One reason why the years-long controversy over Gilad Atzmon has generated such rancour, and why conflicts related to it such as the recent purge of ‘anti-semites’ from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign have been so bitter, is because they threaten to re-open the Jewish question. There was a time when the Jewish question was a matter of considerable debate and public controversy among those seeking greater democracy and social and economic equality. Witness Marx’s celebrated essay The Jewish Question, among many others.
It was of course, also a subject of dispute among those with the opposite aims as well. But since WWII the Jewish question has not really been explored as previously. It is as if the Nazi genocide set a seal on it and made it one of those questions that had been ‘decided’, notwithstanding controversies around Israel which often involved major debates but which were ultimately considered to be something confined to the Middle East region. But now the decline of Israel’s moral authority, and the threat it poses to ‘world peace’, and crucially the nature of its worldwide support, means the Jewish question must be addressed again.
Re-opening it is not something that can be done lightly; the nature of the Jewish people and its historical role is intertwined with some of the most tragic and barbaric events in human history. It contains a number of paradoxes and subtleties and is complex and not easy to analyse. It has also undergone major, arguably fundamental changes since the Second World War, that have mainly been so far analysed almost exclusively through the narrow prism of looking at Israel and Zionism.
There has tended to be a division in the way that socialists and progressive political thinkers have looked at this. Questions involving Israel come under the heading of ‘colonialism’ and imperialism, whereas the Jewish communities in the advanced countries at least have tended to be looked at one of several ethnic minority communities, mainly as potential targets of racial discrimination and right-wing extremism. The division of the Jewish question into two different ‘compartments’ has however been objectively undermined by the rise to prominence of aggressive, powerful pro-Israel Jewish organisations, particularly in the United States but also in Western Europe, gradually over the past three decades or more. These have acquired considerable power. Politicians go out of their way to appease them, even though the formal electoral base that they represent is actually pretty small in all these countries without exception.
When Oppressed Become Oppressors
Any objective examination of the situation can only come to the conclusion that, in the advanced capitalist countries, the oppression of the Jews is no more. No government, or seriously contending opposition party anywhere in the advanced capitalist world propagates any form of hostility to Jews, and none has done so for a very long time. On the contrary, it is a badge of honour in bourgeois politics today to be vehemently pro-Israel, and to denounce any criticism of Israel from the left as ‘anti-semitic’.
In the United States, the hegemony of Israel’s supporters through such bodies is very strong – it is extremely difficult for any politician critical even of Israel’s most outrageous crimes against Palestinians to maintain a career in the main capitalist parties. Those that make such criticisms face organised and usually successful attempts to force them to grovel in apology if they are lucky, otherwise to unseat them outright. Administrations of both main parties fill many of their leading posts with rabid Zionists, from Rahm Emmanuel as White House Chief of Staff under Obama back to the neo-conservatives of the ‘Project for The New American Century’: the American-Zionist think tank that was the driving force of the Iraq war under the Bush administration.
In the UK we have a Labour Party that in government carried out a vehemently pro-Israel agenda under Blair and his Middle East special envoy and chief fundraiser, Lord Michael Levy, also known as ‘Lord Cashpoint’, a strident Zionist. Labour supported Israel’s bloodthirsty attack on Lebanon in 2006 – refusing even the usual mealy mouthed ceasefire demands – Israel bombed to kill and terrorise civiilans and destroy infrastructure but failed to defeat the Hezbollah fighters and so failed in its war aims.
Under Brown, it wrung its hands pathetically during the one-sided butchery of Gaza Palestinians in 2009’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’. While its chosen Zionist appointee as Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, banned an advert from the Disasters Emergency Committee to raise funds for humanitarian relief for Palestinian civilians. Thus the BBC under Labour endorsed Israel’s butchery.
At the base of the Labour Party, there is considerable disquiet with all this and anger at Israeli crimes reflecting, to some extent, changes in the trade unions which have now led to the TUC endorsing calls for a boycott of Israel, as have a number of important unions. There has been something of a growth of the Labour Friends of Palestine as a pale reflection of this change in the unions, though how influential it is in a party still heavily loaded with a neo-liberal, pro-Israel Blair-Brown derived cadre is highly doubtful.
