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May 01st 2012 print

Leslie Stein

How Anti-Zionism Seduced the Intellectual Left

Can one be an anti-Zionist without being an anti-Semite? Many years before the establishment of the State of Israel one could reasonably adopt the view that the very notion of Zionism was a chimera, for the chances of successfully launching and then consummating the Zionist project seemed rather fanciful. Accordingly, the sprinkling of Zionist pioneers making their way to Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were mocked as naive idealists by the many Russian Jews fleeing to America. In Western Europe, Jews wishing to assimilate into the mainstream community feared that the spread of Zionism would subject them to the charge of dual loyalty. Marxists attacked Zionism on the grounds that it that diverted the attention of Jewish workers from the class struggle. Finally, extremely devout Jews regarded Zionism as a blasphemous attempt to pre-empt the work of God.

The Zionist movement never commanded a Jewish majority until after the Second World War. Clearly, Jews themselves, not to speak of non-Jews, could and did adopt anti-Zionist positions without any concomitant anti-Semitic overtones. It may seem strange to think of any Jew being anti-Semitic but under certain circumstances, the oppressiveness, continuity and pervasiveness of anti-Semitism can propel some of its victims to seek a way out by associating with and internalising the views of their persecutors. It is not my intention to labour this point but rather to emphasise that in the past, anti-Zionism did not have the same connotations as it has today and that people holding such views did not necessarily do so with malice. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.

Before proceeding further, it is necessary to clarify what, in my view, is currently meant by the term an “anti-Zionist”. It does not automatically apply to anyone expressing censure or hostility to specific aspects of Israeli policies or Israeli society. Such objections are fair game, as they are with regard to all countries. As it happens, I am highly critical of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but my strictures are submitted with an implicit understanding that whatever Israel’s misdeeds, its right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state is inviolable. A modern anti-Zionist by contrast consciously seeks to promote the undermining and eradication of Israel. All his or her anti-Israel diatribes and activities are motivated by that desire. For the anti-Zionist, Israel is intrinsically evil; its foundation entailed an injustice to the Palestinians that can only be rectified by its demise. Any claims or justifications for Israel’s continued existence, whether they relate to historical, legal or moral claims, are brushed aside. In the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Palestinian case and narrative inevitably trumps the Israeli one.

The rise to prominence of the new version of anti-Zionism is a recent phenomenon. Israel’s emergence in 1948 was widely and warmly received, particularly among European social democrats, who regarded Israeli Labour leaders clad in open-necked shirts and living in kibbutzim as soul mates. The then Labour Zionist movement’s dedication to socialist ideals based on self-labour and a fair measure of equality was music to their ears and they felt a natural sympathy for Israel as a pioneering country surrounded and outnumbered by implacable foes ruled by autocrats. The British Attlee Labour government’s pro-Arab policy (adopted mainly for geostrategic reasons) did not necessary reflect the feelings of the party’s rank and file, for at its 1944 annual conference it resolved that not only should the possibility of extending the boundaries of Palestine be considered but also that the “Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in”. In astonishment, Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Body, emphasised that he and his colleagues “had never contemplated the removal of the Arabs”.[1]

For a short while, even the Soviet Union provided valuable political and military support (in terms of arms shipments) to Israel. It voted for the November 1947 UN resolution recommending the partition of Palestine, and later its ambassador to the UN, Joseph Malek, ascribed responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem to Arab “attempts to scuttle the UN General Assembly’s decision”.[2]

Soviet good will did not last long. The rapturous welcome accorded by Russian Jews to Golda Meir as she attended a Moscow synagogue in 1949 in her capacity as Israel’s first ambassador was not lost on the Russian authorities. Ever on guard against eruptions of “insular” non-Russian nationalism, they resolved to suppress all manifestations of Jewish solidarity with Israel. Anti-Zionism, which had perennially been prescribed by Leninist doctrine was now intensified with a vengeance. It was further boosted during the 1950s when the Soviets decided to woo the Egyptian army officers who on July 23, 1952, had deposed King Farouk in a coup d’état. Both the new Egyptian rulers and similar ones in Syria presented themselves as anti-colonial nationalists, the very type with which Moscow felt it could do business. In late 1955 Russia conducted a massive shipment of arms to Egypt and in November 1956 it concluded a pact with Syria that allowed for an increase in communist influence. To ensure that it would be looked upon as a true friend of the Arab world, Russia began disseminating vicious anti-Zionist propaganda in earnest.

