No, Jews did not collaborate in their own genocide

Following Ken Loach’s statement that he had been expelled from the Labour party, I sent a tweet declaring that kicking out Britain’s “greatest living film maker while readmitting Trevor Phillips” told you “all you need to know about the state of the current Labour party.” It’s a tweet I stand by: whether you consider him our greatest living film maker is, of course, a matter of taste, and the fact Trevor Phillips was readmitted despite his long history of Islamophobia tells us how morally bankrupt Labour’s disciplinary procedures are.

Following this tweet, several nonzionist and antizionist Jewish socialists corresponded with me and explained why they believed it was problematic. Their reasons centred on a play called Perdition which alleged Zionist collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Directed by Ken Loach and due to be performed in 1987 at the Royal Court, it was cancelled because of its alleged historic inaccuracy, before being significantly rewritten and performed in 1999. Having listened to the objections of the Jewish socialists who corresponded with me, I added a few tweets expanding on them, whilst still opposing Loach’s expulsion.

This led to an online storm on Twitter, in which I was variously accused of giving in to right-wing and Zionist pressure. This culminated in an article written by Asa Winstanley, a blogger who was suspended from the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership for, among other things, denouncing Momentum — the leftist movement set up to promote socialism in the Labour party — as ‘Momentum Friends of Israel’ because of its educational videos opposing antisemitism. It’s important to emphasise that Winstanley was not suspended by the right: the party’s general secretary at the time was Jennie Formby, a staunch ally of Corbyn who went on to campaign for Howard Beckett to be Unite general secretary. Among other things, Winstanley falsely suggested I had labelled Ken Loach as antisemitic — not something I believe or have claimed — and that I am “no true friend to socialists or Palestinians.” More importantly, he writes a long detailed defence of the historical narrative underpinning Perdition.

Bored as I am with a tedious psychodrama involving myself which seems to consume various political factions on the internet, I don’t want to dwell too much on defending myself: I do so after this brilliant detailed response by a Jewish antizionist explaining in detail why the historical narrative promoted by Winstanley is false and harmful:

This blog post is a response to Asa Winstanley’s article on Ken Loach’s play Perdition. I get to the bottom of why there are antizionist Jews who are distressed by Loach’s 1987 play and why Winstanley’s account of the Holocaust, which presents a highly unrealistic picture of Jewish power, diverges from a socialist and antiracist understanding of oppression.

In instances of significant oppression there are usually members of the oppressed class who are accused of ‘collaboration’. The term ‘collaborator’ is used to mean a number of things including an oppressed person who is willing to negotiate with their oppressor in an attempt to save their own life or to make their life tolerable under the weight of structural harm. There should be no prohibition on discussing this phenomenon. In fact, in some contexts, discussing so-called ‘collaboration’ can illuminate the horrors of being structurally oppressed. The philosopher, Agnes Callard, argues that one of the great injustices of being oppressed is that it is impossible to make totally pure moral choices, as oppressed classes are often forced to choose between violent resistance where innocent bystanders may suffer or acquiescing to the demands of their oppressor. However, discussed in a different tone, focusing on ‘collaboration’ can easily serve a right wing narrative which victim-blames and where members of the oppressed group are deemed ultimately responsible for their own oppression. In giving ‘collaborators’ a central role in our understanding of oppression we too easily move away from the kind of structural analysis which the left usually champions.

This debate, about when, why and how we should discuss ‘collaborators’ on the left, is central to understanding why some Jews feel uncomfortable with totally positive, hagiographical descriptions of the film-maker Ken Loach. In 1987, Loach attempted to direct a play called Perdition which was about the Holocaust. He encountered obstacles due to the play’s plot attracting significant crticism from many Jews and prominant Holocaust historians. Perdition placed stories of Jewish ‘collaboration’ (some inspired by facts, some totally made up) at the centre of its Holocaust story. The play’s author, Jim Allen, described his intentions behind Perdition as to create ‘the most lethal attack on Zionism ever written, because it [Perdition] touches at the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust. Because it says quite plainly that privileged Jewish leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to help bring about a Zionist state, Israel, a state which is itself racist.’

