This is the original text of the speech given by Sacha Ismail in his debate with Michael Chessum on "Israel-Palestine and the left" at Ideas for Freedom 2012. The speech as delivered was slightly abridged and altered to respond to Michael. We have asked Michael if he can write up his notes and send them to us.
Firstly, I want to thank Michael for coming and debating. The AWL often makes the point that there is not enough debate on the left. That is particularly true with regards to this issue. When it comes to Israel-Palestine, there is a lot of heat and denunciation, but not a lot of actual debate. At Ideas for Freedom 2010 we debated Workers Power on this. Last year we looked at debates among Trotskyists when Israel was created. So I hope we’re making a contribution not only to promoting our distinctive view, but to promoting discussion and debate.
Since I haven’t got a lot of time, I want to comment on three broad issues. The first is the basic character of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what solutions to it socialists should advocate. The second is about what socialists say about Israel and “Zionism”, what some socialists’ attitude says about their politics more broadly. And the third is about a practical issue we face in the British labour movement and student movement, in terms of various kinds of boycotts of Israel
1. The character of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Various frameworks are used on the left to describe the conflict. Some, for instance the characterisation of Israel as an apartheid state are, I think, false. Some, such as the description of Israel as imperialist, are true, but used in a misleading way.
For the AWL, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fundamentally a national conflict. What do I mean by this? Nations are units which have developed under capitalism as frameworks for economic and industrial development, trade and so on, and whose population shares a common consciousness based on that unit, as well as usually common cultural characteristics, a common language and so on.
The nations of Western Europe were formed at the dawn of capitalism, but many nations only gained their self-identity as nations in the fight against European colonialist domination. Now, despite different states having different positions in the hierarchy of the world capitalist market, the vast majority of peoples have achieved national independence. National oppression – the denial of the political right of self-determination by a foreign power – still exists, but as a relatively marginal phenomenon – the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, the Sahrawi oppressed by Morocco, the Tamils oppressed by Sri Lanka. And of course Palestine and Israel.
Socialists in the Bolshevik tradition – and that includes the AWL’s development of that tradition – are against nationalism, but at the same time support the right to national self-determination as a democratic demand. Self-determination means the right of a nation to determine its own future, free of foreign domination, up to and including the formation of an independent state. We support these kind of democratic demands firstly for their own sake, because we are against oppression and for a world in which all democratic potentialities can flower, and secondly because they are necessary in order to unite the workers of nationalities which are in conflict. Working-class movements need democratic answers to national conflicts in order to “clear the decks” for united and effective class struggle. In fact, in these kinds of situations, such democratic demands are also necessary to counter nationalism effectively.
The Palestinians are an oppressed nation, denied self-determination by Israel. We support their right to self-determination, and in general their resistance to Israeli oppression.
So far, so uncontroversial. But, unlike many others on the left, the AWL also insists that Israel is also nation and has a right to self-determination. Of course Israeli self-determination is not currently in doubt, but it cannot make sense to say that because Israel is not currently under threat, it doesn’t have a right to self-determination. So if we think that Palestinians and Israelis should both have the right to self-determination, what follows is two independent states, and the measures necessary to bring that about; withdrawal of Israeli troops, evacuation of the settlements and so on.
When much of the left, in Britain most of all but also internationally, denies Israel’s right to exist, it makes a mockery of the Marxist tradition and of democratic principles. This is both wrong in principle, because it seeks to deny a nation the right to self-determination, and misguided in terms of helping the Palestinians, since it predicates their liberation on the destruction of Israel, which is vanishingly unlikely to happen.
At this point I should discuss two possible objections. The first is that a single state for Israelis and Palestinians would have all sorts of advantages, particularly for the Palestinians – for instance in terms of the descendants of the Palestinian refugees created in the 1940s. And my personal answer to that – I’m not sure if this is an AWL position – is that it’s true. It would have many advantages. But the question is: how is it going to happen? A binational state could only come about if a big majority of both Israelis and Palestinians decided voluntarily to dissolve their nationalities into each other, which – particularly given the history – is incredibly unlikely. It would be a big step for most Israelis to support genuine self-determination for the Palestinians; for most to support dissolving Israel would be an enormous, improbable leap.
By the way, note the contradiction here. Many socialists are happy to decry all Israelis as irredeemable reactionaries, yet they also predicate their “solution” on Israelis becoming more than perfect internationalists, and actually giving up their national identity. Since this is vanishingly unlikely, the only way it can happen is through external military force – Arab military defeat and conquest of Israel. But in that case the state created will not mean democracy or self-determination for either Israelis or Palestinians.
