Letter to a young activist


Over 100,000 people demonstrating in London in 2014 against Israel’s attack on Gaza

This is a (tidied up) email I sent to a school student relative of mine who is just coming into the movement.
Dear         ,
Trying to answer your list of questions about the row going on about Israel.
You are absolutely right, and we have talked a lot before, that opposing what the state of Israel does and its ideology, Zionism (or more precisely, political Zionism), is not equivalent to being anti-Jewish, being anti-semitic.
But you asked if it is is possible to be opposed to Israel for “wrong and dodgy reasons”.
In other words:
Being anti-Zionist – which is a way (not often the best way) of saying you think there is something fundamentally wrong with Israel – does not make you anti-semitic.
But can some people who say they are “anti-Zionist” or “anti-Israel” also be hostile to Jewish people, be anti-semitic. The answer is yes – but it’s not simple, and we need to know some of the background.
Let’s go back a bit…
In the course of the 1980s it became less acceptable publicly to use racist terms about Black people (by which in this context I mean African-Caribbean people) in Britain.
Racism still existed of course. And so did outright racist language, but there was a decline in its acceptability compared with the 1970s – it was really quite nasty then, though it feels like that again today regarding Muslim people.
One result was that some people 20 or 30 years ago who wanted to say something which was racist about Black people (whether they intended it maliciously to be racist or whether it was what we used to call “casual racism”, often arising from ignorant stereotyping) would turn to other words than those which were no longer considered at all acceptable.
The racist prejudice and intention were “re-coded” into a different language. Like you do in computing.
When I moved to London in the late 1980s you could find some white people who would talk about “Brixton” in a certain way. What they really meant was “Black people” – or even, for those who were deliberately and maliciously racist, “n***ers”. At the time Brixton was considered a “Black area”.
So they would say something like: “Ours is a nice area, not like Brixton.” What they meant was: “This is a white area. And that’s why it is nice. Keep the Blacks out.”
Overt anti-semitic language and stereotyping is (thankfully) also less acceptable in public life than it was in the 1970s, just as anti-Black racist language is.
So similarly it is perfectly possible for anti-Jewish racists – anti-semites – to use another word when they really mean “Jews”. And that does happen.
That’s what was going on when you asked me about some racist Trump supporters putting a strange emphasis on Bernie Sanders coming from Brooklyn. When he was born there, it was a strongly Jewish area of New York City.
When the Trump supporters said “Brooklyn”, they meant “Jewish”. One reason they don’t like Bernie is because he’s Jewish (and even more because he’s a socialist). They are anti-semitic.
The “Brooklyn” trick, or code, works if you are in America, but most people in Britain wouldn’t get it. People in Britain generally know nothing about Brooklyn: they have heard of Israel.
So it is possible for anti-Jewish racists today – like the anti-Black racists in the 1980s “minding their language” and talking about “Brixton” – to talk about “Israel”, or “Zionists” when what they really mean is “Jews”, and holding negative opinions about “them”. That is the definition of a racial prejudice.
But it is a bit more complicated than that.
The great majority of the growing number of people who have negative views of Israel or speak angrily about it or argue that it is based on a fundamentally wrong principle (which is to be a racially exclusive, segregated state with similarities to apartheid South Africa) do so because of the very real oppression directed at the Palestinian people.
You know this from how you and your mates feel when you saw those pictures of the Palestinians being shot by soldiers.
When you say “Israel” you mean it like the big majority of people who support the Palestinians mean it. They do *not* mean “the Jews”. They mean the Israeli state with its army, laws and practices, which have robbed another people of their homes and are oppressing them.
And, of course, there are a lot of Jewish people who are not only just as supportive of the Palestinians and against Israel, but also do a lot of the organising for protests and the boycott campaign and all the other stuff we’ve talked about. They tend to be socialists also. (Check out the Jewish Socialist Group – that’s some of them.)
It was much simpler in the case of the anti-Black racist who used the word Brixton as a code than it is over Israel.
The reason for the difference is that Brixton did not go and occupy Camden driving its inhabitants off to Barnet. It has not put the people of Pimlico under a siege.
There was no good reason – only a hidden racist reason – to use “Brixton” in the negative way it used to be used. (That’s true, even if it is in south London – that’s a London joke 🙂 )
There are very good reasons – not only *not racist*, but actually *anti-racist* – for being negative about Israel. Israel is not like Brixton.
Still, some people can and do sneak in their racist prejudices under the cover of widespread legitimate anger and opposition to the Israeli state.
Now, people like the Israeli government and its supporters want to stop all criticism of Israel and to stop the growing movement in solidarity with the Palestinians. I would want to, if in their shoes. But I never want to be in their shoes oppressing another people.
They have given up on stopping all criticism. Loads of people can see that there is something really wrong with Israel, its treatment of the Palestinians and the way that the Western governments back all that up as part of trying to control the Middle East and its oil.
So the Israeli government and its supporters want to police the criticism to say what is and what is not acceptable.
A few stupid ones want to say that any criticism of Israel is anti-semitic. But the smarter ones say it might be ok to criticise this or that, but not the fundamental question of Israel being built on land stolen from the Palestinians.
Ok to criticise Israel, but not to campaign against it in the way we campaigned against apartheid South Africa – not ok to say that it must be fundamentally transformed, like South Africa was when Nelson Mandela became president.
The main thing they want to stop is the growing campaign, though they would like to limit even criticism to the tiniest level possible. But wherever they draw the line, they want to be the people who decide where it is drawn and say that what is on the wrong side of the line is “anti-semitic”.