A number of Jews have been distressed by Allen’s claims and the play which represented them. They are heavily questioning of the use of the word ‘privileged’ to describe members of a racial minority facing death at the hands of a white supremacist state. They are shocked by Allen’s description of the Holocaust as ‘the most abiding myth of modern history’. Allen’s defenders are quick to point out that it does not seem likely, from other things Allen has said, that he was calling the entire Holocaust a myth. However, to suggest that aspects of Holocaust memory and well-researched historiography amount to mythology is to enter the terrain of the far right which many Jews find deeply concerning. For the most part, these Jews are not saying that real instances of so-called ‘collaboration’ are beyond discussion. They are rejecting a framing of these stories which disrupts our ability to understand how structural oppression operates, which victim-blames, and which can be associated with far-right narratives of history. Ken Loach claimed that those objecting to the play were part of a ‘zionist lobby’, in spite of the fact that many Jews who expressed distress about Perdition held antizionist beliefs. These Jews were not offended by what the play concluded about Israel or zionism, they were offended by the play’s implications for understanding the Holocaust.

Discussions of collaboration have resurfaced again this week with Asa Winstanley’s article defending Perdition. Like Loach, Winstanley reduces objections to Perdition to uncomplicated Zionist motivations. His article presents an opportunity to revisit the real events which Perdition was loosely based upon, to try to separate fact from fiction and to try to understand why some passionately antizionist Jews are shocked by the play.

The real, historical, accusation of collaboration behind Perdition concerned Rudolph Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew who escaped the Holocaust, settled in Israel and became involved in Labor Zionist politics. Kasztner was initially celebrated for being part of a successful mission to save nearly 2,000 Jews from occupied Hungary by bribing senior Nazis to divert a train into neutral Switzerland. Other Hungarian Jews in Israel later accused Kasztner of ‘collaborating’ with Nazis in order to achieve his rescue mission. This accusation became the subject of a famous Israeli defamation trial. It is understandable why Hungarian Jews who’d lost their whole families in the Holocaust, looking for someone to blame, might point the finger at other Jewish survivors and ask ‘why did you save other peoples’ families and not mine?’ or ‘what price did you pay to get out?’. However, that does not answer our question of what the twenty-first-century British left should do with these complex and painful stories.

Winstanley seems to believe we should platform them. However, his telling of Kasztner’s rescue mission is a partial, sometimes unevidenced account which diverges from the kinds of structural analyses of oppression we usually value on the left. It therefore prompts far more questions than it resolves. First and most significantly, Winstanley describes the Jews who Kasztner saved as ‘an elite group’ of ‘mostly fellow Zionists, family and friends’. Winstanley does not provide a citation for this claim and it differs from the accounts found in surviving historical sources. Kasztner was not simply concerned with a small elite but was involved with various rescue efforts which helped thousands upon thousands of Jews. Kasztner’s train to Switzerland, specifically, came to be known as ‘Noah’s Ark’ as it deliberately saved a diverse and fairly representative cross section of the Hungarian Jewish community. According to a Jewish refugee on the train who kept a diary, the transport saved at least 1,670 Jews including 320 children under 14, with the youngest being a newborn baby. Records of the train’s arrival in Switzerland present a similar picture. Mothers reportedly threw children onto the train as it was about to depart, a distressing image which is reminiscent of mothers in Afghanistan right now. An official list of the occupations of the Jews on the train is similarly diverse, recording the presence of many working class Jews. Some sources suggest that Kasztner heavily taxed the wealthiest Jews on the train to ensure there were enough funds for impoverished Jews to also escape.

