Jews and the Struggle Against Oppression

In the effort to rebuild Israel’s credibility, a political fight is going on over the word ‘anti-semitic’. Supporters of Israel want to shift its meaning from hatred of Jews to include criticism of the Israeli state. They have had some success in the campaign to smuggle this formulation into common sense. From 1961, Webster’s Third International Dictionary, the standard reference to English in the United States, defined anti-semitism as both ‘hostility toward Jews’ and ‘opposition to Zionism: sympathy with opponents of the state of Israel’. Zionism maintains that there should be a state which gives special rights to Jews.

In 2005, an agency of the European Union adopted a definition of anti-semitism that included ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’. The US State Department has embraced this definition.

This verbal manoeuvre paints Nazis and those who support the Palestinian the same shade of Storm-Trooper-brown. It licences apologists for Israel to claim that everyone who wants a single, secular state for Jews and Palestinians on current Israeli and Palestinian territories are the same as Hitler.

The equation of hatred of Jews with criticism of Israel reinforces the claim that the interests of Jews and Israel are identical. In practice, this subordinates the security of Jews to the interests of those in charge of the Israeli state.

The partisan definition of anti-semitism favoured by apologists for Israel justifies labelling anti-racist activists as anti-semites while treating overt racists as allies. Friends of Israel in Australia have, for example, been prepared to tolerate  ( the presence of the fascists ( at their mobilisations to undermine the campaign ( against Israeli-owned Max Brenner chocolate shops. Motivated by hostility to Muslims, the fascist British National Party ( is a strong supporter of Israel.

In the United States, amongst the most vehement supporters of Israel are fundamentalist Christians who regard Jews as responsible for killing Jesus. They believe that the restoration of the biblical Jewish kingdom in the Middle East is a precondition for the second coming of Jesus.

What of Jews who regard Israel as a racist state? We are ‘self-hating’, suffering from severe personality defects. So what we say is to be taken no more seriously than the objections to Israeli apartheid raised by anti-Zionists who aren’t Jews.

The Catholic Church promoted anti-Jewish sentiment and banned Christians from charging interest on loans for centuries. Feudal rulers used this prejudice to squeeze Jewish money lenders and sometimes to divert attention from problems of their own making. In 1290, Edward I expelled Jews from England in a deal with the aristocracy to overcome the huge debts of the crown.

Only during the second half of the 19th century was this religious oppression of Jews transformed into modern anti-semitic racism. It enabled reactionaries, especially but not only in eastern and central Europe to build a mass base. They mobilised support by spreading the myth that Jews were responsible for the problems experienced by workers, peasants and the self-employed, certainly not capitalism, undemocratic monarchies or vicious landowners.

Faced with more intense persecution and pogroms, many Jews, a large and often readily identifiable minority in much of eastern Europe, joined a broader flow of people to countries with higher living standards further west in Europe and across the Atlantic.

Amongst Jews, there were two activist, political responses to anti-semitism. Zionism assumed, like anti-semites, that Jews and gentiles cannot live together. So the Jews needed a homeland in order to be safe. Zionism as a political movement emerged in the mid 1890s under the leadership of Theodor Herzl. In March 1912, it was not Hitler but Chaim Weizmann, later president of the World Zionist Organization and later still the first president of the state of Israel, who said ‘each country can absorb only a limited number of Jews, if she doesn’t want disorders in her stomach. Germany already has too many Jews’.

Herzl’s fundamental strategy was to find an imperialist sponsor for the Zionist project. He even tried to interest the Tsar, despite the fact that the Russian state actively promoted anti-semitism. In 1917, the Zionist movement found the backing it was looking for. Lloyd George’s Liberal-Conservative coalition government in Britain supported Zionist colonisation of Palestine as an element in its plans to take over territories ruled by Turkey in the Middle East. An alliance with imperialism remains the core policy of the Israeli ruling class today, in the form of its relationship with US governments.

