Jewish Political Studies Review 19:3-4 (Fall 2007)
The Respect Party has introduced a fresh example of sectarianism and communalist politics into mainstream British politics. Respect comprises a coalition of the Socialist Workers Party and elements associated with the Muslim Association of Britain, along with antiglobalization activists and antiwar protesters. Its ideology is thus an amalgamation of radical international socialism and Islamism and offers a basis for cooperation around a shared agenda. Although Respect preaches peace and social justice, it is intensely anti-Zionist and rejects the right to independent Jewish statehood in Israel. Nevertheless, the party is not single-issue and embraces many policies dear to its supporters. Respect’s rapid electoral ascent suggests that it has the capacity to persist, at least in the medium term.
The emergence of the Respect Party has introduced an unusual group into Britain’s political landscape. Respect’s amalgamation of radical international socialism and Islamist ideology has injected a fresh dose of sectarianism and communalist politics.
At first glance, Respect appears to be a one-issue party (opposing the Iraq war of 2003). It in fact embraces many more issues and, like other fringe parties in democracies with a tradition of two or three dominant political parties, focuses on matters the major parties ignore. Although Respect uses the rhetoric of peace, social justice, and humanitarian concern, the party is intensely anti-Zionist and denies the valid right to independent Jewish statehood in Israel. The party is also hostile to much of Western capitalism and understands world events largely through the lens of anti-imperialism. Respect’s rapid rise, along with its vociferous condemnation of Israel and Zionism, warrant an assessment of its ideology, policies, and future trajectory.
Respect’s History and Ideology
Respect-The Unity Coalition, a far-Left political party, was established in London in January 2004 and grew out of the Stop the War mass movement. Although opposition to the Iraq war is not Respect’s only issue, it constitutes its origin and the primary theme that has galvanized the greatest numbers under its banner.
George Galloway, now a Respect Member of Parliament (MP), first broached the idea of Respect in a conversation with his “close comrades” Seumas Milne, The Guardian‘s comment editor, and Andrew Murray, the British Stop the War Coalition’s (SWC) chairman, a year before the war-once “it became obvious to me,” as Galloway describes, “that Blair and Bush had secretly embarked upon the path to slaughter.” He has portrayed Respect’s battle against New Labour as a political echo of Iraq’s confrontation with America. Galloway calls both “a war of movement” that requires guerrilla tactics, and even referred to “the New Labour leadership’s terror about the Respect insurgency.” (Galloway also employs precisely the same epithet to describe both Respect and Fidel Castro: “a sprig of white heather, in the future’s lapel.”) Such language-albeit only metaphorical in Respect’s case-is instructive given Respect’s aspiration to be “a new political force against war and the causes of war.”
In large part, Respect comprises a coalition combining elements of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a neo-Trotskyite revolutionary socialist movement, and elements from, or associated with, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The coalition, though, was not a formal union between these two groups, and Respect also encompasses antiglobalization activists, radical socialists, SWC members and leading Islamist figures. Galloway is the party’s single MP, and Respect holds around twenty local council seats nationwide, with some councillors having defected from the Labour Party.
Respect promotes revolutionary international socialism and anti-Zionism, and the marriage between the SWP, the dominant faction, and various Islamists has enabled the ideological fusion of neo-Trotskyite/Marxist-Leninism and Islamism. Respect is characteristic of the far-Left trend of inveighing against Zionism so as to garner widespread support. It also voices hostility to neoliberal economics, which springs from its ideological anti-imperialism. Nick Cohen of the New Statesman writes that Respect was created “with the specific aim of appealing to alienated Muslims,” and remarks that: “I can’t find a time before 2003 when a part of the Left consciously adopted a communalist strategy.”
All this has facilitated Respect’s cooperation with Islamist organizations as well as its appeal to some British Muslims and the far Left. Indeed, Respect is the British version of what Amir Taheri calls “the European Marxist-Islamist coalition,” which revolves around three primary themes: hatred of the United States, the dream of Israel’s destruction, and the craving for the collapse of the global economic system (market capitalism). On Respect’s website, under the heading of its Founding Declaration, it offers a litany of core principles. Relevant here is its vocal “support for the people of Palestine and opposition to the apartheid system that oppresses them.”
