A report by a House of Commons select committee published last weekend contained an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech in Britain. Despite this, the media simply used the report as fodder in its ongoing and obsessive campaign against Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. The most deeply troubling aspect of the report was, therefore, buried.
The Home Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into Anti-Semitism has recommended that, in some circumstances, the use of the word “Zionist” in a critical context could be treated as a criminal offence under hate crime legislation. The report admits that some three-quarters of reported Anti-Semitic incidents come from far-right sources, and yet — amazingly — the authors go on to ignore almost entirely far-right Anti-Semitism. The document instead focuses on two main targets on the left: Corbyn and the President of the National Union of Students, Malia Bouattia. This demonstrates starkly the highly partisan and regrettable approach taken by the Conservative-dominated committee.
In a statement last Sunday, Corbyn said that the committee had failed to look at the combating of Anti-Semitism in other political parties in any meaningful way. “Politicising Anti-Semitism – or using it as a weapon in controversies between and within political parties – does the struggle against it a disservice,” he insisted.
What few seem to be criticising, though, is the even more disturbing attempt by the committee to more or less outlaw criticism of Zionism in Britain. “For the purposes of criminal or disciplinary investigations,” the report asserts, “use of the words ‘Zionist’ or ‘Zio’ in an accusatory or abusive context should be considered inflammatory and potentially Anti-Semitic.”
Over the course of 2016, there has been a witch hunt and a moral panic about the “Anti-Semitism” supposedly devouring the Labour Party. While Labour and the wider left are of course not immune to the sad reality of Anti-Semitism, all available empirical evidence shows that the level of Anti-Semitic racism in the party is in fact of a lower magnitude than across society in general.
And yet the false, entirely manufactured “Labour Anti-Semitism crisis” story has endured, because it has just been too useful a stick with which to beat the left-wing leadership of the Labour Party. This goes for both those on the Labour right and the pro-Israel lobby, as well as their respective allies in the media establishment.
Throughout all of this, there has been some debate about Zionism, what it means precisely, and what the difference is between anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism. Even some influential figures on the pro-Corbyn left have fallen into the trap of saying that we should “stop talking about” Zionism.
On the contrary, I believe that in order to identity the problem of injustice in Palestine correctly, we must point to its source. The problem is the foundation ideology of the Israeli state: Zionism.
The select committee’s authors submit that we should criticise “the Israeli government” instead of Zionism, but that does not take into account the deeper problems at work in occupied Palestine. It suggests that the problem only extends to the current, hard-right, government of Israel.
In fact, though, left wing Israeli governments have been just as inimical to Palestinian rights, if not more so. The Nakba, the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the genesis and largest increases in illegal settlements were all carried out under the leadership of the Zionist left (the Israeli Labour Party or its ideological descendants).
As Ben White wrote in April, missing from most of this debate has been the contemporary and historical reality of what Zionism means for the Palestinians, who are the primary victims of Israeli war crimes and oppression.
Zionism is the foundation ideology of the state of Israel. As London School of Economics professor and activist Jonathan Rosenhead put it to me recently, Zionism has meant grave injustices for the Palestinian people, so in that sense, every usage of the word “Zionist” is an accusation.
Yes, Zionists, we are accusing you of supporting an oppressive ideology.
Zionism is a violent ideology the followers of which — Zionists — planned and carried out the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians as the fundamental fact of the foundation of the state of Israel between 1947 and 1948, commemorated by Palestinians the world over as Al-Nakba, the Catastrophe.
Zionism is a racist ideology which denies those Palestinian refugees and their descendants their basic human and legal right to return to their homes, only because they are not Jewish.
Zionism is a colonial ideology which still builds exclusively Jewish settlements on top of Palestinian land confiscated violently in the occupied West Bank.
Zionism is an apartheid ideology which denies the vote and basic human rights to 4.5 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and treats the Palestinians within Israel (some 20 per cent of the population) as second or third class citizens who have unequal rights in Israeli law, policies and practices.
Draconian attempts by the likes of the Home Affairs Select Committee to legislate away criticism of Israel like this will never work; you cannot suppress criticism of an unjust political ideology.
It’s true that some on the far-right sometimes use the word “Zionist” as a code word for “Jew” and thus as a thin veneer for their Anti-Semitism. This only makes it all the more important for us to draw the distinction sharply: Judaism is a religion out of which has developed a Jewish ethnic identity; Zionism, on the other hand, is a settler-colonial political ideology. Not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jews.
The Chakrabarti Report has many sensible recommendations for the Labour Party around the issue of Anti-Semitism (so it is unfortunate that the select committee also chose to attack it and its author). Among them is the recommendation that the word Zionist should be used carefully and advisedly and within context. That seems sensible, but conceding the word altogether would be a deadly mistake. It would be a concession too far to the right-wing, and to the Israeli state and its allies (which campaign ruthlessly around the world to smear all criticism of Israel as “Anti-Semitic”, and lobby for local legislation in this regard).
It is notable in this context that the two main proponents of the insidious and false “Zionist = Jew” equation are a) the state of Israel, and b) neo-fascist anti-Semites.
As Yasser Arafat put it in his famous 1974 speech to the United Nations general assembly: “Zionism is an ideology that is imperialist, colonialist, racist; it is profoundly reactionary and discriminatory; it is united with Anti-Semitism in its retrograde tenets and is, when all is said and done, another side of the same base coin.” In other words, Zionism needs Anti-Semitism. Challenge the former, and we will go a long way towards eradicating the latter.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.