Munich and the Left, 1972: The American SWP’s turn to anti-Semitism

This article also appears in Solidarity – please add any comments there.

This may be news to some, but what is today commonplace was once quite rare. I’m referring to anti-Semitism on the far Left — and am reminded of what some of us saw as a turning point back in 1972.

For a quarter of a century following the defeat of Nazi Germany, anti-Semites everywhere were laying low — especially in the West. The Soviet leadership was growing increasingly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, and anti-Semitism was rife in the Arab world, but in countries like the USA, it was quite rare for Jew-hatred to be expressed openly. And certainly not on the Left.

So while there were various degrees of criticism of Israel — especially of Israel’s brand-new occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights — these took place at a time when anti-Semitism remained taboo.

That’s why the Munich massacre of that year — and particularly the reaction of America’s largest far Left group to it — was such a shock.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was then still riding on a wave of support following its successful leadership of a large part of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam years — a war that was still raging. Its youth section, the Young Socialist Alliance, was strong on many college campuses. And it was still at that time pretty much an orthodox Trotskyist organization, though was later to drift.

When 11 Israeli athletes were killed following the attack by Black September terrorists, most political activists either grieved or denounced the terrorists. Some would have criticized the botched German government attempt to rescue them.

But not the SWP.

In its weekly newspaper “The Militant”, the SWP ran an article on the “real victims of the Munich massacre”. And the real victims, in their eyes, were not the 11 innocent Israelis, but … the Palestinians.

An editorial in “The Militant” following the Munich massacre labelled the world outcry as a “hypocritical roar of indignation” whose purpose really was “to make the criminal look like the victim” and said the massacre itself was merely a mistake in tactics.

Those of us who were in the Socialist Party, at that time still under the ideological leadership of Max Shachtman, were shocked at the SWP’s stance.

Our youth section, the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL) produced a flyer for distribution at SWP and YSA events where we bluntly accused our former comrades of having crossed the line from criticism of Israel to hatred of the Jewish state — and of Jews.

The SWP was shocked at the allegation and responded by publishing a series of articles in “The Militant” defending their record in the fight against anti-Semitism, going back to the Second World War.

Looking back at that today, it strikes me what an innocent time that was.

Today, if a group on the Left is accused of anti-Semitism it rarely goes to the lengths that the SWP of 1972 went to defend themselves.

Accusations of Jew-hatred are today greeted with a shrug.

What was so shocking 40 years ago — that a socialist organisation would identify somehow with a brutal terrorist attack on innocent people if those people happen to be Jewish — is commonplace now.

In the decades that followed the Munich massacre, the SWP drifted away from Trotskyism and lost nearly all of its members, leaving only a tiny organisation left, bereft of all influence.

But the poisonous legacy of anti-Semitism remains.

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