An interview with Palestine campaigner Tony Greenstein

Daphna Whitmore talks to Tony Greenstein, one of Britain’s best-known campaigners for Palestinian rights.

It was 40 years ago while attending a Jewish high school Tony Greenstein took part in a debate “Zionism right or wrong”. He argued “devil’s advocate” and convinced himself that Zionism was wrong. A trip to Israel when he was 16, and then later becoming a Marxist, saw him completely break with Zionism.

I start out by asking what he thinks of the “Trump deal of the century”.

Tony Greenstein

It could have been written by Netanyahu, and probably was, he says. It brings ideology into line with theory. The two-state solution has always been dead, now Trump has acknowledged it. It changes little but it legitimises everything the Israelis have wanted but have been playing for time for in terms of the settlements.

Tony opposes the Trump Deal not from a two-state perspective – because that was never realistic anyway – but because the deal will legitimise the annexations that have de facto been in practice. He believes it makes the apartheid situation more real, effectively annexing the settlements in the areas where they primarily they are. It would change little on the ground, but it will accelerate confiscations of land, water, resources, and subjugation of Palestinians.

Fundamentally Trump has dispensed with normal polite hypocrisies. With Trump there’s no pretence that the US was at war for democracy. – as there was with, Bush, Clinton, and so on. It’s a bad deal gives Israel everything it wants but it had it anyway.

So what does he make of Israel’s third election in a year?

People shouldn’t expect it’ll be a radical change from what has gone before. It has accelerated existing tendencies. The polls show the voters are almost equally divided between two large blocs.  It shows there’s a political crisis amongst the Zionist population as to where they go from here. It’s like choosing between syphilis and tuberculosis.

Labour Zionism has historically served its purpose. Labour Zionism is down to 10 seats. Hence the panic move by Meretz to join with the Labour Party, showing there’s not a significate difference between the two. Meretz, (the old Mapam) only sneaked back through in the election before last, thanks to the votes of 40,000 Arab population, but that’s not a tenable situation for a Zionist party.

There is no longer a need for a collectivised version of Zionism. That was in the initial foundations when the Labour movement built the Zionist project on behalf of the Zionist capitalists who have now taken it over.

There is still a strong religious messianic movement which can only get bigger in the longterm because of the impetus to colonisation. Tony notes this is all of it in the name of God, of course!

He sums up the difference between Gantz and Netanyahu: Who is more efficient in killing Palestinians? The shotgun marriage with Ehud Barak who should have been their opponent is a marriage of convenience. It demonstrates a complete lack of principles but also shows that Labour Zionism is a death cult.

My impression is that the Israeli population mostly switches off from the Palestinian issue as much as they can. They’ve built a wall and are quite happy with it. 

Yes, out of sight out of mind. Zionism has created its own ghetto; a bigger ghetto but fundamentally it’s no different than the historic Jewish situation. They’ve erected their own ghetto walls because Zionism, like any settler-colonial project, has a siege mentality. It’s only a minority of the Israeli Jewish population which will reach out to the Palestinian population.

The few that are progressive have nowhere to go and are not going to win over a majority of the settler population. The Palestinian struggle is not at a climax and they have a quisling government ruling over them, Abbas, which also has no options.

I ask him if he sees any way forward out of this quagmire?

Not within the confines of Palestine. The Palestinians do not have the strength to defeat Zionism on their own, unlike say the Black South Africans. They are not a decisive majority as was the case with South Africa. They don’t have relatively radical states on their borders whereas the Black people of Zimbabwe had just defeated the settler regime of Rhodesia. The balance of forces are not strong enough without a regional solution.

What is the state of the Palestinian solidarity movement in Britain?

Tony says he’s a fierce critic of it. He disagrees with the strategy coming from the majority current Socialist Action, a small ex-Trotskyist group. They’ve made it a Human Rights issue rather than a political issue, he says, and thus they avoid the whole question of anti-Semitism. The Palestinian Solidarity Campaign has completely ignored the whole anti-Semitism attack which overthrew Corbyn, despite him being their major patron. They held an AGM six weeks after the general election and made no mention that Corbyn and the Labour Party had been defeated. They didn’t mention Zionism either.

While he’s a critic of that current, Tony points out there are strong sections which do support one state, such as the Scottish Palestine Solidarity campaign which is anti-Zionist. However, most activists are so involved in the nitty-gritty of activism that they don’t have time to form a political strategy.

He has also been very critical of the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign in the British Labour Party. So are the purges still happening?

The ‘anti-Semitism’ purge in the Labour Party continues, he says.  Left candidates are getting suspended on unsubstantiated allegations. Even under Tony Blair nobody who was standing for office from the Left was suspended. As far as Tony is concerned it is naked gerrymandering.

