Zionism, Antisemitism and the Left Today

Speaking of Zionism

Brian Klug, Marxism 2017, London,
8th July , 2017

This talk, a transcript of which is reproduced below, was the opening contribution to a debate organised by Marxism 2017 on Zionism, Antisemitism and the Left Today. A video of that event is available on Youtube.

It is the first of a series of discussion articles we will be republishing about antisemitism and Zionism in the near future.

Frankly, I don’t know how to approach this talk. There are a number of things that I want to say which are difficult to get across at this forum, and twenty minutes doesn’t give me much time to do it. Mainly, I shall be critiquing the stock way in which Zionism is thought about and spoken about on the pro-Palestinian left. I am referring to a discourse that folds Zionism completely — without remainder — into the history of European imperialism and colonialism, as if Zionism does not have its roots in the Jewish experience of centuries of exclusion and persecution in Europe. I shall argue that not only is this view of Zionism warped, but it pours oil onto the troubled waters of the topic we are here to discuss: antisemitism and the left today. To many people in this room, this critique, taken with other things I say, is liable to sound like a defence of Zionism. It is not. And there’s my difficulty: how to give my critique in such a way that you, with the political commitments that you bring into the room, can hear it: how to get you to hear my voice, not the voice of someone else, as it were, speaking through my mouth, someone with a different agenda from mine.

So, let me start out by stating what my agenda is. I am seeking a change in the way in which Zionism is spoken about on the left. I am also calling for a more thoughtful response when the question of antisemitism is raised. I am not seeking to change anyone’s mind politically. Politically, I assume that, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most of us here are, more or less, on the same page.

But, in case there is any doubt about this, let me make it clear where I stand. From where I stand, the very phrase ‘the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ is misleading. It gives the impression of two equal parties competing with each other, like Arsenal playing Bayern Munich. (That’s a joke.) But with Palestine and Israel, the parties are not remotely equal and the name of the game isn’t football. It’s injustice. There is, on the one hand, a dispossessed people (the Palestinians) and, on the other hand, a state (Israel) which has oppressed this people ever since the state came into existence in 1948. Nearly seventy years later, this takes the form of occupation, siege, structural discrimination and cultural racism. Zionism is the movement that led to the creation of the state. Successive Israeli governments lay claim to the mantle of Zionism. In its name, they have pursued an expansionist project. Earlier this year, Tzipi Hotovely, a member of the right-wing Likud party and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed her support for building more Jewish settlements on the West Bank. She said: “The current Israeli government was elected to act on the Jewish People’s right to build in all parts of our land and we must respect the will of the people who elected us for this purpose.”(1) Funny: I am part of the Jewish people, but I don’t remember electing the current Israeli government, nor even having a vote. Nor do I accept for one moment that it is “our land”. Nor am I alone in this: innumerable other Jews, all over the world, think as I do. Yet the Israeli government claims to speak for us all. Thus, Zionism, certainly the Zionism that is dominant today, makes a claim over two peoples: the Palestinians, whom it dispossesses, and the Jews, whom it thinks it possesses: all Jews, whoever they are, wherever they live, including me. These claims are two sides of one coin. I reject both claims. I reject the coin.

So, I’ve told you my agenda and I’ve told you where I stand politically. Please try to keep both things in mind as I turn to the topic of our session: ‘Zionism, antisemitism and the left today’.


I don’t know about you, but at the mere mention of these words I think of what happened after Jeremy Corbyn was elected Leader of the Labour Party in September 2015. A spate of accusations were made against people on the left, including several Labour Party officials. Lurid headlines seemed to vie with each other in ratcheting up the charges. A headline in the Israeli daily Haaretz read: ‘Why Britain’s Labour Party has suddenly become synonymous with anti-Semitism’.(2) Synonymous: as if the Labour Party might as well change its name to the Antisemitism Party! Three days earlier, The Telegraph published an opinion piece with the title ‘The Left’s hatred of Jews chills me to the bone’. The author, Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, claimed that “the Labour Party is now run by a cadre for whom anti- Semitism really is ok, so long as it is dressed up as anti-Zionism”.(3) Whatever else, Pollard cannot be accused of British understatement. (That, by the way, is British understatement.) Whether or not any of the allegations of antisemitism were true, there was clearly a pincer movement, a cynical campaign waged by enemies of Labour on the outside and enemies of Jeremy within. One individual after another was named and shamed, tried in the kangaroo court of public opinion, often on the basis of comments that were taken out of context. This naming and shaming was itself shameful: that’s how it struck me at the time and it still does — especially because it was done in the name of combating antisemitism.