As was their wont, communist parties in Europe and elsewhere slavishly adopted and peddled the new Soviet line. Non-communist radicals, apart from their opposition to Stalinism, usually found themselves supporting the rest of the world communist movement’s platform. They were at one with the Soviet Union in opposing colonialism and they shared the Soviet view that the Zionists were in cahoots with American imperialism.

Over time Western radicals became a significant agent in disseminating anti-Zionism either by increasing their ranks or by exerting a subtle effect on the thinking of a widening range of people. In practice one can hate Israel without necessarily being a Marxist or tainted by Marxism, for the Marxists do not hold a monopoly in this field. Other factors also come into play. But it is virtually certain that all Marxists are anti-Zionists and also a fairly safe bet that a self-described “progressive”, that is, someone with left-wing leanings, is open or susceptible to anti-Zionist persuasion. To appreciate this, events in the UK provide us with a suitable case study.

Unlike say in France, the UK Communist Party had never come anywhere near to rivalling the Labour Party or being widely taken seriously. Neither at first did the UK Trotskyite sects and the “New Left”. Yet when it comes to anti-Zionism the British intellectual establishment is now particularly, if only subconsciously, in debt to the latter two groups. Their general impact on British society began to gather momentum from the late fifties and the early sixties when in the course of annual Easter Weekend Aldermaston marches organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) they mingled with and influenced naive young peace-loving participants. For those that saw the Marxist light and proceeded to university, a fortuitous expansion of university and other tertiary institutions subsequently afforded many of them with lecturing posts. This soon led to most British social science departments becoming heavily infused with radicals of one description or another and from then on successive generations of students were increasingly subjected to their teachings. It was not necessary for the students to be fully converted, rather it was enough that they accepted their tutors’ basic premises and ways of analysing society.

Realising that for the most part British workers enjoying improved living standards were disinclined to challenge the status quo, the Marxist radicals looked to the Third World where, as Frantz Fanon wrote, lived the “wretched of the earth”. Sympathy with the plight of the Third World was not hard to come by considering that most Third World inhabitants have been and continue to be poverty-stricken. Torn by feelings of guilt on account of Britain’s colonial past and having been inculcated with the belief that the country derived a large part of its wealth at Third World expense, sensitive individuals increasingly wished to atone for their country’s sins by identifying with and supporting Third World liberation movements.

It was around this point of time that Israel in June 1967 succeeded in defeating the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies. Almost overnight, Israel began to be viewed as an occupier. In the West Bank and Gaza the people under Israeli army control were poor non-Westerners, whereas Israel by contrast was to all intents and purposes an affluent Western state enjoying American patronage. Inevitably, no matter how tolerant was Israel’s occupying authority and no matter what caused Israel to enter those areas in the first place, it was Israel’s lot to become an object of international disparagement.

At first the change was gradual, but year by year it made steady headway. The slaughtering by PLO gunmen of Israeli civilians in various Israeli towns, not to mention the spectacular killing of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, to some extent tempered early manifestations of the stigmatisation of Israel. But the UN General Assembly, by inviting the head of the PLO Yasser Arafat to address its members in November 1974, and by resolving a year later that Zionism was a form of racism, made it far easier for those inclined to do so to excoriate Israel (as a sovereign Jewish state) without any residual qualms or scruples. It also helped to tilt the attention of the British and world media from attacks on Israel to the experiences of Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

A realignment of generally held views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took place against a backdrop of significant social transformations occurring in Britain during the fourth quarter of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century. In 1970 Muslims accounted for less than 300,000 of UK permanent residents, 0.5 per cent of the entire population. Yet by 2010, through mass immigration and high birth rates, their numbers rose to 2.9 million, or 4 per cent. While a figure of 4 per cent may seem small, in various UK inner cities and industrial centres, dense concentrations of Muslims drastically altered the social landscape. The inevitable groundswell of resentment among non-Muslim residents was countered by the introduction of anti-racist legislation that in theory ought to have served the common good. Not content with that and striving to ensure the suppression of what for the most part would be regarded as reasonable criticism of unsavoury aspects of Islamic theology and practice, radicals, through their inordinate influence in education and the media, foisted upon the general community the concept of the relativity of moral values and cultures. As far as they are concerned one cannot legitimately assert that Western civilisation based on Judeo-Christian ethics is in any way superior to that of, say, Iran.