The witch hunts are increasing, last month Labour expelled 25 people in one day. There were no hearings,  it was a fast track policy. Expel without hearing. A simple Tweet or any statement of support for Palestinians, or something not favourable to Israel, is labelled ‘anti-Semitic’.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has redefined anti-Semitism to mean anti-Zionism and opposition to Israel.  It’s a rubbish definition of anti-Semitism. It says that “Anti-semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” Tony says it begs the question as to what else this perception may be expressed as, other than hatred.  It also doesn’t say what this ‘certain perception’ actually is.  Anti-semitism isn’t, in any case, a matter of perception but practice. Criticism of Israel could be anti-Semitism by this definition, and seven of the examples the IHRA gives relate to Israel not Jews.

Tony says it is being used to close down free speech. This definition has been widely taken up, and it is now difficult to hold a Palestine solidarity meeting in some parts of Europe. The ruling class consensus is that opposition to Israel is anti-Semitic.

The Labour Party in Britain adopted the IHRA policy. It has also been adopted by one in three Local Councils. Universities are being threatened with funding cuts if they don’t adopt the IHRA policy. Once it is adopted it is a weapon in the hands of the Zionists and their supporters to condemn and harass Palestine solidarity groups.

So, what did he make of Corbyn’s lack of response to the purges?

Corbyn did not understand it properly, his politics are left-reformist at best. His strategy was to appease the right. It’s like playing with a tiger; kill it or it kills you. Corbyn adopted the 38-word definition of the IHRA (not the full statement). He never really understood that the anti-Semitism campaign was not to get rid of anti-Semitism but to get rid of him. Or if he understood it, he didn’t do much about it. He said “if you deny there’s a problem you are part of the problem”.  That was the argument in Salem 300 years ago: if you denied being a witch then that in itself was proof you are the witch!

Now they are saying if you say you are a victim you have the right to define your own victimhood. So if the Zionists say they are victims of anti-Semitism then they are victims of anti-Semitism. It is just on their say so, without any evidence. They are playing identity politics.

What does he think of the purge in Labour right now against women who don’t go along with gender identity ideology? The women who say “women don’t have penises” and are being expelled on charges of ‘transphobia’?

The ‘transphobia’ purge is a similar attack on free speech, he says.  I haven’t reached a conclusion on whether there is a right or a wrong, and what the rights of transexuals are in terms of being accepted and whether “transwomen are women” and whether women are right to say no, and whether you have to go through certain procedures and so on.  Yes, there are clear similarities with the ‘anti-Semitism’ purges, and feminists who say “that women don’t have penises” are now being accused of being transphobic, and that is “hating trans people”, which is clearly not true. It is an attempt to close down free speech.

I point out the problem came to a head with self-ID where a man can simply declare himself a woman, he doesn’t have to do anything, he doesn’t have to even believe it and this has consequences. For instance, he could then be moved to a women’s prison if he is a convicted sex offender.

Tony points to the problem of identity politics. So he could declare himself a woman and you must believe him. With the women’s prison example the fox can declare himself a chicken and he has the right to enter the chicken coop, says Tony. That is identity politics. If you are a minority you can claim victimhood. If you are a billionaire you are a minority, you too can be a ‘victim’!

Tony has previously written an analysis of the trajectory of the British Jewish community which went from working class to middle class. I ask how that has that played out politically.

The British Jewish community has been used as a stick to beat Corbyn. The Jewish community today is not the community of 70 to 80 years ago. In 1945, having come through the war, and the fight against the fascists,  Mile End – which is a heavily Jewish seat in the East End – elected Phil Piratin. He was the only communist MP to have won the seat in his own right in England. In Scotland at least 2 Communist MPs won in their own right as communists. It was estimated half his votes came from Jewish people.

Such a thing would be impossible today. Around 70 percent of Jews vote for the Conservative Party, only a small minority vote Labour. Even Ed Millband in 2015 only had 15% of the Jewish vote. It’s an historic trend that has to do with the economic makeup of the Jewish community. The fact is that it is much more prosperous and privileged today. Also, the disappearance of anti-Semitism as a major form of racism is a factor. Today it is a marginal prejudice.

Has he faced much anti-Semitism himself?

Tony says he’s encountered anti-Semitism in the odd remark, it’s not something that keeps him lying awake at night. Yes, some individuals will still be anti-Semitic. He gets angry when he sees Holocaust denial nonsense on the internet and Facebook. He always combats it, he says, not because he is personally affronted, he is more intellectually affronted by the idiocy of some people.

He doesn’t feel threatened by it or believes the trains are going to roll up outside his door tomorrow morning. Anything which tends towards a fascist perspective should be combated, he says.