The second objection is more serious – namely, that the spread of Israeli settlements, annexation of Palestinian land and so on, as well as the growth of the Arab minority in Israel, is making a two-state settlement less and less realistic and viable. And I think that’s also true: Israel is sawing off the branch its sitting on. But firstly I don’t we’re there yet. And secondly, much of the left is not assessing this rationally and regretfully. Rather they’re rubbing their hands in glee at two states becoming impossible. I think that is very misguided. If two-states as a solution disappears from history, it doesn’t follow a single state will become easily viable. Rather it means any solution which involves some measure of democratic reconciliation will become much, much harder.
2. Why does so much of the left take this attitude?
The left’s attitude to Israel, and to Israeli nationalism, or “Zionism”, is quite strange and needs explaining. Why is Israel regarded in his way?
On one level, this is part of a wider phenomenon. Much of the left relates to national conflicts not on the basis of consistent democracy, in the Bolshevik tradition, but by identifying “good” and “bad” nations, usually depending on the relationship of the nation in question to a particular imperialist camp. Thus for Stalinists, nations allied to the USSR were good; those allied to the US were bad. This tradition has spread beyond and outlived Stalinism; thus in 1999 the SWP refused to support independence for the Kosovars against Serbian imperialism, because Serbia was clashing with the US.
We need to restate the positive criteria of consistent democracy and working-class unity, against the negativism of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in all its variants.
However, I think attitudes to Israel go beyond this. For much of the left, Israel has become enemy number one – a worse enemy even than the US. The problem here is not criticism of Israel or its actions, but the fact that different criteria are applied to Israel than to virtually any state in the world – including, as we have seen, denial even of the right to exist. Everything to do with Israel is distorted – from dismissal of the Israeli working and Israeli labour movement, again on totally different criteria from other labour movements, to the generation of a version of history in which all nuance, complexity and contradiction is written out, in favour of demonisation of Israel.
The same is true of Zionism and anti-Zionism. Today, for sure, Zionism is Israel nationalism. Yet it is treated by many leftists not as one nationalism in a world of antagonistic nationalisms, and not, like all nationalisms, contradictory. Instead it is treated as some kind of – usually ill-defined – ultra-reactionary movement, inherently racist or even a worldwide imperialist force. Many left narratives of Zionism edge into anti-semitic conspiracy theories.
We are against all nationalism, including Zionism. And the issue here is not failing to distinguish between the national of an oppressed nation and the nationalism of an oppressor nation. We do distinguish. But it doesn’t follow that even the nationalism of an oppressor nation is always an uncomplicated phenomenon, let alone some kind of world-dominating conspiracy. That is particular true in the case of Israel. Given the history of the anti-semitic persecution, the Holocaust, Arab wars to destroy Israel, refusal to recognise Israel and so on, is it any surprise that most Israelis to some extent buy into their nation’s nationalism? In any case, when self-styled Zionists include both virulent racists and anti-racist campaigners, top Israeli generals and soldiers jailed for refusing to fight, a more complex understanding is clearly necessary.
How did this attitude to Israel and Zionism come about?
It is important to understand that historically revolutionary Marxists did not take this attitude. In the 40s, no Trotskyists anywhere in the world supported the Arab armies when they invaded Israel. All supported self-determination for the Israelis, in some form, as well as opposing what Zionists forces did to the Palestinians. As late as the late 60s, almost all Trotskyists talked about a socialist federation of the region in which there would be self-determination for minorities such as the Kurds and the Israelis. It is only since the 1970s that what has been called “absolute anti-Zionism” became the dominant view among Trotskyists.
I think much of what now passes for a Marxist attitude to all this comes from Stalinism – specifically from the USSR’s anti-Zionist campaigns, which provided an ideological justification for alliances with anti-Western Arab states against the US and its allies. But there is a wide variety of things intertwining here: the legacy of Stalinism; Stalinist-influenced attitudes to national conflicts; the left’s degeneration on questions of imperialism and anti-imperialism since the 1980s; anti-semitism; and increasing softness on anything Islamist, particularly since 9/11. Moreover, this sort of view has now become so hegemonic on the British left, that it has become received wisdom. In the student movement, for instance, many left activists automatically adopt some variant of it, without seeming to even really think about it.
The AWL focuses on Israel-Palestine partly in response to the rest of the left’s disproportionate focus on it. In some respects, that is problematic. Why so much focus on the Palestinians, and not on the many other oppressed peoples in the world? At the same time this is an important debate to have – both because dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict is crucial to promoting working-class politics in the region, and because it has become a touchstone for debates within Marxism. We want to clean the Stalinist crap off Marxism, on this issue as on all others.
