Socialists and the intifada

Submitted by AWL on 24 February, 2004 - 2:18

Israel confronts the Palestinians on the West Bank as a brutal colonialist oppressor. But the Jewish-Arab conflict is also a conflict of right against right - the right of the Palestinians to have an independent state and the right of Israel to exist in security. Here an attempt is made to untangle the issues.
Support for the Palestinians' struggle for an independent state should come first surely?

Yes. We support the oppressed. Those who refuse to do that inevitably help the oppressor. As the Irish socialist James Connolly rightly said: "To side with the strong against the weak is the virtue of the slave".

But we also have to keep an overview. The right of the Israeli state to exist and defend itself is not accepted by most Arabs, except maybe as something that has to be accepted because they do not have the forces to deny it. The Palestine Liberation Organisation accepts it, but, for example, Hamas, which pioneered the suicide bombings and remains their most prolific practitioner, does not.

How can the Jews have rights in Palestine? What is now called "Israel" was stolen from the Arabs.

This account has more to it of one-sided Arab, or western anti-Jewish, propaganda than of history.

There was always, over the centuries, a Jewish minority in Palestine, though not a big one. For example, in 1900, before serious Jewish immigration began, there was a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. (Similarly, 60 years ago, Jews were perhaps 40% of the population of Iraq's capital, Baghdad.)

Take the story from 1900. What is now Israel-Palestine was part of the Turkish Empire. All the Arab lands of the Middle East, except Egypt, were part of that great, sprawling, backward Islamic empire, loosely ruled from Istanbul. "Palestine" was "south Syria".

Nations are formed by history. A Palestinian nation, distinct from other Arabs, was formed only in the 20th century. It was heavily shaped by Arab interaction with the Jewish colonists. In fact, not only Jewish colonists moved into Palestine. At least 40,000 Arabs migrated into Palestine between 1922 and 1945, drawn there from the surrounding territories by the increased economic life resulting from the Zionist colonisation.

Why did Jews come at all? Much of present-day Israel was then a semi-wilderness. Tel Aviv was built on a former swamp. Where did Zionism come from?

Modern Zionism began at the end of the 19th century as a response to a growth of anti-semitism in Europe. That convinced Theodor Herzl and others that Jews would never be secure until they had their own state. A movement to persuade Jews to colonise their biblical homeland was founded. It had only very limited success. Very few Jews wanted to uproot themselves and go pioneering in the wilderness. When persecution and systematic harassment of Jews in Tsarist Russia intensified, most of those who fled moved west, to central and western Europe and America, and to South Africa, not to Palestine.

It would take half a century of increasingly lethal anti-semitism in Europe to convert large numbers of Jews to Zionism and persuade them to go to Palestine. It would also take the closing-off of all possible alternatives.

By the time Hitler came to power in Germany, in 1933, the USA no longer allowed free immigration (since 1921), and European states would let in only a trickle of Jews. Increasingly the Zionists who went to Palestine were refugees from persecution who had nowhere else to go.

By the late 1930s and in the early 1940s, Jews going from Europe to Palestine were literally fleeing for their lives. In the early 1940s, in the middle of the war, whole boatloads of Jewish refugees drowned when they attempted the journey in unseaworthy craft, desperate to escape the Nazi death trap that Europe had become for them.

Thus the Jewish national minority in Palestine was augmented by an increasing migration of desperate people.

You forget imperialism! Didn't British imperialism sponsor the Jewish occupation of Arab land, and help them drive out the Arabs?

Yes, but also no. It is a much more complicated story than myth would have it.

In late 1917, a British Secretary of State, Arthur Balfour, wrote a letter to the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann pledging British support for the establishment of a "Jewish homeland". Simultaneously Britain promised to support independence for the Arabs after they had helped Britain defeat Turkey, under whose rule they had been for centuries.

At the end of the First World War, British and France partitioned the Arab part of the collapsed Turkish Empire into more or less artificial states. France controlled Syria and Lebanon. Britain gained Transjordan (now Jordan), Iraq, Palestine, and influence in Saudi Arabia. It already had Egypt as a protectorate, since 1882.

From the beginning, sections of the British ruling class had second thoughts about the "Jewish homeland". The oil riches of the Arab lands were beginning to be developed by British capital, and counted for much more than promises to the Jews. In Palestine, anti-Jewish riots erupted in 1919. Britain would spend the next two decades trying to square commitment to the "Jewish homeland" with placating the Arab parts of its Middle East empire. It would in 1939 turn savagely against the Jews.

