Legitimising anti-semitism

As the Israel lobby comes under unprecedented attack in the US and George Soros is described as "a cog in the Hitlerite wheel", Gilad Atzmon and his friends continue to peddle conspiracy theories, writes Tony Greenstein

One of the consequences of the fallout from the Iraq war is the unprecedented criticism of the Zionist lobby in the USA. A year ago, senior US academics Mersheimer and Walt published a seminal essay, 'The Israel lobby', in the London Review of Books (US publications would not take it). The essence of their argument was that support for Israel, and the Iraq war, which the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbied for, were against the US national interest.

It is not for socialists to argue what is and is not in the best interests of the US ruling class. However, we should be concerned with how those interests play out on the ground, especially when 70% of Palestinians are going hungry and 'transfer' is on the agenda.

Israel's supporters run well-funded political lobby groups, in particular AIPAC, which specialises in demonising its opponents, such as academics Norman Finkelstein and Joseph Massad. Preventing free speech or debate on campuses goes hand in hand with providing political support for Israel's expansion of the settlements and its land confiscation.

Mersheimer and Walt were careful not to use anti-semitic language or stereotypes. Nor did they engage in the anti-semitic conspiracy theories in which the Shamir/Atzmon/Rizzo group specialise. However, the essay suffered from a major weakness. How is it, if support for Israel is against the US national interest, that successive US administrations have nonetheless supported the Israeli state through thick and thin? The obvious answer, given by both the Zionists and the anti-semites, is the power of what Alex Brummer calls "the Jewish lobby".

It is, though, one thing to suggest that the Zionist lobby is all-powerful. It is quite another to say that it has no influence. If the latter were true, then the question would arise as to why it continues to go to so much trouble to bribe, cajole and threaten election candidates, to finance many of them and to intervene in the legislative process.

Nathan Gutman describes the debate over US policy towards Israel and the role of AIPAC as having "exploded with near-nuclear force this week". What has triggered this explosion has been a series of articles written criticising AIPAC and the Zionist lobby by Pulitzer prize winner Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times, The Economist magazine and on the Salon website, and by George Soros in the New York Review of Books.

The genie is now well and truly out of the bottle. Martin Peretz attacked Soros as a "cog in the Hitlerite wheel" for his suggestion that the United States has "to go through a certain deNazification process" as a result of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc, despite Soros being a childhood survivor of the holocaust in Hungary.

What we are seeing is the shattering of a taboo. For the first time ever, important sections of the Jewish community internationally are rejecting the idea that they should support Israel right or wrong. The years of guilt and emotional and political blackmail have begun to backfire. Increasingly prominent Jewish personalities who are not tied to the existing Jewish communal leadership and its supine support for Israel are speaking out.

In Britain, Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), launched to a fanfare of publicity in The Guardian, The Independent and The Times in February, attracted the support of the cream of Jewish academia and the arts. Internationally similar movements have developed in the USA, Canada, Australia and even Germany. There is a slow and belated recognition that Jews in the diaspora have different interests from those of the Israeli state, and that support for the abuse of human rights in Palestine, in the name of those communities, is harmful. That labelling as anti-semitic those who oppose such abuses merely legitimises anti-semitism.

This is the primary reason why the anti-semitism of Gilad Atzmon, Israel Shamir, Paul Eisen and Mary Rizzo should be rejected. As soon as IJV was launched, Atzmon attacked them, claiming that "an internal Jewish dispute between two Zionist synagogues shouldn't really become one of the top priorities of British society". The beginning of a process whereby sections of the British Jewish community distance themselves from their 'leaders' does not fit with Atzmon's belief that 'Jewishness' explains Zionism and the oppression of the Palestinians.

This is the context of Mary Rizzo's reaction (Letters, March 22) to my comment that, "Immediately the resolutions [at the March 10 Palestine Solidarity Campaign annual conference] were defeated, both the Zionists and Atzmon/DYR [the Deir Yassin Remembered group] proclaimed that there had been a famous victory for anti-semitism" (Weekly Worker March 15). She asks: "Where did anyone claim that?"

Well, for one there is her own statement about "ethnically Jewish activists (both Zionist and anti-Zionist - united in their attacks and smears)". By "ethnically Jewish activists" she means Jews by race, although my opposition to Zionism is political, not ethnic. Those who have criticised the Atzmon/DYR camp have been both Jewish and non-Jewish. Likewise Sue Blackwell, who seconded the anti-DYR motion and first moved the academic boycott motion in the Association of University Teachers, is described by Rizzo as the "christian Passionara from Birmingham" - despite being an atheist! Atzmon likewise gives "thanks to those among the Palestinian solidarity campaigners who "¦ openly, actively and overwhelmingly rejected the motions and the pressure and lobbying tactics performed by its proposers".

