SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 203 November 2016

Anti-Semitism, Labour and Momentum

For many years anti-Semitism has been used against the workers’ movement and the left as old prejudices were exploited to divide working people and paint socialism as something threatening and alien. This was true in Britain as in many other countries. Just after the 1917 Russian revolution, Winston Churchill attempted to connect the revolution with Jewry: "There is no need to exaggerate the part played in the creating of Bolshevism and in the actual bringing about of the Russian revolution by these international and for the most part atheistic Jews. It is certainly the very great one; it probably outweighs all others". (Zionism Verses Bolshevism, Illustrated Sunday Herald, 8 February 1920)

Today, however, the capitalist class and the defenders of capitalism within the Labour Party have repeatedly levelled charges of anti-Semitism against supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and the left in general. Against a background of a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in wider society, there has been a continuous drumbeat that the Labour Party tolerates anti-Semitism. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, an organisation which itself does not claim to represent the majority of Jews in Britain, has attacked "certain Labour figures" who "are effectively giving a ‘free pass’ to racism and misogyny and creating a culture of impunity for anti-Semitism". (2 September) It is noteworthy that the board’s current chief executive is Gillian Merron, a former right-wing Labour MP and minister under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The Tories have gleefully picked this up. At their conference, prime minister Theresa May proclaimed: "That’s what Labour stands for today… tolerating anti-Semitism and supporting voices of hate".

It was against this background that Jackie Walker, who is of Jewish origin, was suspended by the Labour Party and then removed as vice-chair of Momentum’s steering committee over remarks she made at a semi-private ‘training session’ on anti-Semitism held on the fringes of the Labour Party conference. A secret recording of her remarks showed her saying: "I came in here… and I was looking for information and I still haven’t heard a definition of anti-Semitism that I can work with… [shouting from audience] and in terms of Holocaust day wouldn’t it be wonderful if Holocaust day was open to all people who experienced holocaust… [shouting from audience] in practice it’s not actually circulated and advertised as such". (Independent, 28 September)

Such remarks, which are clearly not anti-Semitic in and of themselves, pose issues which can be debated. But the Labour right-wing seized upon them, not to debate the issues but to renew use of anti-Semitism charges to weaken the left in the Labour Party just after Corbyn’s re-election. Rapidly, media hysteria developed and the leadership of Momentum panicked. Threatened by the general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) with losing the office space the union leadership had let it use, Momentum’s chair, Jon Lansman, sent an email to the TSSA saying that he had removed Walker as vice-chair when only the steering committee had the right to do. Members of the steering committee first heard that they would meet from the media.

The committee then voted seven to three to remove Jackie Walker as its vice-chair, did not oppose her current suspension from the Labour Party, but said it did not think she should be expelled from the party. Among those voting for and justifying Walker’s removal was the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL): "Walker’s response, and that of many of her supporters, has been to say that the issue of anti-Semitism is being ‘exaggerated for political purposes’. The response shows an underlying problem". The AWL goes on to imply that anti-Semitism is ignored or played down because "when Jews complain about anti-Semitism, they get the reply: ‘You are just trying to stop criticism of Israel’." (Jackie Walker, Momentum, and Anti-Semitism, 5 October)

There is no doubt that in the Middle East, in the absence of a workers’ movement advocating a socialist solution, the years of wars and oppression by the policies of the Israeli state have created great hostility and, among some, anti-Semitism in the region and elsewhere. To many in the Middle East ‘the Jews’ are seen as the problem. The combination of the free migration to Israel of those the Israeli religious authorities regard as Jews with the memory of the expulsion of Palestinians, plus the Israeli settlement building programme and repression, re-enforces this bitterness and anger.

The Socialist Party has always had a clear class and socialist position both against anti-Semitism and also standing for class unity between Israeli and Palestinian workers and poor. Unlike many other left groupings, the Socialist Party, through the Committee for a Workers International, has co-thinkers in Israel/Palestine. The Socialist Struggle Movement has been active on the ground for many years, fighting for an end to oppression, for workers’ demands, for united struggles and for a socialist solution in the interests of Palestinian and Israeli working peoples.

The predecessors of the Socialist Party opposed the Zionists’ pre-1948 argument that only the creation of the state of Israel could provide Jews with freedom from oppression and anti-Semitism. We argued that the building of such a state, based upon the expulsion of the existing Palestinian population, would not be a safe and peaceful haven for Jews, as has proven to be the case. However, we have recognised that since 1948 an Israeli nation has developed. This means that any solution to the ongoing conflict in Israel/Palestine and the oppression of the Palestinians must recognise that there is both a Palestinian and an Israeli nation, and be based upon recognising the national rights of all the peoples in Israel/Palestine and the whole region. Without this, along with a socialist perspective, the bulk of the Israeli population would, out of fear, continue to stand behind their government’s opposition to genuine Palestinian liberation.

