No room for anti-Semites
Tony Greenstein looks ahead to this weekend's AGM of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign
On Saturday the Palestine Solidarity Campaign will hold its AGM at Conway Hall, London. It takes place against the background of severe disruption by a handful of supporters and sympathisers of Gilad Atzmon - the anti-Semitic ex-Israeli jazz player.
It should be no surprise that a minority - a very small minority - of PSC members have succumbed to the argument that ‘the Jews’ as a seamless entity are responsible for the horrific oppression of the Palestinians. For years supporters of the Palestinians and opponents of Zionism have been told that they are anti-Semitic. Zionism was held to be synonymous with being Jewish. It is little wonder that a few people have accepted the Zionists at their word. As I wrote for ‘Comment is free’, “If you cry wolf long and loud enough, when anti-Semitism does raise its head no-one will bat an eyelid.”
Atzmon had the credentials as an ex-Israeli who had repented, as well as being a world-class jazz player, to give legitimacy to this Zionist argument. In ‘Not in my name’ he wrote: “To demand that Jews disapprove of Zionism in the name of their Jewish identity is to accept the Zionist philosophy. To resist Zionism as a secular Jew involves an acceptance of basic Zionist terminology: that is to say, a surrendering to Jewish racist and nationalist philosophy. To talk as a Jew is to surrender to Weizman’s Zionist philosophy.”
For Atzmon the declaration of being Jewish is no different from coming out as a Zionist. Unsurprisingly his main target became ‘the enemy within’ - Jewish anti-Zionists within the Palestine solidarity movement. Zionists to him were at least honest.
And from this it was but a short step to holocaust denial. The holocaust was a ‘narrative’, a story whose ending could be changed. In fact Zionism’s record was one of collaboration with the Nazis and the sabotage of all attempts at rescuing the Jews of Europe that did not involve Palestine. Zionism has shamelessly used the holocaust as a political weapon to justify the expulsion, massacre and racist exploitation of the Palestinians. It is not surprising that a small minority of their supporters adopted holocaust denial.
In ‘Truth, history and integrity’, Atzmon wrote: “If, for instance, the Nazis wanted the Jews out of their Reich (Judenrein - free of Jews), or even dead, as the Zionist narrative insists, how come they marched hundreds of thousands of them back into the Reich at the end of the war? I am left puzzled here. If the Nazis ran a death factory in Auschwitz-Birkenau, why would the Jewish prisoners join them at the end of the war? Why didn’t the Jews wait for their red liberators? I think that 65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz we must be entitled to start to ask the necessary questions. We should ask for some conclusive historical evidence and arguments …”
Zionism and its propagandists, in what Norman Finkelstein termed the “misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history”, have taken holocaust denial out of the confines of a small coterie of European neo-Nazis and helped popularise it in the third world. The argument, popularised by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is that, since Israel claims legitimacy through the holocaust, all one needs to do is deny the holocaust to deny Israel any legitimacy. However the holocaust is a fact and this ‘logic’ ends up as an endorsement of Israel.
It is precisely this phenomenon which has entrapped a small minority of PSC members and Palestinians. It is a product of an almost complete depoliticisation, coupled with a separatist reaction to oppression. Zionism was a separatist movement which adopted the framework of anti-Semitism. The anti-Semites said the Jews did not belong in non-Jewish society and the Zionists agreed. The same happened with Marcus Garvey and the back to Africa movement.
If Zionism had remained at the level of ideology it would have been an interesting historical curiosity. But Zionism was politically in accord with western colonialism. German, French and British imperialism fell over themselves to endorse a ‘return’ of the Jews to Palestine. The British won with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 - named after its author, Arthur James Balfour, the anti-Semitic foreign secretary who introduced the Aliens Act 1905, designed to keep Jewish refugees from tsarist Russia out of Britain. A British colony in Palestine would be near to the Suez Canal, the route to India. Indeed it was non-Jewish imperialists, not Jews, who were the first Zionists.
