No longer part of left
The AWL is clearly in alliance with Tom Watson and the Labour right, argues Tony Greenstein
The guru and founder of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Sean Matgamna, recently penned an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn, which marks a final break with the left.1 In it Matgamna both justifies and supports the current Labour Party witch-hunt. He openly calls for the expulsion of anti-Zionists. If there are any socialists left in the AWL, then they should get out - Matgamna has clearly aligned the AWL with Tom Watson, Jon Lansman and Jonathan Freedland, to say nothing of the Tory press.
Matgamna declares that anti-Zionism, including support for the right of return of Palestinian refugees, “should not be tolerated in a healthy labour movement” and should be made “incompatible with membership of the Labour Party”. Only a died-in-the-wool racist could suggest that advocating a multiracial society should be an offence. This is the politics of Enoch Powell, not Karl Marx.
Matgamna attacks the Corbyn left as anti-Semitic. He states that “the Corbyn surge was also an anti-Semitic purge”. This is the language of the Daily Mail. He describes the hundreds of thousands who joined the Labour Party in the wake of Corbyn’s victory as having “brought their political baggage” - ie, anti-Semitism - with them. Yet most of those who joined Labour in the wake of Corbyn’s victory had never belonged to any political party and were motivated above all by disgust at the re-election of the Tories and the austerity politics of New Labour. Matgamna displays utter contempt for the movement that brought Corbyn to victory in the leadership elections of 2015 and 2016.
Matgamna begins with an innocent question: “How has the crisis that grips the new, new Labour Party on anti-Semitism come about? How has it come to be the major scandal it is now?’
The answer is, of course, obvious. Even before Corbyn was elected he was accused of anti-Semitism. False allegations were made in the Daily Mail and Jewish Chronicle that Corbyn was an associate of a holocaust denier Paul Eisen. Attacking Corbyn for ‘anti-Semitism’ was somewhat easier than denouncing him for opposing, say, the privatisation of the national health service.
The reasons for the vicious and never-ending campaign against Corbyn and the left are not difficult to understand. Corbyn was seen as a threat to the political and economic interests of the establishment. He was anti-nuclear, anti-Nato, anti-imperialist and pro-Palestinian. He was an ally of workers in struggle. To have him as the leader of the major opposition party of the US’s closest ally in Europe was unacceptable - not only to Israel, but to the US and British states. The ‘anti-Semitism’ smears were their answer.
For over 30 years, the AWL (and its forerunner, Socialist Organiser Alliance) was unique for its theory of ‘left anti-Semitism’. The AWL refused to accept the most obvious reason for socialists’ hostility to the Israeli state: namely that most people do not like apartheid.
You do not have to be a socialist to understand that anti-Zionism is not about antagonism to Jews, but opposition to racism and colonialism. Israel is a state where a plurality of Israeli Jews support the deportation of Israeli Arabs and where 79% believe that Jews should be given preferential treatment over Arabs.2 Israel is a state where the right marches to the drumbeat of ‘Death to the Arabs’ and where Arab villages are demolished in order to make way for Jewish towns. Israel is the only state in the world where Donald Trump is popular. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 94% of Jewish Israelis have a favourable view of the US in general (83% overall).3
The AWL’s obsessions with Israel have been humoured by the rest of the left - treated much as one treats a dotty aunt. However, what in previous times was a quaint oddity has now become totally unacceptable. Where once the AWL’s support for imperialism was passed over in awkward silence, today we have to call a spade a spade and say that the AWL has become a scab organisation in the service of the right. It is not the first group to have taken this path: eg, the Revolutionary Communist Party.
The AWL’s politics have come full circle. What was reactionary externally has infected its domestic politics. Marxism teaches that in time theory and practice align with each other. Nowhere was this truer than with the socialist Zionists, who, when they began the colonisation of Palestine, abandoned their ‘socialism’, as it was incompatible with their day-to-day relations with the natives. Instead they chose ‘constructivism’ - the building up of the proto-Jewish state thanks to the capital of the bourgeoisie.