Respect at the Polls, 2005-2007
Respect’s momentum derives in great part from George Galloway’s impressive 2005 general-election victory over Labour incumbent Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow. The BBC called this “one of the most remarkable results in modern British electoral history.” Galloway garnered 15,801 votes, winning a majority of 823 votes over King. He appealed to voters-primarily Muslim supporters-on Respect’s antiwar platform. The campaign was marked by allegations of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic attacks against King, who is of Jewish ancestry, in an unusually communalist-sectarian election race. In local council elections, Respect won sixteen seats in May 2006 and a further three seats in May 2007.
Increasing financial strength, coupled with the existing political structures and campaigning experience of the far Left, has enabled Respect to make rapid progress. In December 2005, official membership was recorded at 5,674. Galloway has said that: “It is better to have 4,000 members and 250,000 votes than 10,000 members and 100,000 votes…. We are doing well.” The party also claims to have student groups active in over fifty campuses in England and Wales, which is a boon to the party’s grassroots efforts. Indeed, Student Respect, in collaboration with its affiliates, is probably the fastest-growing student political organization-let alone far-Left group-across Britain’s university campuses. The SWP’s student group, the Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS), which encourages student members to join Respect, has been rendered dormant.
Respect’s Views on Israel
Respect’s adept capitalization of current events helps it win the hearts and minds of Britain’s antiwar/anti-West sympathizers. Particularly popular is its stance on Israel and Zionism, both of which Respect considers to be wholly illegitimate. This, however, is not particularly novel. The SWP has long deemed Israel to be imperialist America’s Middle East garrison, a traditional Trotskyite position that is best encapsulated in the title of the SWP’s classic pamphlet, Israel: The Hijack State-America’s Watchdog in the Middle East. For decades, the SWP has incorporated the Arab Palestinian issue into its political agenda, revising the history of Israel’s establishment, ignoring historical Jewish links to the Land of Israel, advocating binationalism, glorifying “Palestinian resistance,” and branding Israel a “terrorist state.” According to the late Jacob Gewirtz, the SWP is allegedly the British far-Left group largely responsible for having imported the Soviet anti-Zionist allegation of Nazi-Zionist collaboration. More recently, the SWP went even further and invoked the deicide libel by printing a cartoon implying that the Israelis killed Jesus.
Azzam Tamimi, while still a senior member of the MAB but not officially a member of Respect, declared on British national television that he supports suicide bombings in Israel: “You see sacrificing myself for Palestine is a noble cause. It is the straight way to pleasing my God and I would do it if I had the opportunity.” In a Respect newsletter, Ismail Farhat, another MAB member, referred to Israel as “this criminal state,” advocated intensifying the Boycott Israeli Goods campaign, and analogized Israel to apartheid South Africa. Yvonne Ridley, who sits on Respect’s national council and is a political editor for Britain’s Islam Channel, declared that Respect “is a Zionist-free party…if there was any Zionism in the Respect Party they would be hunted down and kicked out. We have no time for Zionists.”
Respect, then, perpetuates this tradition. It is constitutionally committed to supporting the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), along with the concomitant effort to boycott anything related to Israel. Respect, however, astutely couches its positions in the language of social justice and human rights, declaring that it “fully supports the Palestinian struggle for justice and liberation” and “opposes Zionism as a political movement whose aim is the dispossession of the Palestinian people.” Yet Respect also misconstrues international law and history by calling for both the “complete, immediate and unconditional Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967” and “the recognition and implementation of the Palestinian right to return to any part of pre-1948 Palestine, and for the abolition of all discriminatory Zionist legislation.” Galloway has reiterated these views, adding that a comprehensive settlement would include “the emergence of a real Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital-a contiguous state with an Arab border, with no Zionist settlements….”