In 1930, the Labour Colonial Secretary, Lord Passfield (the Fabian, Sydney Webb), made tentative efforts to halt Jewish migration to Palestine. In 1937, a British investigation into new Jewish-Arab clashes, the Peel Commission, recommended the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab territories. The Zionists accepted the idea; the Arabs rejected it.

In 1939, in an effort to placate Arab discontent which the Nazis could use against Britain and France in World War Two, Britain decided to end all Jewish immigration within five years, and to limit it to 75,000 over those five years.

Britain did this on the eve of the Nazi slaughter of two out of every three of Europe's Jews - six million of them. From 1939 onwards, Britain rigidly policed access to Palestine against Jews fleeing for their lives, refusing entry to boatloads of Jews who got to the coast and locking up would-be illegal immigrants in internment camps in Cyprus. It continued to do that up to the last moments - May, 1948 - of its power in Palestine.

Marxists had warned Jewish workers against the Zionist project, telling them that they were foolish to place their trust in an alliance with imperialism. Even they could not imagined the spectacular treachery to its Zionist "ally" which the British Empire would thus commit, helping to corral European Jews for Hitler's butchers.

But without British rule in Palestine in the 1920s and 30s, there would have been no Jewish immigration. An independent Arab state would not have allowed it.

True. And then some additional hundreds of thousands of European Jews would probably have died in the Holocaust. But socialists are in favour of free immigration, aren't we? Those who denounce the entry over two decades of 341,000 Jews, many fleeing for their lives, who built up their own economy and society in parallel to that of the Arabs, now advocate the mass, collective resettlement ("right of return") of 3.7 million Palestinians in present-day Israel, and the destruction of Israel by some Saddam Hussein or other if it will not accept that "return". Such are the double standards that result from the demonisation of Israel and the replacement of real history with Arab chauvinist and anti-semitic myths.

Both the Communist International of the 1920s, and the Trotskyists, supported free Jewish migration into Palestine as into other countries, though they opposed the Zionist project and British imperialism in Palestine.

The early Jewish settlers evicted the Arabs from their land, as the first step towards driving them out altogether in 1948

Here it is difficult to trace the truth on terrain dominated on one side by Zionist heroic myths of nation-building and Arab "blameless victim" myths on the other.

The most important of the Zionist colonists were utopian socialists, determined to be neither exploiter nor exploited. They set up communistic agrarian communities, kibbutzim. They did not seize the land from the Arabs. They bought land from Arab landlords, at very high prices, reclaimed wasteland, and drained swamps. The Zionists built up their own society in parallel with the Arab society they found there.

Zionist colonists drove Arab peasants off land which they had bought over the peasants' heads from their Arab feudal overlords. Socialists are not in favour of anyone being evicted to make way for somebody else; however, the fact of evictions tells us not that the Zionists were especially evil but that it was a bourgeois and feudal, not socialist, world.

In the whole 60 years before 1948, only some thousands - not hundreds of thousands, or tens of thousands - of Arab families were evicted following land sales to Jews. Those who in their capacity as landlords privately sold the land often then publicly, in their capacity as traditional aristocratic and religious leaders, agitated against the Jewish infidel invaders, inflating the peasants'' alarm and raising land prices.

Arab-Jewish conflict had many dimensions. No doubt there was white European arrogance among the Jewish settlers. There was a very powerful cultural conflict between traditional Arab society and the Zionist utopian socialists - people rooted in modern European culture, who were often atheists hostile to all religion and certainly, in the eyes of Muslims, infidels. The freer ways and knee length trousers of the kibbutz women caused particular scandal and outrage.

It is a myth that there was no anti-Jewish prejudice in the Arab countries before Zionism. Jews were tolerated there, as they often were not in Europe - but as inferior subjects, paying special taxes. Conventional Arab and Muslim resentment at Jews who were not subservient was part of the conflict, too - attitudes expressed in such slogans as "the Jews are our dogs".

Overall, the anti-Jewish movement was communalist, traditionalist and pogromist. (And it was not confined to Palestine. In 1941 there was a major pogrom of Jews in Baghdad.) The first big anti-Jewish movement in Palestine, in 1929, included the massacre of 60 teachers and students at a non-political traditionalist Jewish college in Hebron. It was not anti-imperialist, but avowedly pro-British; one of its mobilising slogans to get Arabs to attack Jews was "the British are with us".

The Palestinian leaders were thoroughgoing reactionaries. The top leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, went to Europe in World War Two and tried to raise a Muslim army in Bosnia to fight for the Nazis.

What do you expect the Palestinians to do? Welcome the Jews?

