Apologists for Zionism

Tony Greenstein introduces his open letter to Labour MP Joan Ryan

Richard Burgon is one of the strongest supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in the Parliamentary Labour Party. When Burgon stated, on August 8, that Zionism is an “enemy of peace”, you might be forgiven for thinking that he had informed people that the Earth is round or that water is wet. It is a statement so obvious that it is almost trite.

On any objective view of Israel, which has recently bombarded the defenceless people of Gaza with 50 rocket strikes in response to the launching of a firecracker, Israel is clearly a state that is an enemy of peace and whose guiding ideology is Zionism. The defenders of Israeli settler colonialism point to the reaction of the Palestinians as a justification for Israel’s violence. That was always the way with colonial regimes. In those old westerns, it was always the Indians who were, for some unknown reason, attacking John Wayne and the cowboys. We never did see the extermination and ethnic-cleansing of America’s Indian population in Hollywood films.

It is therefore no surprise that Joan Ryan MP, who is chair of Labour Friends of Israel - a group whose sole mission in life is to defend Israel right or wrong and which boasts of its close relationship to the racist rednecks of the Israeli Labor Party - took offence at Burgon’s inoffensive remarks. In an open letter1 she whined that Zionism was a “Jewish national liberation movement”. Out of just four words she managed to get three of them wrong. Zionism was originally a movement of Christian evangelicals, not Jews. It was anything but national, as most Jews despised them. And quite who Ryan thinks Zionism was liberating Jews from is a mystery. Possibly the laws of logic and rationality. Whether it was a movement is also debatable.

Describing Zionism as a “national liberation movement” is like saying that apartheid in South Africa was a liberating force or that Nazism was a German liberation movement (of course, the Nazis believed they were liberating the German people from a combination of the Jews, Freemasons, Versailles and other threats). It is the rationale of the oppressor, who finds justification for what they do in the opposition of the oppressed. It is a characteristic of all settler regimes that colonists develop a siege mentality, such that they convince themselves that they are oppressed by those they are subjugating. Israeli Jews are no different in this respect from the Afrikaners.

Zionism was never a national liberation movement because it never liberated anyone from anything and because the Jews were and are not a nation. It was a nationalist, as opposed to a national, movement in just the same way as the Nazis were a nationalist movement.

Zionists are fond of accusing Jewish anti-Zionists of being ‘self-haters’, but if anyone merits this description it is the Zionist movement itself, which adopted a cynical and mercenary attitude to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. According to his official biographer, Shabtai Teveth, after Hitler came to power David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declared that it was imperative to “turn a disaster … into a productive force” and added: “The harsher the affliction, the greater the strength of Zionism.”2 When Hitler’s troops were overrunning Poland in September 1939, the major debate in Histadrut, the Labour Zionist ‘trade union’, was on the role of Jews in the war. As Ben-Gurion, the dominant personality in pre-state Zionism, noted, “For me Zionist considerations take precedence over Jewish sentiments.”3

One of the most frequent arguments of apologists for Zionism is that it is a movement divided into a left and right, socialist and capitalist, Labor and Likud. Such an attitude betrays a profound misunderstanding of Zionism. Like all settler colonial movements, Zionism has its ‘left’ and its ‘right’, but these are distinctions without a difference. As Israel’s professor Zeev Sternhell has noted, “the historical struggle between the labour movement and the revisionist right was a struggle over the methods of implementing national objectives, not over the objectives themselves”. Both Labor and Herut (revisionist Zionists) agreed on the aim of an exclusivist Jewish state: their disagreements were tactical (eg, their attitude to cooperating with British imperialism).4

To Labor Zionism, class warfare was unacceptable, as it “represented the materialistic basis of Marxism and consequently of social democracy”5. In order to colonise Palestine the Jewish workers allied with the Zionist bourgeoisie, not the Arab workers. Ben Gurion “coined the slogan, ‘From class to nation’ ... both perspectives saw the role of labour as a nationalist role.” The Arabs, in other words, became the substitute class enemy for the Jewish proletariat.6

Ben-Gurion spoke of “the evil of mixed labour”, describing the employment of Arabs as “class hatred of intelligent Jewish labour”.7 He criticised joint Arab-Jewish unity in the class struggle against Zionism’s bourgeois benefactors and the idea that the “role of the Jewish worker here is to be an instrument of social revolution among the Arabs”. The only role of the Jewish working class was a social one. “Nothing is further from the mind of Jewish labour than to engineer disputes, with all the material and political loss in their train.”8