These policies, of course, are standard euphemisms that Israel’s detractors have repeated incessantly. The goal behind the rhetoric is the dissolution of the Jewish state via the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza in addition to permitting Arab Palestinian refugees to reside within Israel’s borders and hence terminate Israel’s Jewish character.
During the Israel-Hizballah war in the summer of 2006, Respect’s anti-Israeli views were given vivid expression. On its website and in party fliers, Respect published a number of maps referring to Israeli attacks against Hizballah as “Israeli terror.” These maps define all of Israel south of the Lebanese border as “Occupied Palestine,” reaffirming Respect’s belief that Israel is entirely illegitimate.
During an SWC rally on 17 July 2006, Respect official Lindsey German stated that: “whatever disagreements I have with Hamas and Hezbollah, I would rather be in their camp…they want democracy. Democracy in the Middle East is Hamas, is Hezbollah.” In the Socialist Worker, Galloway declared that: “I glorify the Hizbollah national resistance movement, and I glorify the leader of Hizbollah, Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.”
All this is particularly striking when considering the ideologies and modus operandi of Hamas and Hizballah. Both organizations are openly anti-Semitic, to say nothing of their profoundly anti-American/Western attitudes. The Hamas Charter echoes language from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in blaming the Jews/Israelis/Zionists for global woes and casting them as exercising global domination. For his part, Hizballah secretary-general Nasrallah has lauded Roger Garaudy and his book Founding Myths of the State of Israel, for which Garaudy was convicted of Holocaust denial in France.
These postures, however, did not inhibit Galloway from meeting in September 2006 with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal who, according to a pro-Hamas news source, “hailed Galloway’s courageous stands in support of just questions and national liberation movements along with his opposition to American and Zionist imperialism and the aggressions against Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon.” Respect national-secretary John Rees also participated, along with two other members of Britain’s SWC, in the November 2006 Beirut International Conference, which was organized by Hizballah’s Center for Strategic Studies. Among the conference’s objectives was to support Hizballah against “Zionist aggression” and establish a worldwide anti-imperialist strategy to “improve the resistance capacity and strategy to face any new imperial attacks.”
The irony is that the far Left normally shudders at the thought of endorsing the arguments of the far Right, especially given that it routinely preaches its principled antiracism and aversion to the far Right’s overt racism and anti-Semitism. The fact that leaders of Respect endorse, indeed glorify, those committed to anti-Judaism indicates the challenge this party poses. Oliver Kamm, a columnist for the London Times, argues that Respect poses a threat as credible as the far-Right British National Party (BNP). Respect touts a far-Left ideology but “stands in a tradition whereby parties nominally of the Left can on occasion cross over to their supposed ideological opposite…Far-right ideology is the literal content, and not merely the moral equivalent, of their political beliefs.” Kamm also contends persuasively that Respect is not properly antiwar but rather against the West emerging victorious. Likewise, Nick Cohen asserts that had the U.S.-led forces successfully destabilized the Syrian and Iranian regimes, some members of the antiwar movement “might have faced a Middle East running short of dictators to salute.”
On a more fundamental level, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin explain that, in general, “anti-Zionists deny that the Jews are a nation or a people, and assert that they are members only of a religion” despite the fact that the Jews have always been both. In this sense, even though leftist anti-Zionists may sincerely believe that they are championing human rights and social justice, they deny the Jewish people’s right to sovereignty and independence in Israel and instead seek the Jewish state’s abolition in one way or another. All this is in some sense an extension of Marxist thought, for Marx himself wrote that: “As soon as society succeeds in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism-huckstering and its conditions-the Jew becomes impossible, because his consciousness no longer has an object…. The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.“
Prager and Telushkin thus conclude that: “To this day, almost the only tenet which virtually every Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyite, and Maoist movement shares is the need for the disappearance of the Jews as a distinct entity. This is the main reason they consider every national liberation movement ‘progressive’ except that of the Jewish people, Zionism, which they label ‘reactionary.'”
