Debating the nature of Zionism and the Jewish state

JVL Introduction

Labour recently published a leaflet  No Place for Antisemitism  and Jeremy Corbyn reiterated his pledge for Labour to “embark on a programme of political education to deepen Labour members’ understanding of what antisemitism is and how to counter it”.

That is the context for Liverpool Friends of Palestine’s critical engagement with the concept of Zionism, reposted below.


This article was originally published by on Wed 14 Aug 2019. Read the original here.

Responding to Labour’s statement “No Place for Antisemitism”

Liverpool Friends of Palestine is affiliated to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and is part of the international Palestine Solidarity movement. We are not affiliated to the Labour Party, though a number of our members are also Labour members.

We campaign for self-determination for all the Palestinian people and call for the removal of all barriers, both physical and ideological, to achieve this aim. These include the colonial subjugation of Palestinian people and land, currently visible in the siege and occupation of Gaza, the occupation of the West Bank, the annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (illegal under international law), and all discriminatory laws and practices within Israel. We support the demands of the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement – End the Occupation, Full Equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the Right of Return for Palestinian Refugees – and campaign to implement BDS. These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law.

We oppose all types of racism, including Islamophobia, anti-Jewish prejudice and anti-Palestinian racism. We are anti-Zionist. We welcome a commitment from anyone who wants to oppose anti-Semitism, as we do.

It is in this context that we view the recent Labour Party statement “No Place for Antisemitism” (NPfA) which forms part of an education programme within the party.

We welcome a discussion of anti-Semitism including its historical roots. But we disagree with several aspects of the perspective on Israel and Zionism as expressed in NPfA, which adversely affect our campaign work. We hope our comments will aid discussion in the solidarity movement, outside and inside the Labour Party.

Jewish identity

NPfA states “… blaming Israel’s faults on its Jewish identity, or holding all Jews in the UK and elsewhere responsible for what Israel does is antisemitic.”

We agree with part of this – it is anti-Semitic to hold all Jews in the UK and elsewhere responsible for what Israel does. Many Jewish people abhor what Israel does, a growing number recognise the current reality as a form of apartheid, and some Jews are opposed in principle to the concept of a “Jewish State”. Of course other people who are not Jewish may also hold these views.

But we don’t agree that “blaming Israel’s faults on its Jewish identity” is necessarily anti-Semitic. Israel’s “Jewish identity” is not the identity of any individual Jews, wherever they live. Israel’s “Jewish identity” is the formal basis of a State which systematically discriminates in favour of Jews and against non-Jews. The discrimination includes these measures:

  • The “Law of Return” (5 July 1950) which gives Jews the right to come and live in Israel and to gain Israeli citizenship, a right denied to Palestinians ethnically cleansed in 1948 and their descendants;
  • The “Nationality Law” (1 April 1952) which stripped most Palestinians of the citizenship they held during the British Mandate period up to the creation of Israel;
  • The “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” adopted by the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) on 19 July 2018, which is widely recognised as entrenching apartheid. Its provisions include “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people”. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the passage of the law as “a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel. We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence.”

Once Israel defined itself as a Jewish State, the project was and remains racist. The non-racist alternative is to define itself as the state of all its citizens, which Israel refuses to do.

The History

NPfA says “In response to 19th Century European antisemitism, some Jews became advocates for Zionism, Jewish national self-determination in a Jewish state. Since the State of Israel was founded in 1948, following the horrors of the Holocaust, Zionism means maintaining that state. Jewish people have the same right to self-determination as any other people.”

If this is an attempt to summarise the relevant history, it is both dangerously selective and misleading. Some Jews became advocates for Zionism in response to 19th Century European anti-Semitism, particularly the pogroms in Tsarist Russia. Zionism was a settler-colonial movement dedicated to exclusive Jewish control of land and labour and the formation of a demographically Jewish state. Our view of that history was set out in a leaflet circulated at the 2018 Labour Party Conference.

