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Left Antisemitism  in Poland?

15 September 2006

We reprint below a text on anti-semitism in Poland  that Polish socialists have sent us with a request for publication.  We have duly complied with their request, but we find ourselves in disagreement with some of the formulations and carry a reply by Andrew Johnson.  We welcome further contributions to the discussion:

The Return of ‘Left Anti-Semitism’ in Poland? 

Piotr Kendziorek and August Grabski

Anti-semitism in Poland has not been articulated in the political language of the left since the time of the ‘anti-Zionist’ (in fact: anti-semitic) propaganda campaign of the 1960s inspired by general Moczar, and the later episode of the so-called Patriotic Association ‘Grunwald’ at the beginning of the 1980s. But articles which have recently appeared in the columns of the magazines “Lewa Noga” / “Left Foot” and “Rewolucja” / “Revolution” (which are published by the Warsaw publishers “Ksiazka i Prasa” / “Book and Press”) give rise to the question of whether the ghost of anti-semitism is not again emerging in the guise of left ‘anti-Zionism’ in Poland.

Apologia for Anti-Jewish Terror: 

Take, for example, the third issue of “Rewolucja”, in which 130 pages are given over to the question of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In eight articles by Palestinian and western European writers which have been translated into Polish, and also in the introductory text by Zbigniew M. Kowalewski (who functions as the editor-in-chief of this magazine, and recently became a vice-chief editor of “Le Monde Diplomatique – a Polish version”), the same idea is returned to again and again: Israel is a racist and colonial state, which cannot claim a right to exist in any form. In addition, it is stated that this state serves as the most important instrument of world imperialism in the suppression of the Arab masses in the Middle East. In doing so, as the American political writer J. Petras adds in his numerous articles which have been published in “Rewolucja” and “Lewa Noga”, American imperialism itself carries out policies in the Middle East which are dictated by the Jewish-Zionist interest group (with the result that it is not entirely clear whether Israel is an instrument in the hands of American imperialism, or, as Petras suggests, it is the other way around).

From this he draws the conclusion that any negotiations with this state mean the betrayal of the Palestinian national interest, and the betrayal of the international struggle of all peoples and classes oppressed by imperialism. And since this struggle is a matter of life and death, all methods of struggle are therefore justified, even suicide bombings by Palestinians (including those directed against random and innocent Israeli civilians). As Kowalewski explains, it is, after all, a question of the removal of “a state which represents part of the defensive ramparts of western imperialism, and which is its central base in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world.” In arguing thus, these authors do not make any secret of the fact that for them it is not a question of mutual recognition of the national interests of the Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian nations, but rather a question of ending “the Jewish colonisation of Palestine.”

It is easy to guess what will happen to the “Jewish colonisers” in the liberated “historic Palestine” under the rule of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Brigades of the Al Aqsa Martyrs, and other organisations which are praised because of their uncompromising struggle against the Israeli occupation. “If the contradictions cannot be solved other than by means of force, such as in the event of the kind of invasion which is represented by the Jewish occupation of Palestine, then political justifications can easily become separated from compromises. … And those who take refuge in ideological justifications, who spread the ideas of “mutual existence”, “recognition of Israel” and “attempting to win support in the camp of the enemy” under the pretext of internationalism, and who insist that we should sing “we are the world” and should say to the Jewish aggressors on our land that we “have nothing against them as Jews” when they kill, throw people into prison, blow up houses, confiscate land, and do all those things which an occupier does! It is therefore more difficult to cure oneself of the ideological syphilis of compromise with Israel (emphasis added – P.K and A.G.) than it is to cure oneself of the political justifications of compromise with ‘Israel’, which, in any case, are becoming ever weaker and are collapsing of their own accord.” (I.N. Allusz)

Kowalewski’s arguments head in the same direction of radical anti-Jewish Palestinian nationalism. Kowalewski is concerned by the idea that Palestinian extreme right-wingers might organise less attacks on Jews than they have done so far. He therefore criticises the appeal of a group of Palestinian intellectuals who advocate the “de-militarisation of the intifada and, in particular, an end to the attacks on civilians” on the grounds that “it (this appeal) deepens the divisions between a large part of the academic intelligentsia, which is active in NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and which has emerged from the ‘secular and national-democratic’ milieu, and, on the other hand, a large section of the masses.” Then he refers positively to the statements of representatives of “organisations which participate in the armed struggle”, and which emphasise that “we reserve the right to attack everything which is Zionist in the territories occupied since 1967”, and also “the right to defeat Zionism in the framework of the territories occupied since 1948 (i.e. since the creation of the state of Israel – P.K and A.G.).” To justify this attitude he adds that such views reflect the social mood and the dynamic of the class struggle in Palestine.