For this position, and for our call for two socialist states, we were repeatedly criticised by other left-wing groupings and supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leadership. John Mann, the Labour MP who recently launched the charge that Ken Livingstone is anti-Semitic, was in his former ‘left’ days as a Labour Student leader part of the Clause Four group. That group denounced the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) for arguing "for the right of two states – Israel and Palestine – to exist side by side, something which we argued would be possible on a socialist basis". This was because Clause Four "argued that the national rights of Israelis must be subsumed into a single, capitalist state – a ‘secular, democratic state in the whole of Palestine’." (John Mann’s Israel Hypocrisy, The Socialist, No.901, 11 May 2016)

This position is still widely supported by other left organisations. However, as our Socialist Struggle Movement comrades in Israel/Palestine argue, today this "idea of a bi-national state is completely utopian in a capitalist context – the decisive majority of both nationalities are not interested in giving up national independence and sharing a single state, and even if such a state would be coerced somehow, it would be based on inequality and a deep national schism". (The Marxist Left, the National Conflict and the Palestinian Struggle, Socialism Today No.199, June 2016)

This is why the combined call for both nationalities to have the right to their own states on a socialist basis, with full rights for any minorities within them, is central. On the one hand, it is a clear rejection of the coercion of either Palestinians or Israelis. At the same time, it argues for the overthrowing of capitalism that would open up the road to raising the living standards of all. Moreover, while it cannot be ruled out that a common struggle of Palestinians and Israelis could lead to the creation of one state carrying through a socialist transformation, to get there it would be first necessary to recognise the rights of the two peoples.

The AWL, on the other hand, while recognising the rights of the Israeli population, frequently argues that a solution is achievable on a capitalist basis: "Workers’ Liberty believes that the viable democratic solution to the conflict is an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with self-determination for both the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews. Israel should pay heavy reparations to the new Palestinian state to make it viable and to compensate for the great damage it has inflicted on the Palestinian people". (Abolish Israel? How, and Then What?, 21 October 2015)

This belief that in Israel/Palestine and elsewhere it is possible to build ‘viable’ solutions on a capitalist basis is utopian in this era of worldwide capitalist crisis. It marks a return to the ‘practical’ policies of the old social democracy which divided its programme into a minimum part calling for immediate reforms and the maximum call for socialism. Politically, this opened the way for the majority of the old social democratic leaders to reject the idea of fighting for a socialist transformation of society, or to limit mentions of socialism to May Day speeches and the like.

Obviously, the daily struggle against capitalist attacks on living standards and for improvements is vital for the working class. But within such struggles Marxists strive to win support for the socialist idea and programme of breaking with capitalism. The AWL rejects that approach and, as shown above, often confines itself to demands within capitalism. It is this absence of a consistent socialist perspective and the limiting of its programme to ‘democratic’ demands within capitalism that leads to the AWL’s capacity to be on the same side as capitalist representatives.

The combination of the AWL's rejection of the call for a secular, democratic state in Palestine and of the programme for socialist Palestinian and Israeli states is part of the background to its support for ousting Jackie Walker as Momentum's vice-chair. The AWL attempted to dress up its position when it wrote that "cleansing the left is best served by discussion and education" at the end of its 5 October article justifying Walker’s removal as vice-chair. Was Jackie Walker’s removal part of this "cleansing"? It is noteworthy that, apparently, the AWL’s idea of discussion and education is removing someone from their position before Momentum has had any real debate on the issues.

In the real world nobody can honestly claim not to have seen that the accusations against Jackie Walker were being used to launch another attack on the left. Jackie Walker is not a member of the Socialist Party and we do not necessarily agree with everything she stands for, but this does not mean bowing down to a right-wing attack. It is extremely significant that the Momentum steering committee resolution did not condemn this renewed media attack. It only said that it was the leaking of the training session footage that was "unacceptable".

This retreat has not been the only one by Momentum. Unless it stops conciliating the pro-capitalist fifth column in the Labour Party and is able to withstand pressure from the ruling class, mass media and the Labour right, it will not be able to effectively contribute to the democratisation of the Labour Party and its transformation into a movement that fights for working-class people.

Robert Bechert

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