Well, yes. What do you expect "us" to do, faced with invasion by people alien in race, culture and religion, taking over whole areas of "our" cities? Asians are, or soon will be, the majority in that fine British city, Leicester. Why shouldn't "we" find that intolerable? You hear arguments like that - arguments from xenophobia, bigotry, cultural intolerance and ignorant scapegoating - but not usually from people calling themselves socialists, or even liberals.

Yes, but the Zionists were part of a white European movement for colonising and exploiting and ultimately displacing the existing population

They were a movement of European people to make a homeland. Their unique characteristic, among white colonisers, is that they did not have the power and wealth of a "home-country" state behind them; and that they neither exploited the labour of the indigenous population, nor sought to exterminate them. They built up a self-contained Jewish society, most of it on previously unused land.

When a right-wing "Revisionist" Zionist movement emerged in the 1920s, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky and insisting on an explicitly hostile attitude to the Arabs, it was repudiated by the mainstream Zionists.

The development of the Palestinian Jewish community's relationship with the Arabs was not predetermined by the mere fact of the Jews wanting to settle there. And their wanting to settle there was not primarily a matter of Europeans wanting to exploit a less-developed land. By the time of the decisive influx of Jews, Palestine was the only place on earth that any sizeable numbers of such people could go to. Why did the existing Jewish national minority in Palestine not have the right to receive those it considered its own who were fleeing for their lives?

Of course the Palestinian Arabs had a right to defend their interests. Between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine, it was a conflict of right against right. It might have been resolved by adjustment and compromise. In fact it has been played out and made worse by war - and not by choice of the Jews alone.

The Arabs wound up being driven out in 1947-8. Millions of Palestinians were driven out. It is a unique event in modern history. That is why Israel is rightly regarded as a uniquely evil state.

Today we see the obscenity of an Israeli state with immense military power trampling on the Palestinians. In response to the suicide bombings, it has the power to smash Palestinian society.

It is utterly misleading to read the present balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians back onto the events of 1947-9. Militarily the Israelis started as the underdogs.

Israel was created as a result of a United Nations resolution in November 1947, which also provided for the creation of a Palestinian Arab state alongside it. Guerrilla war started between Jews and Arabs. On 14 May 1948 Israel proclaimed itself a state. On 15 May, five Arab states attacked it, with the explicit, publicly proclaimed (by Egypt) aim of "driving the Jews into the sea".

The big capitalist powers, including the USA, imposed an arms embargo calculated to favour the Arabs' established and already-equipped armies against the Jews, who were hastily constructing an army out of community militias. The Arab attack was to a considerable extent fomented by Britain, which was still the dominant power in Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. Some of the invading armies were led by British officers. Britain expected that the Jewish forces would collapse and it could then return to occupy Palestine as a "peacekeeper", separating Jews and Arabs.

But Israel did not collapse. It was able to nullify the embargo by smuggling and by imports from Stalinist Czechoslovakia. (Stalin wanted to make mischief for Britain and its Arab client states). Israel won the war and gained new territory.

Not millions, but perhaps 750,000, Arabs were driven out or fled during the war. The millions of Palestinian "refugees" today, over half a century later, are children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of that 750,000. "Refugee" here is a political designation.

And it is only half the picture. In the years following the 1948 war, perhaps 600,000 Jews fled from or were driven out of Arab countries and settled in Israel. Their numerous children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are citizens of Israel. In the eyes of vicarious Arab chauvinists on the pseudo-left, these "refugees" are among those who are not entitled to national rights in Israel!

Does saying this mean justifying the displacement of the Palestinian Arabs in 1947-8? No! If international socialists had had the military forces on the ground, we would have defended both Arab and Jewish communities from military aggression. We can't hope to go back into history to do that. We have a responsibility to see history whole, not to be demonisers and revanchist propagandists. The alternative to seeing history whole is to lapse into the chauvinism of one of the embattled peoples and into a demonisation of Israel and "Zionism", which is implicitly the proclamation that there are good and bad peoples in history, and people with rights and without them, and that in this case, the Jews are a "bad people", who did not have the right to their existence against the invading Arab armies. This approach, which is the dominant on the British left, has nothing in common with international socialism or with Marxism.

But many of the Palestinian refugees still live in refugee camps.

It is indeed horrible that so many human beings remain in conditions where they can plausibly be called refugees. To blame only Israel for that, however, is to let the Arab ruling classes off the hook. The Arab ruling classes have refused to absorb and integrate the Palestinian refugees, denying them the right to become citizens, or sometimes even to get jobs, in other Arab countries. Remember: it was Egypt and Jordan that snuffed out the Palestinian state promised by the 1947 UN decision; and the most spectacular massacres of the Palestinians have been committed by Jordan (September 1970), by Syria in Lebanon (mid-1970s), and by Christian Arab Lebanese (1982).

