Editorial: Anti-semitism, Zionism, BDS and PN

IssueDecember 2012 - January 2013
Comment by Milan Rai , Emily Johns

In the last issue of PN, a Jewish reader wrote that she was ‘often very surprised and saddened at the extent of the anti-Jewish feeling and writing in the political Left, and in Peace News particularly’. We promised to reply this issue.

Jen asked whether there was ‘a visible and vocal place for Jews (or Arabs and Gentiles) in the peace movements in general, and in Peace News in particular, who believe in a Jewish nation’.

As editors, we’ve had to take stock and think about this quite hard. Have we allowed anti-semitism to be expressed in Peace News? Do we do enough to untangle and separate anti-semitism and anti-zionism?

It is unfortunately the case that in the 1930s, in its desperation to avoid world war, Peace News did fall prey to appeasement of the Nazi regime. That should be a warning to us now that good people, with good motivations, can deceive themselves about what they are colluding with.

We’ve thought carefully about it and, with all the appropriate qualifications about the possibility of self-delusion, we don’t think we’ve allowed direct anti-semitism to be expressed in Peace News during our five years of editing.

However, that doesn’t mean we think we’ve got it right all the time.

The heart of the matter is the attitudes and actions that have been expressed or reported in PN towards the state of Israel, particularly around ‘boycott, disinvestment and sanctions’ (BDS).


Peace News as a paper has not had any sympathy with the nation-state as a social formation for many decades, but throughout its life it has supported the national struggles of oppressed peoples.

In the 1950s, PN gave a prominent place to the voices of national liberation movements, despite its commitment to nonviolence and the fact that these anti-colonial movements had turned to armed struggle.

Right now, many Peace News readers and contributors are involved in Scottish and Welsh nationalist movements, bringing a radical, peaceful, internationalist dimension to them.

We think there are major differences between those forms of nationalism and Zionism as it exists today in the state of Israel.

Zionism in Palestine was once the struggle of an oppressed people for a homeland of their own. Before the Second World War, there was a strong non-state current in world Zionism, seeking co-operation and mutual respect with the Arab population of Palestine.

That is not the tendency that took power, however. We are not dealing with ‘Zionism-as-it-could-be’ (a modest, non-racist, binational Jewish-Arab state) but with ‘Zionism-as-it-is-expressed -in-the-state-of-Israel’, where there is systematic discrimination against non-Jews, as is inevitable in a Jewish state, and, since 1967, the brutal occupation or siege of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Jen wrote in her letter: ‘I do not agree with all of Israel’s policies but that does not make Israel, or Israelis, or Jews bad’. We agree that the policies of a particular government do not by themselves mean that the people or the state are immoral.

However, there is a difference between a Scottish state, which can grant equality to atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims and pagans, and a Jewish state, which must be an inherently discriminatory institution (we see this in Israeli land policy, for example, and in the law of return, which applies only to Jews).

That by itself does not mean that the Israeli state should cease to exist. (In PN’s view, all nation-states should cease to exist, but that’s another debate.) It means that there is a major flaw in the Israeli state, because it is driven by a destructive form of Zionism.

BDS dilemmas

One of the pieces that Jen had concerns about was the October ‘Liverpool Diary’, in which Jennifer Verson bravely overcame her fear, as a Jewish woman, of standing up publicly for boycott, divestment and sanctions ‘against the government of the place which is called Israel’.

Boycott, divestment and sanctions can be valuable tactics against oppression and injustice. Historically, combinations of these tactics have been invaluable in nonviolent struggles for peace and justice. However, a tactic is not good in itself; it is good if it is likely to benefit oppressed people or others for whom we have moral concern.

Let’s distinguish between selective BDS and having a blanket boycott of Israeli goods and Israeli cultural and intellectual institutions.

The question is: what is the value to the Palestinian people of a blanket approach being taken here in the west?

Chomsky has observed: ‘In the case of any tactic, you ask yourself, what are its consequences, ultimately for the victims, and indirectly for the audience you are trying to reach. So you ask, do the people I am trying to reach see this as a step towards undercutting US policy and freeing the Palestinians or do they see this tactic as a reason to strengthen their support for US policy and attacking the Palestinians. That’s the question you ask when you carry out any tactic, whether it is disobedience, breaking bank windows, demonstrations, whatever it is. Those are the questions you ask if you care about the victims. If you don’t care about the victims, you won’t bother with these questions and you just do what makes you feel good.’

We think it is a debatable question, but our opinion is that a blanket boycott harms the British solidarity movement and makes it harder to reduce Britain’s support for the oppression of the Palestinians.

This view should have been reflected in our coverage of BDS activities in the UK.

Noam Chomsky, who has held the same binationalist Zionist views since the 1940s, has pointed out that in the case of South Africa, BDS activities in the US came after decades of education, when public opinion had turned decisively against apartheid and US corporations were withdrawing from the country. Even then, Chomsky notes, the BDS activities were ‘effective and targeted’ – for example, against universities or sports teams that had racist hiring practices.

We are a very long way from British or US public opinion turning so decisively against the policies or discriminatory structure of the Israeli state.

In such circumstances, a blanket boycott alienates people who could be reached on the central issue of the occupation.

Existential questions

Whether it should have come into being or not, Israel does exist now, as a fact. For PN, no state is legitimate, but there is an existing framework of state recognition.

We believe that at this point Israel has as much right to recognition as any other state – though it does not have the right to be a discriminatory or imperial state.

Norman Finkelstein, a fierce critic of Israeli policies, has observed that part of the Palestinian solidarity movement has gone from regarding BDS as a set of tactics to choose from, to creating a BDS movement which is more like a cult.

He said in April: ‘Their official position is: “We take no position on [the legitimacy of] Israel.” While BDS is a legitimate tactic to force Israel to accept the two-state solution, it has to have a just goal, which means it has to include recognition of Israel as a state.’

We believe these questions do need to be asked about different aspects of the BDS campaign against Israel, and we’re sorry it has taken Jen’s letter to make us start addressing them.

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