With regard to the authors of this appeal and others like them who defend the idea of recognising the existence of the Jewish nation and its right to a state of its own, they are all, as is clearly stated in the article by Allusz which has already been quoted, in the pockets of the Zionists and the imperialists (which amount to the same thing in this discourse, as the concepts are mutually interchangeable): “It is a question of a new kind of intermediary appearing between imperialism and Zionism on the one side, and the Arab people on the other. These intermediaries exercise non-economic functions. This group comprises all Palestinians and Arabs who play in their societies political and intellectual roles in the interests of imperialism and Zionism. … In this group are to be found virtually all Palestinian intellectuals who have prostituted themselves by signing the appeal for an ending of the ‘militarisation’ of the intifada.”

What we are dealing with, therefore, is a group of parasitic intellectuals who are separated from the masses, and who have been subjugated by Zionism and its international agencies. According to the material published in the magazines under discussion, to this group there should also be added the anti-Zionist radical left in Israel and “almost the entire international solidarity movement which in supporting the perspective of the creation of an independent Palestinian state finds an alibi for renouncing the struggle against the racist Zionist state” (A. Handal, J. and P. Salingue). Counterposed to these “comprador elements” (Allusz) there is the real national resistance movement, with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc. in the forefront: “Their emphasis on conducting the armed struggle against the Jewish occupation of Palestine through to the end turns this broad current into a block of the real resistance movement. … The Palestinian masses identify with it because it is the best representative of their long-term interests, which rest upon the total liberation of Palestine from the Jewish occupation.”

It should not be forgotten that in the struggle for the elimination of the Jewish state matters of worldwide importance are at stake, because “the Palestinian question is at the centre of the problems of the world” (A. Sadat). “The struggle of the Palestinian people is the concentrated manifestation of the clash between the Arab nations of the Middle East and imperialism”, and therefore it can “serve as the link between the mobilisations unfolding in the Arab countries and the international resistance movement against globalisation” (Handal, Salingue). Zionism as an ideological _expression of Israeli imperialism is thereby a key problem for all nations because – as M. Warschawski explains in the last issue of “Lewa Noga” – “the anti-Palestinian policies of Israel constitute a kind of local labour of the neo-conservative strategy on the global level. The basis of this strategy is provided by the repeated colonisation of the world … and, thereby, the establishment of a global system of racial-social apartheid. … At the beginning of the twenty-first century there are no longer any local conflicts” but rather “a neo-colonial war between the imperialism of the United States and the nations.”

Islamist radical right-wingers are said to be the representatives of the oppressed nations and Arab masses, the imperialism of the United States and Israel is said to be the main obstacle to ending the capitalist mode of production on a world-scale, and in Israel genocide of the Palestinians is supposedly taking place. (J. Loewenstein and J. Petras, who defends the thesis that Auschwitz is to be found today in Palestine). The right of Palestinians to return to Israel in the borders which existed prior to 1948 should be recognised. With regard to the last demand, it is again a question – and not for the first or last time – of the editors of “Lewa Noga” and “Rewolucja” using different criteria for Jews and non-Jews. Although these editors present themselves as fervent internationalists, they do not raise demands such as the right of return for Germans to those territories which were inside the borders of the German state in 1937.

