Islamophobia and Israel in political context

18-12-16 SACC conference

Saturday’s joint conference by Scotland Against Criminalising Communities and the Islamic Human Rights Commission put political analysis at the centre of the discussion. Sarah Glynn spoke for ScottishJAZ – and her speech is reproduced below – but we would also like to share some important points made by other speakers.

Sai Englert, from SOAS, stressed that the reason the Israel lobby is able to be so effective is not a reflection of Jewish power, but because they are saying what states such as the US and UK want to hear. Israel is central to their foreign policy; and the emphasis on the horrors of the Holocaust allows them to ignore colonial and current racisms. They are happy to portray Jews as defenders of Western values, and to use them as a shield for their own racist policies at home and abroad. So, for example, they can shut down discussions on the grounds that they are ‘offensive to Jews’.

David Jamieson, of Common Space, emphasised the role of the state and the ruling class in legitimising the racist and Islamophobic ideologies that are then taken up by the far right – and hence the need to confront state narratives. In stressing the importance of combating anti-Semitism and Islamophobia together, he observed how the Hungarian far-right talk about a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ to bring Muslims into the country.

Massoud Shadjareh, of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, noted how Zionist organisations are getting involved in interfaith groups and other umbrella organisations and shutting down discussion on Palestine. And his colleague, Arzu Merali, observed that a recent report by the Westminster All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims on defining Islamophobia legitimises the IHRA definition. (We have seen similar developments here in Scotland, with links between the Muslim Council of Scotland and the pro-Zionist Scottish Council of Jewish Communities facilitated by Labour’s Anas Sarwar.)

Here is Sarah’s speech:

I have been invited here as a member of Scottish Jews Against Zionism, so I shall start with a Jewish perspective.

100 years ago, Jews were attacked for their disproportionate presence among the Bolsheviks – and they were also attacked because of the prominence of some Jewish banking families. Today we watch in horror as some Israeli Jews seem unembarrassed to identify themselves as Nazis, and we learn with admiration of the work done by the Tree of Life community of Pittsburg, who drew on their own experience to welcome new refugees – actions that attracted the murderous attention of their far-right attacker.

Confusing? Well, not really. Jews, like any other ethnic group, have diverse political opinions.

The notoriously racist Daily Mail accuses lifelong anti-racist Corbyn of anti-Semitism; the Labour Party disciplines Jewish members for being anti-Semitic; and EDL thugs wave Israeli flags.

Have we gone through the Looking Glass? How can we understand what is happening?

The answer is, of course, that we have to look beyond ethnicity to the wider political picture – so I am glad that this session, by bringing together anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the far right, allows me to do just that. It’s a huge area for ten minutes, but I’ll do my best.

Mainstream media and capitalist elites like to express their horror at the rise of the far right, but they refuse to recognise their own culpability for what is happening. Four decades of capitalism, unrestrained even by post-war social democracy, has created a brutally unequal society. People are looking for an alternative, but the left is disorganised and weak, and many people are tempted to look elsewhere – to the populist right. Despite their professed horror, the liberal establishment is much more comfortable with this than they would be with any increase in support for the left. In fact, establishment energies, from the BBC to MI5, are firmly focussed on suppressing any growth of left ideas or organisation.

Thatcher and Reagan and their friends combined political and economic battles against the left, like the defeat of the miners and the abolition of left-wing metropolitan councils, with a massive propaganda campaign to persuade people that unrestrained capitalism is the natural human condition, and ‘there is no alternative’. They succeeded so thoroughly, that formerly left-wing parties stopped arguing even for tempering the system through social democracy. Their new leaders only claimed they would manage it better – and they attacked the people within their own party who still argued for socialist ideas.

This attack on the left wasn’t limited to the West. The US and other Western powers have always been ready to help suppress left movements in other countries, even at the expense of aiding brutal dictatorships or facilitating the rise of other movements that oppose Western philosophy. It is easy to forget that the Middle East once included large numbers of socialists and communists. It is the suppression of this left current, in which the West has played a part, that has made room for the growth of Islamism. Of course there is a world of difference between Islamists who seek a reformist path towards their goal, and those who take up physical force, but in both cases their philosophy and politics are guided by their religious beliefs. In the UK, too, Muslims have increasingly identified themselves with their religion, rather than as ‘Asian’, say, or Pakistani, and become politically active through Islamic organisations.

Right-wing movements have always thrived on racism. What better way to persuade poor whites to buy into a system that exploits them, than to encourage them to feel superior to others who are exploited even more, and to blame those others for their problems? Anger against the ruling class is diverted, and a unified working-class resistance becomes more difficult.

