Writing as a Jewish traitor - Steve Cohen

Originally published in May 2009.

An imagined disputation with my comrades on anti Semitism

This is an edited extract from a text that Steve Cohen wrote in 2006 with the Lebanon war in mind. He sent it to us again during the Israeli attack on Gaza, still noting its obvious relevance for the Gaza solidarity protests.


For forty five years as a Jew and a revolutionary Marxist I have been waiting for this debate, this disputation. The time lag is itself revealing – revealing of the left’s refusal to get beyond platitudes, often nasty platitudes, in discussing Jews. Let me say what this is not about. It is not about Zionism. Rather it is about the anti-Zionism of fools. And it is about the anti-imperialism of fools. I speak as an anti-imperialist. Over a century ago August Bebel, the German Marxist, coined the phrase “the socialism of fools” to describe those early socialists who equated world capitalism and world Jewry. In my view much modern anti-Zionism contains caricatures and myths which are equally foolish and equally dangerous. They are both a slur on Jews, all Jews, and do nothing whatsoever to advance the absolutely justifiable struggle of the Palestinians to become free of Israeli hegemony. And yes I think anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism should be conceptually and politically kept absolutely apart. However it is the result of the dominant discourse on the modern left that they have crashed into each other and joined up. This discourse is joined up anti-politics at its most grotesque.

What makes these anti-politics even more grotesque is that prior to the triumph of Zionism (and the establishment of Israel) there was another anti-Semitic slur (often found in Stalinist mythology) – that of the rootless, cosmopolitan Jew, that is the Jew without a country of his/her own and owing loyalty to no other state. So it is damned if you do and it’s damned if you don’t. The language of damnation, of fire and hell, is itself absolutely appropriate coming from a Christian-imperialist tradition which is responsible for anti-Semitism (as it is for Islamophobia).

As I understand it, the emergence of idiotic anti-Zionism as being dominant within anti-Semitic discourse found within the (non-Stalinist) left began in earnest after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the consequent Sabra-Chatilla massacre (actually committed by Christian Phalangists). In 1985 I wrote a small book on the subject of left anti-Semitism – “That’s Funny You Don’t look Anti-Semitic” (which is now posted on the web). This looked historically at how there has always been a significant current within the left who have adopted conspiracy theories about Jews. Only a few pages of this were devoted to the issue of anti-Zionism. Now I feel a whole library would be insufficient to house what is required. The real turning point were the Twin Towers destruction and the subsequent aggression against Iraq, both which have resulted in a global anti-Semitic backlash. The attack on the Twin Towers is perceived as a response (legitimate or illegitimate) to Zionism and the invasion of Iraq as being manipulated by Zionism. Of course neither of these events were in any way the responsibility of Jews or of Zionism. But even if they were they would not justify an anti-Semitic response. Even the real horrors of Zionism (such as the non-stop invasions of Gaza and the West Bank) are no such justification. This is blaming Jews for anti-Semitism – an outrageous concession to this oldest, or certainly the most persistent, of all racisms.

Imagine there’s no countries – or religion too

Allow me to state my position on Zionism as a political movement. Surprisingly it is doubtless at least in its basics the same as yours. I am opposed to it. I am opposed to it because of its racism towards the Palestinians. Because of its dispossession of the Palestinians. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, bad that you can tell me about Zionism that I would even start to justify. What is more I am opposed to the state of Israel. And I am opposed to the suggested two-state “solution”. If anything I am for a “no state” solution – that of a federated Socialist Middle East. I am opposed to Israel because I am opposed to all exclusivist states. Israel is an exclusivist state. Therefore I am opposed to it. I am a kind of Anarcho-Marxist on this question. I am for the absolute right of a law of return for Palestinians (and Jews). As a Diaspora Jew I am absolutely proud to hold no allegiance to any country on the planet – including Israel. I am proud to be both a Jewish traitor and a traitor of the Jews.

