The Socialist Worker Party – waste of time, no buts

Israel’s 60th Independence Day is not far off. I’ve seen more stuff commemorating 60 years since the Nakba than 60 years of Israel, but that’s a sign of the circles I move in, I suppose. This year’s Palestine Film Festival (theme: the Nakba) looks interesting if only I were around (although it’s organised by SOAS, a distinctly anti-Zionist brand – I’ve been to a SOAS event of Palestinian culture where actors in military fatigues with guns had the audience pumping our fists for jihad. I rounded up my friends and led them out).

The upshot is that if I didn’t take further action, I’d be in the intellectually perilous position of getting most of what I know about Israel from the Socialist Worker Party and fellow boycotters, gobbets of de-contextualised invective churned out in the course of their anti-Israel exercises within my union UCU. So I’m taking the opportunity to read the special reports about Israel written for the occasion.

The more I read, the more I resent the Socialist Worker Party for what they are doing in UCU and other unions to demolish Israel, which isn’t exactly Nirvana but is entirely undeserving of demolition. I always knew the SWP were wasting our time but it takes a bit of knowledge about Israel to gauge the depths of the poverty of their debate.

I picked up the Economist yesterday for its The Next Generation – A Special Report on Israel (April 5th). This was a highly critical 16-page scrutiny which discussed Israel’s role in the regional extremism, the circumstances of Arab Israelis, the phenomenon of shirking national service, the languishing industrial sector, shortcomings in the compulsory and university education system, and the nature of Zionism. In it I found explanations or at least pointers to answers* for a large number of questions I have about Israel, including why religious Zionist settler and haredi electorate are both tiny in number and at the same time so powerful, ditto the haredi population, why Israeli politics is so volatile, why the politicians are seemingly divorced from the wishes of their voters, why Israel’s Supreme Court has so much dealing with cases against the state, why the settlements make up a small proportion of West Bank land but so much for land is closed to Palestinians.

These are all important questions for any critic of Israel to consider – in fact understanding these things is a basic condition to be in a position to offer criticism and propose solutions. And yet between June and October, the University and College Union staged a protracted campaign, coordinated by the Socialist Worker Party and over-dedicated anti-Israel activists, to boycott Israel, which they claimed was a campaign to educate us about Israel but in which these things didn’t come up. Instead, they concertedly presented Israel only as murderous, child-killing, thieving, racist, and lying state.

Reading the Economist report made realise afresh how apallingly narrow last summer’s UCU argument was and how much I resent the SWP for wasting union members’ time and treating us like fools, how irresponsible they were to push an agenda from a position of profound ignorance and bias combined.

Then over dinner Matt and I listened to the first of a 2-part series on the history of the SWP on BBC Radio 4, called From Trotsky to Respect. It was kind to them, and that’s alright. Afterwards I asked Matt what he about it because unlike me he doesn’t burn with indignation (and on this occasion indigestion) whenever the SWP give voice. He said:

“Well, they’re so un-self-aware. They were going on about how the SWP was a conduit between the working people and SWP members like them. And then somebody else gave an example of how influential they’d been while working with Southampton dockers, how great it was that they used to produce a newspaper – but he wrote all the editorial and the dockers wrote some poems and did all the hard work. It was sold for a penny a go or something round the docks. The SWP were there for two years and highly influential, he said. But they didn’t recruit anyone. That’s what he said – they didn’t recruit anybody while they were there. Another thing that made me laugh is the woman who said that handing out the newspaper kept you in touch with the concerns of ordinary people. Cos I then thought how many working class people is she handing this out to who say “I’ll tell you what I really want – an academic boycott of Israel, that’s my big worry. And what I also really want is for you to join up with some extremist Muslims and take over the East End”.

I asked him why he thought some SWP members wanted to bring about a boycott of Israel, and he said:

“The grass-roots people who wanted it – the Jews specifically, it seems to me – felt guilty because all the Palestinians are in refugee camps in penury, you’ve got all these Jews in Israel but they’d be perfectly safe in any Western democracy, so there’s no real need for Israel, in their minds. And I think they think that Israel is basically blood money for the Holocaust and stolen from the Palestinians. I think there are maybe people at a more strategic level who are using it as a) a stick to beat America and b) as a kind of – they probably see it as a way of destabilising Western democracies, I don’t know.”

So what about the non-Jewish grass roots pro-boycotters?

“Well I think that they probably think the same as the Jewish ones, but they don’t have the guilt that the Jewish ones have. I think it’s the guilt that the Jewish ones have that drives them to be passionate to the point of derangement about this stuff. I think they think that Israel is symbolic of all that is wrong with capitalist democracies, don’t they. Israel sitting there with all its water and money and arms manufacturers… nuclear weapons. Lording it over the Palestinians, rubbing their noses in it. I don’t know.”

Then I delivered myself of a short outburst about anti-Zionist politics, Jewish and non, its prevailing double standards and attendant discriminatory practices.

Then he asked me if I required any more wisdom, I said not really and we retired together to watch Episode 5 of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.


*Briefly and all too superficially: in the turmoil of its beginning Israel plumped for pure proportional representation, which almost no other state has. This means that parties can only govern by forming coalitions of four or five parties with varying ideologies, and in such coalitions the extreme ideologists wield disproportionate influence, including diverting budgets, authorising settlements (recently Shas), and brandishing vetos. The situation leads politicians to try to attract other parties rather than voters and are consequently more accountable to their parties than they are to their voters (the Socialist Worker Party members of the UCU Executive would approve). Former Jerusalem Post editor Amotz Asa-El notes that the most talented, accomplished, moral, and charismatic people are turned off politics. On the Israeli Supreme Court – part of its function has become, almost by default, to fill the gap in authority left by fractious politics and a lack of constitution. It has come to treat some of the Basic Laws as quasi constitutional, sparking efforts to write, for the first time in Israeli history, an actual constitution. I don