The following is the transcript of a talk given to a meeting of Newham Momentum on 12th June 2018
A New Weapon Against the Left
Anti-semitism is an age-old phenomenon, and once again it is in the air – but this time as a weapon of slander against the left, by the Tories, the billionaire media, the BBC, the Guardian, and above all the Blairite faction now dislodged from the Labour leadership but clinging on to control of the parliamentary LP. It is a disgusting lie – and it’s time we said so.
In the wake of the failure of past smear campaigns to brand Jeremy Corbyn as simultaneously a pacifist, a terrorist sympathizer, and a Stalinist agent, somehow all at the same time, the current hysteria is only the latest and most bizarre tactic by the Tories and those same “New Labour” MPs who tried so hard to remove him in the past. It’s a new version of the fake “Zinioviev letter” in 1923, or of Churchill’s accusations in 1945 that Labour was going to establish a Gestapo police state.
It is the Tory party that is riddled with racism through and through, from the 1905 Aliens Act that blocked Jewish emigration from the East European pogroms, to the Right Club that was founded by a Tory MP in the 1930s to “expose the activities of organised Jewry”. And according to the book Whitehall And The Jews, 1933-1948, British immigration policy throughout that period “was designed to keep out large numbers of European Jews – perhaps ten times as many as it let in.”
We all know the Tories’ record of racism: Enoch Powell’s descriptions of “wide-grinning picaninnies” and blood-curdling warnings of “rivers of blood”; Boris Johnson’s repetition of the same vile word in his description of “picaninnies with their water-melon smiles”; the outright racist treatment of the Windrush generation that is still continuing today.
As for anti-semitism, it was the Daily Express which carried the infamous headline “JEWS DECLARE WAR ON GERMANY” and the Daily Mail which screamed “HURRAH FOR THE BLACKSHIRTS” in the 1930s.
And what about that great fighter against fascism Churchill? Churchill praised Hitler: “I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations.” Similarly, he told Mussolini: “If I had been an Italian, I am sure I should have been whole-heartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”
Even if we discount one particularly revolting anti-Semitic quote which he later disowned, Churchill certainly did ascribe the wave of revolution sweeping Europe after the First World War to a Jewish conspiracy: “The part played in the creation of Bolshevism and in the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution by these international and for the most part atheistic Jews… With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews. Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from Jewish leaders … The same evil prominence was obtained by Jews in (Hungary and Germany, especially Bavaria)… Although in all these countries there are many non-Jews every whit as bad as the worst of the Jewish revolutionaries, the part played by the latter in proportion to their numbers in the population is astonishing… This movement among the Jews is not new… Karl Marx… Trotsky, Bela Kun (Hungary), Rosa Luxembourg (Germany), and Emma Goldman (United States)… this worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation…”
For me, the prominence of Jewish activists in the revolutionary movement is a matter of pride. But okay, that was then; what about now?
It was the Mail, again, which made a thinly veiled anti-Semitic attack on Ed Miliband, calling his father “the man who hated Britain… a refugee… a Marxist…” (no one could mistake the innuendo). And the Sun published an unflattering picture of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich – something which again was universally recognised as another covert anti-Semitic jibe.
It’s time to fight back against the unscrupulous lies of the establishment and to defend with pride Labour’s – and specifically Jeremy Corbyn’s – consistent record of resistance to racism in all its forms.
I do know something about anti-semitism. My grandparents were penniless refugees from pogroms in the Tsarist Russian empire, driven from their homes by riots, slaughter, arson. My paternal grandfather arrived together with his brother in Liverpool en route to America; they then had to toss a coin to decide which of them crossed the Atlantic. My grandfather lost, and had to eke out a living as a pauper pedlar in Liverpool. As for my maternal grandfather: once he’d arrived in Britain, he was killed in his twenties amid the fury of racist hatred, the victim of an anti-Semitic murder.
My father, Sydney Silverman, was a left Labour MP for 33 years until his death, and a courageous campaigner for socialism. My one disagreement with him is his conversion to Zionism during the years of Nazi rule. In 1940 he was elected chair of the British section of the World Jewish Congress. In this capacity he was among the first to warn the world about Hitler’s “final solution of the Jewish question” and to mount a desperate worldwide campaign to save European Jewry from genocide. Three days after my birth, he visited the newly liberated Buchenwald and Belsen Nazi concentration camps as a member of a parliamentary delegation. A fellow member of the delegation committed suicide soon afterwards.
