Livni’s Foreign Legion ambushed in their own backyard


One of the more endearing, or possibly aggravating, features of the Alliance for War and Liberalism is the spurious air of openness they promote. Way back when they were running the Workers’ Liberty journal, they would actively solicit contributions from people they disagreed with, only for those gullible enough to take the bait to end up submerged under a vast mountain of Matgamnite polemic. (Which made WL perversely readable, although this did not make up for the editor abusing his authority to fill the journal with his own poetry.) Another AWL trick is to invite you to one of their weekend schools, where you can listen to some interesting talks and sink a few pints with some intelligent people, just as long as you don’t mind being called an anti-Semite every ten minutes. At one AWL-sponsored event I managed the hat trick of being called a Stalinist, an anti-Semite and a Chetnik fascist within less than half an hour, an accomplishment of which I’m quite proud, although it maybe explains why I’m in no great hurry to go back.

Anyway, this tradition of pseudo-openness is carried on by the AWL’s practice of providing comments boxes on their website. This doesn’t lead to the visceral comedy of spEak You’re bRanes, but it does provide the odd chuckle nonetheless. I particularly enjoy Jane Ashworth’s occasional sorties there to upbraid her former comrades for not having the courage of their convictions and openly endorsing US-UK imperialism.

Increasingly, the contributions are coming from the Decent Left. This may be because most people on the real left (or the “kitsch left”, as Sean calls it) have long since lost patience with the AWL. But I’m also reminded of Trotsky’s complaint about the late Max Shachtman, that he was far too worried about whether Sidney Hook and Max Eastman had a good opinion of him. Shachtman’s would-be reincarnation, Sean Matgamna, is far too worried about renegades like Nick Cohen and Norman Geras having a good opinion of him. There’s a real kinship there.

So, the latest is a remarkably polite debate, by AWL standards, with Eric Lee, of Democratiya fame. Readers of Decentiya will know Eric’s articles for their Grandpa Simpson “Back in nineteen dickety two!” quality. This may seem patronising, but when you consider the horseshit that Alan (Not The Minister) Johnson fills his little journal with, Eric’s articles do stand out in that they invariably have a reasonable point at their core. It’s just that, to get there, you have to wade through about 100,000 words of dubious relevance on what Congressman Pipesucker had to say in the debate on the Tennessee Valley Authority.

So, here’s Eric:

The most recent issue of Solidarity features a number of articles about the conflict in Gaza. These articles do the AWL no credit.

Ira Berkovic’s “Who speaks for Jewish people in Britain?” reports on the rallies organised by the Jewish community in Britain without once mentioning the politics of those rallies. That’s extraordinary. More than that, it’s dishonest. As even the BBC reported, these rallies called for peace and an end to Hamas terror. They were not the mirror-image of the pro-Hamas rallies which – as you reported elsewhere in Solidarity – did call for the destruction of the Jewish state.

But to be fair, I think the comrades of the AWL may not be deliberately misrepresenting the Jewish community rallies. I think the article actually reveals the depth of your ignorance. You don’t actually know what the rally was about — because you weren’t there.

AWL members were busy getting their signs torn up at pro-Hamas rallies – rallies whose political leaders proclaimed slogans with which you completely disagree. But a rally whose demand was ‘Yes to peace, No to Hamas terror’ was somehow of no interest to you.

I fear Eric is being a little disingenuous here. The “End Hamas Terror” rallies were pro-peace in the sense that the speeches from the platform supported the forcible pacification of Gaza and clearly defended the IDF offensive. That such a stand was publicly taken by the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies will have delighted every genuine anti-Semite in Britain. But Eric has a point, why didn’t the AWL go on a rally where they might have felt more at home than on the Stop the War rally?

Which brings me to Sean Matgamna’s article in the same issue. Sean blasts the Socialist Party for concealing its real views (the two-state solution) for fear of being unpopular, or provoking anger from pro-Hamas demonstrators. The question of political courage runs like a red thread in this article and Sean correctly writes that “the socialist who is afraid to be unpopular who cannot stand against the tide, or even the stream, is a poor little specimen indeed.”