The jettisoning of absolute values inexorably leads to an erosion of faith in one’s own religion, country and history. As a consequence, one’s ability to tell right from wrong is very much impaired, as exemplified by common beliefs such as “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” or “history is written by the victors”. Providing guidance to the perplexed (to borrow an expression of Maimonides) radicals, in the international context, recommend that support for various causes be governed by whether or not they further the struggle against imperialism, globalisation or capitalism. The intrinsic worthiness of a particular issue is not to be determined through the prism of Western democratic values and on the basis of objective facts but rather on the basis of pre-existing biases. For a partial corroboration of this, we are indebted to Ilan Pappe, a one-time member of an Israeli communist party and now a British anti-Israel historian, whose fabrications of Israel’s past and present are widely circulated and quoted. In a remarkable display of candour, Pappe stated: 

My ideology influences my historical writings … the struggle is about ideology, not about facts … We try to convince as many people as we can that our interpretation of the facts is the correct one and we do it because of ideological reasons, not because we are truth seekers.[3] 

Just as radical professors have abandoned traditional academic principles according prime importance to the widening of knowledge based on an open-minded pursuit of truth, so have radical journalists downgraded the time-honoured practice of ferreting out the actual and overall facts of a particular situation. Instead they have resorted to combative journalism whereby instead of providing accurate and comprehensive information, their dispatches are more often than not highly editorialised. In relation to the Middle East in particular their approach is influenced by prejudices against Israel and by an abysmal ignorance of the region’s history. With the Palestinians regarded as the noble savages par excellence who as victims of Zionist colonial oppression can never do wrong, every Israeli-Palestinian encounter is coloured with images of Palestinian suffering. The overall context of each clash is rarely provided and the language employed sanitises Palestinian excesses. Thus a terrorist becomes a “militant” or a Molotov-cocktail-throwing Palestinian youth an “activist”.

Over the years, with most of the informed public beholden to such sources, the opinions held by the British chattering class have become less and less diverse, leaving little room for dissension or for a civil exchange of views. A compendium of political correct notions has emerged, dictating what is and what is not socially acceptable thinking. Needless to say pride of place is accorded to anti-Zionism. Two factors have reinforced that trend. One relates to the inclusion of renegade Jews within anti-Zionist ranks and the other to the forging of an alliance of the hard Left with British Islamists.

By and large, radical anti-Zionist Jews never attend synagogues, nor do they belong to any mainstream communal Jewish institution. Their homes tend not to be adorned with Jewish art or symbols and they rarely, if ever, impart any sense of Jewish identity to their offspring. In fact their primary, if not their only, expression of their Jewishness is manifested in public displays of anti-Israel sentiment. Being alienated from their own people they seek an alternative sense of belonging within radical anti-Zionist ranks where they play a prominent role in boosting anti-Israel hatred. In the UK, for example, the late Tony Cliff, the leader of the Troskyite forerunner to the Socialist Workers Party was born to Jewish parents and was originally named Yigael Gluckstein. Ready at a moment’s notice to condemn Israel in the ugliest of terms, radical Jews provide licence to their gentile comrades to espouse hitherto unacceptable anti-Semitic views. Being such a godsend, they are warmly feted and their pronouncements are widely publicised. Their welcome into the bosom of Israel’s enemies is of course contingent on their continual voicing of anti-Israel slanders. Eager to enter what they naively imagine is a fraternity promoting the universal brotherhood of man, they willingly provide what is expected of them.

