|Scenes like these from Belsen gave Zionism new life.|
Zionism today is one of the most virulent manifestations of racism. It is the ideology used to justify the existence of a state which openly denies equal rights to a quarter of its population on racial grounds, and rules over four million colonial subjects in neighbouring territories that it has occupied for half a century by military conquest. How is it conceivable that such an ideology could ever have been acceptable to anyone considering themselves socialists?
The Jews of Tsarist Russia and Eastern Europe were a monstrously persecuted minority, living in designated ghettos, speaking their own separate language, practising their own religious and cultural customs, denied civil rights, and subjected to periodic organised massacres in which thousands were killed: orgies of violence that acquired a special name of their own: pogroms. Those that had managed to flee to Britain before an Aliens Act was passed restricting further immigration were reviled by the establishment as a "dirty rabble".
Throughout the Russian empire, the Jewish working class was organised in a socialist movement called the Bund, a separate but integral part of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. Its aspiration was for cultural autonomy within a democratic socialist Russia. It was in opposition to this mass cultural and political movement that Zionism emerged as a reactionary sect, feeding on despair that Jews could ever attain their rights except within a separate state of their own. It can be compared with the rise of national-racial separatist movements among the black population of the USA; Marcus Garvey's "back to Africa" movement, for instance, closely mirrors the Zionist mirage of the re-establishment of a Jewish nation in a historic Biblical "homeland". In both cases, aspirations towards class unity with the majority ethnic population were cut across by a semi-mystical mythology.
Then came the rise of the Nazis in Germany, their conquest of Europe and their invasion of Russia. The Jewish population of occupied Europe was virtually annihilated. Six million were bludgeoned to death, forced to dig their own graves before being shot, or gassed on an industrial scale in specially constructed chambers.
In 1942, as head of the British section of the World Jewish Congress, Sydney Silverman received the first reports of the holocaust and alerted the world:
"It is certain that by a deliberate plan, the war on all Jews by Hitler and practised as a chronic psychopathic malady since he came to power nine years ago has become a raging tearing frenzy, acute in every part of Europe, where no one before was conscious of any so-called Jewish problem. They have been arrested, scattered, deported across Europe to strange and devastated areas and there murdered: men, women and children, without mercy, without discrimination of age or sex or strength, except some solitary few judged able for some months yet to work on as hopeless slaves. Certain it is that unless help comes there will soon be no Jews alive in Nazi-occupied Europe."
Even in these circumstances it is to his credit that he added a warning against any scapegoating of the German people, and a reaffirmation of socialist internationalist principles:
"It is so fatally easy to use their unimaginable horrors to play into the hands of those who would themselves use another kind of racial myth to destroy the greatest chance the world has ever had to reconstruct its life on saner, sounder principles, the recognition that we are all one human family and that our natural hates, fears, suspicions and oppressions arise, all of them, out of the failure to apply in comradeship and co-operation our human powers to the natural resources of the good earth so that all may live in peace together."
I have a small personal connection with this. He wrote:
"On April 15th 1945, my youngest son was born. That was the day Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the advancing British armies. But ten days earlier Eisenhower had freed Buchenwald. He was so horrified by what he saw, so terrified that nobody would believe it, that he invited the Speaker of the House of Commons to send an all-party delegation of MPs to come, to see and to testify. I was one of them, the only Jew - and even so I had to fight for my place. So I went, leaving my wife and three-day-old son in hospital. Two of the party had had, in pre-war days, pro-Hitler sympathies. One of them never recovered from the effects of his visit and died shortly after his return. The other committed suicide."
It was the rise of Nazism which strengthened Sydney Silverman's defiant reassertion of his Jewish identity, and the reality of the holocaust which confirmed his own illusions in Zionism. After the war, what had previously throughout Eastern Europe been a peripheral reactionary sect became a credible, if ultimately illusory, lifeline. Jewish survivors of the concentration camps were desperately seeking refuge somewhere they could begin to build a new life free from persecution and the threat of annihilation. To that generation, the reactionary nature of Zionism with its susceptibility to future exploitation by world imperialism to create an outpost from which to suppress the Arab national uprising had not become apparent. The rickety boats of these holocaust survivors were turned back or sunk by British colonial warships, deliberately drowning refugees. Their settlements were besieged by feudal kingdoms and sheikdoms and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. In their desperation they were all too easily seduced by Zionist demagogy.
It might have been possible then to confront communal rivalry. In Palestine in the 1920s there had been 500,000 Arabs and 150,000 Jews, many of whom worked and struggled side by side. The heroic revolutionary Leopold Trepper, who was later to organise within Nazi Germany the underground communist spy network the Red Orchestra, had organised in Palestine the Ichud/Itachak (Unity) movement, which brought Jewish and Arab workers under a single banner, organised joint strikes and challenged the power of the Zionist Histadrut, which only admitted Jewish workers.
Sydney Silverman retained to the end of his life misplaced illusions in the goal of a national homeland for Jews. In dispute with Stalinist critics, he argued that the reactionary policies of the Israeli government did not justify "pretending that Jewish people's national consciousness, pride in their language, care of their culture or faith in their future are more bourgeois, reactionary or capitalist than these things are when practised by Georgians, Uzbeks, Armenians or the Russians themselves."
However, he condemned the reactionary alliance of the new Israeli state with Western imperialism. At the time of the Suez crisis, he was personally instrumental in forcing the Labour leadership to condemn the joint military action against Egypt by the British government in collusion with France and Israel; and when the Middle East came to war in 1967, he strongly opposed the Israeli occupation of neighbouring territories. It is beyond doubt that if he had lived beyond February 1968 he would certainly have denounced the continuing occupation and successive wars of colonial repression against the Palestinian people.
*Roger Silverman is a British socialist activist, member of the Labor Party and Momentum, and part of the Workers' International Network. The article was written in reply to a correspondent who had asked why a socialist like Sydney Silverman, his father, had supported the creation of the state of Israel.
Sydney Silverman was a left Labour MP from 1935 until his death in 1968. He was an influential figure in the abolition of the death penalty in Britain though he would have wanted to be remembered for his uncompromising lifelong struggle for socialism, which extended well beyond his campaign against the death penalty.