Reading these articles, as well as the extensive coverage of the AWL’s brave efforts to get its message across to pro-Hamas demonstrators in Sheffield and elsewhere, I cannot help but wonder why the AWL doesn’t present that same message to a 15,000 strong rally in London? (And a decent sized one in Manchester as well.)

One would think that with your “third camp” politics, you’d be eager to hold up your placards with their “Down with Hamas, Down with the IDF” not only at pro-Hamas rallies, but even at pro-peace ones organised by the Jewish community?

But you don’t. I wonder why. Could it be that the Socialist Party is not the only group on Britain’s far left with a muddled message, lacking in political courage?

The question is its own answer. The SP’s formal line on Israel/Palestine is not a million miles removed from the formal line of the AWL. But the SP didn’t feel the need to go on antiwar rallies and behave like assholes. They thought it was more important to relate to the marchers. This clearly distinguishes them from the AWL, who go on these rallies precisely to behave like assholes. Indeed, Sean criticised the SP precisely on this point.

But back to Eric. I’m not going to get bogged down in all the tendentious points contained within Eric’s short missive. What is relevant is the shorter Eric: You guys are Zionists, so why don’t you just admit you’re Zionists, stop pissing around with the left and stand with your real comrades? I’m afraid, however, that Eric misses the point. One of the regular features of left meetings on the Middle East is that all the Jewish speakers are critical of Israel and all the AWL speakers call the Jewish speakers anti-Semites. You might ask who they are trying to convince, especially since nearly 25 years of putting out Israeli hasbara hasn’t altered their hideously goyishe membership profile. Nor would one expect it to. Jewish leftists who have gone through a lot to dissociate themselves from Zionism aren’t going to be attracted to a Marxist-Zionist group run by gentiles with a bad case of vicarious Israeli chauvinism. And Zionists generally have better options for political engagement than the AWL. The whole purpose of this aggressive contrarianism, as with the Sparts and the old RCP, is to shake loose one or two people from the orbit of other left groups and into the tender embrace of Uncle Sean.

And, speak of the devil, the Swami himself now responds to Eric:

Living in a political world that is crazedly “anti-Zionist” and anti-Israel, of course we defend Israel’s right to exist, try to explain the Israeli point of view, defend the “Two Nations, Two States” position, fight against the demonisation of Israel and “Zionism”. During the recent war,we reminded people of the Hamas rockets. For that, the Kitsch Left denounces us as “Zionists”, “pro-Imperialists”, and all the rest of it. That I can understand. To the allies of Islamic clerical fascism, people “high” on “anti-Imperialist” delirium and vicarious Arab-Islamic chauvinism, that is what we are. They want Israel wiped off the map. But nobody who bothers to read what we write, as I assume Eric does, can think that of us.

Now, how could anyone have got the idea that the AWL was a Zionist or pro-imperialist organisation? I would have thought that, to anyone familiar with the group’s neo-Hyndmanite positions, it would seem like simple common sense.

In principle AWL supports the right of the Palestinians to fight and drive out the Israeli occupation forces, whatever the politics of those leading the Palestinians at a given moment. That is complicated in practice by the political programme of, in this case, Hamas, which proclaims the goal of destroying Israel, and by the fact that they are allied with other reactionaries in the Arab-Islamic world who proclaim the same programme.

You’ll notice that Sean has just stated a broad, overarching principle, and then gone on to negate it in the very next sentence. Only a truly accomplished dialectician could be so bold.

In fact, on the London demo, we did shout on the loudspeaker “Down with Hamas”, etc. Because of the politics of the audience there, as in Sheffield, it was necessary and permissible to “bend the stick” a bit.