It is true that many people on the train were affiliated with Zionist beliefs and it seems Zionist Jews may possibly have been prioritised by Kasztner but the mission certainly did not exclusively rescue Zionists. Accounts differ but one passage in the surviving diary suggests that just 25% of passengers were part of the Zionist movement. Another survivor recalls numerous active antizionists being rescued and records fierce debates between the zionist and nonzionist passengers. It is also hard for us to be totally clear about what it meant to call yourself a Zionist Jew in occupied Europe. Zionism was a heavily contested ideology among Jews before the Holocaust and many Jews who transitioned from being antizionists to Zionists during the Holocaust did so only as they watched their friends, family and children die around them, forcing them to reckon with the question of whether a Jewish state could have helped. I believe that the theft of land from Palestinian people was unjustifiable and that no events in Jewish history would or could justify support for colonisation of Palestinian land, but I also understand that Jews who became Zionists during the Holocaust were existing in a very specific context and that the categories ‘antizionist’ and ‘Zionist’ did not necessarily mean exactly the same things to them then as they mean to us now. For example, support for a multicultural and multireligious state in Palestine, often part of the antizionist project now, was historically supported by some political factions who called themselves Zionists but who did not think Jews needed to be a social or political majority to call Palestine their homeland. It is also true that some seats on the rescue train were reserved for Kasztner’s family members but most were not and the passengers were chosen by a panel of four representatives from the Jewish community where Kasztner formed just one voice. Ultimately, therefore, we do not know all the details about the people Kasztner saved, who they were and what they believed. What we do know is that they were a large and diverse group of people fleeing for their lives from a murderous, racist state. Why did Winstanley reduce them to a ‘Zionist’ ‘elite’ without citing any evidence for this characterisation? Were the hundreds of children on board part of this elite? Were the working class Jews part of an elite? Was the newborn baby? Can anyone fleeing from a state which wants to kill them for belonging to a racial minority meaningfully be described as elite within a socialist and antiracist framework?

Kasztner’s detractors have asked what he had to do to persuade Nazis to divert the train. Was he just able to offer a tempting bribe? Did he, as some suggest, agree to try to instil order among the Jews he couldn’t save? Did he actively lie to those Jews? Did he offer Nazis information about other Jews?

Ultimately, the answers to these questions died with Kasztner and I am not saying there should be a moratorium on asking them. They are the questions of introductory ethics: what price would you pay to save the lives of yourself and thousands of others?; Is it right to save some people if you have to leave others behind?; How many adults should you save and how many children? Should you save your family, if you can or should you be self-sacrificing and prioritise the lives of strangers?

As Winstanley notes, the Judge in Kasztner’s defamation trial said Kasztner had ‘sold his soul to the devil’ but, if he did, he did so facing the kinds of moral questions that most of us desperately hope we will never actually have to answer.

I am not trying to write in praise of Kastzner, a man I knew nothing about until I started studying Perdition. I am not claiming that every Holocaust survivor was good or made totally moral choices in the face of their oppression. I certainly condemn Kasztner’s zionist politics because of the inherent implications for Palestinians. However, I am saying it is important we understand there were clear lines between the oppressor and oppressed classes in Nazi Europe. There is no credible evidence that Kasztner had any agency to save any more Jews than he did. He made deals with Nazis in order to save lives and you can argue those deals crossed a moral line but he was not responsible for the deaths of those he could not save. He was largely powerless in the face of a white supremacist machine from which he and his family very narrowly escaped with their own lives.

Winstanley claims otherwise. He claims that the Jews of one specific ghetto in Hungary ‘could have easily overcome’ Nazi guards ‘and escaped to safety across the Romanian border, just three miles away had Kasztner told them what fate he knew really awaited them.’ Here, Winstanley, again, overemphasises Jewish agency during the Holocaust. He cites the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising but he does not note that this uprising was famously and tragically unsuccessful. This was despite the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising being the largest revolt by Jews during the Holocaust and despite the fact that Warsaw Jews managed to arm themselves. In the end, up to thirteen thousand Jews died in the uprising itself, with many burning alive in the Nazi’s merciless retaliation. Almost all of the remaining 50,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were captured and either shot or sent to camps. The German military, by contrast, suffered relatively minimal casualties. Records are inconclusive but likely suggest that, at most, several hundred German soldiers died. Jews did not have ‘easy’ agency to resist the ghettos as Winstanley claims, and he offers only brief supposition to suggest why he thinks an uprising in Hungary might have been drastically different to Warsaw. Given that the Nazis accused Jews of being powerful in order to justify their murder, many Jews find it deeply unsettling to assume that Holocaust victims had significant power to resist Nazis which historical evidence suggests they did not have.