In the past decade an alliance has been forged between the British far Left and local Islamists heavily permeated by adherents of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. The alliance draws upon thousands and thousands of rank-and-filers from both segments to unite in protest rallies against Israel. One would normally have thought such an alliance highly improbable, for why would leftists who are ostensibly in favour of an enlightened democratic society devoid of religious bigotry, homophobia, sexism, the suppression of free speech and the general curtailment of personal liberty, throw in their lot with those harbouring directly opposite objectives?

Above all, why would “progressives” join forces with organisations imbued with a form of anti-Semitism redolent of that of the most rabid neo-Nazis? Hamas habitually describes Jews as brothers of apes and pigs; Article 7 of its charter, after stating that “the Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realisation of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take”, goes on (quoting from the Koran) to explain that: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews. When the Jew will hide behind stones and trees, the stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” Considering that British radicals, in allegedly opposing racism, so readily pounce upon anyone who as much as expresses a hint of disquiet about the country’s burgeoning Islamists, it is outrageous that they not only turn a blind eye to Islamic anti-Jewish incitement but make common cause with its perpetrators.

The more one ponders the seeming paradox of a radical left wing-Islamofascist alliance, the more one realises that it makes perfect sense. Putting aside the formal thematic programs of each group that would suggest irreconcilable differences, one can readily discern that in reality the two have much in common. They are both keen haters, jointly hating Western societies and America in particular. They both deride capitalism as evil, democracy as a sham, and globalisation as an extension of imperialism imperilling the Third World. Above all they both regard Israel as an abomination. Their union has given rise to a form of anti-Zionism that is noxious in the extreme in which Israel, in all seriousness, is labelled as a full-blown Nazi regime. In fact the Israelis are regarded as being worse than the Nazis, because as a people who have experienced the Holocaust they ought to know better than to visit similar tribulations on the Palestinians.

For those not quite so misinformed as to accept the likening of Israel to Nazi Germany, the British anti-Zionist movement can be fairly protean. Instead of employing only the Nazi analogy, it also allows for the labelling of Israel as an apartheid state, which ties in well with Britain’s popular campaign against the former white South African regime. By so doing, it is hoped that the previous and widespread revulsion felt against apartheid would be re-energised and directed to Israel. They might well succeed, but certainly not because Israel in any meaningful way practises apartheid. For it to do so Israeli Arabs would have to be disenfranchised and forbidden by law to enter Jewish buses, restaurants, cinemas, hospitals, universities and so on. Arabs would have to be excluded by law (as in the Apartheid Job Protection Act) from undertaking certain categories of work. They would not be able to reside in any Jewish residential areas. On demand by police officers they would have to present passes authorising them to be in a certain place at a certain time. Needless to say, absolutely none of that applies in Israel.

Those that realise that the Nazi and apartheid slurs are indefensible tend to shift their focus to discriminatory restrictions imposed on Arabs living in the West Bank where the issue arises from Israel being an occupying power. But Israel has twice offered to end the occupation, first by Ehud Barak in 2000 and then by Ehud Olmert in 2008. Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas respectively spurned the offers without in turn submitting any counter-proposal.

Even without asserting that Israel is the modern incarnation of Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa, anti-Zionists portray Israel as a pariah state. In fact, it is the only state so described. Not even North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba or Zimbabwe, to mention just a few unsavoury regimes, attract anything remotely like the calumnies heaped on the Jewish state. The bile is either targeted against a particular politician or against Israel’s entire Jewish population. By not distinguishing between the country’s citizens and its government, the anti-Zionists lay themselves open to the unanswerable charge that they are indeed anti-Semites. Two examples illustrate the manner in which Israel and its people have been depicted.

In 2003 the Independent newspaper published a cartoon by Dave Brown clearly modelled on Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son. But in this case we have a naked ogre resembling Arik Sharon devouring a Palestinian baby while in the background an Israeli tank and helicopter gunships pound Arab dwellings. Anyone remotely familiar with the history of anti-Semitism would recognise that the cartoon’s imagery invokes the long-standing blood libel of Jews kidnapping and killing gentile children for sacramental purposes. Nonetheless, Brown’s cartoon was awarded the 2003 political cartoon of the year at a ceremony officiated by Claire Short, a former member of Tony Blair’s cabinet.

