On Zionism & Anti-Racist Activism

In light of recent events, words like 'Zionism' are back in the mainstream discourse. Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign activist Kishore Lennon says concerning developments at a grassroots level here in Scotland demonstrate that there's a long way to go...

Debates around Zionism, anti-Zionism and anti-semitism have stirred up in the Labour party over the past few weeks and months. Much has been written and said about the issue, as well as how certain factions have weaponised the issue to attack leader Jeremy Corbyn (and ironically make anti-semitic comments themselves). Tackling this issue head on will take another article entirely.

The fact that tensions have been high has only been compounded by Israel's disgraceful and indiscriminate murder of peaceful Palestinian protesters last week (described by the BBC as 'clashes'). This has put terms like 'Zionism' back on the agenda, as people debate the merits and issues with using such a term to decry Israel's actions. It of course needs to be endlessly reiterated: the supremacist ideology of Zionism and the peaceful religion of Judaism are not the same thing.

On a more local level, such debates have felt even more pertinent in light of the recent stand-off between Israeli and Palestinian activists in Glasgow. In the days leading up to UN anti-racism day, the Zionist group the Confederation of Friends of Israel (COFIS) publicly confirmed they would be seeking to attend the anti-racism rally in Glasgow organised by Stand Up To Racism aka SUTR (Editor's Note: a cross-party campaign that has also faced criticism for its associations with the Socialist Workers Party).

This was the second consecutive year that COFIS had attempted to join this rally, but this time they faced organised opposition.At last year's march, COFIS presented themselves by waving Israeli flags, a symbol of apartheid. The presence of this organisation was unexpected – in response to the presence of these provocoteurs, SUTR invited the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign's (SPSC) bloc to the front of the march, which at the time suggested a mutual rejection of the Zionist presence.

COFIS made it to the end of the march but wrapped up their flags and set off, perhaps unsurprising considering speakers including Richard Falk, who spearheaded the UN report accusing Israel of operating an "apartheid regime". The chants of "from Palestine to Mexico, racist walls have got to go" was an even more explicit indicator that the group were unwelcome.

Those of us who are active on the issue of Palestine specifically know full well we represent the overwhelming majority of the anti-racism movement. The whole charade was and is a desperate attempt from COFIS to gain a shred of legitimacy for their isolated "movement". I myself sat on the National Committee of SPSC at this time, attended anti-racism public meetings and made what were clearly very welcome contributions on the issue of Palestine. So why, given the overwhelming pro-Palestine sentiment within the movement, why did SUTR come to publicly allow and thereby effectively endorse the presence of COFIS at this year's rally?

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We'd been assured by those telling us we should march with COFIS that they were also opposed to this Zionist presence. However, instead of agreeing to oppose attempts from COFIS to join the march, we were encouraged to take as many Palestinian flags as possible to the demo where we could walk alongside COFIS.

Apparently this constitutes a form of opposition – in reality, it exposes that a supposed anti-racism group lack understanding that Zionism is a racist ideology – the participation of a group like COFIS is completely unacceptable. SUTR claim to be connected with some trade unions that have endorsed boycott, divestment and sanctions. But they have demonstrated an unwillingness – and even cowardice – in confronting Scotland's Zionist movement.

One argument put forward to justify not opposing such groups is that most Jews believe are pro-Israeli and so their voices must be heard. This argument is premised on the wild exaggeration of the Jewish community's level of support for Israel. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (above) and Jewdas (as seen this week) demonstrate the fantastic activism being done by Jewish groups to combat anti-semitism without endorsing Israel. Anti-racists can proudly march alongside such groups in defiance of anti-semitism without marching with groups like COFIS and legitimiting any concessions to the war criminal Benjamin Netanyehu.

Such groups' wilful misdirection about what Israel actually is has important repercussions if they're indulged by Scottish anti-racists. Any attempts to draw political and cultural similarities between Israel and the West, for example, are predicated in deeply racist sentiment. They seek to distinguish Israel from the supposedly less civilised and 'hostile' Muslim neighbours.

Increasingly, Islamophobia is a key political tactic used to attempt to normalise Israel. The far-right have used it to hide their own history of anti-semitism, which is why it was strange to see respected lawyer Aamer Anwar point to the rise of the far right as an argument to attend despite the presence of COFIS at the SUTR rally. He called for attendees to bring Palestinian flags as if this would somehow mitigate their presence – in reality such a move only serves to suggest an equivalence between those seeking to fight Israeli apartheid and those who call for Palestinians to be "euthanised".

In light of recent events, it's probably a good thing that this debate has erupted among anti-racists, even if it's emerged for the wrong reasons. It's important that we on the wider left rethink the extent to which we tolerate such groups. The question for anti-Zionists explicitly is how we ensure we play a central role in answering this question.

Anti-racist groups have a choice: do we allow Zionism to be accepted and legitimised as a point of view? Or do we stamp it out and stand up for the human rights of those suffering day in, day out due to the racist policies implemented in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza? We mustn't allow this issue to permanently damage attempts to build a broad anti-racist movement. If we do, it will have deep ramifications when it comes to the debate around anti-semitism as a whole.

@KishoreLennon