Ken Livingstone’s (ill-advised) references to Hitler and Zionism have led to much (negative) comment – due to ignorance. So my childhood recollections of debates about, before and shortly after the creation of the state of Israel may have contemporary interest.
Firstly my background: I was born into a committed anti-fascist family whose social circle included numerous Jewish socialists. As a child I presumed that all Jews were anti-racist and socialist (Leo Abse, for example, was a close family friend). It was not until I went to University (1952) that I learnt otherwise.
Prior to the creation of Israel I recall heated discussions about the merits of a “Jewish homeland” and learnt that this “Zionist” vision was controversial. Most Jewish socialists (in our family circle) visualised their future in a socialist Britain and to them “Zionism” was a ‘cop-out’ – a way to avoid struggle against the British ruling class who were using anti-semitism to divide the working class.
As I recall, our circle of Jewish socialist friends was unpersuaded that a Jewish homeland would end anti-semitism – but all sympathised with the concept and, indeed, several of my best friends and comrades in my University years planned for a future in a socialist Israel (and did so later).
At that time no-one that I recall – whether of the right or left – anticipated Israel developing in anything other than a socialist direction – all the talk was of socialist-style kibbutz and cooperatives. We expected that Israel would soon become socialist – and when the Soviet Union recognised the new state of Israel (before Britain and the USA) it seemed that we were not alone.
In 1948 it seemed preposterous to suggest that a Jewish state might ally itself with imperialism (as it did in the joint Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Suez). In my teenage years Jews formed a disproportionately high proportion of the membership of the Labour and Communist Parties (and may well do so even today). We expected that, having faced the worst of fascism and racism, Israel would be a standard-bearer for racial tolerance (as South Africa has been since the ending of apartheid). We were wrong.
But, whilst it is an undeniable fact that successive Israeli governments have favoured Jewish immigrants over Palestinians, there are still many good people and socialists in Israel working for harmony between all the peoples living there. It may be academic now but I still don’t accept that Israel’s subjugation of the indigenous peoples was an inevitable outcome of the creation of Israel. “Zionism” was a response to anti-semitism and I still find it difficult to understand why its politicians behave as they do.
I fear, from my reading of numerous examples of history, that those that achieve power by violence virtually always maintain their power with continued violence. Yes – you can put that as an epitaph on my grave.
We are where we are – but Israel is far from being the safe homeland for the Jewish people envisaged by the 19th Century “Zionists”. Adding to the confusion, we also have people who describe themselves as “Christian Zionists” who support Israel but seem to envisage a mass conversion to Christianity one day! For this and several other reasons I try to avoid using “Zionist” and “anti-Zionist” in anything I say or write.
“Zionist” for some people has become synonymous as a negative encapsulation of Israeli government policy whilst “anti-Zionist” has become synonymous for others as “anti-Jewish”. Personally I think it highly desirable that we confine its use to the meaning universally understood prior to the creation of Israel.