A Letter to an Advocate of "Secular Democratic State"
By Sean Matgamna
It seems to me that the terms of the only just solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are clear and unmistakeable.
Unless you think the interests of one side should be entirely sacrificed to the other - that is, unless you are either an Arab or an Israeli chauvinist - there is only one acceptable solution.
Each nation should have self-determination in the territory where it is the majority. I understand that to mean, essentially, the 1967 border.
There should be full equality for members of each nationality in the other's state.
When I asked you why you reject 'two states' you replied that you thought we could get something 'better than that'.
You want a 'secular democratic state' in all of pre-1948 Palestine, where Israeli Jews would be equal citizens with the Palestinians. You insist that it is possible. For you, 'two states' is intolerable because it falls short of that benign ideal. Socialist Organiser, the forerunner of Workers' Liberty, used to agree until the mid-1980s (though some of us had started to think differently from the late 1970s).
Your central premise is that Israel does not have the right to exist. This was not necessarily your starting point. But in fact it is the pillar on which are erected all schemes to 'start again' with Palestine as it was before partition in 1948 - to make that territory our basic political dogma, though it existed as a political unit only for the 30 years 1918-48.
The outcome of the 1948 war in which Israel won the right to exist, and the coming into being of the Jewish state ' that is the historical 'error', 'wrong turning', 'anomaly', 'crime', at the core of what you want to rearrange.
Now of course there is much that is intolerable and tragic about Israeli-Arab relations. It is tempting to backtrack and write an 'alternative history' of the Middle East.
That 'alternative history', in turn, breeds a confusion of historical perspective and fosters the delusion that the facts of modern history can at will be annulled, that the 20th-century history of the Middle East can be rerun.
It is easy to write, the alternative history. You take the elements in the story and - in your head - re-combine them to your satisfaction.
Would a secular democratic state in which Jews and Arabs would have had equal citizenship have been better? Then why not rerun the film of history to get that? Abolish Israel! Create a secular democratic state! You turn your alternative history into a political programme.
Your first problem is this: how is the rearrangement of the elements that you have so easily accomplished inside your head, going to be accomplished in reality? Where is the lever to be placed that will move the heavy stones of history? What will be, could be, its agency? Who will do it?
The secular democratic state necessarily involves replacing the Jewish state of Israel with another arrangement in which Jews will not have a state. The goal is not only to secure Palestinian rights by putting an end to Israeli colonial rule in the Palestinian territories, but to deprive Israeli Jews of their national rights.
How is that to be achieved?
What are the chances that the Israelis will agree voluntarily to dismantle their state? Zero!
You can hope to win Israeli agreement or majority agreement, reluctant or otherwise, for a Palestinian state and, as relations between Israel and the surrounding Arab states become 'normalised', for full equality for Israeli Arabs in the Jewish state. After 'two states' may come federation (though that, I guess, in terms of political time, is a long way off). But there is absolutely no chance that the Israeli Jews can be persuaded simply to disarm, to dismantle their state and to place themselves at the mercy of their enemies of many decades.
No people in history has ever done anything like what is demanded of the Israeli Jews.
Those who look back on a history of persecution, pogrom and in the mid-twentieth century, the systematic massacre of six million European Jews, in other peoples' states, are unlikely to be world pioneers in such a course.
The 'benign', utopian idea that Israel will politely agree to commit suicide in the hope of creating a united Jewish-Arab secular democratic state is not and never could be part of the real world.
The modern left - in contrast to the right - has never before demanded self-dissolution, or anything like it, of any nation. That the left should demand it of Israel is an abomination; and there is really nothing 'left' about it. In any case, Israel will not dissolve itself.
If the voluntary, benign rearrangement is ruled out, what then?
The answer is already implicit in your starting point: the denial of Israel's right to exist.
At first you rejected Israel in the name of a benign rerunning of history. But when rearrangement by way of voluntary agreement by the Israelis to liquidate their nation and their state is ruled out, proponents of all schemes to rerun 20th century Middle-Eastern history are left with only one conceivable way to remedy the historical 'error': the conquest and overpowering of the Jews and their state, so that they have no choice.