One of the really dangerous things that flows out of the confusion they are spreading is that it makes it harder to oppose the real anti-semites.
If the definition of racism is set by what a government and state decide on the basis of trying to stop people criticising them or trying to change them, then the definition constantly shifts.
It can seem like there’s no clear idea of what is racist, what is anti-semitic. And that’s a good environment for people who want to spread anti-semitism. Confusion and ignorance are the greatest allies of racism.
The confusion created by the Israeli government ends up helping the anti-Jewish racists. And the anti-Jewish racists provide ammunition for the Israeli government and its defenders to sow further confusion.
They use the fact that a small number of people mask their anti-semitic intent by talking about Israel or Zionism when they mean “Jews” to say that everybody who opposes Israel is doing the same thing and for the same reasons. But that is obviously illogical.
To give a bit of a trivial example of that kind of stupid logic: a few people say they don’t like curry because, really, they are horrible, bigoted racists and won’t eat “foreign muck”. But there are quite a lot of other people who just don’t get on with spicy food.
If someone says they won’t eat curry because it is “Paki food”. They are a racist. If someone says they don’t eat curry because they are allergic to chilies, then they are not racist, just really unfortunate to miss out on some nice food!
But what you asked me about is not trivial. It’s really serious.
More and more people are opposing Israel for the same kinds of reasons huge numbers of people came to oppose apartheid South Africa. Because it is a state racially excluding and oppressing another people.
Defenders of Israel say that it is being singled out for special condemnation. But when you point out that it is similar to how South Africa was, and that was when the last big boycott campaign happened, they try to say that it is nothing like South Africa.
It is another illogical argument – saying, at the same time, that Israel is being unfairly picked on and denying it is anything like all the other cases where people have campaigned in much the same way against the same kind of oppression of one people by the state and government of another.
By the way – the anti-Jewish racists hiding themselves with talk of “Israel” don’t like the comparison being made with South Africa either.
That’s because they are *not* motivated by the anti-racist principle of opposing one group and its army oppressing another. They are motivated by racism – against Jewish people – and many of them are from the far right, and hate Black and Muslim people also.
Just as with anti-Muslim racism, anti-semitism is not only on the far right or among people like those Trump supporters you asked me about. It is wider than that. But most of the nasty stuff is either coming directly from the racist right or is versions of memes and stuff like that which originated there.
There is also some evidence that very desperate supporters of Israel are themselves spreading images and propaganda which are anti-semitic but masquerading as just opposition to what the Israeli government, army and the right wing settlers are doing. .
They hope that this will spread around and discredit the pro-Palestinian movement and reinforce the false claim that any fundamental criticism of Israel is anti-Jewish. You know how people share mad stuff online sometimes – like the one about the “ice cream” which won’t melt in a furnace. It’s not, of course, ice cream. (Thanks for sending me that – it was funny.)
They are not the source of the anti-Jewish racism. But it is an extreme example of how they are recklessly creating a climate where that can grow by creating confusion.
The defenders of Israel really want to confuse and break up the growing movement supporting the Palestinians. That *is* logical!
Anti-Jewish racists want to exploit anything and everything – not just people’s justified anger at Israel, but other things – to spread their poison, which is usually connected to some way-out right wing party.
If someone is determined to spread racist views, they can be really ingenious in their choice of language and false images and snide comments.
The Tories in London right now are not saying directly that no Muslim can be trusted to be the mayor. But they are cunningly trying to say that Labour’s Muslim candidate, who is a lawyer, is sympathetic to blowing up people on the tube and buses.
Bankers are really unpopular. Quite right too – bankers and big businessmen, with their bonuses and tax havens, are living off the backs of the rest of us. They caused the crisis that has led to all the austerity which you marched against down in London last year.
But the link you sent me and asked about is, indeed, dodgy. It’s anti-semitic. When it speaks about “bankers”, it is using a code for “Jews”.
How can we tell? Well the only bankers that it named were “Rothschild”, “Goldman Sachs” and some others which had “Jewish” or “Jewish sounding” names.
The biggest three banks in the world are Chinese. The fourth biggest is sort of British, but is closely linked to China – the HSBC – the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.
The article is a repost from a white supremacist site in the US, a clever one – as it is not immediately obvious that that is what it is.
It is not opposed to banks, greedy big businessmen (like Donald Trump) or capitalism. It is opposed to Jewish people, or is using anti-semitism to win people to its racist and right wing project.
We shouldn’t let the fact that that is what it is trying to do stop us, of course, from saying what we want to say about the banks, the bosses, Google not paying its tax, the Panama Papers and capitalism.
Perhaps there are “Bankerists” somewhere who might come up with the cunning plan that they can confuse people protesting over austerity by saying that criticising bankers is anti-semitic! That’s a bit of a joke – but maybe we shouldn’t give them ideas 🙂
But we do need to watch out. There are these racists out there. They are not yet that strong. That’s why they have to hide their views, use code and be like parasites when it comes to how loads of people feel about all sorts of things.
We see it over Israel. And it’s a similar thing over them trying to wheedle their way in over things like the behaviour of the banks.
The best way to spot it and deal with it is to inform yourself and to think for yourself.
The best way to do that is with other people whose principles you can come to trust and who you can judge over time. That’s what things like the People’s Assembly demo you were on, the Palestine demos, groups like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War and others are partly about.
It’s the same online. The online stuff from those kinds of people, and the socialists – like the Jewish Socialist Group – is really good.
And feel free to ask, over anything. The people who are spreading confusion want us to stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop acting and stop being angry.
So we shouldn’t let them do that.
Hope that helps. Gook luck with the exams…
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