And yet. And yet things are not quite that simple. Let me tell you about an experience that a friend of mine has just told me about. I’ll call her Daphne. (Not her real name.) Daphne is a lifelong socialist and a Jewish anti-Zionist fiercely opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. She is also a member of the Labour Party. At a well-attended CLP meeting a few weeks ago, she proposed a motion criticising Ken Livingstone for the remarks he made linking Nazism and Zionism. Daphne’s view was that Ken (in her own words) “should not have invoked the name of Hitler as he did”. She put it to me this way: “The history of the holocaust is part of the identity of all Jews, whatever they may feel about Israel”. I don’t want to open up the can of worms over whether Ken should or should not have said what he said: it’s neither here nor there for my purpose in telling this anecdote. Whatever you think of the position Daphne took, the point is this: it had nothing to do with Ken’s views on Israel and she made this clear when she proposed the motion. Nevertheless, “Everyone who spoke against the motion” (I’m quoting Daphne) “suggested that it was part of a plot by Israel or that it was an attempt to prevent discussion of Israel”. Daphne was made to feel, in her own words, “an agent of the Israeli state”. Her opponents didn’t address her arguments. “They didn’t try to defend what he said,” Daphne told me. They were “only interested in discrediting those behind the motion … by linking it to Israel or right wing manoeuvring in the Party”. In effect, her opponents “shut down discussion”. “I felt I was being silenced,” she said.

I shall pick up just two points from Daphne’s story. First, the fact that her opponents “shut down discussion”. How ironic! We are familiar with situations in which critical discussion of Israel is shut down by people crying ‘antisemitism’. In Daphne’s case, however, discussion of an issue that deeply affects many Jews — regardless of their views about Israel — was shut down by people (in effect) crying ‘Zionism’. What should we call this? Words like ‘mindless’ and ‘manipulative’ come to mind — just as they do when the boot is on the other foot, when pro-Israel zealots shut down discussion. But is there more to it than that? Maybe not, but it’s a fair question.

Second, here we have an anti-Zionist, anti-Occupation Jew being made to feel, by a group of people on the left, all of whom know her, as though she were “an agent of the Israeli state”. Again: how ironic! And again: What should we call this? Antisemitism? Maybe. I don’t know. I almost said, I don’t care. The word is so contested and so emotive that it sometimes seems to get in the way of thinking. I don’t want to talk about labels: I want to talk about the thing itself: the ugliness of the way that Daphne’s opponents behaved. Ugly, partly because of the injustice involved — just like the injustice when it’s the other way around, when people of goodwill who denounce Israel are made to feel as though they were anti-Jewish when they are not. So, again, what should we call the way Daphne was treated? I refrain from crying ‘antisemitism’. But it is not hard to see why someone, someone without a pro-Israel agenda, might genuinely suspect that bigotry plays a role, even if it is, shall we say, inadvertent. Racism, like a dream, often dwells somewhere beneath the surface of the conscious mind.

I invite you to ponder these reflections, these complexities, and not to dismiss them out of hand. All too often, when a Jewish person — even an anti-Zionist anti-Occupation Jew — says they feel uncomfortable (or worse) with the way in which Jews or Israel are spoken about, the knee-jerk reaction is to scoff and to cry ‘Zionism’. We wouldn’t treat members of other racialised minorities this way. Then why the Jews?

On that provocative note, let me turn, at last, to the main item on my agenda: critiquing the standard way in which Zionism is thought about and spoken about on the pro-Palestinian left. In a nutshell, Zionism is seen as part and parcel of the history of European (especially British) imperialism and Israel as a settler colonial state. To which I have two responses: Yes, that’s true. No, that’s false. It’s true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough, and what it leaves out is crucial; which is why it is false. Let me try to elucidate. As I do so, please try to remember that I am seeking neither to defend Zionism nor to justify oppression of the Palestinians by the State of Israel. That oppression is unjustifiable. But this doesn’t justify misconstruing the origins of Zionism, what it has meant for many Jews in the past, and what Israel continues to represent, however mistakenly, for many ordinary Jews today, including many Jews who don’t identify as Zionist. These misinterpretations, moreover, do nothing to advance the Palestinian cause or, more broadly, the prospects of peace based on justice for the whole population of Palestine and Israel.