Then there is the current government: Prior to the 2010 election, the Lib Dems were the least Zionist-influenced of the three main parties in Britain. In joining the Tories in government, they have become well-nigh invisible on this (as on so many other things). But 80% of Conservative MPs are sponsors of the Conservative Friends of Israel. The meaning of this is crystal clear for anyone with eyes to see. This is the same Tory party that backed the Smith regime in white-ruled ‘Rhodesia’ till it became unsustainable to continue any longer, that supported apartheid in South Africa to the hilt, whose youth leaders used to wear badges demanding ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’.
The similarity of this to their current infatuation with Israel is striking. Just as is the embrace of Israel by forces further to their right, from the pro-Zionist English Defence League and ‘British Freedom Party’ (currently allied with the Jewish Defence League – Israeli fascist followers of Meir Kahane), to the BNP’s own embrace of Israel and selection in recent years of Jewish candidates to run for council seats. This embrace of Israel by the traditionally imperialist, racist right – and the far right – speaks volumes about the real role of pro-Israeli agitation today. Support for Israel today is more and more a sign of racism and xenophobia, just as in the past was support for white ‘Rhodesia’ and apartheid South Africa.
Though in today’s changed environment, where racist beliefs are widely discredited and it has rightly become social unacceptable to racially abuse others either individually or collectively, there is a big difference in the way this support for racist tyranny is articulated. The only way that the decades-long suppression of the Palestinian people, a racist political programme similar in degree and closely related, though not identical, to the oppression of black South Africans by the apartheid regime before 1989, can be given ideological legitimacy by the racist right, is by mendacious allegations of racism against Israel’s victims and their sympathisers.
The official reason why the Tory party, the BNP, the EDL, all the way to New Labour’s wretched neo-con cabals can deny that their support of Israeli aparthied is racist, is by a narrative that says that the real problem is the alleged racism of the Arabs. Mendacious allegations of anti-semitism have become the main technique of reactionary bourgeois idelogues who are themselves racists, in excusing the racist oppression of the Palestinian people. This mendacity has two benefits from the point of view of those who propagate it. One is that is provides them with an alibi for racism. And two, the widespread propagation of false accusations of racism spreads cynicism about anti-racism itself, creating a popular perception that any and all form of opposition to racism is just a fraudulent game. Thus again, benefiting those ‘anti-racist’ liars who themselves have a racist agenda.
Roots of racism…
To cut through the nonsense, it is necessary to state some basic facts. One is that the essence of racism is not simply bad ideas in people’s heads. It is not hostility to some ‘other’ for its own sake – it is not mindless. Nor is it the situation where people who are themselves on the receiving end of systematic racial oppression come to hate and stereotype their oppressors. That may be regrettable and counter-productive, but it is not racism. Racism is an ideological weapon to justify the systematic oppression of entire peoples. If it is not that, it is meaningless. If there is no relation of systematic oppression, it becomes something chimerical, a subject of satire, like the various stupid sketches on some comedy shows where people with ginger hair complain about being victims of discrimination.
Racism in this sense is a product of capitalism, which is the first society in human history to create a state form around the concept of a nation, in which there was a partial homogenisation of the population around a (usually) standardised single language and a dominant, ‘national’ identity that in most cases originated in identification with a particular ethnic group, even if it is subsequently broadened. Not only did it create that state form, underpinned by an economic system that generated unprecedented economic dynamism and self-sustaining growth, but it used that power to enslave the populations of entire, distant continents, again on a scale that the mightiest pre-capitalist ruling class could only dream of.
At the same time as it did this, it gave birth to such concepts as ‘The Rights of Man’, ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” and other supposedly universal values. The contradiction between that, and the manner in which it treated the peoples it enslaved, could only be resolved by creating ideologies that demonised the victims of capitalist imperialism, that portrayed them as in some way unworthy of such rights. The ultimate expression of that was pseudo-scientific racism, that posited some kind of biological difference between ‘races’, that some ‘racial’ groups were sufficiently different in genetic terms to make them qualitatively inferior to the dominant ‘races’, in effect defining them as inferior sub-species.
