Thursday, December 15, 2005

Full Marks

Stephen Marks was one of the speakers at the MPACuk debate on December 9. The debate is also covered on the Engage website. I am reproducing below his full, unedited clarification of his talk from that evening from the Harry's Place post (and the discussion thread thereon). The reason I re-post it here is to illustrate the tragedy of imbalance that afflicts the Muslim World today. If a Jewish person can speak so clearly and so detachedly on the thorny question of Anti-Semitism and Zionism, it highlights an absence of a correspondent and analogous voice that speaks as clearly and as detachedly on 'Islamism' from the Muslim World.

Cormac says that ‘'Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. That is what most Jews believe. And, sooner or later, you are going to have to address that.” Had he not arrived late, through no fault of his own, he might have heard me say [I quote my notes from which at this point I recall reading more or less verbatim];

“A Muslim friend and former local labour councillor told me some time ago that since 9-11 he has begun to wonder if Muslims will ever be accepted in this country. Relatives, he said, had talked of needing to keep a suitcase packed in case they needed to leave in a hurry.

To anyone from a Jewish background these attitudes are familiar, and were reinforced by the experience of the holocaust. They lie at the root of Jewish support for Israel. However much disquiet many Jews may feel about aspects of Israeli behaviour, they are often inhibited from speaking out by the feeling at the back of the mind that some day we may need Israel as a refuge.

The experience burned into Jewish consciousness is the memory of the 1930s when Jewish refugees found all doors locked in their faces. Their is nothing inherently racist in the idea - whether one shares it or not - that there must be a patch of earth somewhere which will always keep an open door for Jews in the event of another holocaust. In that sense there is nothing necessarily racist in Zionism as an ideology...

Another British-born Muslim friend tells me that he has taken his children to their grandparent’s village in Pakistan so they can get to know their roots. I should add, for the benefit of people like Trevor Philips, that he is the opposite of ‘ghettoised’, participates fully in the wider community, and sees no conflict between that and introducing his second-generation British Muslim children to where their family and culture originated.

Jews would like to do the same. But they cannot take their children to their family’s roots in central or eastern Europe - those communities are extinct. At the most there is a sort of ghoulish ‘Jewish heritage tourism’. For many, Israel is the substitute, almost a sort of psychic compensation for the holocaust. It therefore becomes almost knitted into their identity.

The idea that this state was actually founded on an injustice to someone else is intolerable. It gets repressed, and interpreted as anti-Semitism. After all, what reason could anyone possibly have for condemning Israel, if Israel is just and right? They must just hate Jews. In which case they are the heirs of the Nazis, and must want all Jews dead. How would you react to people like that? Would you engage in polite debate with them?”

I could have told MPAC to their face that they are liars when they claim that their use of arguably anti-Semitic images is unintentional and an honest mistake always followed by taking the offending material down when it is pointed out to them. I could have rejected the point, made with some justice by Mark Elf, that people whose cultural roots lie in the Indian subcontinent cannot be assumed to have the same cultural awareness of what constitutes an antisemitic image or expression as people whose roots are in the secular Western and culturally Christian left. Instead I preferred to try to explain what much of the Jewish attachment to Israel is all about, in terms that would strike a chord with them. And judging from what several of those present said t me afterwards, I succeeded.

But of course that was not all I said, or I would have been a Zionist speaker [which I agree would have made it a genuine debate. Actually when I made this point to them before the debate one of them said they had invited a Zionist speaker - Melanie Phillips!].

And do you know something? I didn’t speak there for the benefit of people like Cormac, Mikey or the HP lot. I spoke there to get a point across to the people there who for the most part struck me as serious and abler to listen.

In the space indicated by three dots after the third paragraph I also stated the following in my talk;

“But the country chosen - by virtue of religious and cultural associations - to be the site of this ‘national home’ was already inhabited by somebody else. Political Zionism, a child of its time in C19 white imperial Europe, sought the backing of a powerful empire for an exercise in colonisation, in which land would be acquired for exclusively Jewish use, and employing only Jews, with open and frank talk - at least in Europe - of the need to ‘relocate’ the existing population to make way for the incoming Jews. It was this, rather than religious bigotry or Jew-hatred, which lay at the root of Palestinian hostility to Zionism”.

No, I am not going to argue the rights and wrongs of that position here. But that is the difference between Cormac, Mikey and others, and me.

Which leads me on to my last point. Why does discussion of this issue so often end in mutual incomprehension and anger? I suggest it is because there are few issues in modern politics in which the two sides are divided not only by a difference of opinion and judgement but by two completely different narratives and views of what constitute the relevant historical facts.

There is a lot of history involved. Much of it is woven into people’s sense of identity. There are elements in each side’s narrative which the other sees as monstrous and only explicable in terms of ignorance or bigotry, and whose very enunciation is seen as a threat.

I could imagine having a discussion about say the Iraq war with someone on the ‘pro-war left’ which did not change either party’s mind but which managed to be quite civil nonetheless, and did not involve any disagreement as to certain basic historical facts. On the issue of Zionism and Palestine there is a failure to agree on the basic historical facts - I would suggest this is because all the serious historical research done on the issue over the last 30 years has shown the central pillars of the classic zionist account to be total mythology. But again, I won’t argue that here.

Anti-Semitism is real and should always be opposed. The Zionist exploitation of ‘antisemitism’ for instrumental reasons is something else, and imho is well analysed by Ran HaCohen at

-Stephen Marks


At December 15, 2005 7:09 pm, Blogger Vol-in-Law said...

Just a note that the MPACUK meeting wasn't held at Westminster Uni AFAIK as Westminster withdrew permission; according to MPACUK's website it took place elsewhere.

At December 16, 2005 10:18 am, Blogger Siddhartha said...

Good call! I've updated and taken out Westminster Uni reference. Thanks.


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