As the late Noah Lucas, a Zionist historian, observed of Poale Zion, the ‘Marxist’ Zionist party, it “gradually came to give priority to the nationalist range of goals over the socialist”.9 As early as 1906, Ben-Gurion had urged the congress of the Palestinian Poale Zion in Jaffa to oppose those who wished to organise Arab labour instead of excluding it.10 By way of contrast, he described Moshe Smilansky of the Farmers Federation as someone with a “Zionist conscience uncorrupted by class doctrines”.11 Ben-Gurion also praised the Manufacturers Association: “Be it said to its credit that it never for a moment questioned the policy of Jewish labour” - meaning the policy of opposing the employment of Arabs by Jewish employers.

As I explain to Ryan in my letter, Zionists have only recently called themselves a national liberation movement. Zionism likes to capture the zeitgeist. Today colonialism is out of fashion. Liberation movements have inspired people who have seen the people of the colonial countries rise up and replace their oppressors, even if in most cases they have replaced the faces of the colonial oppressor with those of their own nationality.

When Zionism first began no-one would have dreamed of describing it as a form of national liberation. Zionists openly called themselves colonists and appealed to the European imperial powers on that basis. Next year we will ‘celebrate’ the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, when Arthur James Balfour, the Tory prime minister who introduced the anti-Semitic 1905 Aliens Act, promised the land of the Palestinians to the Zionist movement over the heads of the indigenous population and, incidentally, against the opposition of the only Jewish member of Lloyd George’s war cabinet, Sir Edwin Montagu. It was not the Jews who loved Zionism: it was anti-Semitic evangelical Christians like Hitler-admirer Lloyd George and Lord Shaftesbury.

Expenses scandal

Joan Ryan herself is an unremarkable person. A supporter of the rightwing Progress faction, she is not renowned as a parliamentarian or a speaker. She was an MP until 2010, when she was defeated in the general election, but unfortunately she was re-elected in 2015. Her entry in Wikipedia is extremely revealing.12 According to the Evening Standard of October 26 2007, in 2005-06 she made the second highest expenses claim of any MP, while in 2006-07 she managed to achieve first place, with a total of £173,691.

In May 2009 Ryan claimed more than £4,500 under the additional costs allowance for work on a house she had designated as her second home. In February 2010 she was asked to repay £5,121 mortgage interest, which she had wrongfully claimed.13

Not surprisingly Ryan found her greed somewhat embarrassing and unhelpful when she was trying to get back into parliament. The Independent reported: “At least 10 attempts have been made from computers in parliament to remove information about [Ryan’s] expenses claims, and a further 20 efforts to delete the information - some from her constituency of Enfield North - have also been recorded in Wikipedia’s logs.”14 Ryan’s Wikipedia entry reports that “similar edits to hide Ryan’s record continue to be made”.15 The efforts were successful and all mention of expenses claims were removed - to be replaced by a paragraph about edits to Wikipedia.

During the 2015 general election, The Daily Telegraph returned to this issue. In Ryan’s case, the entire expenses section was deleted, including information on repairs and decorations on her home paid for out of her MP’s expenses.16 The edits were made while Ryan was not an MP and, according to the Telegraph, she denied involvement, though it is difficult to think who apart from her Zionist friends would be interested in cleaning up her record.

I therefore thought it was appropriate, in view of her open letter to Richard Burgon, to send her a similar letter. Much to my surprise, Ryan has to date not responded to what I wrote.


1. www.lfi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Letter-from-Rt.-Hon-Joan-Ryan-MP-to-Richard-Burgon-MP-16.08.16.pdf.

2.S Teveth, D Ben-Gurion The burning ground 1886-1948 Boston 1987, p850.

3. Zeev Sternhell Israel’s founding myths New York 1999, p31.

4. See ibid p6.

5. Ibid p25.

6. N Lucas Modernhistory of Israel London 1975, pp49-50.

7. D Ben-Gurion Rebirth and destiny of Israel London 1959, p74.

8. Ibid p53. See also pp75, 77, 79.

9. N Lucas Modernhistory of Israel London 1975, p51.

10. M Offenburg Kommunismus in Palästina; cited in N Weinstock Zionism: false messiah London 1969, p87.

11. D Ben-Gurion Rebirth and destiny of Israel London 1959, p57.

12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Ryan.

13. Evening Standard February 4 2010.

14. The Independent March 9 2012.

15. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Ryan.

16. The Daily Telegraph May 26 2015.