Not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jews, but say anything negative about the political ideology of Zionism or speak in favour of Palestine and the chances are, regardless of your religious beliefs or lack of them, you will end up being accused of anti-Semitism. In today’s world, posting negative tweets about Zionism or expressing the slightest criticism of Israel can land you in trouble. One 82-year-old woman in Britain, for example, could be expelled from the Labour Party having been accused of posting “anti-Semitic” views on social networks. Diana Neslen, though, is Jewish.
After three investigations by the party, Neslen has had enough and is fighting back. Her legal team has sent a warning letter to let Labour officials know that her anti-Zionist viewpoint is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act. Furthermore, the lawyers at Bindmans say that she has been “subjected by the party to discrimination and harassment related to her protected philosophical belief.”
This has the potential to be a hugely significant case that will put the political ideology of Zionism under the spotlight. Its supporters, especially millions of Christian evangelicals around the world, especially in the US, would have us believe that political Zionism is older than Methuselah himself who, according to the Bible, reached the grand old age of 969. However, compared with the ancient patriarch, the nationalist movement is still in its infancy, having originated in eastern and central Europe towards the back end of the 19th century.
Not only is Zionism a relatively new kid on the ideological block, therefore, but it’s also only relatively recently that the movement has been supported by mainstream Jewry and non-Jews of every political hue. It has taken root among Jews following decades of propaganda and millions of dollars spent lobbying the US and other western governments for legislation to criminalise those who would dare to criticise it.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in December 1938, election results in Poland saw the Zionist political project struggling to take hold within one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. Only one of the 20 seats allocated to Jews was won by a Zionist candidate; 17 went to the anti-Zionist socialist party, Bund. The evidence suggests that pre-World War Two, orthodox Jews were not generally attracted to Zionism or the concept of a Jewish state. Mike Marqusee made this point in his book If I am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew (Verso Books, 2008): “As long as there has been Zionism, there have been anti-Zionist Jews. Indeed, decades before it even came to the notice of non-Jews, anti-Zionism was a well-established Jewish ideology and until World War II commanded wide support in the diaspora.”
The Nazi Holocaust did indeed change things when it murdered millions of Jews and other minority groups, including the disabled, trade unionists, gypsies and homosexuals. “I remember thinking at the end of the war, ‘Why didn’t the Germans do anything?’” said Neslen. “When there’s injustice done in your name you cannot close your eyes to it. That’s why I feel very strongly.” Israel, remember, claims to act on behalf of all Jews, no matter where they live.
The truth remains, though, that Zionism is based on lies. There, I’ve said it, and will no doubt be refused a platform by universities for incurring the wrath of the more rabid elements of Israel’s extreme supporters in the Zionist lobby groups. Like Neslen, however, I too have reached breaking point, although I am not a Jew. So it is time for me to stand my ground, and also fight back.
One of the most enduring of Zionism’s lies was promoted by British author Israel Zangwill 120 years ago when he repeated the well-worn slogan that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without a land”. After realising that this was simply not true, Zangwill parted company with the founders of Zionism and in 1904 started talking about the 600,000 Palestinians who occupied the so-called “land without a people” at the time. He continued to speak out about the Palestinian elephant in the Zionist living room. Today, no doubt, he would be slandered as anti-Semitic; in 1913 Zionists simply called him a traitor.
Like Zangwill, Diana Neslen was also a “committed Zionist” until she visited Israel and saw the self-styled Jewish State at close quarters. And, just like Zangwill, she has been punished, insulted and persecuted since turning her back on the racist ideology. She is not the only person who appears to have been persecuted for her anti-Zionist beliefs, and the fact that she is Jewish appears to cut no ice with her detractors. They continue to insist that the Labour Party must investigate her “anti-Semitism”. What did she say or do to deserve what her lawyers describe as a totally “unjustified and disproportionate” response? In one tweet in 2017 she wrote, “The existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour and I am an antiracist Jew.”
