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Anti-semitism, Zionism and Socialism

Peter Votsch

November 29, 2023
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has defined calling the state of Israel ‘racist’, as a form of anti-semitism. As such, IHRA has condemned the renowned human rights organization Amnesty International (which uses the term ‘apartheid’ to describe Israel) and other human rights organizations, movements, trade unions and community organizations as “racist” due to their criticism of Israel. Ironically, in their rush to squelch public opposition to Israel, they have included Jewish organizations, inside and outside of Israel, who call for an end to the colonial settler state. 
This is hardly new. There is not just one Jewish tradition – Zionism – as IHRA would have it. There is another, based on class, and a view that only workers' struggle can create a world free from anti-semitism and all forms of racism. Thus, it is important to look at these traditions and how they arose.
The origins of Zionism
Zionism found its origins in Europe in the 1890s, in the wake of the “Dreyfus Affair” – the trial of a French Army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, brought up on charges of spying, found ultimately to be false. The damage, however, had been done, as a wave of anti-semitism swept Europe. The Dreyfus trial was attended by none other than Theodore Herzl, considered the father of modern Zionism, as a journalist. His view was that anti-semitism, as a form of racism, was inevitable and could not be fought. The only solution would be a separate state for the Jews. This view was further confirmed in 1903, when a “pogrom” (anti-semitic race riot) took place in the Russian town of Kishinev, where Jews were slaughtered in their hundreds by a mob incited by the Russian Tsarist government.
The Bund
The General Jewish Labour Bund of Lithuania, Poland and Russia (known as ‘the Bund’) was formed in 1897, in Vilnius, Lithuania. It united Jewish workers and socialists who identified with the growing Social Democratic (revolutionary) movement in Russia. Members of the Bund also concerned themselves with fighting anti-semitism. But unlike the middle class Zionist movement, they did not see anti-semitism as inevitable. They rejected promoting Jewish separation as a response, in the search for a state for Jews. Quite the opposite: Bund members, revolutionary internationalists, saw the future of Jewish workers as bound up with the ‘workers of the world’. They believed that anti-semitism was a feature of the capitalist system, which needed to be overthrown.
Zionism and Imperialism
The early Zionist movement set about looking for a viable state for Jews – not in the Middle East, but in Argentina, as there had been little interest to that point of Jews returning to ‘their’ land of ancestry. In fact, the destination of choice of Jews facing racism in Europe was not Palestine, but the United States. In the fallout of the First World War, the British took over as colonial masters of Palestine after the defeat of Turkey. The new leader of the Zionist movement, Chaim Weizmann, saw this as an opportunity to offer up support for the British, should they allow or encourage Jewish immigration to Palestine. In so doing, Weizmann did not mince his words, promising that Jews who went there would “… develop the country, bring back civilization, and form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal”.
The Balfour Declaration
Prior to the end of the war and British control over Palestine, a minister in the British government, Lord Balfour, declared his support for the Zionist movement, and stated his intention for a “national home for the Jewish people … under the protection of the British Crown”. Thus, came the marriage of the Zionists with imperial interests in the region, and Palestine in particular. Ironically, Balfour and other Western nations saw this as a desirable alternative to accepting Jews into their own countries. The Zionists were well aware of this racist attitude and were happy to take full advantage of it.
Zionism picks up steam
From its inception, Zionism was a minority view in the Jewish community. The majority of Jews supported the Bund. In 1921, the Bund (by then the "Communist Bund") merged with the Bolsheviks (by then the Communist Party). During the Russian Revolution of 1917, Bund members were very well represented in leading positions.
However, two events happened to weaken this bond between Jewish workers and non-Jewish workers in Eastern Europe in particular, and Europe in general. The first was the defeat of the nascent workers’ state in Russia by imperialist invasion by numerous Western armies, led by Zionist supporter Winston Churchill. This led to the establishment of Stalinist dictatorships, which were only too willing to use anti-semitism to achieve their ends. Second, was the horrors of the extermination camps set by the Nazis. These events accelerated Jewish emigration to Palestine. While Western Europe and North America were still the chosen destinations for most Jews, Zionists were willing to turn a blind eye to the anti-semitic exclusion of Jews travelling there, in return for encouraging Jewish emigration to Palestine. 
The Racist State
This emigration to Palestine, supported by imperialism and its middle class Jewish allies, was always a racist project. Slogans such as “Jewish Land, Jewish Labour, Jewish Produce” (used by the exclusively Jewish ‘trade union’, the Histadrut) and “a land without people to a people without a land” helped cement development of racist Jewish-only communities, separate from the indigenous Palestinian population. The terrorism of the Haganah (Zionist army) was a natural and inevitable consequence of this, forcing thousands of Palestinian peasants from their lands and out of Palestine itself. We are seeing the result of Israel’s racist birth today. This racism has not only been on display towards the Palestinians, but also migrant African workers, and indeed Mizrahi Jews. These immigrants from Asia and Africa were destined from the beginning of the construction of Israel to be the labour force used by the Ashkenazi (European) Jews, and hence, second class citizens in their ‘own’ state.
Back to the Bund
What we are seeing now, in the shadow of the genocidal attack on Gaza, is a split like never before among Jews. Independent Jewish Voices, Jewish Voice for Peace, Not in Our Name, supported by a number of Jewish led human rights organizations in Israel, have joined Palestinians and peoples from all over the war in protests and civil disobedience. This visible role played by Jewish-led organizations opposing Israel's murderous policies has challenged the hold of Zionism.
There has also been a dangerous rise in anti-semitism throughout North America since Israel's bombardment of Gaza began. The answer to confronting anti-semitism is the same as it was 100 and more years ago. It lies in the unity of Jews and non-Jews in the struggle against racism, beginning with the fight to replace the colonial settler state with a democratic, secular Palestine, where all who reside there, and the Palestinian Diaspora, can belong.

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