What’s that noise? Ah yes, that would be Tony Cliff spinning in his grave. Besides, and I know this has been pointed out a thousand times, the peace movement in Israel is not saying “Down with Hamas” but rather “Negotiate with Hamas”. One realises that, for British Zionist opinion, the right wing of the Meretz party is the dovish extreme of acceptable opinion, but the AWL doesn’t operate under the same social constraints and so doesn’t have the same excuses.

But in cold and considered expressions of our politics we do not put an equals sign between Israel and the Palestinians, not even because Hamas is politically so very reactionary.

Perhaps it isn’t terribly wise of Sean to draw attention to the often glaring gap between the Jesuitical articles appearing in the AWL press, which are designed to be difficult to raise objections to, and what the group says in the course of its agitation.

The Hamas rockets, etc., justified Israel in inflicting the massive carnage and destruction which it has just inflicted on the Palestinians in Gaza? In the existing circumstances that idea can be sustained from one point of view only — that of a steel-clad, asbestos-lined, paranoia-infected Israeli national egotism…

Those who are not reflex Israeli chauvinists will know when not to side with Israel. For myself, I take a friendly attitude to Israeli nationalism, and, in retrospect, to the pre-World War II movement for a Jewish state, believing that of all peoples, post-Holocaust Jews have a right to be nationalist. That is not the same thing as Israeli chauvinism…. Or the same as proclaiming the principle “Israel — right or wrong!”

Thusly does Sean belabour poor old Eric. As it happens, I do think Eric’s position is one of ironclad Israeli chauvinism, but even that doesn’t merit such a massive deployment of sophistry from Sean. Although note that Sean’s support for a post-Holocaust Jewish state is now read back into the pre-1939 period. That’s a bit of a departure, and I assume Borochov will soon be joining Shachtman in the AWL’s eclectic ideological tzimmes.

Well now, this provokes a rather incoherent response from one Ian Sternberg along the lines of “Israel! Yo!” Which has the unfortunate effect of bringing Sean back again:

The fundamental political case against Israel’s Gaza war is that there were better, far better, alternatives open to Israel: really and actively accepting the Two States position, negotiating a broad framework of settlement with the Arab League, something that seems now to be possible, and, within that framework, sorting out Hamas and its rocket war on Israel. Israel’s government chose instead to pulverise Palestinian society in Gaza. Instead, Israel went on a hi-tech Hamas-hunt from the air that could not but produce massive civilian casualties. For that reason alone the Israeli Government should be condemned.

You will notice the similarity and difference between this and Sean’s notorious “Bomb Iran” article. The similarity is that Sean, the great proponent of the Third Camp, starts not from the point of view of the oppressed masses but from the options open to the Israeli political-military leadership. The difference is that Sean actually does manage to work in the c-word. This marks a slight improvement over the Iran article with its “In the name of what alternative would we condemn” formulation – I don’t know, maybe the alternative of not bombing Iran? Ah well, we shouldn’t pass up even a flicker of rationality from this source.

Finally, AWL activist Sacha Ismail chips in. Sacha is a pleasant young chap who affects to believe that the AWL really does want to end the oppression of the Palestinians, which makes him either unbelievably naïve or unbelievably dishonest. I prefer to believe the former.

Clearly I don’t share the far left’s holy terror at the word; but I don’t see how socialists can call themselves Zionists. I am for Israel’s right to exist, but that doesn’t make me (or you) a Zionist, any more than being for Palestinian independence makes us Palestinian nationalists.

We shouldn’t go along with the ‘anti-Zionist’ outcry, but nor should we use language which potentially blurs the opposition to nationalism – as opposed to national rights – that all of us in the AWL agree is essential for international socialists.

You see the problem Sean has with his youth? This kitsch creep must be counteracted, and fast! Over to Sean:

The word “Zionist” is used in the Kitsch-Left as a near equivalent of “racist”. It encapsulates the demonisation of Israel and of Jewish people who support it. It sums up the grotesque, and originally Stalinist, misrepresentation of both the history of Zionism and of the Jews in the Twentieth Century, on which the “absolute anti-Zionists” erect their toxic nonsense. It is a tool of ideological terrorism on the “left”. The cleanest and simplest way of dealing with that is to accept it, in its proper, original, meaning, and wear it as a badge of political sanity.