In fact I regard the very idea of a Jewish state as quite ludicrous. Can a state be circumcised? Can it eat kosher meat? Can it be barmitzvahed? And I feel the same way about the idea of a Muslim state – such as Pakistan. And I guess this is where we start to differ. I refuse to exceptionalise Israel. I am against exclusivist states. But all states are exclusivist, certainly all bourgeois states. It is their nature. They cannot be otherwise. The British state is a prime example. It is defined, and defines itself, by its immigration laws – who can come and who can stay and who has what rights (if any) dependent on immigration status. Want to define Israel as an apartheid state? Fine – as long as you are prepared to do the same for the UK. Want to organise a boycott of Israeli universities? Fine - as long as you are prepared to do the same for British universities, who are up to their necks in the enforcement of immigration controls. Open your eyes to the fees discrimination against “overseas” students – who can be deported after extraction of fees on completion of studies. Open your eyes to the vetting by university authorities of every single potential employee to ensure they have the “correct” immigration status. This in addition to the paid research or training contracts some educational institutions have with the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. Want to demand the “dismantling” (whatever that means) of the Israeli state? Great! I’m for the smashing of all bourgeois states by the workers and their replacement with workers democracy. This is elementary Marxism. Which is why I am for unity between Palestinian and Jewish workers against their own rotten (mis)leaders.

What I am not for, what I am against, are clerics waving Kalashnikovs in their attempt to recreate another theocratic monstrosity. The exceptionalisation of Israel has lead to the utterly demeaning slogan on anti-war demonstrations in this country of “We are all Hizbollah now”. Well count me out of that one. Hizbollah is a clerical organisation which peddles the notorious Protocols of Zion – the nineteenth century forgery that reiterates the claim that Jews control the world (which is itself the central tenet of anti-Semitism). It is a clerical organisation whose chief political and military backer is Iran – whose leader is a holocaust denier. It is a clerical organisation which ultimately has no interest in a Palestinian state as such but seeks to recreate the Caliphate (which belongs to Islam’s golden age of philosophy, science, art and medicine - an age long past like the age of all religious constructs). This exceptionalisation of Israel is anti-enlightenment. It is spiralling political debate and practice into the most obscurantist period of history. It is replacing politics by religion of the most mindless variety (is there any other?).

As a traitor of the Jews I am also an atheist – and therefore opposed to Jewish religious practice in any guise. But who are paraded (like puppets) at the head of marches organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign? It is (male) members of the Naturei Karta sect. Sure these people are opposed to Israel. Why? Because the messiah, the real one, the Jewish one, has yet to arrive – and until he arrives a Jewish state is sacrilege! When he (these people sure are not looking for a female messiah) arrives then doubtless Naturei Karta members will be queuing up for their share of Kalashnikovs, will be training in the art of suicide bombings and will be promising each other their allocation of virgins in heaven or other such comparable inducements (an indefinite supply of bagels and lox?) and may even be piloting planes into the architecture of Manhattan (“we can do it for you cheap – we use only low cost airlines”). I joke because the only alternative is to throw up and be sick. And all this identification with religious obscurantism is supposed to pass as modern politics? And all this lauding of religious fundamentalism is supposed to be beyond criticism?

Imagine there’s no anti-Semitism

As an opponent of Israel I will not exceptionalise Israel. And as an opponent of Zionism I do not, will not, demonise Zionism. Demonisation reverts to the popular inspired myths of medieval Europe. It is the dark side of theology – and ultimately there is no other side. It is anti-secular. It is anti-Semitism: Jews as the hidden hand of history; Jews as the devil; Jews as the killer of god. The demonisation of Zionism simply transfers this to the killer of all of god’s people. It is the twenty first century equivalent of the blood libel accusation – the Jew as the murderer of Christian children and the drinker of their blood in order to acquire super-natural powers. This fantastic accusation has been responsible for a thousand years of pogroms. As Lenny Bruce used to joke – don’t the statute of limitations apply here? Just as the Jew of medieval Europe (and then Nazi Europe – there is a direct line) was depicted as all powerful, as being in possession of life’s secret mysteries, mysteries inaccessible to mere mortals but which determine the life and death (usually death) of all mortals – so Zionism is depicted as a supra-national force, more powerful politically than any other force on earth, and the cause of all war – from Iraq to Afghanistan. Next stop Iran!