Lastly, on boycotts of Israel.
Of course, there are different kinds of boycotts. I think boycotting the Histadrut, the Israeli union federation, is totally lunatic. Boycotting Israeli academics is disastrous. I’m against boycotting Israeli goods. At the other end of the spectrum, I think it’s reasonable enough to demand our governments stop arming Israel – but that is about our opposition to the arms trade, not really a boycott. I think we should oppose pretty much all demands that can really be described as boycotting Israel.
In general, socialists are usually pretty sceptical about boycotts as a tactic. They hurt the wrong people, the workers of a company or the working class of a country, and in so far as they’re effective they usually do more harm than good. We opposed economic sanctions against Iraq, which created a humanitarian disaster; we oppose economic sanctions against Iran. So why economic sanctions against Israel?
There can be exceptions to our general scepticism, times when boycotts can be a useful tactic – for instance when workers in dispute call for it – or at least relatively unobjectionable – as in the case of South Africa, which I’ll return to. But I don’t think the case has been made that this is such an exception.
The AWL is against boycotts of Israel because they’re ineffective; because they will harm, not help the Palestinians; and because they poison the political atmosphere, creating a reactionary and not a progressive political dynamic.
Israeli exports are dominated by high technology, including military technology. Not buying Israeli oranges or avocados won’t have much impact on much of anything. There is a liberal narrative, adopted by someone the left, that a boycott worked in South Africa. But in that case a much more comprehensive boycott existed from the 60s; it didn’t change anything, really. What forced change was the process from the 1970s, peaking in the 80s, in which the black working class got organised and struggled.
Even in the case of South Africa, there were issues with the boycott – for instance, the way the ANC used it to prevent direct links with South African workers’ organisations. But in a situation where the vast majority of a single country was being denied basic rights by an apartheid government, there was a political logic to making South Africa stink in the nostrils of world opinion, which was what, at least to some extent, the boycott did. That is why, at least, we did not oppose it.
The Israeli occupation of Palestine stinks too. But Israel is not the same as South Africa. It is not a narrow caste, but a nation – a community of people with all classes of society, including a working class that is overwhelmingly from the national majority, ie Hebrew-speaking, ie so-called Jewish. What we are talking about here is one nation oppressing another, making it a colony; in South Africa, the one nation was an internal colony. In addition, the whole dynamic of how Israel and how South Africa came to be what they were is different. As Israeli pro-Palestinian activist Uri Avnery put it, boycotting a state of people descended from Holocaust-survivors and boycotting a state founded by admirers of the Nazis is not the same.
As this false analogy would suggest, the boycott is implicitly – often, in fact, explicitly – linked to the idea that Israelis have no right to self-determination. And this is a reactionary idea, not a progressive one that socialists can support. Pro-Palestinian campaigners have been advocating boycotts for about ten years; but in fact the idea of boycotting Israel goes back decades – it was a “campaign” run by the Arab states who refused to recognise Israel and promised to eliminate it when they could. Why would socialists want to be part of that?
There is another aspect to this. Because the campaign of boycott inevitable spreads from Israelis directly responsible for the oppression of the Palestinians to all Israelis – or at least the vast majority percent who won’t advocate their own nation’s extinction – and then to all those who on any level support Israel, it has a tendency to target Jews, whatever its advocates’ intentions. Hence the pickets of Marks and Spencers. That is something we should be very worried about.
Lastly, and perhaps worst of all, I don’t believe boycotts help the Palestinians. An oppressed nation has every right to continue its struggle, without waiting for anyone, but – even leaving socialist preferences aside – the Palestinians are not strong enough to beat the Israeli state. They need allies in Israel. In the actually existing constellation of political forces and factors, the effect of boycotts is to weaken the Israeli left and hurt the Israeli working class – Jewish and Arab – driving many Israeli workers into the arms of the government and the right.
That’s why the vast majority of pro-Palestinian activists in Israel oppose foreign boycotts of Israel – even while they themselves organise boycotts of the settlements. I understand why most Palestinians support and I respect their right, as an oppressed people, to do so. But I think the idea stems mostly from desperation, and I do not think it is the duty of socialists to agree with a particular tactic, even if we judge it disastrous.
Positive, pro-active solidarity with the Palestinians and the Israeli left is much better. If the left is going to reassess the issue of Israel-Palestine, it needs to reassess the issue of boycotts too.