9 October 2017

Zionism: don't leave yourself vulnerable to attack

By banding around the the term Zionism, leftists are being imprecise and unnecessarily leaving themselves open to malicious allegations of antisemitism.

It’s somewhat crazy to deliberately slip on a banana skin just to make the point that somebody else should not have put it there. But that is pretty much what some on the left are doing when they bang on about Zionism, and end up being given the boot by the Labour Party.

Why use the term at all? Zionism was a project, gaining steam around the beginning of the 20th Century, particularly among Jews in the west of the then Russian empire, to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Zionism was never a majority opinion among Jews. Today, Israel is not a project but a regional superpower, whose dissolution is neither desirable nor realistic. Even if the country is a paradise compared with its neighbours, in contrast to other liberal democracies it has two major shortcomings. Israel is based on the supremacy of one ethnic group and relegates its Palestinian citizens to a second-class status. In addition, Israel occupies territories outside its borders and appropriates land for its own citizens and denies many human and civic rights to Palestinians living under permanent military occupation.

Both these things are worthy of hefty criticism, but it is more precise to criticise the Israeli state and successive Israeli governments than to talk in abstractions about Zionism. On top of that references to Zionism carry two further dangers.

First, you and I know that antisemitism (prejudice against an ethnic group) and anti-Zionism (opposition to a political project) are quite different things. And, of course, those in the Labour Party and press throwing around accusations of antisemitism know that too. But the the distinction is lost on many ordinary people, so people opposing Zionism can easily and falsely be labelled as antisemites.

Second, criticising Zionism is in principle OK, but talking about Zionist conspiracies is not. The latter implies that people who are Jewish are all secretly working together with Israel to advance themselves against the interests of the gentile world. That’s pure antisemitic nonsense. You can distinguish, I suppose, between a conspiracy to promote Zionism and a Zionist conspiracy, but why go there? These muddles can be avoided.

Indeed, why negotiate this minefield at all, when you don’t have to. Remember, the Corbyn leadership is now focussed on winning office. If you step on a mine, they are not going to expend political capital to help you.

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