Whether you are Jewish or not, you should be able to debate about zionism. And it should be possible to argue against zionism without being accused of being antisemitic.
Ken Livingstone’s crass comments have muddied the water. He has always been a maverick, but I fear that his current suspension or possible expulsion from the Labour Party are as much to do with Labour panicking in the run-up to local elections – plus the wish of some to box Corbyn into a corner – as a desire to take a firm anti-racism stand. Say that the Labour Party has a problem about antisemitism often enough and it somehow becomes ‘true’.
There are anti-semites across the political spectrum, even including the Left, despite its long and mainly noble past combatting fascism and racism. (I have to confess that, like Livingstone, I have not personally known any Labour anti-semites. But I know they exist.)
There is a danger that politicians will bend over backwards to cultivate the Jewish community – rather than spell out that antisemitism is a form of racism – along with islamaphobia, and blaming Roma gypsies, immigrants and refugee seekers as the cause of all our problems. Freedom of speech, tolerance of others and solidarity against racism and intolerance are at risk.
There is now a real danger that you cannot criticise zionism or the policies of the state of Israel or support Palestinian rights without being accused of antisemitism.
It doesn’t help that the whole history of Palestine is such a real mess. And it is worth remembering the crucial part Britain and the rest of Europe played in creating this mess.
I understand that zionism finds its roots in centuries of European anti-semitism, but I find it hard to understand how so many European politicians were eager to find a Jewish homeland (initially not necessarily in Palestine) and how oblivious they seemed to the rights of the existing populations whether Masai or Arab.
At least the Balfour Declaration in its final form did acknowledge that nothing should be done to damage the civil or religous rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine. Nevertheless, it was clear from early on that British politicians could foresee the day when Jewish migrants were in the majority and Palestine became a Jewish state. Hardly surprising that there was Arab opposition from the outset.
Then came the mess following the end of the British mandate in 1948, with the United Nations solution of partition, rejected by Arab leaders as being against the principles of self-determination.
This is where I start to wonder what should have happened. Should the Palestinians have caved in, avoiding the crippling war that followed? Was a two-state solution viable? The Arabs of Palestine have been deeply wronged, but how far back can one go in giving them back what is theirs? Not I fear 1922 or 1948, but perhaps 1967? Though every year that passes with increasing Jewish migration and Israel hardening its control over the land occupied in 1967 makes and end to occupation harder to envisage.
Has the moment come to accept that there should be one state, Israel, but with citizenship for all, Jews, Arabs and others?
So I feel despairing about political resolution. But at least I want to add my voice to those who call for the state of Israel to stop human rights violations and end the siege of Gaza.
Many of my Jewish friends are signatories to Jews for Justice for Palestinians. But some are not. I understand their anguish as their very identity as Jews seems somehow tied up with zionism – the sense that Jews have a right to a homeland in Israel. (But a right going back to an injustice done over 2000 years ago?!) I sympathise more with the views of the Israeli, Shlomo Sand, whose article I read in the Guardian last year. He seeks to separate the sense of Jewish identity with the identity of the state of Israel. He argues for a secular state of Israel, in which both Jews and Arabs are citizens.
Today’s Observer publishes two very different contributions. I forced myself to read to the end of Nick Cohen’s unpalatable contribution, and wondered yet again why the Observer gives him space. So it was reassuring to follow up with Jonathan Friedland’s more sophisticated and caring piece.
I don’t really go along with his analogy of a hypothetical country like Israel but populated by black people – and the different way criticism in Britain would be treated. But he goes on to spell out the position of a liberal zionist (he has elsewhere pointed out that people too often mistaker right-wing zionism to represent zionism generally). He accept’s Israel’s discrimination against its Arab population and is critical of the post-1967 occupation, but questions whether the dark events of 1948 nullify Israel’s right to exist, though he clearly hopes that one day Israel will acknowledge the price Palestinians paid.
It is worth remembering the statistic he gives, that 93% of British Jews told a 2015 survey that Israel forms some part of their identity as Jews. But I think he is wrong to say that most can take – as well as give – criticism of Israel. He says that what they want is for the left to treat Israel like any other flawed society and not to be picked out as a “byword for evil”. Many of us who criticise Israel also criticise Assad, Putin, Saudi Arabia – and the US.
But yes, perhaps he is right in a way. We criticise Israel in a particular way. Because how could a people (or rather, their government) with their history of the holocaust treat a minority so badly?