Respect’s Growth Potential
Even with Respect’s electoral success, it has been regarded as a transient party with a short lifespan. Respect’s rapid rise, despite being a fringe party, suggests otherwise. In just over two years, Respect has attained an electoral reach that took the BNP twenty years to achieve. For years far-Left activists toiled without reward under the banners of the Socialist Alliance; they had become accustomed to addressing small quorums of activists and consistently floundered on their own. Their alliance with Muslim communities, however, has delivered immediate success. Yet such electoral results are likely to accelerate the doctrinal compromises made by the far-Left part of the coalition so as to cement their cooperation with Muslim supporters. This reveals two interesting dynamics.
First, tension between the SWP and Muslim leaders has been inevitable from the outset. The SWP holds most sway, but it relies on Muslim votes and activism to deliver electoral results and successful grassroots activity. Consequently, Respect’s Muslim leadership will wish to secure control of the party, particularly as they continue to learn the skills of fielding candidates and running campaigns. In the long run, although Muslim communalist politics could endure, this may not happen under the Respect banner.
Second, Respect has evoked controversy within Britain’s far Left and is not representative of all of it. Some have rejected its activities and questioned the sincerity of its agenda, claiming that it resorts to political opportunism; that it invites the petty bourgeoisie into the socialist workers movement; that it lacks authentic socialist bona fides; that it appeals to voters’ sectarian interests (Islam) rather than socio-economic interests (class); and that, consequently, it forsakes traditional left-wing issues (gay rights, feminism) in an effort to attract and sustain Muslim support along ethnic and religious lines. Indeed, such critiques make for an illuminating debate within the far Left.
Respect’s long-term sustainability should not be exaggerated and must be seen in the context of British politics. Britain’s electoral system generally prevents small parties from making large gains. Indeed, Respect won its single parliamentary seat in Bethnal Green and Bow largely because that constituency was particularly attuned to Respect’s antiwar message. Replicating such an electoral success in other constituencies may prove complicated or, as its performance in the 2007 local elections indicates, even increasingly arduous.
The party’s appeal could wane or wax depending on changing geopolitical circumstances. The rise in domestic counterterrorism efforts-and the inevitable mistakes that occur in the process of intelligence gathering and police action-provide fertile grounds for political galvanization. So do possible future foreign policy interventions and inevitable flare-ups in the Middle East. Moreover, Respect is an authentic representation of the SWP’s brand of Trotskyite ideology, with an admixture of Islamist tenets; the majority of its policies address national issues important to its supporters. It is, in reality, more than a one-issue party. Therefore, Respect has enough material to remain in the medium term as a “protest vote” alternative at the margins of British politics-but perhaps only in local elections.
Respect’s achievements derive from its successful combination of leftist-Islamist ideology, the sustained support it has received because of this, and the fact that the coalition continues to share common enmities and a common agenda. Respect also has performed well because it speaks in the language of universal values such as peace, equality, human rights, and social justice. The fact that the party is run by a mixture of revolutionary socialists and Islamists, however, has led some observers to question whether, in practice, Respect’s politics truly fulfill these values. Despite the party’s rapid rise, its success should not be overestimated. Sufficient material exists in foreign affairs and domestic matters to sustain Respect’s performance in British politics, but it is unlikely to become a serious contender in parliamentary elections.
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. RESPECT is an acronym for respect, equality, socialism, peace, environmentalism, community, and trade unionism.
. George Galloway, I’m Not the Only One (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 181.
. Regarding Saddam’s regime, Galloway explained that: “The only war that can be fought against a superpower is a war of movement. I brought Tariq Aziz all the writings of Che Guevara and Mao Tse Tung on the arts of revolutionary war and he had them translated into Arabic. Fight a war of movement, take the uniforms off, swim among the Iraqi people and whatever their views on the regime, they will undoubtedly provide deep aquifers of support for a patriotic resistance” (ibid., 153). On the other hand, regarding Respect’s electoral challenge, Galloway writes: “But we are ready to fight New Labour wherever and whenever we choose. It will be a war of movement rather than position. We will not stand in orderly ranks to be mown down by the Gatling guns of the hyper-parties; ours is a guerrilla army that will hit and move and prepare to hit again” (ibid., 203).
