Anti-Zionism is not a word you hear frequently within the context of the Labour Party. But it should be.
When Jeremy Corbyn resigned as leader of the Labour Party, many believed that Labour’s anti-Semitism scandal would follow him out of frontline politics. This has not been the case. Although his departure has certainly dampened the issue, the damage done to internal Labour politics cannot be undone just like that.
The misunderstood anti-Zionist
New leader Keir Starmer is evidently desperate to distance himself from the debacle, but his dismissal of Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet has done little to mollify concern on the party’s left that accusations of anti-Semitism are a cypher for anti-Corbynism. The decision to settle a number of legal cases brought against the party by alleged victims of anti-Semitism — cases the party was advised it would likely win whilst under Corbyn — has also alarmed some. Undeniably, Labour needs to put the bulk of the anti-Semitism scandal behind it if it is to stand a chance at the next election, but by accepting the Labour right’s narrative, they risk marginalising left- wing and anti-Zionist Jews within the party.
This is a group who are already underrepresented in the national debate, and are often the unwilling patients of antisemitic pseudo-psychology from other Jews and the right. Labour has long been a home for such people, but with the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism — which among other things deems it racist to question the existence of the state of Israel — the very possibility of being an anti-Zionist member of the Labour Party seems to be in question. Within broader society, you need only recall how mainstream media reported the Chief Rabbi’s criticism of the Labour Party. Outlets including the BBC gave the impression that Ephraim Mirvis spoke on behalf of the Jewish community as a whole. He and his predecessor, Lord Jonathan Sacks, have both directly equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Whether intentionally or not, they, along with the Labour right and the Board of Deputies, have all marginalised anti-Zionist Jews by doing so. All of this contributes to the genuinely antisemitic trope of the ‘self-hating Jew’, which Jewish anti-Zionists are often tagged with.
A brief history of anti-Zionism
Far from hating themselves or other Jews, Jewish anti-Zionists have a proud tradition of fighting to protect themselves, other Jews, and their right to live in the land in which they were born. During the Second World War, the anti-Zionist Jewish Labour Bund was integral to the resistance movement in a number of Eastern European countries like Poland. Indeed, it was members of the Bund that smuggled my grandmother out of the Warsaw ghetto before it was burnt down. This is more than can be said for the Zionist authorities in Palestine at the time, who secretly cooperated with Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s; capitalising on the opportunity to swell the Jewish population in Palestine. Ardent Zionists would do well to remember this the next time they diagnose someone with self-hatred.
The Bund was foundationally anti-Zionist and heavily influenced the development of 20th Century socialism. It was a core constituent of the Menshevik movement, and believed in establishing a socialist society in which Jews could live safely, but without taking the land from other people. Socialism and anti-Zionism are fundamentally Jewish ideas, whatever the Labour right and Chief Rabbi would like you to believe. It is not innately anti-Semitic to question the existence of Israel. It is innately Semitic to do so. This is not to deny that most Jews support Israel. It is merely an assertion that disagreeing with Zionism does not mean you hate yourself or Jews. Nor should it mean that there is no place in the Labour Party for you.
My great grandfather — Lucjan Blit — was a prominent member of the Bund in Warsaw before the war. When the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact dismembered Poland in 1939, he was captured by the Soviets and sent to a Gulag in Kazakhstan. He was eventually freed and became part of the three-man Bund delegation in London for the duration of the war. During this time, my great-grandmother, who was a Zionist, was murdered at Majdanek concentration camp. After the war, my grandmother — who had survived in hiding for five years — joined him in London. Both became active members of the British Labour Party. To suggest that they, and people like them, are unfit to belong in the party, and on the grounds of anti-Semitism no less, is patently absurd.
The Labour Party must tackle anti-Semitism, but it must also remain a home for Jewish radicals. They are just as Jewish as the Chief Rabbi, and have a tradition that demands representation.