The second case relates to Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children, first performed in February 2009 at the London Royal Court Theatre with a predominantly Jewish cast. One of the characters, an Israeli, specifies what should be conveyed to a young girl by exclaiming: 

Tell her there’s dead [Arab] babies … Tell her I am not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them … Tell her we’re the iron fist now … Tell her I laughed when I saw the dead [Arab] policeman, tell her they’re animals … Tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out. 

The play received thunderous applause from the audience and was highly recommended by the Guardian. It faithfully reflected the considered opinion of the British establishment that Israelis are intrinsically cruel and vindictive. Granted that there are indeed individual Israelis that can be so described, just as there are similar individuals in all countries, it is ludicrous to tar the entire Israeli population with the same brush.

In reality the situation on the ground is precisely the opposite of what Churchill implies. By contrast to the Palestinians, no one in Israel dresses their babies in mock suicide bomber belts. No one in celebration hands out candy to relatives and neighbours following one’s son or daughter’s slaughter of enemy civilians. No Israeli radio or television studio has ever broadcast songs exhorting people to massacre the enemy, as had Cairo Radio on the eve of the Six Day War. At no time has Israel conducted victory parades at the conclusion of a war. No one gloats about Arab losses. On the contrary, Yitzhak Rabin in a public speech delivered at the conclusion of the Six Day War noted that the Jewish people are not habituated to experiencing the joy of conquest and that in addition to the sorrow his men felt at losing their comrades, the terrible price that the enemy paid also touched many of them.[4]

The adverse effects of anti-Zionism are considerable since its adherents relentlessly attempt to undermine Israel’s existence by means of commercial, scientific or cultural boycotts and by campaigns denouncing Israel’s right to defend itself on the grounds that Israel is illegitimate in the first place. Furthermore, a negative influence on diaspora Jewry is also brought to bear. After being unrelentingly assailed by anti-Zionist propaganda in the media and on university campuses, inevitably some Jews fall prey to the prevailing conventional wisdom. With Israel constantly being painted as inflicting terrible pain and suffering on defenceless Palestinians, many young Jews are loath to reveal their Jewishness lest they be viewed as accomplices of Israeli oppression. But by expressing their abhorrence of Israel and proclaiming from the rooftops that they are proud to be ashamed of Israel, they can safely acknowledge their Jewish ancestry without being socially ostracised. Sadly, they generally not only turn on Israel but find themselves estranged from the Jewish community at large.

It would be foolhardy to think of anti-Zionism as being a distinctly Jewish problem. In essence it is employed as a strategic means of combatting western civilization. As it gathers pace it enhances sympathy and support for Hamas, Hezbollah and other Islamists, all sworn enemies of open, democratic and tolerant societies. For some years past university campuses have become bastions of prejudice and intolerance where it is not unusual for pro-Israeli speakers to be threatened with violence. By fostering a mindset amenable to fanaticism and self-righteousness anti-Zionism gives rise to a general lowering of the tone of public discourse. That alone renders it harmful to society as a whole.

It is of course not the first time in modern history that intellectuals have held convictions belied by the evidence. In pondering just why so many learned people were enthused about the Stalinist regime at the very time when it was slaughtering and imprisoning millions of its citizens, the late and eminent Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski concluded that “the reaction of western intellectuals was a remarkable triumph of doctrinaire ideology over common sense and the critical instinct.”[5] It is the author’s contention that the same applies with respect to the current appeal of anti-Zionism.

Leslie Stein is the author of The Making of Modern Israel, 1948–1967 (Polity, 2009), and a senior research fellow at Macquarie University, where he was formerly associate professor of economics.



[1] C. Weizmann, “Trial and Error,” Hamish Hamilton, 1949, London page 535.

[2] As quoted in D. Ben Gurion, “The Restored State of Israel,” (In Hebrew) Am Oved, Tel Aviv 1969 page 468.

[3] An Interview with Ilan Pappe,” Le Soir (Bruxelles) November 29, 1999.

[4] T.Segev, “1967 and the Country Had a Change of Face,” (In Hebrew), Keter, Jerusalem, page 460.

[5] L Kolakowski,. “Main Currents of Marxism,” Norton, New York, 2008 page 858.