Inside Israel itself, in response to accusations from Jews like Neslen that Zionism is colonialism, the goalposts are being moved yet again with new lie claiming that Jews are genetically “indigenous” to the land. It’s an argument that “swims in fascist waters” according to one Jewish writer who said that the blatant appropriation of anticolonial language changes the definition of Zionism. Far from being a Jewish nationalist movement founded in the 19th century, explained Abe Silberstein, these new zealots are trying to portray Zionism as “an indigenous rights movement, the implication being that virtually all Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel.”
As support for Israel among US Jews starts to fall, especially among the young, it seems as if Zionism is losing its mythical status as a benign ideology, even as the peaceful grassroots Boycott, Sanction and Divestment movement, BDS, rises in popularity. In 2015, a Yachad-Ipsos Mori survey conducted in British Jewish communities found that, while 90 per cent of Jews in the UK believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, just 59 per cent identified themselves as Zionists, down from 72 per cent in 2010. It is no longer clear if “Zionist” means someone who supports Israel’s government, or simply the state’s right to exist.
In 2018, the Labour Party in Britain adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour,” says the IHRA, is an example of anti-Semitism. Opponents of its use in this way argue that legitimate criticism of a government is certainly not the same as illegal anti-Jewish racism. Indeed, even the person responsible for drafting the definition — and it remains a draft document; it’s not set in stone — has said that “pro-Israel lobby groups have weaponised the definition in an attempt to silence critics of Zionism.”
Jewish Voice for Labour, of which Neslen is a member, says there are at least 42 Jews in the Labour Party who have faced or are facing disciplinary charges relating to allegations of anti-Semitism. Ironically, under self-proclaimed Zionist and leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer, Jewish members are five times more likely to have faced complaints about anti-Semitism than non-Jewish members. It remains to be seen if Labour does apologise to Neslen and undertake not to pursue further investigations against her in respect of her beliefs, but it is clear that her lawyers will not drop the legal action.
According to Neslen in the Guardian, “The Labour Party has no idea, in my opinion, of what anti-Semitism is. My son was attacked by a luminary of the [British National Party] who was jailed for three years. I remember picking up the phone and being subjected to death threats from the BNP. People who have never experienced anti-Semitism have no idea what it means, what it means for a Jew to be found guilty of anti-Semitism.”
Like the Labour Party, most other the other main political parties in Britain have adopted the controversial, “seriously flawed” IHRA definition of anti-Semitism apart from in Scotland. There, the Scottish Greens hold two ministerial positions in Nicola Sturgeon’s government. Both co-leaders, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, still refuse to endorse the definition. The Greens have voted previously in favour of a motion that described Israel as a “racist state” based on “Jewish supremacy” and calls Zionism a racist endeavour. This is entirely consistent with the findings of Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem earlier this year.
The far-right Israeli government is said to be increasingly concerned about the decline of support for Zionism. I wouldn’t be surprised if it has already instructed its embassies and lobby groups around the world to shore up support for the ideology in 2022. Indeed, as reported recently by MEMO, it seems that the pro-Israel lobbyists are going on the attack already; Sturgeon is facing mounting criticism over the Scottish National Party’s partnership with Scottish Greens. The First Minister has also been accused of Jew-hatred for discouraging “trade between Scotland and illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories”.
Such tactics make it no surprise, therefore, to hear that British MP Robert Jenrick has pledged to get the British government to outlaw BDS. Speaking at the Leadership Dialogue Institute (LDI), a think tank fostering closer cultural ties between Australia, the UK and Israel, he addressed BDS in a meeting under the inflammatory heading “Why Do So Many People Hate Jews?” Again, the attempt is to conflate legitimate criticism of a political ideology with totally illegitimate, abhorrent racism against Jews. As one leading pro-Palestine campaigner has said, “Anti-Zionism is a duty; anti-Semitism is a crime.”
When Zionists move the goalposts they unwittingly expose the tissue of lies on which the state of Israel has been built. The Jews in Europe pre-Holocaust saw Zionism for what it was and voted accordingly. It is time for the truth about the ideology to be told before any more Jews like Diana Neslen are persecuted for their wholly acceptable beliefs. Their right to freedom of thought and speech must not be curtailed as they seek justice for the people of occupied Palestine.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.