The first practical steps towards an actual ‘Jewish State’ came not (as NPfA suggests) after the Second World War but during the First. In November 1917 the British Government issued its ‘Balfour Declaration’ promising Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people. The final draft was negotiated with British Zionist leaders without consultation with the Palestinian people or consideration of their interests. A proviso “…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country” was ignored by the Zionist movement, and never enforced by Britain.

After WW1 ended Britain assumed a mandate to govern Palestine and sought to promote Jewish settlement. When Arab protests led to a restriction on Jewish immigration, Jewish terrorists took up arms against the British. Even before the British withdrawal on 15 May 1948, the ethnic cleansing of over 700,000 people and the destruction of around 500 villages had begun. Palestinians call this the ‘Nakba’ (catastrophe). The process continues to this day with military occupation and settlement, restriction of movement and house demolitions in the West Bank, the displacement of the Bedouin in Southern Israel and the oppressive siege and occupation of Gaza.

Therefore, we do not accept NPfA’s endorsement of the concept of a Jewish State, nor that anyone on the left can speak of 1948 without mentioning the ‘Nakba’, nor that self-determination for Jewish people automatically implies a Jewish State when self-determination for the Palestinian people concerns the same land.

NPfA later backs away, partially, by stating “Arguing for one state with rights for all Israelis and Palestinians is not antisemitic, but calling for the removal of Jews from the region is. Anti-Zionism is not in itself antisemitic and some Jews are not Zionists”. We agree with all that. NPfA continues “Labour is a political home for Zionists and anti-Zionists. Neither Zionism nor anti-Zionism is in itself racism.” But Zionism, as it actually exists embodied in the State of Israel, which systematically discriminates against Palestinians, is racism.

The IHRA definition and examples

NPfA also links to a page on the website of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). On the IHRA webpage a 40-word ‘non-legally binding working definition’ is followed by 11 ‘contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life’.

Long before Labour adopted the definition and 11 examples, there were concerns that its wholesale adoption would stifle discussion. Kenneth Stern, who originally drafted the IHRA definition, concluded his testimony to a 2017 US Congressional hearing: “My fear is, if we similarly enshrine this definition into law, outside groups will try and suppress – rather than answer – political speech they don’t like. The academy, Jewish students, and faculty teaching about Jewish issues, will all suffer.”

A widely publicised letter (27 Aug 2018) from Palestinian unions and civil society opposing the IHRA definition and examples was included in our second leaflet circulated at the 2018 Labour Party Conference, which also discussed BDS.

One of the IHRA examples (no. 7) reads “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

There is no obvious connection between the first and second halves of this example, which is now routinely used to denounce supporters of the Palestinians as anti-Semitic. Whatever the phrase “a State of Israel” might mean, the State of Israel, as it actually exists and has done since the ethnic cleansing of 1948 which continues to this day, is a racist endeavour. Self-determination does not include the right to prevent or obstruct the right to self-determination of another people, let alone dispossess or discriminate against them. But that is the very basis of the Israeli state. NPfA makes no mention of ethnic cleansing, nor of the Balfour Declaration which paved the way for this tragedy.

Therefore, despite aspects which we welcome, we do not accept Labour’s current view of anti-Semitism in relation to Israel or Zionism, the ideology on which the State of Israel was founded and which it continues to embody.

Liverpool Friends of Palestine
August 2019

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Comments (9)

  • I agree with this article and I only take exception to one sentence “We oppose all types of racism, including Islamophobia, anti-Jewish prejudice and anti-Palestinian racism.” Why anti Jewish prejudice and not anti Jewish racism ?
    Seems to me that you are doing exactly what we rightly accuse Zionists of doing and introducing a hierarchy of racism. Prejudice is softer than racism. The fact that Zionists want to talk about racism against Jews and not racism against Palestinians does not mean racism against Jews does not exist. Racism is not the same as “prejudice”.
    But the fact that Jews are subject to racism does not at all prove that Jews are a race. You only have to look at Margaret Hodge to doubt if her ancestors were ever in the Middle East. Jews are no more a race than Roman Catholics are a race and Margaret Hodge doesn’t even believe in the God who awarded Palestine to the Jews. So how can you logically have a right of return to a place where your family never was ?
    If the Board of Deputies believe that Jews have a Right of Self Determination do they also think the Roma have a Right of Self Determination ? If so what territory should be ethnically cleansed to provide territory for the new Roma state ? Texas perhaps ?