Ahem. Since Sean likes to rehash the founding of Israel in 1948 at every possible occasion, I know for a fact that he’s aware of the young Israeli state’s receipt of Soviet diplomatic support and, perhaps more to the point, Czechoslovak arms. But perhaps we’re talking about “Stalinism” not in the historical sense but in the specialised sense of “stuff Sean Matgamna disagrees with”. On the racism point, Sean is also well aware of not only the Israeli state’s oppressive record in the occupied territories, but also of the legally enshrined second-class status of non-Jewish citizens of Israel. There is a reason for the latter, and this is why Avigdor Lieberman, boorish bigot that he is, is not exactly out of step with mainstream Zionist thought when he talks about “transfer” or about downgrading non-Jewish citizens to resident aliens.

And this is why, although I profoundly disagree with Eric Lee, I still think he has the better of the debate. Because he’s more honest, you see, and firmly identifies with the tradition of Labour Zionism. Sean Matgamna has been moving steadily away from Trotskyism for more years than I care to remember, but there’s still some sentimental imperative urging him to keep a foot in the far left camp. Really, the cleanest and simplest way of dealing with this contradiction would be to admit openly that the AWL is a rightwing, pro-imperialist sect. Sean might lose a few of his younger and more idealistic cadre, but he may well lose them anyway, and he can rest assured that the core of old codgers who have supported his twists and turns over the decades will continue to do so. Not least my old chum Martin Thomas, as the poor bastard has little to comfort himself with these days except the thought that “Once Tiberius is dead, I, Sejanus, will rule as emperor in Rome.” Always assuming Sean doesn’t find himself a young Caligula to take up the mantle, that is.


  1. Garibaldy said,

    February 12, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    You were looking for a replacement tribute for the Lenin’s Tomb one. Surely you couldn’t top the AWL one?

  2. charliemarks said,

    February 13, 2009 at 1:55 am

    On the whole “break the news to me gently” theme with regards the SP’s position and the AWL’s drift towards zionism, I am reminded of a joke:

    A son phones his parents from university for the first time. His father answers, and the young man asks about his favourite pet cat.

    “He’s dead”, says the father. “He went up on the roof, we tried to get him down, but he fell off and he’s dead.

    The son is shocked, and asks why he had to be so cruelly honest about the fate of poor Fluffy: “You should have broken the news to me over time. This is the first time I’ve called home, you could have just said that ‘oh, he’s up on the roof’ and next time I phoned you would have said ‘oh we’re trying to get him down.”

    “I’ll bear that in mind,” says the father.

    “Good,” says the son, “and how is mother doing?”

    “Well,” says the father, “she’s on the roof…”

  3. D.B. said,

    February 13, 2009 at 9:05 am

    The “open letter to the editor of The Guardian” which appears on the front page of their site today sounds like it’s been penned jointly by Sean Matgamna and Richard Littlejohn. All that’s missing for it to be a Daily Mail piece are the constant references to “Guardianistas”.

    As I said on their site a few weeks ago, by Matgamna’s lofty standards the anti-war demos in Tel Aviv in late December were anti-Semitic and objectively pro-Hamas. Adam Keller’s account of the demo, which appeared as a comment on the Workers Liberty website, reported that the main slogans at the demonstration (orchestrated by the Coalition of Women for Peace, Hadash, Gush Shalom, the Anarchists, Tarabut and the Meretz grassroots network) included the following:

    “Stop the massacre!” / “Olmert’s War – Our Victims!” / “War is not election s spin” / “No to the murder of innocents!” / “We Israelis say: The Government of Israel perpetrates War Crimes!” / “International Intervention Now!” / “EU, Stop the War!”. “Livni, Murder is not Feminist!” / “Thou Shalt Not Kill!” … “This is not my war!” … “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies!” / In Gaza and Sderot, Children Want to Live!” / War is a disaster – Peace is the solution!” / Stop the War! Return to the Truce!” / Silence the guns – Save the peoples!” / Barak, Barak, hey, hey, hey – How many did you kill today?” / “Bloodshed will not buy you power!” / “The blood is flowing for the ministers’ prestige!” / “The blood is flowing for the polls of the corrupt parties!” / “No to War! – Back to Negotiations!”

