Zionism and anti-Zionism: an anti-state perspective

Although another shaky ceasefire has now taken hold, the recent Israeli military operation in Gaza is a reminder of how inherently unstable the current set-up in the region is. Active hostilities may have paused, but it’s only a matter of time before the killing starts up again. And, just as inevitably, the next cycle of violence will be accompanied by well-meaning but largely ineffective demonstrations across the UK.
While this piece is broadly inspired by the experience of various Palestine solidarity protests, I was specifically inspired to write it by reading a recent article “In Defence of Zionism.” (EDIT: This article is no longer online, and so I’ve edited out the bits of this article that were a specific response to that, and turned it into a more general reflection on the subject.) As someone who opposes all states and nationalist ideologies, I think that the state of Israel is no more or less legitimate than any other. Having said that, I don’t agree with the idea that there’s something actively defensible about Zionism and Israel. The main argument put forward in defence of Zionism is that the continuing existence of anti-Semitism makes the existence of Israel necessary as a safe haven, which I disagree strongly with: anti-Semitism certainly still exists, but that doesn’t mean that a Jewish state is an appropriate response. At the moment, racism in the UK is mostly directed at Asians and Muslims, but I don’t think the answer to this is that they should all “go back where they came from”, or even that we should set up an independent state for British Asians in Bradford or Tower Hamlets; I think the answer is that racism should be confronted head-on, until it’s the racists who are made to feel uncomfortable. The same is true for Jews and anti-Semitism.
Ultimately, Zionism is an inadequate response to anti-Semitism because it fails to challenge the basic starting point of the anti-Semitic worldview; both ideologies are based around seeing Jews and gentiles as two rigidly defined, mutually exclusive and incompatible identities. When anti-Semites declare that you can’t be Jewish and English – or Jewish and German, or Russian, or French, or whatever – the Zionist response is to choose Judaism, whereas a progressive, anti-racist response, let alone an anarchist one, can only start by rejecting the terms of the question entirely.
So, having set out my objections to Zionism, I want to move on to the main part of my argument, which is looking at anti-Zionism. Thankfully, the latest massacre in Gaza was much shorter than the one before, and the death toll was much lower: a side-effect of this was that I only went on one protest against it, and it was harder to get a feel for the political make-up of the movement. Based on my very limited impression, the protest I attended this time seemed like a relatively straightforward call for peace, without the visible displays of support for Hamas and anti-Semitic undertones that had marked many protests at the start of 2009. But, overall, I think it’d still be fair to describe most Palestine solidarity protests, including the most recent ones, as being broadly “anti-Zionist”. That’s a slippery term, so I want to take some time to try and pin it down.
To tackle an obvious point of controversy head-on, yes, I think there’s a grey area in which anti-Zionism shades into anti-Semitism. One obvious example is the way that, if you’re looking for a handy image to symbolise the state of Israel, then the most convenient symbol to use is the Israeli flag, which is just the Star of David with some lines near it, which means that it can often be very difficult to tell the difference between an image designed by non-racists to symbolise the Israeli government or military doing bad things, and an image designed by actual racists to symbolise Jews doing bad things. Or the popular but controversial chant about “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”: it’s perfectly possible for someone to chant this and honestly want the whole region to be covered by a single democratic, secular state that treats all citizens equally, just as it’s equally possible for someone to say the same words and be demanding a racially pure state cleansed of Jews; again, to an outside observer, it’s not always obvious which is which. I think the existence of this ambiguous grey area is a good thing for Zionists, because it allows them to discredit all opposition by association, and a good thing for anti-Semites, because it allows them to operate more openly than they’re normally able to, and massively problematic for those of us who are opposed to both.
But the problem with anti-Zionism isn’t just that there’s some cross-over with anti-Semitism. There’s nothing inherently racist about anti-Zionism, but it does tend to suggest that there’s something special about the State of Israel, and that Zionism – Israeli nationalism – is somehow different from other nationalisms. One example of this is the common claim that Israel is a fascist state. The inherent logic of this claim is that although Israel has the outward appearance of a liberal democracy, with multi-party elections and regular changes of government, it must really be fascist, because a real liberal democracy wouldn’t act like that. This position is, of course, completely false: when the Israeli state slaughters civilians, it’s acting in exactly the way that liberal democratic states always have. From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the brutality carried out by France in Algeria, from Britain’s concentration camps in Kenya to the destruction of Fallujah, there’s a long tradition of atrocities carried out by liberal democracies, and so there’s nothing surprising about Israel acting the same way.