In the words of David Hacohen, an important figure in Labor Zionism:
I had to fight my friends on the issue of Jewish socialism, to defend the fact that I would not accept Arabs in my trade union, the Histadrut; to defend preaching to housewives that they should not buy at Arab stores; to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there ... to pour kerosene on Arab tomatoes; to attack Jewish housewives in the markets and smash Arab eggs they had bought ... to buy dozens of dunums4 from an Arab is permitted, but to sell - god forbid - one Jewish dunum to an Arab is prohibited; to take Rothschild, the incarnation of capitalism,as a socialist and to name him the ‘benefactor’ - to do all that was not easy.5
The Histadrut’s policy of Jewish labour - Kibbush Ha’avodah - meant a boycott of Arab labour. Labor Zionism opposed solidarity between Arab and Jewish workers in favour of unity with Jewish employers.
(Those socialist Zionists who chose socialism over Zionism were a minority. Those who prioritised work with the Arab working class formed the Palestine Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party (MPS) and became anti-Zionists. As a result they came into conflict with both the British colonial forces, who deported many of them with the active connivance of Histadrut and the Zionist leadership.)
So it is with the AWL. Over 30 years ago it abandoned anti-Zionism and support for a democratic, secular state in Palestine in favour of a two-state solution. This meant giving positive support to Israel as a Jewish state. The AWL had become a pro-Zionist organisation, yet for reasons of nostalgia still called itself Trotskyist despite its support for the occupation of Iraq, the CIA-backed mujahidin and America’s war in Afghanistan, and partition in Ireland.6 The AWL has consistently opposed any solidarity with the Palestinians. In the trade unions it vehemently opposed boycott, divestment and sanctions in Unison, the University and College Union, amongst others.
Life has not been easy for the AWL ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader. On the one hand, it could hardly be seen to oppose him or the movement that brought him to power, but, on the other hand, it found support for the Palestinians and opposition to Zionism galling. This led to an uneasy tension. In Momentum it supported Jon Lansman’s removal of anti-Zionist Jackie Walker as vice-chair in 2016, only for Momentum owner Jon Lansman to then turn on the AWL itself.
The AWL also found itself the target of the witch-hunt under Labour’s previous general secretary, Iain McNicol. This reached farcical proportions in 2016, when Owen Smith denounced the AWL’s “anti-Semitism”! Quite understandably the AWL leadership was furious. After having done their best to ingratiate themselves with the right over Zionism,7 they had become victims of the ‘anti-Semitism’ attacks on the crude basis that ‘left equals anti-Semitic’!
Soon after Corbyn’s victory against Smith I debated with the AWL’s Daniel Randall, who had himself just been expelled from Labour. Randall conceded that
it is undeniably the case that the issue of anti-Semitism has been instrumentalised and manipulated by some on the Labour right and their supporters in the press in order to undermine Corbyn and the left ... Owen Smith accused us of anti-Semitism on national television, so it is very clear that there is a certain process going on there, a certain instrumentalisation and manipulation of an issue for cynical factional ends.8
To the AWL Israel is synonymous with being Jewish. It shares the fantasy of Israel as a democratic oasis - an island of toleration and civilisation in a barbarous Middle East. It is Ronald Reagan’s ‘city upon a hill’ transplanted to Tel Aviv. The AWL is engaged in “A love-in with a mythical Israel”.9
Of course, there is another Israel. It is the Israel of Geoff Halper’s War against the people10 - a militarised state that trained the Guatemalan army of Rios Montt, as it murdered up to 200,000 Mayan Indians. It is the Israel which today is supplying weapons to the genocidal army of Myanmar in its war against the Rohinga people. It is the state which was the closest ally of apartheid South Africa and the death squad regimes of Latin America. This is the AWL’s golden state. As Dr Verwoerd, the South African premier, acknowledged, “The Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.”11
None of this penetrates the minds of the AWL. Matgamna is not ignorant: he is indifferent. Like the colonists that Ahad Ha’am warned against in The truth from the land of Israel (1891), Matgamna cannot see the Palestinians. They are invisible, caricature Muslims and Islamic fanatics (he ignores Palestinian Christians). Matgamna offers instead a sop: “There is an element of supporting the Palestinians, championing their rights which Israel often tramples on ...”