. Ibid., 202.
. Regarding Respect, Galloway writes: “That is how I see Respect: the Unity Coalition-‘a sprig of white heather, in the future’s lapel'” (ibid., 204). Regarding Castro, Galloway writes: “That’s what Fidel Castro is for me. A sprig of white heather in the future’s lapel,” in George Galloway, Fidel Castro Handbook (London: MQ Publications, 2006), 10.
. Galloway, I’m Not the Only One, 188.
. The MAB is still active, but since 2006 it has been divided, with some of its leadership leaving to establish the British Muslim Initiative (BMI).
. Nick Cohen, What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way (London: Fourth Estate, 2007), 309.
. Amir Taheri, “The Black-Red Alliance,” Jerusalem Post, 11 June 2004.
. Respect website, “The Founding Declaration of Respect-the Unity Coalition,” http://web.archive.org/web/20071019052357/http://www.respectcoalition.org/index.php?ite=3.
. “Profile: George Galloway,” 4 February 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4539429.stm.
. “Oona King Denounces Intimidation,” 11 May 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4535885.stm. King noted: “As a kid it was always ‘oi, you nigger,’ ‘you wog’ and all the rest of it and now it was ‘yids,’ ‘you Jewish bitch, get out of here,’ all of that sort of stuff.” See also “Oona King Reveals ‘Yid’ Taunts during Election,” 11 May 2005, www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article1069566.ece. See also Michael Gove, Celsius 7/7 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006), 116.
. “Respect-The Unity Coalition. Financial Statements, for the Year That Ended 31 December 2005,” www.electoralcommission.org.uk/files/dms/Respect-TheUnityCoalition_22720-16924__E__N__S__W__.PDF.
. Quoted in “Respect Conference: A Setback and an Opportunity,” Socialist Resistance, November 2005, www.socialistresistance.net/RespectNov05conf.htm.
. “Respect Students Challenge NUS Elections,” 21 February 2006, http://web.archive.org/web/20071019052357/http://www.respectcoalition.org/.
. John Rose, Israel: The Hijack State–America‘s Watchdog in the Middle East (London: Socialist Workers Party, 2002). This was first published in 1986 and reprinted with a new introduction in 2002.
. See ibid., along with Phil Marfleet, Palestine Lives! (London: Socialist Workers Party, 1979); Anne Alexander, The New Intifada: Israel, Imperialism and Palestinian Resistance (London: Socialist Workers Party, 2002).
. Jacob Gewirtz, “The Lie of Zionist-Nazi Collaboration,” Jewish Chronicle, 25 January 1980.
. “Looks like the Israelis Got Here First,” Socialist Worker, 16 December 2006, 2.
. “Interview with Dr Azzam Al-Tamimi,” BBC Hardtalk, 2 November 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/hardtalk/3985403.stm. For a verbatim transcript, see
. Respect newsletter: Ismail Farhat, “After the Death of Yasser Arafat…Solidarity with Palestine,” News from Respect-The Unity Coalition in Greater Manchester, December 2004.
. “Taleban Kidnap Victim, Yvonne Ridley, Talks to Alon Or-bach,” FelixOnline, 1344: Features, 16 February 2006, www.felixonline.co.uk/v2/article.php?id=2923 (no longer available).
. “Policy-International,” http://web.archive.org/web/20071019052357/http://www.respectcoalition.org/?.
. George Galloway, “The Guardian, 31 August 2006.
. “Map of Israeli Terror,” August 2006, http://web.archive.org/web/20071019052357/http://www.respectcoalition.org/?; Respect flier: “Cause-Effect,” http://web.archive.org/web/20071019052357/http://www.respectcoalition.org/? and http://web.archive.org/web/20071010003810/http://www.respectcoalition.org/pdf/f478.pdf.