Allow me to introduce you to Aurora Levins Morales. Aurora is a Puerto Rican Ashkenazi Jewish feminist writer and a member of Jews of Color in Solidarity with Palestine. She is also a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which has just published a book on antisemitism called On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice. JVP, in case you don’t know, is a grassroots Jewish organisation in the United States that promotes Palestinian rights and supports BDS. In fact. Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement, is a contributor to On Antisemitism. So is Aurora. I have just reviewed the book for Political Quarterly, and my review opens with her essay, ‘Who Am I to Speak?’, the most powerful in the collection.(4) Aurora recalls a piece of family history. “My father’s family,” she writes, “lived in a small southern Ukrainian village where each spring, the Easter sermons sent their neighbors rampaging against the Jewish farmers and craftspeople who lived among them.” There was, she says, “a three-cornered argument” among the Jews in the village “about what, if anything, would save the Jews”:

The Orthodox said it was in God’s hands. The Zionists said only Jews could be counted on to stand by Jews, and we needed a defensible territory of our own where we called the shots. The communists and socialists and anarchists said only an alliance of all the working people can dismantle our oppression and everyone else’s.

The small southern Ukrainian shtetl (village) from which Aurora’s father’s family came is, so to speak, the same shtetl from which the families of most Ashkenazi (European) Jews came, including my family; and the same three-cornered argument went on in the shtetls of our grandparents and great grandparents: Orthodox versus Zionist versus anti-nationalist left. Actually, there were more than three corners to the argument. Moreover, some of the Orthodox were Zionist and most of the Zionist were socialist and even Marxist. The debate over the Jewish future was complex. But the point is that this is the ur-scene — the original and authentic setting — for Zionism. Not a debate about how to make Great Britain greater or the mother country richer but an argument over how to “save the Jews”; how, in other words, Jews could put an end to centuries of exclusion and persecution in Europe; how to secure a place in the sun. This is the piece that is missing from the stock discourse that folds Zionism completely — without remainder — into the history of European imperialism and colonialism. The missing piece is the centrepiece of the story.

But it is certainly not the whole story. For Zionism is indeed implicated, in more ways than one, in the history of European imperialism and colonialism, and the State of Israel, though located in the East, has situated itself firmly in the West, as if it were a European implant. The whole story is a broken story, a story with two halves that do not fit together. Look at it this way. Like the Roman god Janus, Zionism has two faces, which look in opposite directions at once. That is to say, it belongs to two opposite histories at one and the same time. On the one side, Zionism is part of the history of the Jews, a racialised minority, the ‘internal other’ of Europe. On the other side, it is part of the story of British imperialism, specifically in the Middle East. On the one side, it was the exodus from Europe of a persecuted people. On the other side, it was itself part of European expansion into non-European lands. It is true that, from the outset, starting with Theodor Herzl’s address to the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897, Zionism spoke the language of colonization.(5) But it was colonization for the sake of emancipation, not to expand or enrich an empire. Seen from one side, Zionism was a flight from Europe, a movement that saw itself as the return of an exiled people to an ancient homeland — not as an extension of a European motherland. (It saw itself that way, whether you or I accept the narrative of return or not; and I don’t.) But seen from the other side, the Arab side, the Jews who came as settlers and established the state were Europeans by any other name.(6) And they were. They were both. They were Jewish as distinct from European, and they were European as distinct from Arab. As the Palestinian academic Raef Zreik puts it in a recent article, “The Europeans see the back of the Jewish refugee fleeing for his life. The Palestinian sees the face of the settler colonialist taking over his land.”(7) One movement, two faces.

Yes, Zionism is part of the history of European imperialism in the twentieth century, and it was a settler project. However, the plight of millions of marginalized European Jews in the first half of the century, together with their hopes and aspirations for a better life, are one thing; the imperial ambitions of European powers that set out to colonize the globe in order to extend the scope of their rule, plunder resources and create captive markets for their products, are another. When the left gives the impression that this subtle difference eludes them, when they fold Zionism tout court into the story of European hegemony, then they have erased from the record the argument that went on in the shtetls of Europe over the way out for Jews from oppression, which is the back story for Zionism. When they erase this back story, is it any wonder if a ripple of discomfort spreads among the rank and file of Jews, including many of us who repudiate Zionism, condemn the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, and denounce the oppression of Palestinians by the State of Israel? You don’t have to ‘love Israel’ to feel this discomfort.

It is a short step from feeling this discomfort to sensing antisemitism, even if that perception is false — especially when phrases like ‘the power of the Israel lobby’ or ‘the influence of the Zionist media’ are loosely bandied about, conjuring up ghosts of a ghastly past, rubbing new salt into old wounds. To quote the late anti-Zionist socialist Jew Steve Cohen, “Any group which claims to be against anti-semitism should be ultra-vigilant in the imagery it evokes.”(8) The same rule of thumb applies to all forms of racism: it is a fundamental principle of anti- racist action. Which does not mean pulling your punches. Nothing I have said is intended to suggest that anyone should go soft in arguing against Zionism as an idea or Israel as a state. I certainly do not intend to tone down my criticism.

