Unravelling the issues part 2

Submitted by AWL on 24 February, 2004 - 2:27

The "right of return"

Condemnation of the Israeli law under which Jews throughout the world have the right to come and claim citizenship in Israel is an article of faith among most anti-Zionists. It is outrageous, they say, that people with no direct connection with Palestine should have the right to come to Israel while the Palestinian Arabs do not.

The same anti-Zionists advocate the collective right of the Palestinian Arabs to "return", and claim that this return, rather than some agreed division of the disputed territory, is the only solution.

Yet think what is involved here. In 1948, about 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were driven out of what became Israel. In the following years, over half a million Jews fled, or were driven out from, Arab states, and came to Israel. There was a substantial population exchange.

Today there are 8.6 million Palestinian Arabs scattered across the world, 3.7 million of them registered as refugees. Most of them were not born in Israel. Many of their parents weren't. Only a small proportion could "return". The others have never been there.

On the other side, the majority of the Jews of Israel were born there, many of them from parents driven from the Arab countries.

So the proposal for the Arab "right of return" is a proposal for people who have never lived there to "repossess" Israel from people born there.

Is "right of return" just free immigration?

In parts of the British left, support for the collective "right" of 3.7 million Palestinians to "return" is presented as if it were the same sort of question as our opposition to the racist immigration laws we have in Britain, laws which discriminate with a relentless viciousness against black and brown-skinned people. Examples of Israeli racism are cited to back up this equation.

In fact, the idea that those who fled or were expelled in 1948 - of those 750,000 people how many are still alive? - and their children, grand-children and great-grandchildren have a collective "right of return" has been understood by both Arabs and Israelis as implying the replacement of Israel - as one of many coded ways of proposing the destruction of Israel.

Now, populations shift and change over time, naturally and, so to speak, organically. Socialists are in favour of the free movement of people. That is one thing. Under "right of return" we are talking about the collective migration into what is now Israel of two-thirds as many people as are already there. This is something other than what "free immigration" into Britain means now.

In fact, it is a fantastic idea. It could not conceivably happen except in the aftermath of the complete conquest and subjugation of Israel.

Even if it is conceived of as something that could be done with the agreement of the Israelis, peacefully, it would nonetheless be incompatible with the continued existence of the Israeli Jews as a nation, a compact mass of people with a common identity and a common territory.

You may think that a good or a bad thing, but be clear that that is what "right of return", collective resettlement, for millions of Palestinians means. This idea has always been understood on both sides as code for the end of the Israeli Jewish state.

The real equivalent of the demand for the collective migration of three or four million into Israel would be if many tens of millions of people - say 40 million - just across the Channel, were claiming a collective right to "repossess" Britain. In such a situation, whether you supported their right to come in or not, it would be plain silly to pretend that it was the same thing as the entry over time of some hundreds of thousands, or millions, of immigrants from Asia or eastern and south-eastern Europe.

The national conflict between the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arabs cannot be dealt with by pretending that it is a question of individual rights. If the Palestinians win the right to have their own state, and Israel-Arab relations are normalised, that will create conditions favourable to a great increase in free movement of individuals between Palestine and Israel. Of course we are for that.

Schemes have been put forward by the Israeli left and by Palestinian negotiators for negotiated numbers of Palestinians with family backgrounds in what is now Israel to be resettled there. Such measures are surely desirable, and they should involve as many people as possible.

But that is a different matter from a collective "right of return" of 3.7 million Palestinians en masse - behind the demand for which has for decades stood the threat of a war of conquest to enforce it.

Acceptance of the "right of return" for Israel would not be a matter of that nation doing as every nation should, and abandoning racist and chauvinist attitudes to minorities in its midst or to migrants. It would mean the Israeli Jews opting for national self-destruction in deference to the claims of another nation.

Not only does such a thing not happen in real history; no reasonable person would demand that it should happen, or think that Israel's refusal to to do it justifies a war of conquest by the Arab states.

Here, as elsewhere, the underlying assumption is that the Israeli Jewish nation is an illegitimate nation, and therefore does not have the same rights as other nations.

Accept "right of return" only in principle?

The argument that all the Arabs "really" want is that Israel in principle should accept the right of return, but in practice not many Palestinians would use it, is either confused or disingenuous.

It is a demand that Israel should acknowledge its own historical illegitimacy. That is something else nations do not do.

It is the demand that Israel concede the moral case of those who, even if the Arab states should normalise relations with Israel, will, by terrorism, try to continue the war to destroy Israel.

In reality, the demand that Israel acknowledge "in principle" the "right of return" works against easy movement between Israel and the Arab states. It is part of the old antagonistic relationship in which it served as an ideological artefact in a war whose - admitted - goal was to destroy Israel. Its abandonment as part of "normalisation" of Arab-Israeli relations would in fact serve to facilitate the "return" of larger numbers of Palestinians - or entry by those whose grandparents were not born in what is now Israel: why should they have fewer rights?

Palestinians who go to work in Israel are entitled to citizenship there. Who knows what in decades the natural demographic shifts arising from free or freer movement of Arabs and Jews will produce? Who, other than nationalists and racists, should care?

