leader Ehud Barak brought Palestine to within a whisker of peace – had self-appointed Arab spokesman Yasser Arafat been willing to accept it. This is to say nothing of the many academics and journalists scattered across the world campaigning for the liberal Zionism of ethnic and political peace. We have to fight alongside these people, not boycott them.
It takes, moreover, scant regard for human dignity to claim that either the emotional or practical needs for Zionism have passed away. Right-wing antisemitism was steadily rising over the two decades to 2014, since when it has suddenly spiked; 7,000 Jews fled France for Israel last year, and in 2015, with the attack on the kosher supermarket following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the figure is likely to be more than double that. These are not wealthy conspiracists in league with American imperialism but victims of an antisemitism for which the left, their traditional allies, has shown disgracefully little concern. For these Jews, ‘Zionism’ is not some fanciful expansionism; it comes from a brewing vulnerability that only the Israeli state has even offered to secure.
The fact that Zionism has mutated is an argument against regressive nationalist politics – it is not specific either to Zionism or to the Jewish aspiration for self-determination that it embodies. It is a positive step that some Jews, mostly in Europe and mostly secure, feel safe without a Jewish nation to protect them – but that does not give them the right to make pronouncements about Israel’s legitimacy on behalf of those who do not. Like the religious politics Dawkins is keen to satirise, Zionism has within it the potential to emancipate as well as suppress; and, like religion, the best – and, I would suggest, only – way of critiquing it begins with the recognition that there are as many forms of Zionism as there are reasons for the Jewish nation’s existence, as well as its expansion.
Zionism and Colonialism
A typical feature of mainstream ‘anti-Zionism’ comes from Garry Leech of Stop the War Coalition, who has tasked himself with explaining why arguing for the dismantling of the Israeli state is ‘not anti-semitic’. After conceding that the earliest Jewish settlers in Palestine were indeed fleeing a terrible and ubiquitous menace, he writes:
By all rights, Palestine, like its neighbors, should have become an independent nation following World War Two, but the Western-backed Zionist project prevented this from happening. In accordance with the Balfour Declaration, Britain and the United States sought to ensure the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Under British rule, the Jewish population in Palestine had increased from 11 percent in 1922 to 32 percent in 1948, with many having arrived following the end of the war… Jewish groups supported the partition plan but Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states opposed it on the grounds that it violated the principles of national self-determination in the UN charter under which Palestinians should have the right to decide their own destiny. The plan was not implemented. Nevertheless, the Jewish population in Palestine unilaterally announced the creation of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948.
For Leech, the self-determination of the Palestinian Arabs requires that Palestinian Jews be denied theirs: there cannot be two states, thriving side-by-side, but a single entity in which the Jewish demography is put firmly into the political minority where it belongs. But this is a justified position because Zionism has always been, he asserts, in essence a brutal form of settler-colonialism sponsored by the West to control the Orient. It cannot exist in any other way; the relationship of Zionism to any Jewish national identity is immaterial.
To make this argument, history has to be rewritten. The British government’s white paper of 1939, limiting Jewish immigration after a revolt by the region’s Arab population, receives no mention; nor does the bitter resentment with which the British Labour government of the 1940s oversaw partition. Most of the Empire’s ruling class in the early 20th century was deeply antisemitic – Winston Churchill, forever distrustful, penned his thoughts on Jewish Bolshevism in his introduction to the racist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But ‘anti-Zionists’ invent the history of Israel in other ways; I have seen fabricated ‘quotes’ from Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism who advocated peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews, to make him out to be some land-obsessed deviant out to drive Arabs from the Levant. Then there are the infamous maps that purport to show some kind of inevitable and unstoppable colonial ‘advance’:
Hint on the first map, just to get you started: ‘Palestinian’ was purely a geographical definition. It referred to both Arabs and Jews, and as a Mandate also included the East section of the River Jordan which was both almost entirely Arab, and included the majority of the land. The Jews lived in the white section, but a lot of the green section was uninhabitable desert and the entire map was owned by the British imperial government. The purpose of this map is, in other words, to disguise the racist blurring of ethnicity and politics under the guise of ‘anti-Zionism’.
It strikes me that it might be possible to question the founding of the Israeli state from a position not of antisemitism, but of one simply hostile to the free movements of peoples; it might, for example, be possible to raise legitimate criticism of the settling of New England. Though just as it would be more than a little weird to hear the contemporary left inveigh so virulently against the long-dead Pilgrims, the implication of persistently restating the uncertain grounds of the founding of the Jewish state becomes that it should no longer exist. The Jews must be refused an attempt to establish a state as they please.
If there is any way that one could argue for the dismantling of Israel without fabricating the history of Jewish self-determination, I would be very interested to hear it.
Quids in for Corbyn
In the space of a few weeks, the Corbyn campaign has mobilised tens of thousands of activists, many of whose politics has never amounted to more than some vague hatred of an establishment they never expected to influence. These are people who have never needed to scrutinise their own prejudices; when they were marginalised, they could feel content to dismiss all criticisms – even from the left – as an ignoble plot to defame the quest for social justice. This is how the Palestine solidarity campaign has convinced itself that antisemitism is basically a fabrication by mainstream politicians to shut down criticism of Israel, and so also why reactions to Corbyn’s associations with antisemites has meandered so arbitrarily between denying and justifying them.
At a time of rising antisemitism, silence amounts to legitimation. Corbyn is right to speak against an academic boycott but he has to do more: at the outset, anti-semites have to be expelled from the party and he has to shun all associations with Hamas – unless he makes the bizarre decision to invite the Israeli far right to the negotiating table too. Alliances with Jewish – and Zionist – internationalists have to be forged. It is not enough to make abstract condemnations while thousands of his supporters are allowed to isolate Jews from mainstream debate.
This does not need to threaten the left’s revival. But, in all likelihood, Corbyn is about to launch his bid for government – and if we don’t acknowledge our own prejudices, the right will do so on our behalf.