The most curious author whose articles were published in “Lewa Noga” is a certain Israel Shamir – a Russian Jew who lived in Israel and who now lives in Sweden. From the very beginning of his anti-Israeli crusade a section of the anti-Zionist left was confronted in his articles by something with a similarity to Christian anti-Judaic fundamentalism. His anti-Israeli articles, however, were published with a feeling of satisfaction by a section of the socialist press internationally. But when it turned out that Shamir, being a neophyte of the Greek-Orthodox Church, believes in ritual murder, co-operates with Holocaust deniers, uses the anti-Zionist - expression “Zog” (“Zionist Occupation Government”) in relation to the US government, endorses the theses of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, etc., etc., then even the American editors of the magazine “Socialist Viewpoint”, ultra-radical in their attacks on Zionism, decided to publicly apologise to their readers because of their flirtation with Shamir. But the editors of “Lewa Noga” were not prepared to engage in such an act of self-criticism.

The Roots of the “Anti-Imperialism of Idiots”: 

But enough of reproducing the monotonous discourse of the “anti-imperialism of idiots” (I. Deutscher) which is to be found in the columns of “Rewolucja” and “Lewa Noga”. We turn instead to the general problems associated with the notion of “left anti-semitism”. It is easy to recognise the similarity between this discourse and the kind of anti-Zionism which was propagated by the Moscow-controlled Communist movement (especially after 1967). In this discourse it is not just a question of the one-sided identification with Palestinian nationalism but also a question of the adoption of a whole number of ideas which are similar to anti-semitism. The problematic nature of this discourse has been the subject of extensive research by various left-wing authors for many years. In this respect, particular importance is to be attached to the work of T. Haury on anti-Zionism in the German Democratic Republic and to articles by authors linked to the German group “Initiative Socialist Forum” (ISF, which bases itself on the intellectual tradition of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School).

These authors put forward the thesis that the decisive factor in the possibility of articulating anti-semitic notions in Marxist categories was primarily a unique “embourgeoisification” of Communist ideology in its Stalinist form, expressed in the acceptance of the thesis of two revolutionary subjects (which are to be linked to each other through the activity of the Communist Party: the exploited classes, and the oppressed nations). Thus, “socialism in one country” (Stalin’s well-known _expression) is an _expression which flows out of this linkage: the unity of socialism and the nation, national socialism, state socialism” (article by the ISF).
By accepting such ideas the (post-)Stalinists, and then a large part of the so-called New Left (which in many other respects rejected official Communism, which we define as Stalinist), have adopted a series of bourgeois-idealist conceptualisations concerning the social nature of the institution of the state and the nation. Thus, for example, there is the question of the conception of the state as an emanation of the homogenous nation. In this question the issue of state activities in the process of the constituting of nations (which has been researched by many prominent left-wing intellectuals, such as E. Balibar and E. Hobsbawm, to mention just two) is largely passed over in silence.

The emergence of national states can thereby be conceptualised as an act of a unique “national contract”. Out of this there flows a disregard for political-economic force as a constituent factor in the development of the state institutions (as the basis for the creation of national markets, which was the traditional argument of orthodox Marxism). The result of such an ideological viewpoint is to draw a distinction between “bad” and “good” states/nations. The former are allegedly to be found in the capitalist metropolises, while the latter are to be found above all in the so-called Third World, and some of the latter are blindly identified with by supporters of the “anti-imperialism of idiots”.

From this there arises the typical paradoxes which have been confirmed by many researchers, for example that a rejection of the right-wing variants of Polish-national anti-semitism can be accompanied, for example, by support for a Palestinian nationalism which is coloured by anti-semitism. Stefan Zgliczynski, editor-in-chief of “Lewa Noga” and leader of the KiP, can therefore write that “Jedwabne (a place where a section of the Polish population took part in the anti-Jewish pogrom which had been provoked by the Nazis in 1941 – P.K. and A.G.) is to be found everywhere (in Poland)” and simultaneously publish apologetic texts concerning the Palestinian national movement (without, for example, mentioning in even a single word the fact that Article 32 of the so-called Charter of Hamas cites the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as evidence of a Zionist conspiracy). It seems that the decision to approve including de facto anti-Jewish texts in the pages of the magazines published by “Ksiazka i Prasa” does not register in the understanding of Zgliczynski as being in contradiction to his earlier role as an expert and author of reports for the European Centre of Research and Action on Racism and Anti-Semitism.