In the UK today, the focus of right-wing hate is often Muslims. This is partly because minority groups have tended to identify themselves through their religion, and also a result of Western imperial interventions that have increasingly seen Western soldiers fighting against predominantly Muslim forces. In the 1990s, the American right-wing theorist, Samuel Huntingdon, wrote a dangerously simplistic book that divided the world into competing civilisations, with a particular focus on the ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West. It has often suited the extremists of both sides to refer to this ‘clash’ and try to make it a reality. (I should note here that hatred of Muslims, or Islamophobia, is quite different from arguing against Islamic or any religious beliefs, which can be done without being hateful towards the person holding those beliefs.)

And then there’s Israel. When Israel was created as a Jewish state, sventy years ago, there was a genuine belief among most Jews that this would provide an escape from centuries of persecution where all else had failed. It was a belief built on a fundamental misrepresentation of the nature of what Zionism really is – i.e. settler colonialism. Besides creating a new persecuted diaspora in the Palestinians, and being the catalyst of major political instability, Israel hasn’t even succeeded in its primary objective of making it safer to be Jewish.

Historically, Jews have fared much better under Muslim rulers than Christian ones (most notably in Spain); but the Jewish colonisation of land that was predominantly lived in by Muslims, and the Zionist creation of a state that prioritised Jews over these Muslims and other non-Jewish groups, brought an end to good relations. The predictable enmity between Muslims and Jews in Israel/Palestine has spread through the world.

The first Israeli governments claimed to be socialist, despite their massive blind spot when it came to their Arab population and the colonial nature of their state. Perhaps predictably, given the foundations on which Israel is built, Israeli governments have become increasingly right-wing, so that now they are firmly in the ‘Friends of Trump’ camp and even befriend the far-right anti-Semitic government in Hungary. Zionists have always had support among anti-Semites who believe that different national groups should live separately and that Jews should have their own land and move out of other countries. Of course many choose not to welcome this sort of support, but the general rise of the right has made it easier for people to openly share such views.

As Israel has become increasingly aggressive towards the Palestinians, so popular feeling against the Israeli government and against the concept of Zionism has spread. But, as the movement for BDS has grown, so, too, has Israel’s determination to stop it, and they have realised that an effective way of destroying their opponents is to accuse them of anti-Semitism. To do this, they equate Israel, the self-declared Jewish Homeland, with all Jews, so that criticism of Israel (and particularly the nature of Israel as a Jewish state) is regarded as criticism of Jews and so anti-Semitic. The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism (or rather its examples) follow this pattern of thinking, equating anti-Zionsim with anti-Semitism.

As we have said many times, we need to be able to argue (without being classed as anti-Semitic), not just against particular actions of particular Israeli governments, but against the creation of a specifically Jewish state. We need to be able to recognise the Zionist state publically as an intrinsically racist endeavour – as any state defined by ethnicity or religion would be. This isn’t saying that Jews must leave Israel or get driven into the sea. The problem is the nature of the state – and it is that that needs changed

Although the Jewish religion looks forward to Jews returning to Israel after the coming of the messiah, support for Zionism – the creation and maintenance of a Jewish state in the historic land of Israel – is not intrinsic to Jewishness. It has always been a subject of argument, especially in Eastern Europe. It was traditionally rejected by Jewish international socialists who argued Jews should fight for full acceptance in the place where they lived. And it was also rejected by some ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe the return to Jerusalem should wait for the Messiah. Rejection of Zionism is not rejection of Jews or Jewishness and is often made by Jews. To assume all Jews are Zionist is itself anti-Semitic.

The linking of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has been taken up by the right wing (including the Blairites in the Labour Party), who are not concerned about anti-Semitism, but find this a useful tool with which to beat the pro-Palestine left, and especially Corbyn. For the right wing leaders of the Jewish establishment this is doubly welcome.

It is, of course, this use of trumped up charges of anti-Semitism to smear the left that has brought the Daily Mail onto the bandwagon. Both the Mail and the EDL are prepared to welcome Israel into the club of right-wing Islamophobes – though this doesn’t mean they are any less anti-Semitic.

I should add that I’m not claiming there is no anti-Semitism on the left, but there’s much less than on the right. What we do have, is too many people who are unable to recognise anti-Semitic myths (like Rothschild, and now Soros, conspiracy theories) when they meet them on the net. And people who reject establishment news sources like the BBC are not always equally critical of the BBC’s critics – though these have their own agendas, and many actually originate in the far right.

Although it is hard to see through all this noise, real anti-Semitism is on the rise, as are other forms of racism and Islamophobia. But we won’t end racism through legislation. In fact, history shows us that hate crime laws often work to the benefit of the abusers. And racists won’t change their tune in response to well-meaning lectures from the more enlightened. If we are serious about wanting an end to racism, we have to look at the wider picture and change the economic and political circumstances on which racism thrives. That means addressing the causes of inequality and oppression, both at home and internationally, through a strong left movement. Every gain won can also win people away from the far right.