Which brings me back, in closing, to Aurora (whose name, of course, means ‘dawn’). Here is how she introduces herself at the beginning of her essay, ‘Who am I to Speak?’: “A colonial subject, a woman of color, an immigrant, disabled and chronically ill, of mixed class … and a Jew”. She is no Zionist. Nor was her father’s family in that southern Ukrainian shtetl where Jews argued furiously about which road to take to get out of their predicament — out of a thousand-year nightmare that seemed never-ending. In the book, she is described as “a sixth-generation radical”. “I believe our safety lies in the solidarity of working people,” she writes, “and not in a Zionist state”. For daring to say this, she has paid a price. “I have been accused,” she says, “of betraying the Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis … I have been accused of being a retroactive Nazi collaborator by people who claim that dead children also accuse me.” Since several members of her extended family — including children — died at the hands of the Nazis on a single day in May 1942, this accusation cuts deep. But not deep enough to damage her vision. She sees — accurately in my view — the hand of Europe at the back of the mess that we call ‘the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’, along with other messes in the wider world. “The oppression of Jews, imperialist manipulation, and profound racism have all enmeshed to create this nightmare, and I want all my peoples to be free of it” (emphasis added). ‘Who am I to speak?’: that is the title of her essay. The answer is contained in the author: she is a one-woman rainbow coalition with a voice as broad and as inclusive as humanity itself. “When I speak out for the humanity of Palestine,” she writes at the end of her essay, “I am defending the humanity of everyone, including all Jews.” Let Aurora have the last word. Or rather, let the last word be ‘Aurora’.

Brian Klug


(1) ‘Israel cautious over new settlements’, The Guardian, 4 February 2017, p. 17.
(2) Anshel Pfeffer, ‘Why Britain’s Labour Party Has Suddenly Become Synonymous With anti-Semitism’, Haaretz, 1 May 2016, available at www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/1.717050 (accessed 7 November 2016).
(3) Stephen Pollard, ‘The Left’s hatred of Jews chills me to the bone’, The Telegraph, 28 April 2016, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/28/the-lefts-hatred-of-jews-chills-me-to-the-bone/ (accessed 7 November 2016).
(4) Aurora Levins Morales, ‘Who Am I to Speak?’, in On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017, pp. 103-109. Morales’ bio is on p. 223. My review will appear in the September 2017 issue of Political Quarterly.
(5) Theodor Herzl, ‘First Congress Address’ (1897), in Arthur Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1997, pp. 226-230.
(6) There were also many Jews who came from Arab lands, especially in the years following the creation of the State of Israel, and Palestinian Jews who were as ‘indigenous’ as the Arab population. But Zionism was primarily a European Jewish movement.
(7) Raef Zreik, ‘When Does a Settler Become a Native? (With Apologies to Mamdani)’, Constellations, vol 23, no 3 (2016), pp. 351-364. see pp. 358-9.
(8) Steve Cohen, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic, Leeds: Beyond the Pale Collective, 1984, p. 8



Comments (4)

  • Moshé Machover says:

    Brian Klug’s half-justification of Zionism is disingenuous. It is like persons accused of child abuse excusing themselves by having been themselves abused in their childhood. “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return” . But also those who do evil claim that it is because evil has been done to them. Yes, Zionist colonisation of Palestine was a response to antisemitism. But was it a justified response? If it wasn’t, Zionism cannot be even half-justified. If Brian claims it was, he is guilty of special pleading.

  • Stephen Bellamy says:

    Hum well love me I’m a liberal


  • Elisabeth says:

    I completely agree. It is perhaps the best discussion of Zionism and its origins I have ever read.

  • Adam Clifford says:

    Regardless of motive,Palestine has been aggressively colonised and the native people driven off and continue to be driven of their land in near-genocidal intent and activity-where genocide is a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.Patrick Wolfe writes, “The question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler colonialism” https://www.sott.net/article/319725-The-colonization-of-America-was-genocidal-by-plan-Yes-Native-Americans-were-the-victims-of-genocide
    Colonisation is/has been unacceptable everywhere and is/has been the cause of endless conflict-Ireland for instance.It really doesn’t matter who is colonising or why.Ask the people native to that land.

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