From Dumbed-Down Anti-Imperialism to Racism: 

The linking of the fact of the existence of the Jewish state and the Jewish diaspora to the old anti-semitic theme of the parasitic exploitation of other nations by Jews also appears in the anti-Zionist discourse under discussion here. Using formulae such as “Zionist” imperialism, colonialism and racism creates the link with left-wing ideological thought. Such links with categories of ‘progressive’ ideological thinking do not, however, alter the fact that “the anti-imperialist view of the world (i.e. the one being discussed here – P.K. and A.G.), in terms of its potency and tendencies, must be defined as structurally anti-semitic. It is characterised by Manichaeism, personalisation, conspiracy theory, and the counterposing of good peoples and bad finance capitalists” (T. Haury). The short road – as I. Deutscher poignantly noted – which leads from such an anti-imperialism of idiots to anti-semitism becomes visible when we take into account that in this kind of political conceptualisation Jews are not recognised as a nation (which, moreover, partly results from the acceptance of the definition of a nation which stems from Stalin) but are mostly defined as white racist colonisers. The question of anti-semitism and the Holocaust and their role as factors in the emergence of Zionism as a political movement and, later, in the creation of the state of Israel as a result of its efforts and struggles, is totally screened out of this discourse.

Looking at things from this point of view means that Jews in Palestine are always on the side of the forces of evil (as colonisers, racists, imperialists, capitalists) and that in this role they began (as S. Volkov poignantly notes) to fulfil in the Arab world the symbolic function of embodying the worst of the experiences of the post-colonial societies in their contacts with the Western world. It is no surprise that an uncritical adoption of such a point of view frightens away most Jews from the radical Left, and that it also leads on the one hand to a strengthening of the Zionist consensus in Israeli society (based on the feeling of fear, as described by M. Zuckermann), and on the other hand to a strengthening of the potential for anti-semitism in the nationalist ideologies of the western and European countries.

You do not need much empathy with the historical experiences of Jews in order to be able to agree with the words of the important Israeli Trotskyist militant Jacob Taut (author of the book “Zionism and the Jewish Question”, published in German), who lived in Palestine from the 1930s onwards: “This state, whose creation we criticised, … is now, after twenty years of its existence (the book dates from 1969 – P.K. and A.G.), a fact, the elimination of which by whatever Arab forces you care to think of would only lead to new misfortunes, murders and killings. Israel is a rich country, which like the all capitalist countries is devided into social classes. The role of Zionism is reactionary but the Jewish population of Israel can be attracted to the anti-imperialistic and pro-socialist struggle only when its physical and national existance will be guaranteed".

As is obvious, the anti-Zionism of the Jewish anti-Zionist Left (for example, the new-left organisation Matzpen, or the Bund, which decisively defend the right of Jews to self-determination) has not got the slightest thing in common with the “anti-imperialism of idiots”. In any case, Israel’s right to exist is not disputed by the Fourth International, the most important international organisation of the radical left, and one whose activities are often referred to by the editors of “Lewa Noga” and “Rewolucja”. But in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict the editors consistently keep quiet about the fact that the Fourth International has unconditionally abandoned the idea of a bi-national state on the territory of Palestine/Israel (for example, in the resolutions of the XIII World Congress of the Fourth International in 1991).

The conclusion which follows from all of this is that if anyone is writing about anti-Zionism and the radical left, then they should always clearly state what kind of anti-Zionism and what kind of radical Left they are dealing with. Otherwise, as is so often the case, the debates do not have a clearly defined subject-matter as their starting point, and are therefore often sterile. It is a pity that the editors of “Lewa Noga” and “Rewolucja” attempt so consistently to propagate precisely the ethically and politically most dubious ideas (stemming from the tradition of Stalin’s “Questions of Leninism”) to be found in the extensive and important political and theoretical inheritance of the New Left. Fortunately for Jews and the Left, there are also critical left responses to this left anti-semitism, as is evidenced by the names of writers and organisations referred to in our article.

This article is a shortened and slightly reworked version of the text which appeared in the Polish Jewish magazine “Midrasz” in July/August  of 2006 (as a contribution to the debate being conducted in that magazine about the links between left anti-Zionism and anti-semitism).