One of the strongest criticisms of Perdition is that the idea that some Jews bore ultimate responsibility for the murder of other Jews during the Holocaust originated within far-right conspiracies where Nazis tried to minimise their own guilt. Quite bizarrely, Winstanley quotes extensively from Nazi testimony in Perdition’s defence, with Nazi accounts being one of the main primary sources he uses in his article. Winstanley quotes senior Nazi, Adolph Eichmann, saying ‘I believe that Kasztner would have sacrificed a thousand or a hundred thousand of his blood to achieve his political goal’. We can basically prove that Eichmann’s accounts of Kasztner contained inaccuracies. As Winstanley quotes, Eichmann claimed that Kastzner was not interested in saving older Jews. Winstanley strangely fails to mention that records suggest that Kasztner’s train, in fact, saved nearly two hundred Jews over 55 including approximately seventy over 65. It is not surprising that Nazi testomany about a Jewish holocaust survivor is inaccurate. As most GCSE History students learn, an account of the Holocaust told through Nazi testemony is likely to be ‘biased’. And yet Winstanley quotes from Eichmann largely uncritically, as if Nazi accounts of the Holocaust are to be trusted. His strange conclusion seems to be that Perdition’s reputation can be saved by pointing out similarities between the story in Perdition and a Nazi’s version of events. However, the instances of overlap between Perdition’s plot and Nazi theories, which Winstanley alludes to, are exactly why many Jews of all political perusasions found the play deeply disturbing.

Why is Winstanley so interested in Eichmann’s testimony? His argument is that resurrecting Eichmann’s words is part of his antizionism because it demonstrates that ‘Zionists and Nazis both agreed on the goal of removing European Jews from Europe.’ This is the same argument at the heart of Perdition and it is the argument Ken Livingstone made when he claimed Hitler ‘was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews’. If we understand the problems with this argument we understand a lot about the antisemitism and the left discourse of the last five years.

It is true that there were Zionists who attempted to make deals with Nazis whereby Jewish men, women and children might be allowed to escape to Palestine instead of being murdered. Before 1939, sixty thousand German Jews were able to flee under this deal. However, there are two problems with Winstanley’s claim that ‘Zionists and Nazis both agreed on the goal of removing European Jews from Europe’. First, as they increased their power, (especially after 1942) the Nazi party decided they were not content with a world where Jews were out of Europe but in Palestine. Most Nazis ‘wanted Jews out of Europe’ only in that they wanted them out of this world, they wanted them dead. Nazis stopped Jews at borders trying to escape. Nazis kept Jews in Europe so they could murder them. This was not just because one man, Hitler, ‘went mad’, as Ken Livingstone put it. This was because of a white supremacist ideology. To imply that Nazis just wanted Jews out of Europe is to minimise the events of the Holocaust.

Second, Zionism was fundamentally a response to the systematic and persistent othering of Jews in Europe for centuries, which included segregation, persecution, expulsions and multiple mass-murders, eventually culminating in the Nazi genocide of the 20th century. In other words, the origin of the idea that Jews do not belong on the continent of Europe ultimately lies with various European nation states, their supporters and the ideology of antisemitism. Increasingly some Jews accepted that they would never be fully tolerated in Europe and over time this morphed into the ideology we call Zionism which only attracted majority Jewish support after the Holocaust. This ideology has always been inherently harmful to Palestinians and that is why we must strongly oppose it. I resist collapsing the distinction between white supremacists who wanted Jews out of Europe and the Jews who were forced to come up with a response but I do so without in any way defending zionism.

This is why Perdition is so upsetting to so many Jews, including antizionist ones. Because we do not need to minimise Nazi intentions, overemphasise Jewish power or spin history to claim that ‘Jewish leaders collaborated in the oppression of their own kind’ to make a case for why Zionism is bad. Zionism is wrong, not because of its possible implications for Jews, but because of what it does to Palestinians. To claim that Zionism needs to have harmed Jews as well to be condemned is to decentre Palestinians in their own story. Palestinian pain is important on its own terms and we do not need to prove that Zionism has hurt non-Palestinians to denounce, discredit and fiercely oppose Zionist ideas. I wish that, instead of Perdition, Ken Loach had staged an antizionist play which actually centred Palestinian people rather than being about the Holocaust. Once again, I am not saying that stories of ‘collaboration’ should be buried, but are they the stories that we on the left really want to be telling? If we call Neville Chamberlain a Nazi collaborator, can we really use the same word to describe Jews trying to do whatever they could to save lives? How does this blurring of lines between the powerful and powerless help us advance a socialist vision?