In sum: right now, the call for collective "right of return" is still either the demand that Israel surrender the character its Jewish people want it to have, or minimally, that it "in principle" proclaims itself historically illegitimate, while continuing to maintain its Jewish character.

Anybody who is for a two state settlement cannot logically also be for collective "right of return", without thereby implicitly proclaiming that they take neither "two states", nor "right of return" seriously.

Fighting racism

The fight to destroy Israel is said to be the fight against racism. Israel symbolises and represents racism.

There are laws and practices in Israel which deserve to be opposed. But it is malignant propaganda - in fact, an expression of Arab or Islamicist chauvinism - to equate Israeli nationalism, the desire of the Israeli Jews to have and to protect their own compact Jewish population, within a Jewish state, with racism.

Otherwise every nation on earth has to be called racist. No good, and certainly no political clarity, can come from such a blanket equation of nationalism with racism.

If the Arab states should destroy Israel, that would not be "anti-racist". It would lead to the comprehensive ill-treatment of all those Jews in the conquered territory who refused to stop being "Zionist", or what their conquerors chose to define as "Zionist". Here, opposition to Israel's "racism" is part of a propaganda war on behalf of those who would, if they could, inflict their own "racism" on the whole Jewish people of Israel!

Fighting imperialism

The destruction of Israel is said to be necessary in the cause of defeating imperialism in the Middle East. But Israel is an independent nation state. It is surrounded by hostile Arab countries, with much larger populations. They are independent states, too, most of them with their own ruling-class ties with the "imperialist" West. Syria's population is 15 million, Jordan's five million, Iraq's 23 million, Egypt's 61 million, and Lebanon's four million. Israel's is six million. Israel is more prosperous than the surrounding Arab countries, but not because it rules them or draws super-profits from them.

Since 1967 Israel has developed close ties with the USA. But the Israeli state existed before those links existed, and could continue to exist after they were broken.

To identify Israel as the arch-imperialist, or as the prime tool of imperialism, in the area, is to be an apologist for the Arab ruling classes. Throughout the area, those ruling classes use denunciation of Israel and "Zionism" in order to divert workers' and peasants' class resentment towards a distant target. The Palestinian-Arab landlord ruling class used "anti-Zionism" in that diversionary way in the 1920s and '30s, and there is even an element of it in the present intifada, in so far as some of its energy comes from dissatisfaction with the corruption and repression of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian semi-state. The only authentic anti-imperialism in the area is the fight for working-class socialist democracy.

Anti-Zionism and anti-semitism

In the earlier part of the 20th century, Zionism was a minority political current among Jews. Many Jews opposed Zionism, for many different reasons. Marxists argued that Jews should unite with non-Jewish workers for the class struggle in the country where they lived, rather than going off to create Zionist colonies. Conservative and well-established Jews thought that the Zionists would give Jews a bad name for not being loyal citizens of the countries where they lived. Most religious Jews also objected to Zionism.

But now the establishment of a Jewish state is no longer a scheme for the future. It is a fact over 50 years old. Most Israelis live there because they were born there. The meaning of "Zionism" is not so clear. Usually it is taken to mean any sort of sympathy or identification with Israel, however critical - in other words, the reflex response of most Jews worldwide.

But then "Zionism" is denounced as something akin to racism. This is ideological terrorism, used to prevent any consideration of the issues that does not start with root-and-branch condemnation of Israel.

The "anti-Zionist" demand that "Zionism" should be undone - i.e. that the Israeli Jewish state should cease to exist, and that the Jewish nation should instead dissolve into an Arab state - is not necessarily racist, but it is inescapably anti-semitic. It demands of the Israeli Jews something - self-submergence into another, and hostile, nation - which it demands of no other nation. It implies hostility to the Israeli Jews, and hostility to that big majority of Jews worldwide, the "Zionists", who instinctively identify with Israel.

In the 1980s student Jewish societies at a number of British universities were banned by the socialist-led university student unions because the Jewish students refused to denounced "Zionism". Much of the left supported those bans. That shows the anti-semitic logic of denying Israel's national rights.

Should we boycott Israeli goods?

No. Boycotts, particularly organised trade-union boycotts, can be valuable methods of struggle to force a government to change policy; and the Israeli government has many policies that socialists would wish to change. For socialists to boycott Israeli goods would however make us just extra voices in the loud, long-standing chorus of the Arab states. It would be a gesture having no plausible positive practical effect but a very large negative ideological effect on our ability to establish an independent working-class stance against both Israeli and Arab chauvinism.

Boycott activity would also feed into, and in practice quickly become, anti-semitism, targeting not Israel but non-Israeli Jews. Marks and Spencer has been a big target of "anti-Zionist" boycott campaigns - not because it is Israeli, but because it is a firm with Jewish owners who, like almost all Jews, sympathise with Israel.

Is Israel a "religious" state?

Socialists oppose exclusivist, chauvinist, or racist policies and practices in Israel as in every state. But for no other state - however chauvinist or religious-sectarian its laws - do sane socialists propose the suppression of the people who make up the state. We propose instead to replace chauvinism or religious sectarianism by consistent democracy. The same should go for Israel.