Piotr Kendziorek: Author of the book “Anti-Semitism and Bourgeois Society: Neo-Marxist Interpretations” (Warsaw 2005).
August Grabski: works in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw; also co-author of the book “Trotskyism: Doctrine and Political Movement” (Warsaw 2003).

“Left” anti-Semitism? A reply to Kendziorek and Grabski

Andrew Johnson

Comrades Kendziorek and Grabski's contribution on the subject of anti-Semitism touches on an extremely important point for modern-day socialists. Our movement historically has opposed all racial and ethnic oppression, and up to and including the Second World War, anti-Semitism was taken by Marxists to be a paradigmatic example of the kind of oppression we opposed. This has been complicated since 1948 by the existence of the Israeli state, and in particular by Israel's place in the world imperialist system since 1967. A further complication is added by the past use of anti-Semitism by Stalinism in Poland and elsewhere. I believe the comrades make some very valuable points, but their framework of assumptions ultimately leads them into what is politically very dangerous territory.

The fact that the counter-revolutionary Stalinist regime in Poland had occasional recourse to anti-Semitism is hardly surprising. After all, its model, the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union, had utilised anti-Semitism as far back as the late 1920s, becoming more pronounced during the show trials and reaching a peak in the “Doctors’ Plot” at the end of Stalin’s life. This phenomenon was ably analysed by Trotsky in his 1939 article “Thermidor and anti-Semitism” as resulting directly from the degeneration of the 1917 revolution. The Stalin regime drew on already existing popular anti-Jewish moods, using these moods to divert the anger of the masses away from the bureaucracy towards the Jews – including the Jewish section of the bureaucracy itself – and thereby helping to consolidate its own power. The 1952 Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia, Moczar’s “anti-Zionist” campaign in 1960s Poland, and the Brezhnev regime’s tolerance of anti-Semitism in the 1970s are to be understood as part of the same phenomenon. Since this Stalinist anti-Semitism couched itself in pseudo-socialist language – “the socialism of idiots”, in August Bebel’s phrase – this may indeed be taken as “left anti-Semitism”.

Thus far we are probably in agreement. The problem comes when Kendziorek and Grabski seek to apply the category of “left anti-Semitism” to today’s political situation. Here they get into the problematic area of the Middle East and the Palestine solidarity movement. They also come close to a different theory of “left anti-Semitism”, that associated with the Alliance for Workers Liberty in Britain.

First we should be clear, as Kendziorek and Grabski are not clear, that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not the same thing. Those Marxists who dealt most extensively with the question of Jewish oppression - Martov, Trotsky, the leaders of the Jewish Bund among others - resolutely opposed Zionism. The Zionist movement, on the other hand, thrived on anti-Semitism and indeed collaborated with genuine anti-Semites, from the Herzl-Struve talks to the Balfour Declaration to Jabotinsky's and his followers' attempts to build bridges with European fascism. But does not Israel's existence change all that? It changes things, certainly, but not in a principled way.

Since the Holocaust, the vast majority of the world's Jews have been Zionist to a greater or lesser extent. This is entirely understandable. There is in Palestine a very large population of Jews - many, of course, of Middle Eastern rather than European origin - who are not going to disappear. Why then do we not simply accept Zionism as the Jewish people's expression of their right to self-determination?

In the first place, we do not hold national self-determination to be an absolute principle. The Ulster Protestants may have some national characteristics and certainly are a conscious and historically determined community. But we don't accept the two nations programme for Ireland. During the struggle against apartheid, no Marxists that I know of took it upon themselves to champion self-determination for the Afrikaners or the Zulu separatists, despite the fact that nobody disputed that these were nations. We supported the struggle for a united and non-racist South Africa, and we were correct to do so. In these cases we opposed the demand for self-determination, for reasons that should be obvious when one considers the reactionary consequences of such a policy.

Now we come to the crux of Kendziorek and Grabski's argument, which is that "left anti-Semitism" expresses itself primarily in denial of Israel's "right to exist". We should be clear about what this modest-sounding phrase, "right to exist", actually means. Countries recognise each other, usually they recognise each other's borders and legally constituted governments - as Germany recognises Poland, for instance - but nobody except the Zionists advances the slogan of the "right to exist". What this slogan involves is an acceptance of the Israeli state as a positive good in itself - not only that, but the Israeli state as presently constituted, which is legally not the state of its citizens but the state of the "Jewish people" throughout the world, with all the consequences of discrimination and oppression that that implies. It also means the denial of the equal claims of the Palestinian people.

