By Asa Winstanley
Labour’s Shadow Justice Minister Richard Burgon expressed regret this week for having stated in a speech some years ago that Zionism is the “enemy of peace”. He should not have apologised. His 2014 comments were a simple matter of historical fact, and he should have stood by them.
Liberal and “left” Zionists argue that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s increasingly far-right government is a “corruption” of the so-called Zionist dream. This vision represents an egalitarian haven for the world’s oppressed Jewish peoples, we are told.
This is an ahistorical fantasy.
The movement to create a “Jewish state” in Palestine – a country overwhelmingly non-Jewish – was, from its very inception, an exclusionary, racist project. From its earliest days, Zionism was imbued with the same racist attitudes of other European settler-colonial movements. The liberal Zionist conception of equality within Palestine, in reality, excludes Palestinian Arabs, the indigenous people of the land. Such willful blindness is a common feature of colonial movements.
As the renowned Palestinian scholar Nur Masalha explained decades ago his masterful study “Expulsion of the Palestinians”, the Zionist movement, in fact, understood that there were actually people already living in Palestine. However, they chose not to see them as full human beings worthy of rights equal to Jewish settlers.
Masalha wrote that early Zionist Israel Zangwill’s infamous slogan “a land without a people for a people without a land” was not intended as a literal demographic assessment. Zionists “did not mean that there were no people in Palestine, but that there were no people worth considering within the framework of the notions of European supremacy that then held sway”.
These notions of white supremacy, which at that time went unquestioned by European elites, were a common feature of colonial projects of all types. How, then, could Zionism be any different?
The answer is that it was not, no matter how much of a “leftist” cast Labor Zionists put on their colonial movement. Western European Labour movements in colonial metropoles, after all, were often explicitly pro-empire in orientation; arguably none more so than the British Labour Party.
Jeremy Corbyn’s history of support for some of the most basic of Palestinian human rights actually represents a historical rupture with the Labour Party’s long-standing, almost unbroken, record of vehemently anti-Palestinian policies.
Take Richard Crossman for example, a minister in Harold Wilson’s government of the 1960s and later editor of the New Statesman. He was a towering figure of the Labour left at the time, yet was one of the most fanatical of Zionists in the entire party. In a 1959 lecture in Israel, he stated that “no one, until the 20th century, seriously challenged” the “right” or “duty” of what he termed “the white man” in Africa and the Americas “to civilize these continents by physically occupying them, even at the cost of wiping out the aboriginal population.”
Genocide, in other words.
Crossman also lamented that “Jewish settlers” in Palestine had not “achieved their majority before 1914,” and that the Palestinians “regarded them as ‘white settlers,’ come to occupy the Middle East”. One should note that his doyen of the Labour left did not express condemnation of the “white settlers” who did, in fact, come to occupy Palestine by force while displacing the indigenous people. He only regretted that Palestinians recognised the Zionist movement for what it really was and thus opposed it.
No wonder, then, that the Labour government of 1945 had, as part of its election platform, a plank explicitly calling for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Palestine in order to make way for a “Jewish state”. The document claimed there was a necessity in Palestine “for [the] transfer of population. Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out, as the Jews move in”.
The document even went further, advocating future expansion of the borders of the prospective “Jewish state” by annexing parts of Transjordan, Egypt or Syria “by agreement”. In reality, Egypt and the future state of Jordan were then British puppet regimes.
Ben Pimlott, biographer of Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton, described this vision as “Zionism plus plus” – toned down from an even more extreme plan Dalton himself had preferred which had advocated “throwing open Libya or Eritrea to Jewish settlement, as satellites or colonies to Palestine”.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Dalton was, like many colonialists, an explicit racist. He used violently hateful language about black people and Jews, mocking one Labour MP who was Jewish for supposed “ideology”.
Then, as now, Zionism has more often than not gone hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism. Many white racists who despise Jews often have no problem with the concept of a “Jewish state” in Palestine – after all, it holds the prospects of removing Jews from Europe.
As the alleged perpetrator of the Christchurch mosque massacres wrote in his “manifesto,” while denying he is an anti-Semite: “A Jew living in Israel is no enemy of mine, so long as they do not seek to subvert or harm my [white] people.”
For all these reasons and more, Zionism has always been a racist movement – no less so in its “labor Zionist” version.
Today, labour Zionism is dead as a political force within occupied Palestine. The Labor party – whose political antecedents founded the state of Israel and perpetrated the Nakba of 1948, in which 750,000 Palestinians were expelled by force – is now relegated to a rump of six seats in the Knesset.
Labor Zionism’s primary utility to the wider Zionist movement is as an ideological weapon against the global left and the Palestine solidarity movement around the world, as seen in the divisive role such groups as the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Friends of Israel have played in the long-running campaign against Jeremy Corbyn.
As one key JLM leader explained the same month that Corbyn was first elected UK Labour leader in 2015: “We built a robust political discourse, rooted in the politics of the left and deployed it in their own backyard.” This project was undertaken so that “Israel’s case” would not be “lost by default”. The Labour anti-Semitism “crisis” is, in reality, a campaign by racists to smear anti-racists as “racist.”