If not by agreement, then by coercion! And if coercion is your road, the only forces that can do the job are the Arab states.
So, starting from a desire for greater unity and harmony than 'two states' seems to offer, you go along with, or avoid falling out with, those of your friends and comrades who, while they talk out of one side of their mouths about a secular democratic state, say out of the other that Syria, Iraq and other Arab states would do good work for progress if they were to overrun Israel.
You start out seeking a just, humane solution that caters for the legitimate rights of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and find yourself supporting, or eloquently not condemning, proposals for war by the Arab states to subjugate Israel.
You reject the 'two states' programme in the name of a solution where the Arab-Jewish conflict would magically disappear into a common Arab-Jewish state, and by an inexorable logic wind up aligning yourself with those on the left who reject 'two states' in the name of an Arab conquest of Israel.
If we once take the initial step of asserting that Israel should not exist, that it does not have the right to go on existing, then the pressure of Middle East reality and the real options in the situation push us relentlessly into support for coercion. The imaginary benign alternative serves only to soften us up.
Israel's rejection of the moralistic ultimatum to disarm, dismantle itself and sink itself into a mainly-Arab state leaves us only two choices: to abandon the 'alternative history' and the secular democratic state, or to support war to compel Israel to cease to exist.
Israel's refusal eases and rationalises, and morally justifies support for the subjugation of Israel, in the name of the secular democratic state. The moral ultimatum becomes a military ultimatum to Israel.
If Israel will not dissolve voluntarily into the desired secular, democratic, all-1948-Palestine state, then it must be dissolved by compulsion.
So what if the voice in which this military version of what starts as a moralistic ultimatum to Israel is given is Nasser's, Assad's, Saddam Hussein's, Osama bin Laden's? Why not? For the left, after the June war of 1967 especially, it has been presented or passed off as 'revolutionary anti-imperialist' politics.
Militarism in a just cause can be a good thing! Progress must be served; injustice must be undone. If not voluntarily, then the other way! A secular democratic state 'by any means necessary'. All perfectly reasonable, and with a healthy, invigorating smack of no-nonsense revolutionary clarity about it.
for you, who advocate the destruction of Israel in the name of 'something better', the secular democratic state, there is a problem here. That end is utterly incompatible with these, its only conceivable means, and this, its only conceivable first act: the conquest of Israel.
If the means are Arab conquest, the subjugation and overpowering of Israel's Jews and the forcible destruction and suppression from outside of their state, then the goal of a more benign, better arrangement than history has so far provided vanishes in the maelstrom.
That a secular democratic state with full Jewish equality (or for that matter a bi-national state) would be the result of an Arab overpowering of Israel is utterly inconceivable. Ask the Kurds...
This instrument - the Arab states (or the Palestinian Arabs, if that were possible, though, of course, it is not) as conqueror - and these means - war, conquest, reduction of the Israeli Jews to statelessness and helplessness - cannot produce the benign result which you started out to seek.
The Arab states are, almost all of them, quasi-fascist regimes loaded with crimes against the people of their own countries, or, in the case of Syria, Jordan and the Christian Arabs in Lebanon, perpetrators of great massacres of Palestinian Arabs. Their conquest of Israel would produce not democracy but only different (and more) victims. Even if the Arab states were to become more democratic, a conquest by them of Israel would still be the subjugation of a small nation by another, hostile, nation or alliance of nations.
And worse. Starting from things as they are now, Israel can be compelled to get out of the Occupied Territories and be forced to accept a Palestinian Arab state. But if Israel were to be overrun or destroyed, then the possibility of two states and of justice for both peoples would vanish from history.
The delegitimisation of Israel implicit in your starting point already contained all the essential elements of the Arab nationalist conclusions that inexorably work their way to the surface. Along the road, your benign re-running of history has vanished like the political mirage it was.
There is no middle ground between, on the one side, accepting Israel's right to exist and to defend itself, Jewish self-determination, alongside self-determination for the Palestinian Arabs, and, on the other, denying Jewish self-determination in the only way it can be denied ' by force of Arab state arms that, victorious, would deny national rights to the Israeli Jews.