The biggest recruiters in terms of Holocaust deniers are the Zionists themselves, he argues. They are the ones who are responsible for the phenomenon by and large. Outside of a neo-nazi fringe, there is a certain current that denies or questions the Holocaust. One of the reasons is because Israel legitimises itself through the Holocaust. So many Arabs for example, conclude if the Holocaust legitimises Israel then maybe the Holocaust didn’t happen. Iran’s leader Ahmadinejad is a prime example of this too. It’s got nothing to do with a biological perception of Jews and their role in society. So the origins of what is a widespread Holocaust denial in the Third World has to do with what Israel does, and not what Jews do. There’s a neo-nazi fringe that denies the Holocaust in order to repeat it, but that is not the case with the Arab or Asian form of anti-Semitism.

One of the quirks in NZ is that the spokespeople for Zionism are supporting free speech. It is not the case in Britain I gather.

The Zionists are in the vanguard of the movement to attack free speech, using the IHRA as their instrument.

One MP who spoke out for the left was Chris Williamson. When a meeting in Brighton was organised for him to speak at the Zionists harassed and threatened three different venues into cancelling. That was last August. In the end the large public meeting went ahead outdoors.

The situation has become so absurd that the Jewish Chronicle – which led the attacks on Corbyn – has banned from its pages a longstanding columnist. Dr Geoffrey Alderman has written for the Chronicle for 14 years at least. He is a rightwing Zionist, a professor of politics at Buckingham University but happens to be one of the few Zionists who is honest enough. He wrote an article in the Spectator last May saying that Corbyn is not an anti-Semite. He’s actually a Philo-Semite if anything. The editor of the Jewish Chronicle sent him an email and said “you are banned from our pages”. The Jewish Chronicle has just paid out a large sum in liable damages to Audrey White, a working-class feminist. They just lied and lied again. The Zionists have no truck with the truth and free speech.

In Europe, Britain and America Zionists are at the forefront in the campaign to close down BDS and to stop Palestinian solidarity organising on campus. Even in the words of Kenneth Stern, in his testimony to the House of Representatives, he said that the IHRA, which he himself drafted, is being used to chill free speech, and a group called the  Campaign Against Anti-Semitism in Britain is leading that attempt.

Who is defending free speech in Britain? Are there any strong defenders?

He doesn’t think there are. The main civil liberties group, Liberty, has been running away from the problem. The trade unions have bought into the IHRA, which is stupid as it contradicts its own policies which support BDS. There are different issues, like the Assange campaign which is taking off, but free speech itself is under attack.

Any thoughts on why at this point in time there is ideological madness, and a crackdown on free speech, and a denial of objective reality?

He thinks Israel has become more integral to US imperialism. So its alliance with the Arab regimes has grown, Saudi in particular, and in the Gulf, it felt it is much easier now to attack Palestine solidarity and anti-Zionism as a threat to western interests. That’s what’s behind it, certainly not concern for Jews.

In addition, the BDS campaign has seriously frightened Israel. It has adopted an anti-BDS law. It has set up a Ministry of Strategic Affairs to fund a dirty tricks campaign against BDS.  They realise, even if the supporters of BDS themselves sometimes don’t, that the logic of boycotting Israel is that it is an illegitimate state. Therefore it does question the very existence of an ethno-nationalist Jewish state.

Tony Greenstein has an excellent blog and is on Twitter.

One comment

  1. I have been reading Tony Greenstein for years and have immense respect for him. He’s excellent on all the aspects of the Israel/Palestine issue, incredibly well-informed, and has written a great deal of excellent stuff, including some fascinating stuff about Zionist collaboration with the Nazis.

    He is also a veteran anti-imperialist, including on Ireland.

    Hopefully people who read the interview will follow his blog and his facebook and other on-line forms of presence.

    One thing I would like to ask him in addition is that given the balance of forces between the Palestinians and the Israeli state, and the lack of progressive regimes in the surrounding area prepared to offer serious and sustained support to the Palestinians, how does he see the struggle being won?

    Another point: as he notes the struggle against apartheid in South Africa was motored by black South Africans being the big majority of the population, had surrounding territories which offered support and a hinterland for the resistance movement to retreat to, plus successful BDS. It also had something else important going for it. Apartheid had become an obstacle to smooth and stable capital accumulation. The serious white capitalists were prepared to trade apartheid for maintenance of their economic system. In Israel, the ruling class have no incentives to even modify the harshest aspects of the Zionist state; indeed, in recent years, they have tightened the screws even further. Initially, after the end of the Cold War, I thought the US would push the Zionists to liberalise – like they got rid of so many of their most repressive client regimes in the Third World – but I was seriously wrong on that: they went more ultra, although the European imperialists became more critical of Israel until the last couple of years. I wonder if Tony has any thoughts on this.

    Philip Ferguson

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