That was the most consistent form of racist ideology, and found its ultimate expression in the racist theories of German fascism. Jews did not fit easily into this schema, as in general they were not a colonised people or a slave population, but a sometimes persecuted religious minority particularly in Christian Europe. As such they had been coerced, through exclusion from other fields of economic activity, into a characteristic role for practitioners of a ‘foreign’ religion, as bankers, and later usurers, to the kings and aristocracy in the early medieval period. As Abram Leon explained in his important book The Jewish Question – a Marxist Analysis, the Jews were the remnants of a people-class, and the their resistance to assimilation and most of their persecutions in the medieval period were the result of that economic role.
…and roots of genocide
With the rise of capitalism in the West, the Jews’ economic role became obsolete. Large numbers migrated to Eastern Europe and Russia, after being persecuted and driven out of their traditional feudal economic niches in the West by a new financial bourgeoisie. For a period of several centuries, they were again able to prosper, largely as traders rather than financiers until the 19th century brought about the decay of feudalism in the East also. Squeezed out of their economic niches again, the Jews were regarded as a surplus, alien population, and again subjected to persecution, leading to new migrations of many of them, this time back to Western Europe, as well as to North America, and a precarious existence for those who remained. Those that did not find their way into the emerging bourgeoisies themselves – which a layer did in America particularly – became a largely proletarianised or even pauperised section of the population, and the targets of a new form of hatred that drew on the kind of racist conceptions first used to justify slavery.
This was the oppressed stratum of the Jewish proletariat that played a significant role in pre-WWI Social Democracy, and later in the early Communist movement. Radicalised by their double oppression – exploited as workers, and targeted by racism for their Jewish origin, even though in a great many cases they abandoned ‘national’ sentiments entirely and became known for the most fervent internationalism. This is what reactionaries used to mean, more than anything else, when they targetted ‘international Jewry’ as if internationalism was some kind of curse word. From Hitler to Stalin, the worst monsters of the 20th Century ranted against ‘Jew-Bolshevism’ and ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ respectively, and Hitler in particularly tried to exterminate this social layer without mercy.
In the USSR under Stalin, they were not exterminated, but subjected to arbitrary persecution and executions on the basis of perceived political sympathies, not ‘racial’ characteristics per se. That was the difference on this question between the Hitler and Stalin regimes, in that the Stalinists, while fearful of the internationalist spirit of Jewish workers, did not put it down to ‘racial’ characteristics and instead of wholesale extermination, used a mixture of co-optation, corruption, arbitrary repression and killings to destroy this layer morally and when neccessary, physically.
The upshot of this, however, is that this very important, oppressed layer of Jewish proletarians, whose existence and struggles were pivotal in defining the Jewish communities pre-WWII as an oppressed people, ceased to exist. That destruction is of utmost importance in analysing the Jewish question now, and the role of the Jewish communities today, as opposed to nearly three-quarters of a century ago, in the world order. How are the Jewish people(s) that exist today, as opposed to those that existed then, to be regarded? Are they in the ranks of the oppressed, or do they rank among the world’s oppressor peoples? Or is a more nuanced position that avoids either of those two polarities necessary? In examining it, it is necessary to look at the fate of those who survived, or managed to avoid, the terrible events of WWII.
Jews since the genocide
First of all, there were the relatively small groups of Zionist pioneers who migrated to Palestine from Europe and America before the tumultuous events of the 1930s. It is not necessary to say much about them since they were actually a small and quite isolated minority, who could command a certain degree of financial and political clout, but were short of numbers and mass support. So much so that it is highly likely that their project would have fizzled out, if it were not for the rise to power of Hitler in Germany and the resultant massacre of millions of Jews in Europe. This, and only this, provided them with reinforcements from the hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees – remnants of the murdered Central and East European Jews.
This desperate, easily manipulated population was indispensable in their programme of creating a Jewish state in an Arab-majority country like Palestine. Without that demographic it would have been an impossible task. Without such a terrible event as the Nazi genocide, there is no way that several hundred thousands of Jews could be induced to leave their homes in Europe voluntarily and migrate to the Middle East.
Then there are the Jews who emigrated to the United States. Today there are approximately 6.5 million Jews in the US, around 2% of the population. These have a long history, going back to the early days of the American republic. But large waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a limited influx post-WWII, increased its numbers to the point that it became, and is still, the largest Jewish population in the world – exceeding that of Israel.