If you are inclined to respond: 'if Israel won't be reasonable, then too bad for the Israelis' - that is a good illustration of the logic I am uncovering. Exasperation and disappointment with Israeli insistence on the state's right to continue as a Jewish national state have propelled you, initially an advocate of a benign 'alternative history', on to the ground of Arab and Islamic revanchism and chauvinism. (All right, you're half-hearted about it, and in fact Israel is not faced with conquest, but it is the political logic that concerns me here.)
Answer this question: you advocate, as your first choice, a single secular democratic state over all pre-1948 Palestine. It cannot conceivably come into existence in any near or foreseeable future. What do you now propose?
You know that support for Arab conquest is as incompatible with honest advocacy of equal rights for the two peoples as support for Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza would be.
What are you are left with? A fantasy proposal and in the real world support for Arab states who are even more distant from your ideal than Israel is!
In a sense, of course, Marxism is 'the science of alternative history' - we orient to one sort of possible development and fight to secure it, fight to push development off the track the bourgeoisie have laid down, and so on. We do aim to tidy up history's messes and injustices, in so far as that is possible. But we are limited.
We have to root ourselves in the trends in reality that work for what we want to help develop. And we base ourselves on working-class action as the force that can reshape what history has done so far. Not the least fault of your approach is that you write the Israeli Jewish working class out of history.
The two-states policy allows for advocacy of all the necessary concrete reforms in Israel, and for the education of the Arab and Jewish workers away from chauvinism.
It cuts off no progressive revolutionary possibilities that otherwise would exist.
Mutual recognition of each others' rights by Israeli and Palestinian workers can, above all, allow the beginnings of working-class unity.
Certainly the two-states policy creates difficulties for socialists in Arab countries, and does not endear us to militant Arab and Islamic chauvinists in Britain. But only someone who forgets the democratic and socialist ABCs could think it dispensable, or dismiss the Jews in Israel as a 'troublesome little people' standing in the way of historical progress. Whose history? Whose progress?
You reject two states in the name of international socialist revolution? But a socialist revolution in the Middle East will have to have a programme of full national self-determination for non-Arab minorities in the region. Honest Arab socialists cannot but be for Jewish as for Kurdish self-determination - that is, in Palestine, for two states.
Or was the attitude of the Bolsheviks mistaken in 1917, when, proclaiming the right of nations like the Poles and the Finns to secede from the Russian state, they implemented a programme of consistent democracy on the national question in the former Tsarist Empire? Are the teaching of the Lenin-Trotsky Third International and of the Fourth International on consistent democracy and self-determination as the solution to national conflicts, mistaken?
I encounter people who respond to the 'two states' idea with the scandalised declaration - 'socialists are not for division, but for unity! We should not want separate Palestinian and Jewish states, but one united state'. In fact, under the slogan of 'unity', they usually mean a state in which the Israeli Jews have lost their national rights.
All this sort of stuff, when it is not, as it often is, disingenuous and hypocritical, is plain foolish - innocent of all acquaintance with Marxist and socialist thinking on such questions over the last 150 years!
The particular concern of socialists is to bring into being a framework of coexistence that will allow Jewish and Arab workers eventually to unite, within the states and across the borders, so that they can learn in common action to work for socialism in the Middle East.
The entire Marxist tradition holds that where there is such chronic antagonism between peoples within a state that one wants to separate from the other and have its own state, then separation is a lesser evil than forced union.
Separation begins the process of removing the antagonism by introducing a peaceful modus vivendi between the historically warring antagonists.
Democratic separation is the only way to preserve or prepare working-class unity.
We want unity, not division, but the way to democratic mutual respect between peoples, and the way to working class unity, is sometimes through separation.
An independent Palestinian state will mark tremendous progress, not alone for the Palestinian people, but also for the people of Israel.
Either Israel has the right to exist and defend itself, and its Jewish majority have the right to maintain a distinct and independent existence as a nation as long as they like - or they don't.
If they do, then we seek a solution that secures the rights of Jews and Arabs alike. If they don't, all rights belong to the Arabs. Such an idea is absurd and unjust, but at least it is a clear and honest Arab chauvinist position.
That is the basic terrain of this question.