Palestinian oppression is merely incidental to the AWL. What matters is the survival of the Israeli state. Matgamna concedes that “There is a lot to criticise and condemn in Israeli policy”, but his only example is Israel’s “opposition to a Palestinian state”. Israel’s racist treatment of the Palestinians is irrelevant. Israel is historical recompense for the Nazi genocide. No matter that Zionist colonisation predated the holocaust and that it was the Nazis, not the Palestinians, who were responsible for it.
Matgamna calls himself a socialist and he is probably sincere - after all, Ramsay MacDonald also believed he was a socialist. What is clear is that Matgamna is Islamophobic, since the only alternative he can contemplate to a two-state solution is an Arab Islamic state - Arabs being incapable of democratic politics (that is reserved for Europeans). The AWL is in a long line of pro-imperialist ‘socialist’ groups.
The French Revolution of 1789 marked a break from the ethno-religious state. The French Revolution held that the nation-state consisted of all of those who lived in it. Henceforth religion and state were separate. Religion was irrelevant to one’s civil and political rights. In the words of Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre, a deputy in the constituent assembly “To the Jews as a nation nothing, to the Jews as individuals everything.”France was the first state to grant Jewish emancipation, but Zionism was linked to a hatred of emancipation, which for it signalled assimilation. It took Britain a further 69 years before such emancipation allowed Lionel de Rothschilds to take his seat in the UK parliament.12
Israel is a throwback to the Europe of the 1930s. The objection to the Israeli state is not this or that act of discrimination, but to a state not of its own citizens, but of all Jews, wherever they live in the world. That is why officially there is no Israeli nationality.13 As the recently passed Jewish Nation-State Law makes clear, only Jews have national rights in Israel. Its non-Jewish inhabitants are resident aliens. Even Arabs born in Israel are regarded as tolerated guests, which is why half the Arab villages are unrecognised: ie, liable to be demolished at any time.
Because Israel is a Jewish state, the chief rabbi of Safed, a paid state official, can issue an edict forbidding the renting of apartments to Arabs and be backed up by dozens of rabbis.14 It is why hundreds of Jewish residents of Afula can demonstrate for days in protest at the sale of a single home to an Arab.15 In Israel there are hundreds of Jewish communities where Arabs are barred and the Admissions Committee Law gives them the right to keep Arabs out.16
Yet to Matgamna Israel as a Jewish state is entitled to treat non-Jews as aliens. He has no complaint about discrimination against Arabs. His only concern is with what he calls “absolute anti-Zionism”, which is “barely distinguishable from anti-Semitism”. I confess I was absolutely opposed to apartheid in South Africa, but that did not make me anti-white.
Matgamna does not pretend that ‘anti-Semitism’ is not about Israel. During the past three years the Labour right has run with false ‘anti-Semitism’ and if you question their claims then that is proof of your own ‘anti-Semitism’. An Orwellian Catch-22. When the Zionists and the Labour right demanded that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism be accepted, they stated that for them ‘anti-Semitism’ meant opposition to Israel as a “racist endeavour”.
Luciana Berger MP’s Constituency Labour Party wanted to deselect her, but this had nothing to do with her being Jewish. She was a Blairite parachuted into a working class Liverpool seat and would not commit to remaining within Labour. Yet when the CLP passed a motion of no confidence in Berger, deputy leader Tom Watson called it the “worst day of shame in party’s 120-year history” - presumably more shameful than the war in Iraq, the deportation of asylum-seekers, the 1968 Kenyan Asian Immigration Act, etc.
But Matgamna agrees:
Nobody who watched and listened to Luciana Berger’s speech explaining why she left the Labour Party will doubt the sincerity of her account of the anti-Semitism that has driven her and the others, or most of them, out of the party.