In my early teens, as well as a member of the Young Socialists I was also a member of Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist Zionist youth organisation; an honoured previous member had been Mordechai Anielewicz, who had led the heroic doomed uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. I joined the Labour Party at the age of 15 and have been a member all my life, with the exception of the long “New Labour” years. I have encountered occasional manifestations of anti-Semitism in my life, but only once from a left activist – and never within the Labour Party.
The Jews throughout the Russian empire and central Europe enjoyed a rich cultural and political life, speaking their own language (Yiddish), building their own welfare and youth organisations, cultivating their unique kletzmer music, staging concerts and theatre dramas, publishing newspapers, and organising their own mass socialist party, the Bund, an autonomous party allied to the social-democratic parties of Russia and Eastern Europe.
In the early years of the twentieth century there were many idealistic young people who emigrated to Palestine to build a new life free from pogroms, ghetto misery and deprivation. Among these early Jewish settlers were some communist militants who successfully fought the Zionists and united Arab and Jewish workers in common struggle. One of these was a hero of the twentieth century:
Leopold Trepper. In the early 1920s Trepper (at that time he too was a member of Hashomer Hatzair) emigrated from Poland to Palestine and founded there a joint Arab/Jewish trade union called Ichad (Unity) in opposition to the Zionists who had set up an exclusively Jewish trade union. There was an ongoing political struggle between the Zionists and the communist workers in Palestine, just as back home in the ghettos. Trepper later went on to organise the clandestine Russian spy ring the Red Orchestra in Nazi Germany right under Hitler’s nose. He was eventually arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, and later, like so many others, rewarded by Stalin with ten years in a Soviet labour camp.
Zionism was originally little more than a fringe sect. It was only under the shadow of the swastika that it gained credibility as an expression of mass despair, a forlorn quest for a mirage, promising escape from generations of age-old persecution. Israel was founded after the holocaust by victims fleeing the holocaust and the concentration camps. In that sense, Zionism was really an outgrowth of the holocaust. It has subsequently proved a deadly trap and a tragic failure. Settlement in Palestine has not, after all, offered the Jews lasting security; Jews are no safer in Israel today than in Europe and America.
The Foundation of Israel
Still, it is necessary to understand how this phenomenon materialised. The Bund had been wiped out in the gas chambers, and for the survivors the prospects of rebuilding a thriving Jewish culture in Europe seemed hopeless.
I don’t agree with my father’s stance at that time, but I understand it. He was later to fiercely oppose Israeli participation in the Suez war in 1956, and died in 1968 outraged at the Israeli occupation of the West Bank following the 1967 war. But after the Second World War, he made an impassioned plea on behalf of the survivors of the concentration camps.
There were 250,000 former concentration camp inmates still rotting in displaced person’s camps, many of them threatening mass suicide after years of incarceration. Just like today’s migrants crossing the Mediterranean, Jews desperately seeking escape from the threat of annihilation boarded refugee boats illegally crossing to Palestine. Both during and after the war, they came under direct military attack from British warships. It is estimated that out of a total of 142 voyages, over half were intercepted by British patrols; more than 1,600 people were drowned at sea, about 50,000 ended up in internment camps, and only a few thousand actually succeeded in entering Palestine.
To understand the plight of the holocaust survivors and the appeal of Palestine, listen to this explanation by a camp survivor, quoted in a speech my father made in 1946:
“There are thousands more like me and my story is the story of my entire generation as Jews… I am 28, and I have never eaten bread I have earned with my own hands. This shirt I wear was given me by the Red Cross; this coat I wear came from the partisans; this sweater, from my sisters in Palestine.
My uncle in the United States sent me a dollar bill and I bought these boots I wear. During the war I was in the ghetto. Later on, I joined the partisans and I was called ‘the Jew’… As the war was over, I returned to my town. Of 7,000 Jews, two small children remained…” (Pulling out a battered photograph from his pocket)… “This is all that remains of my family. One went to the war, was taken prisoner and killed by the Germans, all the rest were slaughtered by Poles. I do not even know their graves… Here is a photograph of my mother and father. Both were killed by the SS… This is a photo of my school class. All who went to Palestine — six of them — survived. All who remained in Poland — 33 — are dead… My sisters in Palestine write, ‘We want to see you’. This is my story and it is the story of thousands, thousands more.”