So long as the Arab refugees are denied the right to return home, Israel can have no right to exist.

So long as the Arab refugees continue to have to live as refugees, Israel will surely not have a peaceful existence. Their plight must be remedied as part of a comprehensive settlement of the prolonged national conflict.

Look at what the Israeli army has been doing in the West Bank. If their attitude to the Palestinians is not that of a "master race", what is it?

It is the attitude of people driven to desperation, who also have immense military power compared to the Palestinians.

Compare Yugoslavia. Before it broke down, a big majority across its peoples favoured the maintenance of the Yugoslav federation. They had some inkling of what its dissolution would mean.

In fact what happened was determined not by the reasonable majority, but by the chauvinists of the various nationalities, who were originally in a minority. If people will kill you for your ethnic identity, skin colour, language or nationality, then you are driven back into your own group for self-defence. You will think in terms of that group, of its defence and your own. You will have no choice. You will begin to think of the "others", whose chauvinists are gunning for you, as of an undifferentiated bloc...

In this way the chauvinists set the pace, control events, destroy more reasonable and - in a poll before the Yugoslav state's breakdown - more widely accepted common arrangements.

That is what you have in Israel-Palestine right now. The suicide bombers have created a tremendous bloc behind Sharon. What Israel is doing forces all the Palestinians behind the warriors against Israel, and tends to force them behind the most militant warriors, the suicide-bombers.

Too even-handed! There are not two equally-matched sides here.

Nor were there in Yugoslavia. Socialists could side with the smaller nationalities against Milosevic's drive for a Greater Serbia, and at the same time explain the two-sided character of the spiral into chauvinism.

To try to understand and explain Israeli reactions is not to endorse or be an apologist for them. To understand and explain nothing except that Israel is uniquely vicious and evil and, implicitly, that the Jews are a bad people - has you starting with humanitarian outrage against Israeli atrocities in the West Bank and ending with support for suicide bombings against Israeli kids in a disco.

The Palestinians are fighting for their liberation and the Israelis are colonial oppressors.

Yes, but again it is not quite so simple. The pioneers in suicide-bombing, and its most effective practitioners, like Hamas, fight not for Palestinian liberation alone but to destroy Israel. There is a connection between their politics and their tactics. Israel does not have the right to exist, and neither do Jews.

In a plain war of liberation, socialists would need to say little more about the suicide bombings than that they would end if the oppressor state would just get out. Israel should indeed get out of the Occupied Territories. The Arab and Islamic chauvinists want the Israeli Jews to get out of pre-67 Israel... The Israelis have no guarantee that withdrawal would end the suicide bombings. They respond accordingly. That is how decent Israelis, who want peace and a just settlement with the Palestinians, can come to back Sharon's brutal militarism.

Why should socialists bother about Israel's rights? Israel is in no danger of being overrun, and the Palestinians are being overrun right now.

Indeed. But the Jews and Arabs are tied together. There will be no peace for Israel until Palestinians have the same rights as Israelis; there will not be peace and freedom for the Palestinians until there is a settlement between Palestine and Israel. There will be no peace until there is an overall settlement. That is why the March 2002 proposal by the Arab League for general Arab-Israeli peace in return for Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 borders is cause for hope.

The problem is that most of the pseudo-left is not just pro-Palestinian, but root-and branch anti-Israel. On this they are with the worst Arab and Islamic chauvinists, and to the right of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which advocates two states.

This stance is no help to the Palestinians. General outrage against Israel is now at such a pitch that this is obscured; but in any medium term, most reasonable people of goodwill, will be repelled by a pro-Palestinian case that implies or demands the destruction of Israel. No broad movement of solidarity with the Palestinians and support for their reasonable and just demands can be built on such a basis.

The horrors of the current Israeli occupation and oppression in the West Bank and Gaza have not come about only because of gratuitous choices made by Israel. A central factor in the fate of the Palestinians has been the stance of open or latent war which the surrounding Arab states have maintained against Israel in the 54 years of its existence.

If today, after 54 years, only two of the Arab states, Jordan and Egypt, recognise Israel's right to exist, that is one measure of Arab ruling class responsibility for the tragic evens in Palestine. Arab states have attacked Israel not only in 1948 but also in 1973. The war of June 1967, in which Israel struck first, destroying the Arab air forces on the ground, was triggered by open Egyptian preparations for war (expulsion of a UN peacekeeping force from Sinai and blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba). In 1991 Iraq made missile attacks on Israel.