And, when it is coupled with the publication this year of Atzmon’s The wandering who?, endorsed by at least five professors, including John Mearsheimer and Richard Falk, it is little wonder that a few of those inflamed by the persecution of the Palestinians should seek solace in holocaust denial.
It would be futile to pretend that this has not caused major problems for PSC. Four years ago, some of us tried to ban the Deir Yassin Remembered group. Unfortunately the then executive took a sectarian stance, denying that there was a problem. Today that is not possible. Up and down the country, individual branches have experienced problems. In my own branch, Brighton, former national PSC chair Frances Clarke-Lowes came out as a holocaust denier. He was promptly expelled by the local branch and his appeal against expulsion from national PSC will be heard on Saturday. In Liverpool the Friends of Palestine website was taken over by a holocaust denier. In Exeter the branch had some involvement in the organisation of an Atzmon meeting at the university (although others protested strongly). In Bradford the Raise Your Banners group invited Atzmon to play at a left cultural festival and claimed PSC support, until PSC disowned it. In Camden, Gill Kaffash was forced to step down as PSC secretary after her holocaust denial sympathies became clear.
It is entirely to the credit of the PSC executive and its secretary, Ben Sofa, that last September they changed the statement ‘About our campaign’ on the front page of the national website to make the PSC position absolutely clear: “Any expression of racism or intolerance, or attempts to deny or minimise the holocaust have no place in our movement. Such statements are abhorrent in their own right and can only detract from the building of a strong movement in support of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people.”
Atzmon immediately attacked the statement. He apparently did not know what holocaust denial means!
These developments have been grist to the Zionist mill. The Jewish Chronicle, along with many other papers, has run a number of articles, including an attack on PSC by Atzmon’s supporters, such as Lauren Booth, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law. But the Zionists, trapped by their own racism, have been left struggling to find a response. Hence the JC has not only quoted my own blog frequently, but Anthony Cooper wrote a remarkably fair article (for the JC!), ‘The Jews who can distinguish anti-Semitism from anti-Israel’, for which he was predictably savaged.
Even the rabidly Islamophobic pro-war site, Harry’s Place, reprinted this article - though not unnaturally taking delight at what it sees as problems for PSC. But the majority of Zionist propagandists have tried to pass this off as mere infighting. Indeed Atzmon has been praised by Harry’s Place for his anti-boycott stance!
On Saturday there will be one motion on anti-Semitism and racism on the agenda from the national executive. Another, from Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi and myself, which called for more internal education on Zionism, has been amended and accepted by the executive.
Although there have been in the past, and no doubt will be in the future, disagreements between ourselves and the executive over tactics and strategy, over one thing we are absolutely united. There is no place in PSC for any trace of racism or anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism today is primarily a marginal prejudice. It is not a danger to Jews so much as to the Palestinians. Without anti-Semitism there would have been no Zionism. It was anti-Semitism which drove a minority of Jews to Palestine. It was Hitler and the extermination of Europe’s Jews which gave Israel its legitimacy as a refuge for the Jews, there to establish a settler-colonial state based on the very principles that the anti-Semites espoused. As the founder of political Zionism Theodor Herzl wrote over a century ago: “Anti-Semitism has grown, and continues to grow and so do I.”
At the AGM there is also a not very clever motion from Gill Kaffash and ex-Israeli Ruth Tenne, which seeks to define racism so as to exclude holocaust denial! They also, no doubt unwittingly, manage to exclude Islamophobia by confining racism to its biological variants. It is a stupid motion from the stupid.
Support for the Palestinians is an anti-racist struggle. It can be no other. I urge all supporters of the Palestinians and members of PSC to come to the AGM and vote to ensure that the main motion is passed overwhelmingly and Kaffash/Tenne’s motion is soundly defeated.
4. N Finkelstein On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history London 2005.
5. G Atzmon The wandering who? Abingdon 2011