It was British imperialism which had created the false diversion of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Just as it later cultivated Wahabism and fanatical Islamic fundamentalism to divide and rule in the Arab world, with all the deadly consequences we see today, it also created the monster of Zionism. With the Balfour Declaration in 1917, made during the First World War when the Ottoman Empire had crumbled, it had deliberately cultivated Zionism as a cunning strategic weapon to protect the oilfields against the Arab revolution. It could see the benefits of establishing a Jewish state as an outpost, to exploit Palestine’s strategic location and protect its control at that time of Egypt, the
Suez Canal and the route to India by creating, in the words of the first British military governor of Jerusalem, “a loyal Jewish Ulster”.
That phrase explains it all. In the Middle East as in all the territories administered by the British Empire, a calculated policy of “divide-and-rule” was set in motion to promote communal conflict. We still see the bloody consequences of this heritage of “British civilisation” in ethnic conflicts in all these regions today: in Northern Ireland, the Indian sub-continent, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, Palestine… In the Middle East, Israel was later politically exploited by US imperialism to establish a dependent client-state enclave within the oil-rich Middle East as a bulwark against the Arab revolution.
The constant wars, the occupation of the West Bank, the blockade on Gaza, the colonial resettlements, and the current ongoing massacre of unarmed demonstrators in Gaza are monstrous crimes. But they are not unique. When people make glib and facile comparisons with the Nazis, I don’t necessarily ascribe their views to anti-Semitism, but I do consider them provocative and grossly misplaced. There is a difference between brutal colonial military repression – a practice of all regional capitalist super-powers, including British imperialism – and deliberate systematic racist genocidal extermination.
The current atrocities in Gaza are every bit as horrific as the bloodbath in Sharpeville in South Africa in 1960, or in Amritsar in 1919, when British troops mowed down more than 1,000 peaceful demonstrators; and the barbaric treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails is almost as monstrous as the tortures and mutilations committed by the British in the Kenya death camps. There is no need to invoke the Nazis: it’s enough to brand the Israeli state as being as bloodthirsty as the British.
I feel solidarity, as all socialists should, with victims of racism and oppression – with the past Jewish victims of Nazi genocide and equally with the current Palestinian victims of Zionism. I understand perfectly why a “back to Africa” movement developed among black people in the USA; why Muslims in British India yearned for a homeland of their own within the sub-continent; and why Jewish holocaust survivors were desperately seeking a homeland of their own.
But I’m opposed, as should all socialists, to any state being based on or defined by ethnicity or religion: an “Israel for the Jews” any more than a “Britain for the British”. That’s why I was active in the anti-apartheid movement. I also sympathise with indigenous people whose land is colonised by outsiders, whatever their own history of oppression.
But history can’t be unwritten. I don’t call for the expulsion of the descendants of migrant settlers in the USA, Canada, South America or Australia, and I don’t call for the abolition of Pakistan – most of whom likewise were also originally fleeing from despair and persecution back home. Terrible and genocidal crimes were committed against the indigenous populations of all these countries, and similar crimes are being inflicted today against the Palestinians. Generations have grown up in Israel in the last seventy years, and they have no other home. What I condemn is Israel’s identity as a racially-designated state in which non-Jews face discrimination and which acts as a regional military occupation power.
The task of socialists is to combat all attempts to pit workers of different nationalities or historical backgrounds into fratricidal conflict, and to campaign for the common interests of all workers, uniting them in a common struggle for a new society. We should call for a common homeland of all communities in a harmonious socialist federation of the Middle East.
As a socialist, I will always fight against ethnic exclusionism, whether “Britain for the British” or “Israel for the Jews”…
As a socialist, I’m in favour of everyone living wherever they like: whether it’s Syrians in Britain or Jews in Israel…
And as a socialist, I support unity: a socialist federation of the Middle East, a socialist federation of the Indian sub-continent, a socialist federation of Europe.