And it doesn’t need to do this in its own name! It operates as the modern hidden hand – manipulating the lesser powers of Yankee and British imperialism. Armageddon in the New York sun? The destruction of the modern pyramids of the Twin Towers? None of this would have happened if Zionism wasn’t occupying the West Bank. This is the hidden hand twice removed. And the hidden hand operates under a supposed central Zionist ideological imperative – namely that Jews are a superior people, the real master race (in fact whatever the undoubted material wrongs done to the Palestinians, Zionism – unlike many other nationalisms – does not contain any such premise). If only Zionism would disappear then peace would reign on earth. The Messiah would have returned (the Christian one – the Jewish one hasn’t yet been)! I’m tempted to say to my supposedly secular comrades in a paraphrase of the only language they appear to understand, biblical language (the language of the “New”, not the “Old”, Testament): “Forgive them Marx they know not what they do – or say”.

Imagine workers’ solidarity – here, there, everywhere

So can I ask you another “what if” question? What if you had been a Jew in Germany/Czechoslovakia/Poland – in fact anywhere in Europe – after the Nazis first came to power in Germany and then proceeded to annex/conquer everything around them? Completely isolated by the historic defeat of the workers movement (thanks to Stalinist betrayals) what would you have done? And even if you weren’t a Jew then what would you suggest Jews should have done? For myself I think (depending where I was living) I would have had to acknowledge that the battle was lost. Resistance by Jews alone was not going to overturn the Nazi monster. Like today’s refugees I would have probably sought escape – and indeed advocated mass escape. Certainly I would not have criticised those who took this position (tragically they were shown to have been historically correct). However there was just one problem. Even at a time when the Nazis may have been prepared to allow such exit yet every other state in the world was imposing immigration controls against Jews. There was no escape route available!

On this planet without a visa for Jews there was one possibility of flight – to Palestine. Palestine was then of course under the colonial boot of Britain – which exercised immigration controls there against Jews there as it did in the UK itself. However there was the possibility of clandestine help from other Jews. I would have had no hesitation in seeking refuge there – or helping others get there. I have been to meetings where I have been told this was politically wrong. Wrong because it is the role of socialists to fight oppression where they find it – not flee from it, and not flee from it even where it is irresistible. Well, that would avoid all solidarity with today’s refugees. Wrong because it was and is somehow morally indefensible for a European to assume a right of entry into a “third world” country. Why? Who wrote this text book? I’m for a world without borders. A world where in the 1930s what was required was proletarian solidarity – given by Palestinians as well as Jews – to those seeking refuge in Palestine. Maybe some or many Palestinian workers did offer such solidarity. I don’t know the history. But I also know that as a communist I would have entered Palestine not as a coloniser but with a communist political programme – the same programme of Jewish/Palestinian proletarian unity that I advocate today. In the 1930s this would have meant unity against the Zionist leadership, against the absentee Palestinian landlord class, against the Mufti of Jerusalem and his open support for Hitler and against the British occupying forces. What would you have done my anti-Zionist friends?

Imagine there are no more lies

The slanders directed against Zionism, either directly or by default, are endless. It is impossible to deal with them all. But here are just more. Some nationalists actually did support the Nazis politically. Others fought alongside them. Even others were party directly to the holocaust. However these were not Zionists! The most vicious and most powerful was undoubtedly the Ustasa movement which ran the puppet State of Croatia (and many of today’s Croatian leadership continue to act as Ustasa apologists). And of course there was the Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni and his followers. Al-Husayni, a leading Palestinian nationalist, met with Hitler personally during the holocaust. He was instrumental in forming specifically Muslim Waffen SS units in the Balkans. The largest was probably the Bosnian 13th “Handschar” division of over 21,000 men. The list of his crimes appears infinite. But the point I am making here is that none of this perfidy has ever called into question the inherent justice of Croatian, Bosnian or Palestinian nationalism. And I’m certainly not arguing that it should. – as far as I’m concerned nationalism can stand or fall on its own terms and these obviously need not be fascistic. What I am arguing is that the double standards at play are fantastic. Zionism is condemned as illegitimate for somehow supporting the Nazi enterprise – which it never did. Other nationalisms, or other nationalist leaders, which did support the holocaust are continued to be seen as legitimate.