Matgamna and the AWL’s parroting of Watson’s lies is shameful - there is not the slightest evidence that Berger was the subject of anti-Semitism within her CLP. The AWL’s theory of ‘left anti-Semitism’ has effectively led it to support the Blairite right.
A person who has been the recipient of much more racial abuse is Diane Abbott. Yet, whereas six people have been charged for abusing Berger, no-one has ever been arrested for abusing Diane. Yes there is institutional racism, but it is in the Metropolitan Police, not the Labour Party.
Matgamna’s two-state ‘solution’ is both reactionary and impossible. In the words of Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely: “This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologise for that.”
Matgamna’s article rests entirely on assertion. It consists of windy rhetoric, bile and frothing at the mouth. A Marxist or class analysis it is not. Evidence is conspicuous by its absence. Matgamna asserts:
There is a long tradition in much of the Jewish community of support and involvement with the Labour Party. To the leaders of the Jewish community and many Jews ... the ‘left’ in the party, or some of it, must appear as possible future anti-Jewish pogromists, as has much of the would-be ‘revolutionary’ left for a long time now.
Anyone who considers themselves a socialist would ask which sections of the “Jewish community” Matgamna is referring to? Matgamna treats the whole Jewish community as one.
The scurrilous allegation of socialists being “future anti-Jewish pogromists” is the product of Matgamna’s fetid imagination. It is venom masquerading as an antidote. Any Marxist worth their salt would ask why and when the “long tradition” of Jewish involvement in the labour movement came to an end. They would ask what the sociological changes in British Jewry are. Matgamna’s inability to make a serious case comes from a tradition of ‘left’ denunciations that has more to do with Stalinism and the Workers Revolutionary Party, which regularly denounced their opponents as spies and agents.
Any serious analysis would begin by asking when the decline in Jewish support for the Labour Party began. As far back as 2014 The Daily Telegraph ran with a story about Ed Miliband “losing the Jewish vote”.The class composition of the Jewish community had changed and so had its involvement in the labour movement. A Marxist would ask what political effect has the growing socio-economic prosperity of the Jewish population had on its political allegiances? Matgamna is the poor man’s Nick Cohen.
Before the 1960s the majority of the Jewish population in London lived in the East End. I remember as a child going for a meal in Blooms, a popular kosher restaurant, and waiting in a long queue. In 1996 the restaurant closed. Why? Because “from the 1960s onwards, Whitechapel’s Jewish population declined, as people made their money and moved out to the suburbs of Golders Green and Ilford”.17
William Rubinstein, a past president of the Jewish Historical Society, wrote:
… the rise of western Jewry to unparalleled affluence and high status has led to the near disappearance of a Jewish proletariat of any size: indeed the Jews may become the first ethnic group in history without a working class of any size ... it has made Marxism, and other radical doctrines, irrelevant to the socio-economic bases of western Jewry, and increasingly unattractive to most Jews.18
Dr Geoffrey Alderman, a Jewish academic, has stated: “By 1961, over 40% of Anglo-Jewry was located in the upper two social classes, whereas these categories accounted for less than 20% of the general population.”19
Alderman charted the political shift in British Jewry. In 1945, for example, Phil Piratin was elected as a communist MP in the heavily Jewish constituency of Mile End, but by the 1960s many Jews were becoming strong supporters of the Conservative Party. Class, not Israel, explained this shift in Jewish voting patterns.
Matgamna refers to the “Jewish leaders”. As Audrey Gillan noted in 2006,
The Jewish Board of Deputies advised Jews to stay away [from Cable Street in 1936]. The Jewish Chronicle warned: “Jews are urgently warned to keep away from the route of the Blackshirt march and from their meetings.”20
Today, however, those “leaders” in the Board of Deputies are happy to mobilise against the ‘anti-Semitism’ - ie, the anti-Zionism - of the left. Matgamna asserts that anti-Zionism derives from Stalinist anti-Semitism. On the contrary, it derived from the new left’s rejection of Stalinism in the wake of support for the Vietnam war and liberation struggles.