  • I agree with the sentiments propounded in this well-expressed post.

  • Jane Bramley says:

    I totally agree with this JVL statement. The IHRA definit ion does not recognise the Palestinian population living there – making them invisible!

    [Just to point out that this in not a JVL statement, but one from Liverpool Friends of Palestine – web ed.]

  • Richard Hayward says:

    The distortions that have arisen from the terminally flawed IHRA document are plain. By definition, a situation that arrogates the rights of one group of people over those of another is prejudicial to the latter. No if’s, no buts.

    The situation in Israel should be thought of as religious discrimination, apartheid and ethnic cleansing rather than by the shorthand term ‘racism’ – a term that raises questions about the whole notion of ‘race’ that stem from a modern understanding of evolution and genetics. Let’s face it, the 1930s should have taught us something about ‘racial’ definitions and mythologies.

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    I have a few differences with the points in this document, though I welcome it as a useful contribution to the debate.
    For the moment I just want to take up one point:
    You say that holding Jews responsible for the crimes of the state of Israel is anti-Semitic. I don’t think it is as simple as this sounds. The key idea of anti-Semitism is hostility to Jews. What if this loose talk – and it is certainly that – is offered as a generalisation but absolutely without any indication of hatred towards Jews as Jews? We all speak in generalising terms: “The Germans this….”, “The Russians that….”
    If you say, without any further condition or qualification, that this phrase is anti-Semitic, are you saying that that those who say it are anti-Semites, and if you are saying that, then are you saying that they are racists?
    I’m all for correcting, calling out, criticising loose talk. Loose talk that might give comfort to real anti-Semites or real racists and we should point this out. We should point out the dangers without insisting that there is an equivalence.
    As a matter of fact, I believe your statement is one kind of “loose talk”. And like loose talk in general it strengthens our opponents.
    This works both ways: Zionism may be considered a racist ideology, but are all Zionists racists in the generally accepted meaning of the word. And are all contributors to Zionist causes racists?

    A brief autobiographical note that bears on what I have said. As long as I can remember, my family took in lodgers to make ends meet. At first they were Jewish – refugees like my parents – but later they were mainly people sent to us by the British Council and the local university. Most were black. Some neighbours complained, but my parents, I’m proud to report, refused to be influenced by this and our home welcomed Ethiopians, Ugandans, Indians, Pakistanis etc. And yet we had on the mantlepiece a JNF tin, collecting for Israel. Were my parents racists?

    In sum, let’s acknowledge that people think in a jumbled and contradictory way. That foolish ideas voiced without hatred need to be criticised and condemned without those who hold them being castigated as enemies or lumped together with our enemies.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    As someone who never has been and never will be a Zionist, I find the article’s characterisation of Zionism to be simplistic in failing to acknowledge the conditions in which Zionism translated from an almost certainly unrealisable dream into the oppression that has existed in Israel/Palestine since 1948.

    The article says: ‘Some Jews became advocates for Zionism in response to 19th Century European anti-Semitism, particularly the pogroms in Tsarist Russia. Zionism was a settler-colonial movement dedicated to exclusive Jewish control of land and labour and the formation of a demographically Jewish state.’ In fact, those Jews who sought a visionary way out of the misery of their persecution in Tsarist Russia, and, indeed of the antisemitism rife across Europe, divided broadly into two groups – those who aimed for equality and full citizenship while preserving their culture (represented particularly by the Bund) and those (Zionists) who saw freedom through the establishment of a Jewish state. Of the latter, the vast majority had no idea who lived in Palestine and no notions of ‘settler-colonialism’ – they simply wanted somewhere where the persecution would be no more and they could live their lives in safety. It was Zionist leaders who (once they had settled on Palestine, which was not their first choice of location for a Jewish homeland) who pursued their ambitions with a ruthless contempt for the existing Palestinian population.