Most Jewish socialists did not regard anti-semitism as inevitable. They saw it as a consequence of capitalism. The struggle against anti-semitism was as much a part of the fight for socialism as strikes to defend and improve wages and conditions. In the face of pogroms, Bundists (members of the General Jewish Workers Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia) did not encourage Jews to flee to Palestine but organised armed resistance. Anti-semitism had to defeated not accepted as inevitable.

Principled socialists, Jews and non-Jews, in other European parties also stressed the importance of fighting anti-semitism and other forms of oppression in order to overcome divisions inside the working class. As early as 1883, the German Social Democratic Workers Party very successfully stood Paul Singer, a Jew, as a candidate in the elections for the Berlin city council, during an early upsurge of anti-semitism, encouraged by the regime.

Already hostile to anti-semitism, consistent socialists, including the membership of the Bund, also opposed political Zionism from the start. For them, it was a diversion from the struggle against oppression and capitalism. They distinguished between Jews as a religious and cultural group, and Zionism as a political movement supported by some Jews and gentiles.

Between the World Wars, Zionist organisations, with British patronage, started to discriminate against Palestinians in their own country. From that point on, Zionism was no longer just an accommodation with anti-semitism; it became a movement for oppression.

Israel’s founders proclaimed it the state of all Jews, everywhere in the world. Its armed forces and militia units drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. That ‘ethnic cleansing’ was followed by the further expansion of Israel’s boundaries and institutionalised state and the institutionalised state bias against Palestinians who are Israeli citizens amount to a policy of genocide (

Judaism is the established religion of Israel. Hebrew is the state language. Palestinians, whose first language is Arabic, suffer from systematic discrimination in the education system, employment, the provision of public services and the right to own land. Within Israel’s borders, Jews are first class citizens; Palestinians are second class citizens. Recent legislation has forbidden Palestinians from preserving their history by publicly mourning the Nakba, the catastrophe of Israel’s establishment in 1948.

The fundamental definition of a Jew, used by the Israeli authorities, is based on inheritance. If your mother was a Jew, you are a Jew. Anyone who can establish Jewish descent in this way can become an Israeli citizen. This is a racist criterion. It justifies giving people whose ancestors may have lived in the Middle East thousands of years ago and many Jews none of whose forebears ever lived there the ‘right of return’.

It explains why there are so many people in Israel today who were born in Russia. Most of them left Russia in the decades from the 1970. By proving their Jewish descent, they could become citizens of Israel. There are a million former Russians in the Israeli population of less than eight million. Many were, understandably, attracted by the much higher living standard in Israel and had no commitment to Judaism as a religion. Some have established Russian Orthodox churches.

On the other hand, Palestinians, who were born in what is now Israel but were driven out during the ethnic cleansing that accompanied the establishment of the new state between 1947 and 1949, or subsequently, have no ‘right of return’.

The tragedies of Jewish history, from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, through medieval persecution to modern anti-semitism and the holocaust, are not a get-out-of-jail-card-free for those who claim to act in the interests of Jews. Israel has not made Jews there or elsewhere in the world safer.

Israel’s oppressive policies at home and aggression abroad have led to resistance and armed conflict that has made the populations of Israel, the territories it occupies and neighbouring states permanently insecure. As a result, Israel is a highly militarised society, preoccupied with real and imagined threats. Outside the region, the false identification of Israel with Judaism reinforces the anti-semitic claim that all Jews are the same and invites naïve opponents of Zionist policies to target individual Jews, rather build the mass movement necessary to challenge the Israeli state and its powerful backers.

It is possible to oppose anti-semitism on a narrow basis, that the racist persecution of Jews is wrong. A broader and far more effective approach strengthens the fight against anti-semitism by treating it as part of the struggle against all forms of racism and oppression. From this perspective, the front line of the battle against anti-semitism today is the campaign against apartheid Israel.

Rick Kuhn is the co-author of Labor’s Conflict: Big Business, Workers and the Politics of Class and a Reader in Politics at the Australian National University. 

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