I do not support Ken Loach’s expulsion from the Labour Party. I am not trying to dampen celebration of Ken Loach’s important films, many of which I have personally cherished. I am not trying to ban the discussion of any history or limit free speech. In fact, I am doing the opposite. I am encouraging the left to put all the facts on the table and have an honest conversation about how we want to narrate the oppression of racialised minorities and whether centring so-called collaborators can ever help us construct a structural analysis.

Finally, in response to Winstanley’s other claims. My own position on Labour and antisemitism has always been consistent, summed up in the opening paragraph of a Guardian column in 2018:

The poison of antisemitism exists among a minority on the left; there is a wider group of people who deny it exists, or are even oblivious to what antisemitic tropes are, and refuse to educate themselves. There are also non-Jews who regard antisemitism as a useful tool, a convenient political device –and nothing else — to attack, undermine and demonise the Labour leadership and broader left. Both of these statements are inarguable, and both speak to the different political factions undermining the historic struggle to obliterate the disease of antisemitism.

This is a position I’ve always referred to as “walking and chewing gum.” My own deeply held view is that neither Jeremy Corbyn nor the vast majority of the left are antisemitic — a position I’ve defended ad infinitum, from TV to my articles— but that antisemitism amongst a minority on the left is real and often bound up with a conspiratorial type of thinking, and has caused genuine hurt and distress to Jewish people. This led me to, for example, write articles defending Corbyn from such attacks as ‘wreathgate’, and to call for proactive political education to combat genuine left-wing antisemitism.

As a result, there are two different online industries dedicated to both claiming that I am one of the main apologists for Corbynite antisemitism, and that I’m a key player in the antisemitism smear campaign against the left. In a sign of how warped some of the thinking is in this whole saga, the latter often cites as evidence my support for action taken by Corbyn’s own allies against the likes of Winstanley and Chris Williamson. In both cases, the claim is that I’ve tried to ride two horses and have it both ways, rather than express my sincere opinion on an extremely complicated issue that has been harmfully simplified.

What I’ve always done is marry unequivocal support for Palestinian justice — from Question Time to my column — with opposition to antisemitism, on the basis that rather than being in any way contradictory, both spring from the same visceral opposition to injustice and racism. Again, that position has led to being repeatedly vilified in the right-wing media, long before Corbyn became leader.

It’s suggested that I de facto support Loach’s expulsion because I agreed with a tweet by a left-wing member of Labour’s NEC who declared that “members who wish to be involved in the Labour movement” should not be involved in organisations such as Labour Against The Witchhunt, a deeply problematic outfit backed by Loach, and I stand by that. But to clarify: I don’t support proscribing that organisation, not because I have any sympathy for it, but because proscriptions lead to witch hunts, and instead members should have disciplinary measures taken against them based on their own individual behaviour.

Finally, a word on the likes of Winstanley. Although their influence is marginal, such as it exists, it is toxic. They do nothing, literally nothing, to advance the cause of the Palestinian people. They speak to a tiny online faction who they succeed in making very angry, sure, but they don’t convince anyone else of anything: quite the opposite, they repel them. They seek to make the cause of Palestinian emancipation as marginal and fringe as they can by monstering mainstream proponents of Palestine’s freedom from Israel’s monstrous occupation. This is how they sustain their own relevance amongst their faction, sure, by presenting themselves as the only true champions of the Palestinian cause: but that is of no help to Palestinians who desperately need solidarity and mainstream that is as broad as possible.

To underline just how toxic Winstanley’s politics are: his response to the leaked report alleging Labour officials hostile to Corbyn undermined efforts to deal with antisemitism was to denounce it as an “absolute litany of lies about ‘Labour antisemitism’… Awful document.” This is because the report took antisemitism seriously, declaring that it “thoroughly disproves any suggestion that antisemitism is not a problem in the Party, or that it is all a ‘smear’ or a ‘witch-hunt’.” This political faction distresses Jews, drives people away from the left and provides endless ammunition to the right — and nothing more.

Author of 'The Establishment' and 'Chavs', Socialist, Guardian columnist. Losing my Northern accent. My views etc...