Another example of the limitations of a perspective that focuses too narrowly on Israel is the way that anti-Zionists will often appeal to the United Nations and international law. On a factual level, it’s certainly true that Israel has broken a lot of UN resolutions, but as an argument, appealing to the UN – or, perhaps even worse, the UN Security Council, who passed the famous Resolution 242 –  means accepting its legitimacy as an institution. Since the UN is just a collection of politicians from the world’s various states, accepting it as a legitimate source of authority essentially means accepting the whole of the current global order the way it is. For those of us who are familiar with the horrors that the French, Chinese, British, American and Russian states are capable of inflicting on their own, the idea that putting them together creates a legitimate power seems very questionable.
In some ways, anti-Zionism is similar to the other widespread leftist ideologies of anti-Toryism and blaming bankers: just as focusing on the evils of the Tory party serves to let other politicians off the hook, and concentrating on the moral failings of bankers distracts attention from the structural economic forces that create crisis after crisis, depicting Israel’s racism and bloodshed as being somehow special distracts attention from the fact that, ultimately, Israeli nationalism is just another example of nationalism, and nationalism always has a tendency to create slaughterhouses.
If I’m being harsh on anti-Zionists here, it’s because Israel’s wars and racist policies sicken me as much as anyone else. That’s why I want the opposition to them to be better. This raises a qusestion for those of us who recognise that war is an inevitable product of this system, and that nation-states always need insiders and outsiders, which means that they usually need racism: how do we oppose Israel’s brutality and oppression without slipping into the trap of liberal anti-Zionism? Personally, I think a good step would be to just stop talking about Zionism. As I’ve said, Israeli nationalism is just one particular form of nationalism, in much the same way as Tory politicians are just one particular kind of politician; in both cases, we should call the problem as we see it. Taking a stand against nationalism also makes it much harder for anti-Semites to mimic our language, and it also keeps the suffering created by other forms of nationalism, from Kashmir to Mali, within view.
Of course, as I’ve discussed before, there are always going to be real limits to Palestine solidarity activism, no matter how good the slogans are: it’s hard enough to influence the government that claims to represent us, and so it’s virtually impossible to have an impact on a foreign state that doesn’t make any such claims, which is why I think it makes more sense to aim for easier targets, like Jobmatch. At the end of the day, a hundred or so people standing round in the middle of an average British town on a Saturday afternoon are never going to pose much of a serious challenge to the Israeli state; this is equally true whether they’re a crowd of anti-Semites, a crowd of liberals appealing to the UN, or a crowd of internationalist anarchists chanting about their opposition to any war but the class war. But, no matter how little chance of influencing the situation there is, activists continue to be drawn to the issue of Israel, and as long as that’s the case, I think radicals involved in these protests should think hard about the politics they’re promoting, and whether they’re ultimately challenging or reinforcing the global systems that create states and wars.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Activism, Bit more thinky, Debate, Internationalism, Protests, The left and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Zionism and anti-Zionism: an anti-state perspective

  1. Ollie S says:

    I think it is worthwhile calling Israel, France, Britain etc ‘fascist’: it shows that ‘democracy’ is actually bullshit and these ‘democratic’ states actually have a lot in common with fascist barbarity like that of the Nazis etc. We want to undermine the discourse of ‘democracy’ used by the ruling class to give the illusion of consent, make people accept that status quo because things could be a lot worse, etc.

    • I’d disagree with that: I think there are important points in common between these states and fascist ones, but there are also important differences. I think that, as people who reject lesser-evilism, we need to get better at explaining how we can be against both sides of a choice, without just pretending that they’re exactly the same when they’re not – for instance, we don’t advocate voting Labour to stop the BNP, but that doesn’t mean we think they’d be exactly the same if they were in power. I think calling liberal states fascist is confused in all sorts of ways – has the UK always been fascist, or was there a time when it wasn’t? It’s better to attack liberalism head-on, rather than relying on arguments about it being fascist, which seem to suggest the possibility of returning to a pure, non-fascist form of liberalism – this was a favourite tactic of the Democratic Party left during the Bush years, for instance.

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