Is it seriously doubted that Atzmon is anti-semitic? Put to one side his conspiracy theories and belief that Jews in the Palestinian solidarity movement are "gatekeepers". In 'From Esther to Birkenau, from Esther to AIPAC' on the increasingly anti-semitic Counterpunch site, he complains that "not a single holocaust religion scholar dares engage in a dialogue with the so-called 'deniers' to discuss their vision of the events or any other revisionist scholarship". If Atzmon believes that neo-Nazi holocaust deniers have any "vision" other than the extermination of yet more Jews or non-Aryans, then he clearly believes that holocaust denial is a valid political and academic discourse.

It is interesting that Rizzo and Sven Meddisky believe that a comparison between certain Jewish supporters of the PSC executive and Judas is anti-semitic, because it is "taboo to use the roles of those of the principal narrative of christianity to explain value judgments" (Letters, March 22). Why? The Bible, new and old, provides many stories, allegories and characters, from Jonah to Judas, from Jesus's flight to Egypt to the parable of the Good Samaritan which are anything but anti-semitic. Likewise Leonard Cohen's song, 'Story of Isaac', is not anti-semitic. Biblical metaphors are part of our everyday culture, including anti-racist culture. What is, however, deeply anti-semitic is use of the medieval stereotype of Jews, by Atzmon and Shamir, as "Christ killers".

It is even more amusing that Meddisky repeats the old Zionist canard that I was "banned by various institutes (NUS, LSE, etc) for being associated with racial hatred". Now it is true that the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) made every effort to ban anti-Zionist Jews, including Roland Rance, Lenni Brenner and myself, from speaking on campuses. There is nothing unusual about this. Their equivalents have attempted to ban Norman Finkelstein from American campuses. Zionism's attitude to free speech is little different from that of the BNP. But they rarely succeed because people instinctively react against the opponents of free speech. Ironically UJS tried to use the very 'no platform for fascists and racists' policy which they had previously opposed!

An example of Meddisky's lies is the article 'UJS fail to prevent speaker on Zionism', subtitled 'Greenstein meeting takes place', in the paper of the LSE students union. In the same edition, there is a letter by a member of the Labour Club detailing how he and other socialists were called 'anti-semitic' by UJS for not supporting my banning! Likewise in the National Union of Students. Although David Aaronovitch and other luminaries of the right in NUS tried to ban me, they failed. Most of them, of course, are now in or around the New Labour government, demonstrating their commitment to anti-racism by trying to deport asylum-seekers.

Simon Hughes argues that to seek to analyse both anti-semitism and Zionism is "ideologically narrow" as well as sectarian. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign is a "broad-based movement in solidarity with the Palestinians", he argues (Letters, March 22). But the two are not incompatible. A movement of solidarity can also engage in internal debates and education, not least when it concerns the nature of those they are campaigning against. Neither the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign nor Troops Out of Ireland saw any contradiction between education and activity.

Most such campaigns - eg, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Cuba and Venezuela solidarity movements - do not face a well funded, articulate opposition. There is no Cuba lobby in Britain that supports the US government economic blockade or a Venezuela lobby that supports the opponents of Hugo Chávez. Zionism, on the contrary, has a very well funded lobby arguing in support of the 'right to exist' of the Israeli state and Zionism. Engaging in solidarity activity while excluding political education inevitably leads to a low level of political consciousness. That might explain why the concept of 'Jewish power' has surfaced in more than one PSC group. To pretend that there is no problem, that internal debate and education is unnecessary, that activity is everything, is a recipe for a situation where anti-semitic ideas can arise among some activists.

Ironically, when the Enough coalition was being formed, Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JFJP) did raise the question of anti-semitism, in the context of the involvement of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. Yet, when it comes to Deir Yassin Remembered, they preferred the 'hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil' attitude of the PSC executive. Perhaps a clue as to why lies in the fact that JFJP has among its signatories people like David Hirsh and John Strawson of Engage, an organisation set up to fight the academic boycott of Israeli universities and for whom the Israeli state can do no wrong. The theme of muslim 'anti-semitism' is one that is very close to the hearts of Zionist activists.