As part of his racist demonisation of the Palestinians Matgamna echoes Zionist propaganda, when he rejects the right of return of those expelled from Israel in the past: “Only a small fraction of those six million are refugees.”Matgamna joins hands with Donald Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu in denying the existence in any numbers of Palestinian refugees from Israel.
Matgamna justifies the nakba - the expulsion of the Palestinians - by comparing them with ethnic German refugees expelled from eastern Europe at the end of the war. There is no comparison. The Palestinian refugees were the victims of Zionist settler colonialism, which sought to create a racially exclusive Jewish majority state, whereas the Sudeten Germans had acted as a fifth column for the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. In 1935 the pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party won over 60% of the vote. While, of course, socialists should have opposed the mass deportation of ethnic Germans, their expulsion from Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia was at least understandable, given the role a majority of these communities had played in the Nazi occupation and in the Volksbund militias, which worked with the Nazi occupation forces in helping deport the Jews and fight the resistance.
Matgamna claims that “The Jewish nation that won independence in 1948 was built up around Jews indigenous to the area.” In other words, he subscribes to the racial myth that Jewish settlers are ‘returning’ to Israel rather than dispossessing the indigenous population. Jews constituted a fraction of the original population of Palestine. It is true that by the mid-19th century Jerusalem had a majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews from eastern Europe. However,these Jews were mostly anti-Zionist. They were known as the Old Yishuv. Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, wrote disparagingly about them in his autobiography.21
As part of his justification for the nakba, Matgamna refers to the myth that the Arabs aimed to “drive the Jews into the sea”. As Ilan Pappe has documented, the only people thrown into the sea were the Palestinians of Haifa in their panic to flee the shelling.22
What marks the writings of Matgamna on Palestine is his sheer ignorance. The AWL’s support for Israel and Zionism relies on nothing more than Israeli hasbara (propaganda). Matgamna caricatures supporters of Palestine, when he says they believe that “Arab and Islamic states that want to put [Israel] out of existence should be supported”. The reality is that Israel is surrounded by a belt of reactionary Arab states - from Egypt to Saudi Arabia (with which it has friendly relations). Just as opponents of apartheid in South Africa had no illusions in the surrounding black states, so no supporter of the Palestinians seriously believes that Zionism will end as a result of armies of the corrupt, pro-American Arab states, which are also a product of imperialism.
Referring to the Ken Livingstone affair Matgamna mentions “the nonsense ... about Zionist-Nazi affinity”. What he does not do is explain why it is nonsense. Zionist historian David Cesarani cites how “The efforts of the Gestapo are oriented to promoting Zionism as much as possible ... Zionists saw the [Nazi] pressure towards segregation as the fulfilment of their assertion that the Jews were a separate nation with no place in Germany.”23
The AWL’s rhetoric about a progressive imperialism disguises its ignorance of Zionism and Israel. Nothing Matgamna writes contributes to our understanding of neo-colonialism and imperialism today. Israel is a Jewish state representing the ‘Jewish nation’ both inside and outside Israel. Yet Matgamna can only see the liberation of Palestine as leading to the creation of an Arab-Islamic state. This is part of his racist, orientalist perspective, in which the Arabs are backward and infested with religion - unlike Israel, which alone amongst western nations forbids civil marriage.
Today the AWL’s domestic politics have caught up with its imperialist politics and the result is that it has joined hands with Tom Watson and Luciana Berger. We should recognise the AWL as such and treat it as we would other sections of the Labour right.
1,000 square metres.↩
D Hirst The gun and the olive branch London 2003, p185, citing Ha’aretz from November 15 1969.↩
See ‘Siding with Labour right’ Weekly Worker January 24.↩
See, for example, https://freespeechonisrael.org.uk/love-mythical-israel/#sthash.WbCzA01m.ELdm9nXv.dpbs.↩
W Rubinstein The right, left and the Jews New York 1982, p51.↩
G Alderman The Jewish community in British politics Oxford 1983, p137.↩
C Weizmann Trial and error Westport 1972, pp225-29.↩
D Cesarani Final solution: the fate of the Jews 1933-1949 London 2016, pp96, 102.↩