/ 17 April 2024

What it means to be a Jewish anti-Zionist in an anti-Semitic world

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An Israeli soldier sits on a tank before entering into the Gaza Strip on April 10, 2024 in Southern Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

I grew up in England in the 1960s. 

My mother was born in London’s East End, a Jewish ghetto at the time; she was four when the new mass anti-Semitic party, the British Union Fascists, organised a march to intimidate East End Jews in Whitechapel in 1936.

Allied with socialists and communists, the Jewish anti-Fascists took the lead and beat back the Fascists in the battle of Cable Street. After the Jewish war veterans returned to the East End, and seeing that the “enemy had not gone away”, they created a now celebrated underground organisation to stop the Fascists meeting. 

Racism and anti-Semitism are at the core of British civilisation. The national hero, Winston Churchill, had little disagreement with Mussolini or with the Hitler’s anti-Semitism. As a kid, I knew nothing of the expulsion of Jews from England in the 13th century nor the forced conversion of Jews in Spain even before the brutal Spanish Inquisition. All that information, including the systematic anti-Semitism and pogroms in Russia, would come later.

I didn’t have a particularly religious upbringing. My father had converted to marry my mother, and some family members objected to her marrying an outsider. As a child I knew Yiddish, spending much time in my early years with my mother’s parents. While my grandmother’s family came from the Pale of Settlement, she was born in London and had no connection to the old country.

My grandfather had left Poland (then Russia) when he was 13, and then, remarkably, was interned by the British for a few months in 1940 as an alien. After the war distant relatives visited to tell him what had happened to his family, almost all having been exterminated. 

Being Jewish was an experience for me rather than an identity. At a young age I met people visiting my grandparents who had numbers tattooed on their arms. They explained to me how those numbers got there. This had a lasting effect. At the same time, at six or so, I came home to tell my mother that the parent of a friend had asked what religion I was and I told them I was Jewish. My mother reacted sharply, “Don’t tell anyone.” I took that seriously. These two events had a profound effect on me and my ambiguous identity. I would silently pass.

My mother was an automatic Zionist. I remember her saying in 1973 that Israel was surrounded by hostile states and had to be supported. I knew little about geopolitics. I had escaped Zionist indoctrination, although I did not escape normalised anti-Semitic tropes and threats of violence.

That violence became more threatening with a new rise in fascism in the midst of the economic crisis in the 1970s. It was this crisis that facilitated the creation of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock against Racism. Youth on the street, including me, were proudly wearing Anti-Nazi League badges as anti-fascism became a new mass movement, embracing reggae and punk, putting on free Rock against Racism concerts while at the same time actively opposing racism and fascism around the country.

At about the same time, after the 1976 Soweto Uprising against apartheid education in South Africa, I became an anti-apartheid activist. I remember being disgusted by white South Africans speaking in similar dehumanising racist terms Zionists use to speak about Palestinians, about the necessity of apartheid and violence to control black people (or in the terms of the day, non-whites). 

The International Court of Justice case brought by South Africa comes out of that anti-apartheid struggle. In other words, although at home South Africa is increasingly neoliberal, corrupt and reactionary, its willingness to accuse Israel of genocide is underscored by a Constitution born out of the struggle that was also reflected in the commitment to end apartheid, which included the activism of young anti-apartheid South African Jews who also identified with the Palestinian liberation struggle.  

This historical connections to genocide was not lost on Namibia’s first lady, Monica Geingos, who spoke out against Germany’s defence of Israel in opposition to South Africa’s charge of genocide. What she said was instructive. “The absurdity of Germany, on 12 January 2024, rejecting genocide charges against Israel and warning about the ‘political instrumentalisation of the charge’ is not lost on us,” reminding us of the 1904 Herero-Nama genocide by the German military, which killed 100,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama in then German South West Africa.

This connection between genocide and colonialism continues to be very real. As the great Martiniquan poet, Aimé Césaire, put it in his 1950 Discourse on Colonialism, Europe practiced colonial genocide in Africa before carrying out the genocide of Jews in the Holocaust in the heart of Europe. It raises a question: how can any genocided people be unmoved by the death and starvation of others or experience a separation from the decomposing bodies under the rubble and not wish them a proper burial?