    It’s a pity no Workers Liberty activists were there to “intervene”.

  4. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 13, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    We have already discussed at some length Arse Wipe of Lieberman’s strange politics. It isn’t like Schachtmanism Redux actually matters that much.

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 13, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    No, but it’s fun. And it might help me collect a denunciation from Sean to replace the Lenin’s Tomb tribute.

  6. Doug said,

    February 13, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Has anyone seen Matgamna poem about his mother. Jeez, this bloke is seriously deranged. It even makes Pinter’s look good.

  7. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 13, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Yes, the contribution of Matgamna to world literature was also discussed on the other thread. It is possible to be deranged and yet poetically gifted. Matgamna only meets one of these criteria.

    Is the Ariel Weizmann Lieberman actually funded by Mossad? Is Mossad that mad?

  8. D. J. P. O'Kane said,

    February 13, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    Why has the quote from ‘Little Richard’ been removed from the appaling vista that is this blog?

  9. Lobby Ludd said,

    February 13, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    “Why has the quote from ‘Little Richard’ been removed…”

    I don’t remember seeing “Awop-bop-a-loo-mop alop bom bom” anywhere on this blog.

    I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere in Matgamna’s verse, however – but I’m afraid to look

  10. crackhead pete said,

    February 13, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Does anybody remember that article Eric Lee wrote for Workers Liberty about 8 or 9 years ago about how the dynamic of Israeli politics was moving inexorably leftwards and the right was finished? Funny, I was just thinking about it the other day.

  11. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 13, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Does Israel have a poet laureate? Is Matgamna in with a chance with his deathless verse, or does he have to switch to Hebrew first?

  12. Lobby Ludd said,

    February 13, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    “Does Israel have a poet laureate? Is Matgamna in with a chance with his deathless verse, or does he have to switch to Hebrew first?”

    ‘Does he have to switch to Hebrew?’ – well, this would be a case of something being gained in the translation, even (or especially?) a poor one. Back translation would probably beneficial too. The effect of such on his prose is rather more problematic.

  13. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 13, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    A free translation of his verse into Yiddish could be done in one word – Gevalt!

  14. Ian Sternberg said,

    February 13, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    ” Israel Yo ! ”
    – Coherant enough for You now ?

  15. Lobby Ludd said,

    February 13, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    On reflection, I think that Matgamna’s political writing is (probably) a case of back translation:

    He submits an article to his ‘minders’, they translate it for approval by their bosses and he demands a back translation, just to check his wisdom is not misrepresented. The translated article is rejected, but he foolishly publishes the latest (the back translated) version.

    Easy mistake to make.

  16. Andy Newman said,

    February 13, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    I am sute that Magamna’s verse would be better in hebrew – particularly for people who have no knowledge of that language.

  17. Lobby Ludd said,

    February 13, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Lines on the death of some bloke

    So, farewell Sean

    or whatever your name is


    twelve disciples

    near enough

    lets not get picky

    not right now, anyway


    aged 17 and 1/2

  18. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 15, 2009 at 11:04 am

    I don’t see much similarity between Matgamna and Homer’s dad (or is it Grand-Dad)? Perhaps a Private Eye-style picture of Matgamna and Avigdor L., with the captions reversed and “are they by any chance related?”

