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Interview with Colin Shindler

Karl Pfeifer interviewed Colin Shindler, Emeritus Professor at SOAS University of London and author of Israel and the European Left

In November, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour opposition, said that this declaration was a mistake. How will he react this time?

It was in 2013 that he offered his opinion on the Balfour Declaration. It arises from his lack of understanding of both the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and of Jewish history itself. He reduces everything to a very simplistic approach. He sees everything in terms of British colonialism and western imperialism. However, the conflict is far more complex than that. I hope that he will have understood this complexity by November.

If he thinks this way, then he should have been a supporter of Lehi – the Stern gang, because it was anti-colonialist.

The logic of 1940 would have suggested one approach but the logic of 2017 suggests something else. Corbyn’s world outlook was formulated in the 1960s. He lived for some time in Jamaica– his views were conditioned by the colonized and not the colonizers. This would have made him more sympathetic to the embryonic Palestinian national movement in the 1960s – even before the conquest of the West Bank in 1967.

Let us go back to 1940. You found leaflets of Trotskyists which, at a time when Britain was fighting alone, demanded that young Jews in Palestine should not join the British Army.

This was mainly the work of Brit Spartakus in the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine. One of the leading lights in this campaign was Yigael Glückstein who came from the Zionist elite. He later became known in the UK as Tony Cliff who founded the Socialist Workers Party – perhaps the most influential Trotskyist group in the UK. As a youth in Palestine, he flirted with Stalinism, and was an avid follower of HaHugim HaMarksistim of Left Poale Zion.

At the beginning of World War II, he was arrested by the British. By October 1940, he was a leading light of Brit Spartakus, which attempted to persuade young Jews not to enlist in the British Army. Like both Stalin and Trotsky, Glückstein understood the conflict between Nazi Germany and Britain as one of rival imperialisms. Therefore neither should be endorsed.

By 1948 after 8 years of committed political activity, the Trotskyists in Mandatory Palestine amounted to 30 members – 23 Jews and seven Arabs. By that time, Glückstein had left. In September 1946 as tens of thousands of Jews from the DP camps were trying to illegally enter Palestine, Glückstein was going in the opposite direction to Britain.

This is interesting since many years later Trotskyists accused the Zionists of not having done enough to save Jews. The Zionists at the time had no power; they had no army, no navy. Nevertheless, the Zionists did save many Jews. While the Trotskyists themselves did not save Jews, they repeatedly accuse Rudolf Kasztner of collaboration and not saving Hungarian Jewry– as if he could have. Now in Britain Paul Bogdanor has written a book which accuses Kasztner once again as being virtually a traitor.

I read the book and reviewed it for The Jerusalem Post. While Bogdanor has written a remarkably comprehensive, convincing book, it is still unclear to me what the role of Kasztner was. He was undoubtedly in an incredibly difficult position. He saved some of his family and friends from Cluj, but others were not included. The question that everyone has to ask him- or herself is “What would I have done if I had been in Kasztner’s shoes?” While there is no doubt that he made mistakes and that he was a flawed character, I still feel that he should not have been castigated in that way. Kasztner was killed in 1957 by members of the far Right group, Malkhut Yisrael, when these former members of Lehi shot him. It was cowardly and unworthy.

The Supreme Court of Israel denounced the accusation of collaboration against Kasztner– of which he had been earlier accused in 1955. Malkiel Gruenwald, who was his primary accuser during the trial, possessed a long criminal career from Hungary and was seemingly a CID informer in Israel.

Kasztner was also attacked for political reasons rather than for ones of justice. Herut, Menachem Begin’s party, attacked him prior to the 1955 election in order to make political capital out of this case. An election poster read: ‘Kasztner votes for Mapai, you vote for Herut’. Therefore I do not go along with those who condemn him wholeheartedly– although there are clearly many people who hold him responsible, including those who survived the Shoah. At the end of the day, it is still difficult for anyone who has not carried out detailed research for himself to come to a concrete opinion about the Kasztner saga. But there are undoubtedly double standards on the part of the Trotskyists who continually mention the case. Clearly they are bereft of a moral compass.

Your lecture at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna was on the subject of the rise of the Right in Israel. Israel has a rightwing government and it looks as if there will be no possibility of a change of government or indeed a change in the situation. How do you see that?

I think you are right. When there is violence in the Middle East, people move cosmically to the Right and will vote for the Likud and other rightwing parties in elections. There is no space in either Israel or in Palestine to explore other options. When there is violence, views which bring the two sides together are marginalized. Instead the Right promotes polarization in Israeli society and propagates the politics of stagnation.

There have been no meaningful political initiatives by Benjamin Netanyahu for the last 20 years. Netanyahu does not wish to put forward a political initiative today because he knows that the far Right members of his cabinet, such as Naftali Bennet and Avigdor Lieberman, would undoubtedly oppose it. His main objective is to assure the survival of his government so this rules out any meaningful peace plan.