Your whole argument is Zionist apologetics.

is it? The unusual thing here is not the attempt to understand and explain the Israel-Palestine conflict in terms of real history, and the rejection of the idea that "the Zionists" are a bad people, without normal rights, but the special standards employed by those who take the opposite approach. Contrast the case of the 10 million Germans driven out of what is now western and north-eastern Poland at the end of World War Two into a ruined, half-starved Germany. Tens of thousands of them died in the course of expulsion. The demonisation of Israel and Zionism began with the Stalinist Communist Parties. In the 1960s those same Communist Parties who demonised Israel on the grounds of the plight of the Palestinian refugees, simultaneously denounced the "West German revanchists" who refused to accept the Oder-Neisse line as Germany's eastern border. Why was German revanchism bad and Arab revanchism good?

German revanchism shrank down to a fringe right-wing cause because Germany did not, like the Arab states with the Palestinian refugees, persecute and refuse to integrate the thirteen million refugees from the East, and therefore they were able to build up new lives; and because of power politics. Russia, standing behind the Polish and the Czechoslovak expulsions, was a great and seemingly stable power. World war would have been needed to reclaim the eastern territories for Germans. The balance between Israel and the Arabs, however, looked as if it might easily be reversed by more vigorous leadership in the Arab world.

That is the core meaning of radical anti-Zionism: a hope and desire to re-run the 1948 war with the reverse outcome. To reject that is "Zionist apologetics"? Only if any attempt to understand, any account of events that does not have built into it the idea that the original sin was the very existence of the Zionists and the Palestinian Jewish community, is "Zionist apologetics". Only if rejecting a programme of re-Germanising west and north-east Poland is "Polish nationalist apologetics".

Are you not sinking the immediate priorities of support and solidarity with the Palestinians under a mass of qualifications and special pleadings?

Lenin says somewhere to his comrades: "Argue amongst yourselves, gentlemen, but give clear slogans". The "clear slogans" here are: Israel out of the occupied territories, an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. As well as that, explanation, elucidation of the issue and the counterposing of Marxist historical analysis to Arab chauvinism and Stalinist myth is essential. In Britain, the "revolutionary" left has for decades - in the old Communist Party, the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party - poisoned itself on this question with Arab chauvinist myth and anti-semitism recycled as "anti-Zionism". That is why honest socialists can't confine themselves to shouting "Israel out of the Palestinian-majority territories."

The rest is irrelevant waffle! So what if there is some exaggeration in the denunciation of Israel?

The account we have given of some of the background issues is either true or untrue. It is not irrelevant. The left, or rather, the pseudo-left, demonises Israel in a way it demonises no other state.

France fought a bloody and terrible war for eight years against the Algerian independence movement. We campaigned against that war. We circulated exposures of the systematic torture the French used. But nobody demonised France or the French.

We campaigned against the US war in Indochina. We did not denounce the American people. In the late 1950s and the early 1960s the Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain did indulge in comparatively mild anti-Americanism (shouting, against US military bases, such good communist slogans as "Yankee bastards, go home") - until the growth of the American movement against America's war shamed them into dropping this chauvinist filth. The Trotskyists denounced as shameful and anti-socialist the anti-Americanism which the Stalinists brought into the early anti-Vietnam war movement.

The CPGB also indulged in vicious nonsense against Germany, in which all West Germans were dismissed as "Nazis" (for example, the slogan, "No Nazi H-Bomb!", 14 or 15 years after Hitler moved from Berlin to Valhalla).

The Trotskyist left then opposed and fought anti-Americanism and anti-German chauvinism in the name of working-class internationalism. Today, the degenerate kitsch-Trotskyist left picks up and continues the foul method of national scapegoating then used by the Stalinist CPs. It spreads poisonous Arab and Islamic chauvinist denunciation of Israel - politics that are, I repeat, to the right of the PLO.

By its demonisation of Israel, by teaching those they reach to think of national conflicts in terms of good and bad peoples (and thus, subliminally, to think of evil Jews), the left is helping build up the ideological raw material for a right wing or fascist movement in this country.

That, of course, is not what these idiots think they are doing, or want to do. Nonetheless, it is what they are doing.

For socialists, there are no bad peoples. Where there is conflict of right against right, of the rights of Palestinians and the rights of Israelis, then we seek a solution that will allow both peoples, and in the first place the working classes of both peoples, to reach accommodation:

* two states for the two peoples;

* an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel;

* Israel out of the Occupied Territories!