Labour’s Policy Won’t Wash – Anti-Zionism is an open door to Anti-Semitism

Professor John Marenbon

Friday 29th AprilThis week the Labour Party descended even deeper into chaos. First, it suspended the MP, Naz Shah. She had commented on social media that the population of Israel should be transported to America. Then one of Labour’s most influential elder statesmen, Ken Livingstone, a member of its ruling NEC, came to her defence, with the bizarre claim that Hitler had been a Zionist. Here John Marenbonexplains why the anti-zionism endemic in the Labour party is objectionable: but for too many of its members, proscribing it would be a step too far. 

Labour responded to the furore this week about anti-semitism in its ranks, by announcing that anti-semitism is racism and not to be tolerated. But hostility to Israel can be permitted, or even adopted as party policy, it suggests, in view of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

That distinction between hostility to Jews (anti-semitism) and hostility to Israel (anti-zionism) is not so straightforward in practice.

In the case of Naz Shah, theMPwas suspended from the Party because she wanted to ‘relocate Israel into United States’, adding that ‘America has plenty of land to accommodate Israel as its 51ststate’. Meanwhile, Ken Livingstone, defending Ms Shah, emphasized that she and other people in the Labour party are attacking Israel, not Jews: ‘I’ve been in the Labour party for 47 years … I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the state of Israel and its abuse of Palestinians but I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-semitic.’ Livingstone went on to try and make the distinction even clearer by asserting, on very doubtful historical evidence, that none other than Hitler was a Zionist. This led to Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, being promptly suspended from the Labour party.

But things are not so clear cut. Although there are anti-semites who are not anti-zionists, and anti-zionists who are not anti-semites, the two views cannot be completely disentangled.

If ‘anti-zionism’ is taken to mean opposition to Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, then such a view should be tolerated, and respected, even by those who disagree strongly with it. Indeed many loyal Israelis, who have served courageously in Israel’s army, could be called ‘anti-zionists’ in this sense. However this weak sense is not the obvious meaning of the word. An anti-zionist is, as the name suggests, someone opposed to Zionism. Zionism’s aim, which in fact is now fulfilled, was to establish a Jewish national state in the biblical homeland of the Jews. Those who call themselves ‘anti-zionists’ are thereby declaring that they want to undo the project of Zionism – that is to say, to destroy the State of Israel (whether by transporting its inhabitants to the deserts of Nevada or throwing them into the sea).

And this will be perceived by almost every Jew, however secularized, as a threat, not just to distant relatives in Israel, but to him or to her personally. I am one of these secularized Jews. I have visited Israel only once, more than forty years ago – and I hated it. Yet even for me, the existence of Israel provides an ultimate security, and anything which endangers it, endangers me too. (Strangely, the only Jews who could regard the destruction of Israel with equanimity are those belonging to ultra-orthodox groups which have never accepted its legitimacy.)

There is, then, a rather easy way for Labour to solve its problems. It needs to acknowledge that, even if many of its users understand the term in a weak sense, anti-zionism easily shades into anti-semitism, and both should be proscribed; and, at the same time, to set out a policy about Israel and Palestine that fully accepts the principle of Israel’s continued, unthreatened existence.

But there is a more serious problem at root for Labour which means that many in the party would be reluctant to follow such a course. Labour has devoted great energy to winning the support of the Muslim community, and recruiting as its representatives in local government and parliament candidates from an Islamic background. Although some Muslims view Israel with indifference and some with favour, many identify strongly with the Palestinians and regard the Jewish State with antipathy or even hatred. Were Labour to condemn not just anti-semitism but also anti-zionism, it might alienate an important group of its supporters.

And not only them. Although Jeremy Corbyn has just been forced to suspend one of his oldest political allies, Ken Livingstone, to declare himself an anti-anti-Zionist would probably be a step too far.

*Professor Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. He is the author of Pagans and Philosophers: the Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz (Princeton, 2015) and Medieval Philosophy: a Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2016).