What is at issue here is not the right of Jews to live in the Middle East, but whether this right should take precedence over all else. It is noticeable in this context that Kendziorek and Grabski oppose the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes within what is now Israel. This, of course, is held by the Zionists to be unacceptable because it would erode Israel's Jewish majority and therefore Israel's "right to exist" as a Jewish-dominated state. Nor is the proposal for a bi-national federated state, or for a secular democratic state that would protect Jews' equal rights, held to be acceptable. The only solution that can be discussed is one that enshrines the already existing dominance of Israeli Jews over non-Jews. We can protest that we want to protect the rights of Jews, but in the left-Zionist discourse the only right that matters is the right of Jews to constitute a "Jewish" state in which non-Jews may be tolerated but cannot have equality. Opposing Jewish supremacy is ironically considered "anti-Semitic".

This is the view espoused on the British left by Sean Matgamna's Alliance for Workers Liberty. The Matgamna tendency used to be distinguished by its fanatical support for the PLO, but in the 1980s significantly softened its critique of Zionism. While the reasons for this shift were pragmatic - the group's alliance in student politics with the Zionist-chauvinist Union of Jewish Students - the AWL has over the years deepened its pro-Israeli stance to the point where it is one of the group's dominating features, and has been promiscuous in accusing those who disagree with its position of "left anti-Semitism". The AWL's embrace of the Israeli state as a positive good in itself, and its willingness to use the "anti-Semitism" smear against anyone not sharing its left Zionism, is not some small eccentricity. The group's increasingly strident pro-imperialist politics - espousal of the two nations theory in Ireland, "national" rights for Falkland Islanders, support for dubious movements like the Afghan mujahideen and the Greater Albanian chauvinists in Kosovo - show where this kind of politics can lead.

I should make it clear that I am not accusing Kendziorek and Grabski of putting forward a pure Matgamnite position. When they quote examples of exaggerated criticism of Israel as instances of anti-Semitic discourse, they are not simply blowing rhetorical smoke. It is true that there are anti-Semites who oppose Israel for anti-Semitic reasons - the charlatan "Israel Shamir" is a good example. There is also the phenomenon of Muslims whose hostility to Israel is often expressed as a general hostility towards Jews. Socialists need to sharply condemn these expressions of anti-Semitism, and perhaps some on the left have been slow to do so (although I know of no example of socialists actually condoning anti-Semitism). It may be that, for historical reasons, socialists in Poland or Germany - where criticism of Israel is still something of a taboo on the left - are more sensitive on this point.

But that does not detract from the point that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not the same thing. To say that they are falls into the logical fallacy shared by both anti-Semites and Zionists, who identify Jews as a whole with the Israeli state. It seems Kendziorek and Grabski are falling into this trap, for example with their reliance on the pro-Israeli German polemicist Thomas Haury, who attempts to "prove" that anti-Semitism is rampant on the German left by quoting criticisms of Israel and substituting the word "Jew" for "Zionist". That sort of facile wordplay gets us nowhere. Using this methodology, I could go through the Workers Liberty archive on the Balkans, substitute "Jew" for "Serb" and thereby prove that Sean Matgamna is an anti-Semite.

This is a pity, because the empirical parts of Kendziorek and Grabski's article are potentially very useful and could be the basis for analysing some of the facile ways in which the left approaches the Middle East, and how to avoid some of the pitfalls the left has unfortunately fallen into. The trouble is, once you accept the equation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, you are completely disabled in the face of the actions of the Israeli state. Take the recent Israeli invasion of Lebanon. One might think that the Socialist Workers Party's slogan "We are all Hizbullah" is empty-headed and opportunist, and so it is. But the Matgamna tendency's position - to loudly condemn "left anti-Semitism", and express the pious hope that Israel will develop a more benign policy - has been worse than useless. One cannot approach the Middle Eastern problem without a thorough critique of Zionism and its place in the imperialist world system. I hope the comrades will rethink their position.


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