    Though Jewish immigration to Palestine increased significantly from the 1920s, it is impossible to imagine a Jewish state having been created without the Holocaust having happened. Though the carnage in Europe was immense, there were still hundreds of thousands of Jews who survived, and who had no homes to go back to, or who – perfectly reasonably – couldn’t contemplate trying to rebuild their lives in their former homes. Many of them wanted to emigrate to Britain (and were refused entry by the British government) and many also wanted to go to other English speaking countries. The Zionist leadership mounted massive campaigns to get as many as possible to travel to Palestine instead. However, characterising the wretched Jewish survivors of mass industrialised murder who washed up in Palestine and became the core of Israel’s Jewish population as ‘settler-colonialists’ doesnt advance the Palestinian cause.

    This is not to deny the appalling nature of the Nakba, and the cynicism of many of those who created and led Zionism (as can be seen, for example, from the researches of the ‘New’ Israeli Historians). Nor is it to claim that these Jewish immigrants had a ‘right’ to take over the land and create Israel. It is just to ask for some humanity in recognising that many Jews arrived in Palestine desperate for somewhere to go, and, as victims of the Holocaust, without the physical or emotional strength, or the material wherewithal to say to themselves – ‘we shouldn’t be here, we had better trek off to somewhere else that doesnt want us’. It is also to say – if you have any interest in winning Jewish people to the Palestinian cause, you won’t do it by failing to acknowledge that Europe’s Jewish Holocaust survivors had few options at the end of the War – that many of them chose one that made the Palestinians pay for European antisemitism should be laid at the door of European antisemitism.

  • As usual we get our knickers in a twist trying to defend ourselves against a lie. It`s a lie forget it, a fantasy who cares, treat this fabrication with the indifference it merits.

  • Greg Dropkin says:

    The Liverpool Friends of Palestine statement was intended as a short
    response to flaws in Labour’s statement “No Place for Antisemitism”. Jay
    Henderson seems to think this is irrelevant, as there is no need for
    anyone to respond to fabricated claims of antisemitism.

    It’s true that some actions in solidarity with Palestine, like individual
    decisions to boycott Israeli produce, can ignore Labour and the chorus of
    accusations. But trade unions and local authorities will pay attention to
    Labour, whether Jay likes it or not. It does matter if Labour gets this

    David Hawkins objects to one sentence from LFoP, “We oppose all types of
    racism, including Islamophobia, anti-Jewish prejudice and anti-Palestinian
    racism.” This is adapted from the LFoP constitution, as on our website, where the full point reads “in opposition to racism, including anti-Jewish prejudice and Islamophobia and the apartheid and Zionist nature of the Israeli state”. This is also the phrasing in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign constitution, on the PSC website

    So it is just a statement of one point in our declared aims, shared with
    PSC. But I also think it is the right way to express that aim. It refers
    to prejudice as one form of racism, but acknowledges that in contemporary
    Britain, Jewish people do not face anything comparable to the many layered
    anti-Palestinian racism entrenched in Israeli law and policy including
    occupation, siege and murderous war. Why should we use identical words for
    these two very different things?

    Andrew Hornung asks whether his parents were racist for having the blue
    JNF tin on the mantelpiece? They may or may not have known, but the JNF to
    which they contributed was racist to the core. As the JNF told the Israeli
    Supreme Court in 2004:

    “The JNF is not the trustee of the general public in Israel. Its loyalty
    is given to the Jewish people in the Diaspora and in the state of
    Israel… The JNF, in relation to being an owner of land, is not a public
    body that works for the benefit of all citizens of the state. The loyalty
    of the JNF is given to the Jewish people and only to them is the JNF
    obligated. The JNF, as the owner of the JNF land, does not have a duty to
    practice equality towards all citizens of the state.”