And this brings me to another highly dubious point. I am being told more and more that it is politically incorrect to designate this Nazi genocide of the Jews as “the” holocaust. Instead it should simply be called “a” holocaust. Personally for myself I do not mind whether you use a “the” or a “a”. All that I am concerned about is the murder of six million Jews. I am well aware, and equally concerned about, other genocides both under Nazi Germany (of countless gypsies, trade unionists, lesbians, gay men, communists, disabled people….), historically (death through the slave trade, deliberate genocide of the American Indian, Turkish massacre of the Armenians, Stalinist atrocities…) and unto the present (Rwanda, Somalia…). Historically Jews themselves have suffered a thousand years of European pogroms many of which may legitimately be referred to as holocausts (where does one finish and the other start?).

So for myself language is irrelevant. Except the challenge to language can itself be highly political. And what concerns me about the emphasis on referring to what happened to Jewry under the Nazis as “a” holocaust is the hidden accusation that Zionists have somehow magnified, exaggerated, inflated (as though any of this were possible) what happened to Jews in order to justify the creation of an illegitimate entity – Israel. At the same time this attack on language seems to be suggesting that Jews are claiming for themselves a unique victimhood. Well, for me, this simply reproduces the dark and medieval image of the “squealing” Jew. I would personally be prepared to argue that what happened to Jewry under fascism was pretty unique. But so what? The idea that Jews have been politically or genetically programmed for victimhood is just another myth. As a Jew I also know something else. Ask all Jews in the world whether they would surrender Israel if retrospectively the events under Nazism could be undone -if the/a holocaust could miraculously be undone. I bet most, maybe all, would gladly give up Israel. But the/a holocaust did happen. And therefore so did Israel.

Maybe I’m a dreamer

The Chairperson has passed me a note – “wind up, only 5 minutes left”. I’ve seen a thousand in my lifetime. Anyhow this debate is only imaginary. But I’ll conclude on two points which I hope are provocative (what’s the point of exchanging truisms?). First I take it as axiomatic that the state of Israel would not have come into existence without the holocaust – it was the holocaust that legitimised (vindicated) its need. And its need was as a refuge from anti-Semitism. Of course (and unfortunately) most Jews who sought refuge were not communists. Workers’ unity has not (yet) materialised. The Palestinians have suffered a terrible wrong. However this terrible wrong should not conceal another truth. This is the uniquely contradictory nature of Zionism – unique because as far as I can see it exists no where else. In fact Zionism contains within itself its own contradiction. And it is this contradiction which renders it such an emotional as well as political firecracker (I know of no other political area where the emotions get raised so high on both sides). On the one hand Zionism is undoubtedly, unquestionably racist towards the Palestinians. Which is why I’m an anti-Zionist. On the other hand it is seen, and I think correctly seen, by most Jews as anti-racist. It is anti-racist in that it was and is a response by Jews to extricate themselves from the racism of anti-Semitism. Maybe not your way of fighting racism. Maybe not mine. But anti-racist nonetheless. And the majority of Jews in the world today view Israel as a “bolt-hole” were Nazism to arise again. It is in response to this political contradiction that I have started to assume the somewhat novel self-description of being an “anti-Zionist Zionist”. I am an anti-Zionist like no other (maybe I exaggerate) in that I refuse to accept anti-Zionist myths and untruths. I am a Zionist unlike no other (here I don’t exaggerate) in that I am opposed to the state of Israel. The only way out of this contradiction – a political contradiction not one of my personal pathology – is the unity of Palestinian/Jewish workers within Palestine/Israel combined with a relentless fight against anti-Semitism internationally.

My final point is to emphasise my role as a traitor. I no longer see any point in being Jewish. And I aim to give up on it. Not that I feel bad about being a Jew. Just the opposite. Rather I want to become the sort of Jew the anti-Semites warn us against. The cosmopolitan of no fixed identity. And I hope you are willing to surrender your own tribal/ethnic/nationalist/religious identities and allegiances. Join me as a traitor to your own traditions. Become cosmopolitans!

Steve Cohen, 2006