To its shame, the US restricted Jewish immigration quite severely between the wars, on an explicitly racist basis, calculated to deliberately exclude Jews, among others. This was not significantly relaxed even during the Nazi genocide. Indeed influential Zionist luminaries agitated against measures to give Jews fleeing the Nazis refuge in places like Britain and the US, to try to coerce them to go to Palestine instead. They were largely successful in this.
Jews have at times been targeted by anti-semitism in the US, though to a lesser extent than in Europe. The rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1913 was partly catalysed by the lynching of a Jewish teacher, Leo Frank, in Atlanta, Georgia, after a highly dubious murder case. It grew into a mass movement in the 1920s, and was strongly anti-semitic, though more or less disintegrated by the 1930s. In the 1930s, there were echoes of the anti-semitism in Europe; demagogues like Father Coughlin propagated Nazi-like anti-semitism over the airwaves. But this was limited by the logic of US imperialism’s development, which placed it on a collision course with Hitler’s Germany in what was ultimately a struggle for world domination.
Elements of anti-semitism were also visible to some extent in the McCarthy era, particularly over the execution of the Rosenbergs for spying for Russia in the early 1950s. Indeed, in the 1950s, unlike today, the Nazi genocide was something of a frowned upon subject, and those who made an issue of it were regarded as suspects, as were ‘premature anti-fascists’. Immediately after WWII, the US needed the help of ex-Nazis in a variety of fields, not least in developing its nuclear arsenal, so Nazi crimes tended to be played down.
But this was quite short-lived. The gradual ascent of Israel to be the US’s strategic ally in the Middle East, which was finally sealed in the 1967 Six-Day war, was the final nail in the coffin of any potential that might have existed for Jews to be pushed into a subordinate, oppressed status in the US. Parenthetically one could also add that this is also true in the UK, where however the Jewish population is relatively much smaller that in the US, 0.5% as opposed to 2%.
On most questions, Jews in the United States have tended to be socially liberal. Consistently they have maintained majority support for the Democratic Party since the days of the New Deal, with only slight variations. Jews played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement for black people, against Jim Crow segregation. In the earlier post-WWII period, the condition of Jewish people in America was undoubtedly no more advantageous that many other non-black minorities outside the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) dominant group.
But while American capitalism has undergone both considerable absolute growth over the past few decades, as well as relative decline in its world economic clout, the fortunes of the Jewish population have improved dramatically. Jews are now undoubtedly, per head of population, the most successful minority group in the US by far, in terms of income, in terms of education, and in terms of relative economic power. According to the Israeli source YNetNews, Jews make up “more than 20 per cent of the Forbes 400” which is the list of the wealthiest people in the United States – not bad for 2% of the population. This in contrast to the black population, which is still very much under-represented. This level of economic integration into the most powerful ruling class in the world means that Jews cannot be regarded, in the United States, as an excluded or oppressed population in any way.
The US also tends to set the benchmark for the rest of the advanced capitalist world – so smaller Jewish populations in countries like the UK experience a similar mainstream status, even when they are less numerous and hence possess relatively less power. They are still thoroughly respectable, as evidenced by the normal bourgeois discourse, which pointedly refers to the West as ‘Judeo-Christian civilisation’. There were times, not so long ago, when the ‘Christian’ West was not quite so inclusive.
So Jews today are not an oppressed people. What are they then? Are they an oppressor people?
Not outside Israel, no. In the United States they are (mainly, with a few exceptions) part of white America, but they are also a part that has generally had a more honourable record vis-a-vis the black American population. Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement was considerable.
This has not always been completely pure, however – one important, relatively recent blemish on this was the mayoralty of Edward Koch in New York, in the 1970s and 80s, a Jewish mayor elected with a considerable Jewish electoral base, who became known for abusive and racist policies towards the black population and managed to provoke some quite serious tensions between blacks and Jews, and some black anti-semitism in response. But this is fairly exceptional, Koch was a maverick, seeking to run at times both as a Democrat and a Republican, and not typical of Jewish politics in America, which tends to be pretty liberal.