. Quoted in Tina Becker, “High on Rhetoric, Low on Solutions,” Weekly Worker, 20 July 2006, 6.
. George Galloway, “Hizbollah Is Right to Fight Zionist Terror,” Socialist Worker, 29 July 2006, 3.
. The Charter also states that: “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims” (article 28). See the Hamas Charter, www.palestinecenter.org/cpap/documents/charter.html. See also Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, “A Manifesto for Murder,” Los Angeles Times, 5 February 2006.
. Nasrallah said: “For example, a few years ago, a great French philosopher, Roger Garaudy, wrote a scientific book. He did not offend, curse, or insult anyone. He wrote a scientific research of an academic nature, in which he discussed the alleged Jewish Holocaust in Germany. He proved that this Holocaust is a myth.” Originally aired on Al Jazeera TV on 2, 3 February 2006. See http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP108806.
. BBC Monitoring service, text of unattributed report from Damascus carried by the Palestinian Information Centre website, 3 September 2006.
. “Beirut Conference Shows International Solidarity,” 9 December 2006, http://web.archive.org/web/20071019052357/http://www.respectcoalition.org/?.
. Oliver Kamm, “Agreed, We Shouldn’t Vote for the BNP-but Its Twin, Respect, Is Just as Bad,” The Times, 25 April 2006, 19.
. Ibid. See also Nick Cohen, “Saddam’s Very Own Party,” New Statesman, 7 June 2004. See also interview with Alex Callinicos, professor of European Studies at King’s College London and a member of the Central Committee of the SWP (Socialist Workers Party website, www.swp.org.uk/swp_archive.php?article_id=10032): “If Bush attacks Iran tomorrow, which side are you on? I would be on Iran’s but-as Lenin put it-I would refuse to paint Ahmadinejad in communist colours; in other words, I would be for an Iranian victory despite his anti-Semitic rantings, despite the regime’s capitalist class base, despite the repression it perpetrates.”
. Ibid., 301. Cohen goes even further to write that:
Once the conventional fighting was over, George Galloway got the mixture of viciousness and sentimentality just right when he backed the beheaders and the suicide bombers by purring: “These poor Iraqis-ragged people, with their sandals, with their Kalashnikovs, with the lightest and most basic of weapons-are writing the names of their cities and towns in the stars, with 145 military operations every day, which has made the country ungovernable.” (300-01)
. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews? The Reasons for Antisemitism (New York: Touchstone, 2003), 155.
. “On the Jewish Question,” Karl Marx: Early Writings, trans. and ed. T. B. Bottomore (New York: McGraw-Hill), 40 (emphasis original).
. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism (New York: Touchstone, 1986), 116.
. For example, the January 2007 case of candidate selection for Birmingham Respect exposed tension between Muslim activists and the SWP. Yasir Idris defeated Helen Salmon, an active member of the local SWC. For details, see Andy North, “Debate at Selection Meeting for Birmingham Candidate,” Socialist Worker, 3 February 2007, 4. In the process, Ger Francis, a member of the Respect National Council, was apparently expelled from the SWP because of his role in swinging the Birmingham vote against the SWP’s desires, http://socialistunity.blogspot.com/2007/01/swp-expels-leading-member.html.
. For good examples, see Tina Becker, “After the victory party,” Weekly Worker, May 12, 2005, p. 4 and Hannah Sell, “Islam and Socialism,” Socialism Today, Issue 87, October 2004, http://www.socialismtoday.org/87/islam.html
. Respect: Another World Is Possible-Policies of Respect the Unity Coalition, http://web.archive.org/web/20060818221352/http://www.respectcoalition.org/pdf/f459.pdf.
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ERAN BENEDEK is a research analyst at the Community Security Trust (CST). Previously, Mr. Benedek was a researcher at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre. He holds a bachelor’s degreee in political science adn economics from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and an MSc in nationalism and ethnicity from the London School of Economics and Political Science.