I once read a story - I can't remember where, and it may be a true story - which encapsulates the experience of those who begin with the benignly motivated but fantastic and unrealisable proposal for a Jewish-Arab secular-democratic state and are then driven by a logic they do not understand on to the ground of Arab and Islamic chauvinism and revanchism.
Medieval Italy. The people of a small village decide that they will not eat animals anymore; perhaps St Francis walked among them. So they became vegetarians. Set on vegetarianism as their style of life, they succumb to 'secondary narcissism' and proclaim it the best and the only proper sort of life. Soon they became convinced that anything other than the vegetarian life is immoral. But here, they are on dangerous ground.
Only the Pope and his bishops can decide what is moral and immoral. Any challenge to their right to decide what is and is not moral is heresy. But the villagers stubbornly hold to their opinion: not to be vegetarians is immoral.
So they are persecuted.
They resist, fight back. Guerrilla war develops between the villagers and their persecutors. Greatly outnumbered, the villagers are driven up into the barren mountains. Vegetation there is scarce. What will they eat?
They are in this fix because they think eating animals is immoral. There is no going back on that: they can't eat mountain sheep, goats and hares. They will surrender and be burned at the stake, eat animals - or ...?
In fact, they solve their dilemma by eating the flesh of the enemies they kill. They don't like this; but it is not a moral principle on a par with the prohibition on killing and eating animals.
The vegetarians on principle turn into cannibals.
Those who start out seeking a benign rerunning of the history of the last hundred years in Palestine, wind up aligned with, and as propagandist outriders for, Saddam Hussein. Those who refuse to choose rationally from the best real possibilities wind up supporting the forcible suppression of the Jewish nation in Palestine!
Andrew, the only benign solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict now is the liberation of Palestine from Israel's grip and the setting up of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Advocacy of that programme is the only way ever to begin to unite the Jewish and Arab workers in the Middle East.
There is no middle ground - it is either two states or the Islamic-Arabic revanchist fantasy.
The 'secular democratic state', for the reasons I have outlined, works only to smooth the road of people who don't stop to think about the issue towards vicarious Arab-Islamic chauvinism.
The vegetarians of alternative history wind up supporting the Saddam-Hussein-style cannibals of contemporary Middle East reality.
Yours, Sean Matgamna
(From the Workers' Liberty pamphlet Two Nations, Two States Second edition, 2004.)
Caro Compagno Sean,
scusa se ti scrivo in italiano, ma il mio inglese è pessimo. Sono un vecchio militante trotskista che da qualche anno non ha più una appartenenza politica e che sta da tempo riconsiderando molte delle vecchie certezze di un tempo.
Condivido pienamente il contenuto della tua lettera, che rappresenta per me la posizione più corretta sulla questione arabo-israeliana.
Seguo da anni (da quando sono connesso a internet) le iniziative dell'AWL che considero una delle voci più interessanti della sinistra di classe e non solo in Gran Bretagna.
In particolare ho molto apprezzato i lavori tuoi e dei tuoi compagni su Tony Cliff e il SWP.
Se la cosa ti interessa, puoi trovare parecchi miei testi su siti internet.
In reply to Caro Compagno Sean,scusa by Anonymous (not verified)
Molte grazie per i tuoi commenti. Sarebbe molto interessante per me sapere che cosa pensi adesso della situazione politica in Italia. Quali sono le possibilità per la sinistra dopo la decisione di Rifondazione di fare un'alleanza con Prodi?
Io sono una compagna di Workers' Liberty e sto per trasferirmi a Roma per sei mesi dopo Capodanno, dove spero di seguire un po' la sinistra italiana.
And for English readers a slightly more polished translation of Giorgio's message:
'Apologies for writing in Italian, but my English is dreadful. I am an old Trotskyist militant, who for some years now has not belonged to an organisation, and who for some time has been reconsidering many of the old political certainties.
I fully agree with the content of your letter, which represents for me the most correct position on the Arab-Israeli question.
I have been following for years (since I have had internet access) the initiatives of the AWL, which I consider one of the most interesting voices of the working-class left, and not only in Great Britain.
In particular I greatly appreciated your work and that of your comrades on Tony Cliff and the SWP.
p.s. If you are interested, you can find a number of my publications on internet sites.