Occasionally,you hear, derived from the Middle East conflict, the view that Jews in some way oppress ordinary mainstream Americans by their demands. This particular accusation is sometimes raised by misguided Palestinian supporters looking for allies, as well as remnants of the old anti-semitic right. It is paranoid nonsense. Jews are a tiny percentage of the US population and are not remotely capable of that. This allegation is in fact a vestige of the old anti-semitism, but it is irrelevant and impotent today. The mainstream respectability of the Jews in the US and the West in general is not going to be reversed barring some totally outlandish catastrophe.
Oppression from a distance
In Israel, Jews are clearly an oppressor people. There is no getting away from this, Jews live on land taken by force from the Arabs, they enforce racist laws on citizenship and land ownership, and the majority of the Palestinian Arab population from what is now Israel proper has been driven into exile. Not only that, but Israeli laws extend the right of Israeli citizenship to every Jew that fits the Israeli definition worldwide – even if they have never set eyes on the place, while depriving hundreds of thousands of Arabs refugees who were born there, or whose parents were, of the right to even enter their homeland. There are few clearer examples of one people oppressing another.
This citizenship law, and the existence of very strong and powerful Jewish lobbying groups particularly in the United States, and indeed to some extent in Europe, that exert a great deal of pressure within the politics of the US and its allies for a policy that is strongly pro-Israel, even to the point of being indulgent, give another dimension to the question of whether Jews outside Israel act as an oppressor people or not.
Organisations like AIPAC, and other Jewish organisations of a similar ilk in the US and elsewhere; the lobbying efforts of prominent, powerful Jewish individuals and collectives within established political parties in Western countries (not just the United States); and the mechanism of the Israeli ‘Law of Return’, which in effect (partially) internationalises Israeli citizenship on an ethnic basis; all these things have a crucial importance in characterising the Jewish people today.
All these add up to one important point – while it is clear that the Palestinian people are directly oppressed by the Jewish ethnocratic state of Israel that has deprived them of their homeland, they are also, albeit less directly, oppressed, though the mechanism of the Law of Return and the efforts of Jewish lobbying organisations in the United States and its West European allies. That is, while American and also British Jews are not oppressor peoples in those countries at all, in their international dimension they do act as oppressors of the Palestinians’, albeit from a distance or an one remove.
A false equation
This is a crucial theoretical point in clarifying why hostility to Jews is not limited to the Middle East in current circumstances, and why criticism, and even expressions of hatred, for American and British Jews from Palestinians and their sympathisers, motivated by the Palestinian issue, cannot be equated with the anti-semitism of the past even when in some cases, as with Hamas, it regrettably borrows directly from the latter.
While pre-war anti-semitism was partially driven by a form of class demagogy, using the over-representation of Jews in business and particularly finance (which is most likely the product of cultural one-sidedness and a residue of the Jews’ past as a financial people-class), what really gave pre-war anti-semitism its psychotic character was the reactionary fear of the Jews as a bearer of revolution and subversion of the status quo. That particular delusion has been completely destroyed, by the extermination of the revolutionary Jewish proletarians by the Nazis, and by Zionism, which by its actions associates Jews with reaction, not revolution. The fundamental difference is that pre-war anti-semitism was hatred for an oppressed people by their oppressors, whereas in the current very changed circumstances, hatred of the oppressor by the oppressed is what we see today..
Such hatred still is inimical from the point of view of socialists and internationalists, though it has a very different moral and political content and context from hatred of an oppressed people by a people who oppress them. It is the product of despair and impotence in facing a powerful, unremitting enemy over what is now six-and-a half decades. The demonisation of the Palestinians as racists by Zionism to excuses its crimes has generated its own antithesis, as not only many Palestinians, but even some Jewish sympathisers, now suspect or even affirm point blank that everything that Israel uses to justify its existence, including the fact of the Nazi genocide itself, is a racist lie.
Socialists have, or ought to have, different ways of undercutting misdirected hatreds generated by the oppressed for their oppressors, than when the hatred is the other way round. We have to remember that at this point, the international labour movement is politically disarmed and hardly in a position to anything effective to shift the balance of forces in the Middle East. We have to deliver solidarity, and through fraternal debate and collaboration bring about the kind of change that can transcend the despair that produces this.
Anyone who equates these very different kinds of antipathy is playing a reactionary role, is acting as a chauvinist and, wittingly or unwittingly, as an agent of the oppression of the Palestinians in today’s world, which is very different from the days of Hitler and classical anti-semitism.