As I became an anti-apartheid activist, I found out about the reality of life in the remains of Britain’s first colony. The north of Ireland was under the rule of the British army, the police and the special courts of internment, not unlike the administrative detention of Palestinians in Israeli jails, which allows for arrest, on secret evidence, and indefinite imprisonment without a charge or a trial. I didn’t particularly like the politics of the Irish Republican Army or the ANC, and was much more interested in Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, which led me to Frantz Fanon.

By 1980, I began working with a group of Marxist-humanists around Raya Dunayevskaya, Trotsky’s former Russian secretary and founder of Marxist humanism in the United States. Dunayevskaya was a Ukrainian Jew who had left Russia with her family after surviving the 1919 pogrom. And in the US, I became introduced to the Freedom Seders’ emphasis on the struggle for human liberation. 

It was the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982 that focused my attention on Palestine. In a piece written at the time, Dunayevskaya pointed out that she had met German refugees in 1947 “who had originally escaped to Palestine only to find it impossible to work for a new society of Arabs and Jews. The main ‘obstacle’ was Irgun headed by [Menachem] Begin.” 

This great contradiction was therefore “already present in the fight for a Jewish homeland”. This dialectic was not unique to Israel but there, by 1982, it had “become a full-fledged imperialist state whose birth included terrorism, the presence of Irgun [a Zionist right-wing underground movement] and of course others”. Begin was described by the British government at the time as the “leader of the notorious terrorist organisation,” and was one of many former “terrorists” involved in mass murders of Palestinians. Albert Einstein called Begin a fascist.

After the Nakba of 1948, Irgun was incorporated into the Israel Defence Forces and its political leaders soon became foundational to the settler state. The betrayal of the principle of national self-determination, of not oppressing another state or people was there right from Israel’s birth when it expelled Palestinians from the land.

Now, with its “empty talk in 1982 of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] as ‘terrorists’” Begin and Ariel Sharon’s Israel was committing the atrocities and invoking the Nazi Holocaust for reactionary and genocidal purposes. The 1982 massacres in Lebanon were connected with its articulated Zionist objective of a so-called “Eretz Israel,” as the Bible expressed it (“a realm extending from the Nile to the Euphrates”). 

The problem with Zionism, argues the philosopher, Zahi Zalloua (who had fled Lebanon with his Palestinian-born parents in 1976), was not that it was a national liberation ideology for many Jews fleeing the reality of anti-Semitism in Europe, but its chauvinistic, colonist and racist “premise that one’s attachment must be based on exclusivity, on the eradication and/or subjugation” of the Palestinian population. 

Let’s not forget that South Africa was, at the same time, rigorously supported by the US and Britain as well as Israel. Begin had been the chairperson of the Israel-South Africa Friendship League, which helped give legitimacy to South Africa’s nominal Bantustans and homelands that were not recognised by other states.

And Britain and the US would continue to support apartheid South Africa, making sure that a serious reckoning with colonialism and apartheid would not take place. (But let’s not forget that activists immediately pointed out that the map of Palestine proposed by the Oslo accords looked very much like apartheid Bantustans). 

While Israel supported apartheid, the revolt against apartheid inside South Africa continued and the anti-apartheid movement became international as students around the world demanded their colleges and universities divest from apartheid. 

Such calls are developing again on campuses around the world bolstered now by a new generation of Palestine activists, among them anti-Zionist Jews willing to stand up against Israel, who are also committed to think about ways to live together in historic Palestine where everyone is free from the river to the sea. 

This article stems from discussions at Emerson College in the US about being anti-Zionist and Jewish and anti-Semitism. Nigel C Gibson is a professor in the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary studies at Emerson College. He is the author of Fanonian Practices in South Africa (UKZN) and with Roberto Beneduce, Frantz Fanon, Psychiatry and Politics (Wits UP). His latest book, Frantz Fanon: Combat Breathing will be published later this year with Wits UP.