  19. Doug said,

    February 15, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Bearing in mind we can trace back his poetic inspirations directly to McGonagle, and the AWL’s monumental misreading of the recent industrial dispute, I’m looking forward to his greatest work ‘The near Humber Bridge Disaster’

  20. james said,

    February 15, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    T’be fair a few of their rank’n’file members are fine. In London they stuck to the Gaza protest long after the SWP had pissed off down the pub (although that was just two of them) and all the Cambridge members took part in the Law Faculty Occupation.

  21. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 15, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    If you mean the big one on the 10th of January, that was only because the police blockade outside the embassy gave them a literally captive audience to accuse of being anti-Semites and tail-ending clerical fascists. I was one of the people trapped inside the cage. I thought the presence of a couple of them was a good illustration of chutzpah, assuming they weren’t simply intelligence-gathering for someone.

  22. james said,

    February 16, 2009 at 2:19 am

    No man, I mean some of the weekday ones. How it went was this: most of the AWL didn’t bother turning up at all, and those that did genuinely did care. If they were present, they were bothered. One of them, Robin, even got arrested for his troubles (for the well known crime of walking away from a policeman). There are a number of genuinely good (not decent) people inside that organisation, it’s just that they’re deeply lost.

  23. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 16, 2009 at 11:16 am

    22. Robin was also the one who tried to bring along an Israeli flag (and not for burning) as well as a Palestinian flag to a demo outside the embassy, and was not surprisingly unwelcome to the demonstrators, though it gave the AWL something to complain about in the leaflet they distributed on the 10th. The nicest construction I can put on him is that he is a fool. Other even less flattering interpretations of him, and them, are possible.

    I can think of reasons other than “caring” for the AWL to have a couple of people along at a demo. They would need to have someone to sniff out any traces of anti-Semitism or “clerical fascism” by looking at banners or chanted slogans. You need to have a presence at the demo to do that. If they wanted to stir up trouble among demonstrators as a provocation, they would also need some kind of presence. I mentioned elsewhere Matgamna walking around Trafalgar Square on the 17th. He obviously disapproved of most of the demonstrators if his facial expression was any guide. But he needed something to wrap an article on “clerical fascism” around.

    We live in a country where people bringing aid to Gaza can be detained under the Terrorism Act. We live in a country involved in imperialist wars and occupations in which the Muslim minority here are more and more being treated as the enemy within. And the AWL echoes all this. No, they are something more than “deeply lost”.

  24. James said,

    February 16, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Matgamna is a smug twat who’d be utterly loathsome if he wasn’t inadvertantly hilarious (see: Oedipus Regrets). Robin, by contrast, is awesome. Idk why they all swallow that “Liberal nationalism both is possible in the ME and will somehow magically lead to internationalism in short order” line, but they aren’t all malign or idiots. It’s just a majority tendency.

  25. James said,

    February 16, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    Additionally, AWL were the largest sect present at Occupation Cambridge, so far as I could tell (thankfully it wasn’t a sectarian affair, everyone sort of blended into each other). Instrumental in the organisation, did much of the facillitating (nobody else was very experienced) and generally acted like sterling socialists throughout. And that thing went on for six days!

  26. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 16, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    All I have ever seen of the AWL (apart from some poetry of dubious quality) is attempts to portray everyone else as “kitsch anti-Semites” and generally acting like a left wing of NATO, Histadrut or Harry’s Place. Their behaviour reminds me of the Sparts, except the Sparts don’t act as though their political line was formed in Tel Aviv.

  27. Duncan said,

    February 17, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Robin, by contrast, is awesome.

    Would this be the same Robin who organised a picket off UNITE offices in London to oppose the strikes at Lindsey.

    Clearly someone who has fully understood the group’s strategy of appearing as contrarian as possible to ‘stand out’ in the left-wing market. Though I understand his actions were later disavowed by the AWL it was the application of the method, not the method itself, which was at fault.

  28. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 17, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Contrarian in the left-wing market, perhaps. In a pro-Zionist one, the Ariel Weizmann Lieberman would blend in so well you would hardly notice them.

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