    I hope Andrew had the chance to discuss questions of complicity with racism, with his parents.

    I’ll stop there, but hope that another comrade will respond to Naomi Wayne.


  • TOM BIMPSON says:

    Naomi Wayne considers our (LFOP) description of Zionism as a settler-colonial movement as ‘simplistic’. I don’t agree.
    Firstly, although Naomi doesn’t mention it as a factor, it is important to point out that, in the interests of British imperialism, successive British governments supported explicitly and implicitly the aims of Zionism. Without this there would be no Jewish state in Palestine.
    Secondly, LFOP has never characterised the some 220,000 Jewish refugees in the Displaced Persons camps after the war as ‘settler-colonialists’. It is those who entered Palestine as immigrants before WW2 whom we describe as such.
    It is certainly true that the first Jewish immigrants were primarily motivated by religion and they had no desire to create a Jewish state, in fact, considered the very notion to be ‘heresy’. However, everything changed with the Balfour declaration and the creation of the Mandated Authority for Palestine by Britain. During the 20s and 30s immigration into Palestine was controlled. The temporary Zionist Commission (later the permanent Executive Commission) set up in 1918 with Chaim Weizmann as its chair was regarded by the Mandate Authority as speaking for all Jews in Palestine. Every six months they negotiated a quota for Jewish immigration with the British government and were given the right to issue immigration permits. The first point of contact in the towns and cities of Europe for would-be immigrants would therefore be the Zionist organisations. They would select the immigrants and give out the permits.
    Healthy young men willing to work in agriculture were favoured for selection in the early 1920s. These received preliminary training in centres run by the General Federation of Jewish Labour (Histradrut) in the countries of origin. If this is not settler-colonialism what is? It is, therefore, unlikely that the’ ‘vast majority’ of immigrants were unaware of the aims of the Zionist movement. Whether sympathetic to these aims, or not, without the active support and involvement of this majority of immigrants the Zionist movement would not have been able to lay down the structures of the future State.
    During the 1920s and 30s the Zionists established an education system, supported the creation of businesses were created and public utilities (the British government ensured that these were all handed to Zionists or their supporters). The Jewish militia, the Haganah, was transformed into a military force that would become the Israel army. Described as being able to mobilise 50,000 armed men it helped the British to put down the Arab revolt of 1936 – 1939. The Histradrut, set up in December 1920 to manage Jewish labour, became central to the Zionist project as did the Jewish National Fund, mentioned in previous comments.
    Were then was Palestine and Zionism at the outbreak of WW2? I quote Tom Segev in ‘One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate.’ (2001)
    “After three decades of Zionism in Palestine, there was still no clear timetable for the Jewish state but no doubt remained that Jewish independence was on the horizon. The social, political and military foundations of the state-to-be were firm; and a profound sense of national unity prevailed. The Zionist dream was about to become reality.”
    He then continues
    “There is therefore no basis for the frequent assertion that the state was established as a result of the Holocaust. Clearly, the shock, horror, and guilt felt by many generated sympathy for the Jews in general and the Zionist movement in particular. That sympathy helped the Zionists advance their diplomatic campaign and their propaganda, and shaped their strategy to focus efforts on the survivors…” of the Holocaust.
    Yes I agree with Naomi that Britain (and other countries including the USA) is to be condemned for its refusal to allow in Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Not for the first or last time a British government opposed the entry of refugees.
    Yes, the Zionist leadership mounted massive campaigns to get as many Jewish refugees as possible to travel to Palestine. However, this was not out of sympathy for victims of poverty and persecution but to advance their aim of a Jewish majority in Palestine.

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