An activist from left-wing group Jewdas has said that “Zionism is a racist ideology” in a talk to a Labour Party meeting aimed at “raising awareness of antisemitism” amongst members.
Annie Cohen — who is also a member of the Jewish Socialists Group and Jews For Justice For Palestinians — was invited to give the talk to the Dulwich and West Norwood Labour branch last Thursday.
In her speech, she also claimed there was “room for discussion” about collaboration between the “Nazi Party and members of the Zionist movement” and that it was “not possible to have a democratic Jewish state in the land of Israel”.
She said it was “indisputable” that “antisemitism within Labour is being employed to attack Corbyn’s leadership and has been since day one, you know, because of his views on Israel.”
The decision to invite the 32-year-old postgraduate to talk about antisemitism followed the recent revelation in a new book by the Community Security Trust’s Dave Rich that one Jewish member of Dulwich and West Norwood CLP had filed a complaint saying the branch had become a “hostile environment” for Jews who challenge Shoah denial.
Ms Cohen told the meeting that “Zionism in its root form is a nationalist ideology which wants a state that is ethnically based, and is exclusive on that ethnicity.”
She said that before the Holocaust, Jewish leaders “wanted to build a Jewish state and saw an opportunity” by encouraging Jewish emigration from Europe.
Ms Cohen, who described her political beliefs as being “quite far to the left of Labour”, introduced herself to around 80 activists assembled at last Thursday’s meeting as someone who grew up in a mainstream community background in Golders Green. She revealed that she had “changed my views on Israel” following a visit to the West Bank when she was aged 22 as a guest of a Palestinian advocacy group.
She conceded that there was a problem for Jewish students encountering antisemitism across UK university campuses - but also claimed she herself had been labelled “an antisemite” by “right-wing Jews” who objected to her views, which she admitted were “definitely not representative of the political views of most of the Jewish community”.
Ms Cohen then provided further examples of what she considered to be antisemitism — showing the room a photograph of the poster for a Wiener Library exhibition examining Kristallnacht that was recently defaced with the words ‘Free Palestine’; and then discussing a Labour councillor who posted a mock Chanukah card featuring three characters dancing in traditional Orthodox Jewish dress.
Ms Cohen then moved to former London Mayor Mr Livingstone’s repeated comments on Hitler and Zionism.
It became clear as discussion was opened to the floor that not all in the room classified the comments as antisemitic.
Ms Cohen then defended Mr Livingstone, saying: “It’s complicated and I think part of the problem is that in the current climate... we are very quick to jump on people.
“‘You are this’, ‘you are an antisemite’, ‘you are sexist’, ‘you are whatever’ — shut them down.” She also said of him: “I don’t know if I would label Ken Livingstone an antisemite.
“I don’t know him. I don’t know him as well as a lot of Jewish activists. I’ve heard lots of good things about him from an older generation of Jewish activists, which I believe.
“As I’ve said, I’m in the Jewish Socialists Group and know that Ken Livingstone did a lot of good things for the Jewish Socialist Group in the eighties, when they were being rejected by the Board of Deputies, who have been right-wing representatives of the Jewish community — and have pretty much always been right-wing.”
There was then an intervention from Glyn Secker, secretary of Jewish Voice For Labour and political education officer for Labour’s Herne Hill branch, who suggested that Mr Livingstone’s real mistake was his failure to quote Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, rather than Hitler.
Mr Secker, who told the meeting he was formerly a member of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (which he said was “not antisemitic”), then added: “To come on to Livingstone — what he said about Hitler going mad was certainly offensive because it made it look as if the Holocaust was an isolated act of madness. But he got his history wrong.
“If he had actually quoted Eichmann — who was not very far down below Hitler in the chain of command — Eichmann organised with Kaszner, Hungarian leader of the Zionists.
“In Hungary they organised the Haavara agreement, which was an agreement for the transfer of leading Jewish tailors to Palestine and for finance, the transfer of finance, and for acquisition of arms in exchange for the lifting of the Jewish boycott of the Nazi organisations — because the Jewish boycott was effective and it was hurting the finances of the Nazi Party.
“And that history is there in Yad Vashem in the memorial to the Holocaust in Israel. And actually Kaszner was fairly recently formally pardoned for his role in that but it doesn’t mean that the history didn’t take place. We need to be clear about that.”
Ms Cohen then responded: “I was going to say, one of the things that was frustrating about what Ken Livingstone said in a historical perspective as well, there is room for discussion about, you know, Nazism was at its root developed out of nationalism and there were in the early part of the Nazi Party, the Nazi government — there were conversations between the Nazi government, the Nazi Party and the Zionist movement.”
Ms Cohen then cited the work of the late historian Sir Martin Gilbert as supposedly backing her view of history, saying he had detailed how “the head of the Jewish National Fund met with a Nazi official and they kind of agreed, you know, that Jews were not German, Jews were Semitic and therefore the correct place for them to be. And there are lots of conversations and things that happened in this way.”
Then, saying that she did not know the value of conversations about Nazi collaboration with the Zionist movement, “in terms of antisemitism today”, Ms Cohen added: “I guess it’s an example of how some Zionism in certain forms, or Zionism, I would say in its root form, is a racist ideology, it is a nationalist ideology, it is an ideology which wants a state that is ethnically based and exclusive on that ethnicity.”
She continued: “And certainly today there is a situation where in Israel/Palestine you cannot have a Jewish majority and therefore keep the state ethnically Jewish without continuing to exclude Palestinians from politics. It is not possible demographically.”
Ms Cohen then returned to her observations on “Zionism before the Holocaust” and the “opportunists” who wanted to “build a Jewish state” and who “wanted people expelled from Germany to go there.”
She said this was “opportunism but, like I said, it’s before the Holocaust happened” and added, “it kind of complicates the discussion of Zionism today.”
Ms Cohen then stated: “I am not a Zionist. I do not believe that it is possible to have democratic Jewish state in the land of Israel.
“It’s not democratic. What is going on now is completely unacceptable and abhorrent to me. I think that the Holocaust was an absolute catastrophe of nationalism.”
Ms Cohen said that the “lesson that needed to be learned” from the Shoah was the “need to fight for minorities” in whatever country they live in.
Jewdas made headlines earlier this year when it invited Jeremy Corbyn to its Passover Seder.
The group has been hoping to land further speaking engagements at other Labour CLPs and its founder, Joseph Finlay, has advertised for more Labour branches to invite the group to give talks.
One Labour member who attended last Thursday’s event described Ms Cohen’s talk as “naive, dangerous and almost childlike”.
Another told the JC they would complain to their CLP about Ms Cohen’s address.
Dulwich and West Norwood CLP was recently branded a “hostile environment” for Jews who challenge Shoah denial in a complaint filed by a Jewish member, Cathy Ashley who chaired the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.