The Middle East:

Commentary and Analysis

Accusations of anti-semitism used to suppress debate?

This slur of anti-semitism is used to defend repression
Ending Israel's occupation will benefit Jews and Muslims in Europe
Seumas Milne
Thursday May 9, 2002
The Guardian

Since the French revolution, the fates of the Jewish people and the left have been closely intertwined. The left's appeal to social justice and universal rights created a natural bond with a people long persecuted and excluded by the Christian European establishment.

From the time of Marx, Jews played a central role across all shades of the left. They were heavily represented among the leaders of the Russian revolution - hence Hitler's denunciation of communism as a "Judaeo-Bolshevik conspiracy" - and the left-led underground resistance to the Nazis. It was the Red Army which liberated the Auschwitz death camp. In Britain, it was the left which fought to defend the Jewish East End of London from fascists in the 1930s. In the Arab world, Jews were crucial to the building of political parties of the left. And despite the changed class balance of many Jewish communities, Jews remain disproportionately active in progressive political movements - including Palestinian solidarity groups - throughout the world.

But now the left stands accused of anti-semitism because of its opposition to Israel's military occupation and continuing dispossession of the Palestinians. As the Palestinian intifada and Israeli repression rage on, rightwing commentators and religious leaders have claimed the left is guilty of "anti-Jewish prejudice", double standards towards Israel and even apeing the anti-semitic "blood libels" of the Middle Ages with the ferocity of its charges of Israeli massacres. Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has widened the attack to the media and equated any questioning of Israel's legitimacy with "calling into question the Jewish people's right to exist collectively". In the US, the denunciation of the left over Israel has been extended to include the whole mainstream European political system.

There is little question that there has been a growth of overt anti-semitism in Europe, especially since the collapse of European communism more than a decade ago. That trend has quickened since the start of the second intifada and Ariel Sharon's election as Israel's prime minister. In Britain, physical attacks on Jews have increased significantly - even if they remain far fewer than assaults on black, Asian and Muslim people - and now a London synagogue has been desecrated. With the far right on the march across the continent, it is hardly surprising that a community barely a couple of generations away from the most devastating genocide in human history feels beleaguered - a perception heightened by atrocities against civilians in Israel, such as Tuesday's suicide attack in Rishon Letzion.

No doubt some on the left have wrongly taken the comparative wealth and position of Britain's Jewish community as a sign that the social cancer of anti-semitism is somehow less dangerous than other forms of racism. The graveyards of Europe are a permanent reminder that it is not. The left is certainly not immune from racist currents in society; and it needs aggressively to police the line between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism, taking into account Jewish sensitivities in the way it campaigns for justice in the Middle East.

But none of that excuses the smear that left or liberal support for Palestinian rights is somehow connected to resurgent anti-Jewish racism - an absurd slur which is itself being used as an apologia for Israel's brutal war of subjugation in the occupied territories. All the evidence is that it is the far right, the traditional fount of anti-semitic poison, which has been overwhelmingly responsible for attacks on both Muslim and Jewish targets in Europe. Violence from the Islamist fringe no doubt also poses a threat, but not even in the wildest rantings of Israel's cheerleaders has it been suggested that any group on the left could have had anything to do with, say, the trashing of the Finsbury Park synagogue. Nor is it hostile media coverage that is fuelling criticism of Israel, but what is actually taking place on the ground in Bethlehem, Nablus and Ramallah.

The reality is that, contrary to the claims of the supporters of Israel's 35-year-old occupation, its existence as a state is not remotely in danger. Nor by any stretch of the imagination does it "stand alone", as some have insisted. Its security is guaranteed by the most powerful state in the world.

There is, however, a very real and present threat to the Palestinians, their national rights and even their very presence in what is left to them of Palestine. Evidence of serious Israeli breaches of the Geneva convention - war crimes - across the West Bank has been collected by human rights organisations in recent weeks. But Israel has been able to swat away the Jenin investigation team, ordered in by the UN security council, with impunity. To refuse to acknowledge these brute facts of power and injustice is itself a reflection of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, both currently more violently represented on Europe's streets and more acceptable in its polite society than anti-semitism. For the left to ignore such oppression would be a betrayal. As the Zapatista leader Marcos has it, he is "a Jew in Germany, a Palestinian in Israel".

Last week, Dick Armey, the Republican leader in the US House of Representatives and a key Bush ally, called for Israel to annex the occupied territories and expel the Palestinian inhabitants. In other words, he was proposing the ethnic cleansing of the Arab population. His remarks aroused little comment, but coming at a time when 40% of the Israeli public, as well as cabinet ministers, openly support such a "transfer", it can only be taken as encouragement by the most extreme elements in the Israeli establishment. Ethnic cleansing is not of course a new departure for Israel, whose forces twice organised large-scale expulsions of Palestinians, in 1948 and 1967 - as documented in the records and memoirs of Israeli leaders of the time - to secure a commanding Jewish majority in the territory under its control. But the refugees created in the process remain at the heart of the conflict. It was the tragedy of the Zionist project that Jewish self-determination could only be achieved at another people's expense.

A two-state settlement is now the only possible way to secure peace in the forseeable future. But for such a settlement to stick there will have to be some reversal of that historic ethnic cleansing. Those who insist there can be no questioning of the legitimacy of the state in its current form - with discriminatory laws giving a "right of return" to Jews from anywhere in the world, while denying it to Palestinians expelled by force - are scarcely taking a stand against racism, but rather the opposite. They are also doing no favours to Israelis. The latest suicide bombings have demonstrated the failure of Sharon's strategy for dismantling the infrastructure of terror. What is needed instead is a strategy to dismantle the infrastructure of occupation. Not only would that open the way to peace in the Middle East. It could also create the conditions for Muslims and Jews in Europe to realise their common interests.

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De Clarke