Israeli Jews' collective identity is fundamentally national; many of them are not religious. Zionism in its pioneer period was mostly a secular movement, opposed by the Jewish religious establishment.

In Israel, minority religious parties have been able, as the price for their support for coalition governments, to impose measures which all socialists and democrats would oppose. Nevertheless, Israel is far from the worst of the world's states in its taint of religious sectarianism.

The argument that Israel must be overrun by the neighbouring states - including self-avowed "Islamic" states - unless it first manages to free itself of all sectarianism or chauvinism embodies scandalous double standards. Which other nation could make good its right to self-determination if, in order to claim it, it had first to prove itself fully democratic and internationalist?

Israel = South Africa?

Israel is said to be the same sort of "settler state" as South Africa was before 1994, when rigid legal divisions gave the white people vast privileges over the black. A common political programme is advocated for both: smash the settler state.

But even if the "settler state" tag fits both South Africa and Israel, these societies are so vastly different that the tag alone is inadequate to base any political conclusions on. More important is what differentiates Israel and South Africa.

Israel was given its character by the Zionists' resolute refusal to use Arab labour. Instead they insisted on Jewish labour, as part of their drive to build up a compact Jewish society in Palestine. Whatever one thinks of that "Jewish labour only" policy, it was the opposite of the mass exploitation on which modern South Africa was built. The exploitation of Arab labour from the occupied territories since 1967 has not fundamentally changed the character of Israel in this respect.

There may be similarities in political-military techniques between Israeli policy in the West Bank and apartheid South Africa; but in Israel there is not a ruling Jewish caste exploiting Arab helots. In South Africa white people used to hold all the positions of wealth and power while black people did all the basic labour in the mines and the factories. In Israel there are low-paid Arab workers, and increasingly many low-paid non-Jewish migrant workers from other origins, but 86% of all people employed are Jewish.

"Smash the settler state" in South Africa meant: abolish the monopoly of power and the caste privileges of the white minority. Let the majority rule. It meant the same in colonial Algeria, where before 1962 a small minority of European settlers lorded it over the Arabs and Berbers.

But what would "smash the settler state" mean for Israel? It is a state which is extremely democratic for its Jewish majority. Its army is pretty close to being a citizen army. For an external force to "smash" this state would not be a matter of destroying a repressive apparatus, or defeating it in war, but of overrunning Israel and forcibly destroying or suppressing the Jewish nation. It could only be done by slaughter, expropriation, terror, and, pretty certainly, the driving out of large parts of the population.

The programme of "destroying Israel" was long made to appear something other than the expression of a special hostility to the Israeli Jews by identifying Israel with South Africa. But that is an utterly false comparison. In Israel there are Jewish bosses - and mostly Jewish workers. In South Africa there were white bosses (and supervisors, and holders of better-paid jobs) - and black workers.

Where does the left's "Zionophobia" come from?

There was a Zionist unit in the Red Army with which the Russian workers and peasants, led by the Bolsheviks, fought the counter-revolutionaries and the invading armies after the 1917 workers' revolution. Left-wing Zionists were represented at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920. Left Zionist groups remained legal in the USSR until the Stalinist ice-age set in, in 1927, with the deportation of the Bolshevik-Leninist (Trotskyist) opposition - six years after the main opposition groups were banned.

In short, in the earlier part of the 20th century Zionism was generally considered to be a left-wing cause; and even those Marxists who criticised the Zionists, criticised them as mistaken comrades, not as out-and-out enemies.

In Britain, the Labour left was particularly friendly to Zionism until well into the 1970s. "Arabism" was generally a Tory cause.

How, then, did most of the left come to be so hostile to Zionism?

Much of the Labour left's affection for Zionism was based on the delusion, long since shattered, that Israel was socialist. And then the colonial regime that Israel ran in the West Bank and Gaza after 1967 progressively alienated left-wing sympathies. In a world where the "new" left was formed in response to struggles such as the Vietnam war, Israel seemed very unattractive. The brutality of the Israeli army against stone-throwing Palestinian youths today continues this pattern.

But that is only part of the story. It explains why the left should be hostile to Israeli government policy, but not why the left should be so radically hostile to the whole Israeli Jewish nation. The Stalinist movement, and the USSR and the East European states, have also been powerful factors in shaping left anti-Zionism.

The Russian dictator Stalin supported Israel in the 1948 war for reasons of his own power-politics calculations, but soon turned against it. He launched a full-scale purge of "Zionists" - meaning Jews - in the East European Communist Parties which the Russian army had placed in power at the end of World War 2.

The "anti-Zionist" campaign spread through the CPs of the world. There were good Jews still. But "the Zionists" were bad Jews, and by now that meant that most Jews were bad Jews.

As late as 1968-9, there was a full-scale purge of the pitiful remnants of Poland's Jewish community, especially those who were members of the ruling party.

Against the background of "left Zionophobe" culture created by the great volume of official Communist Party propaganda, it was easy for the left that took shape in the 1960s in solidarity with Third World struggles to line up solidly with the left-talking and vociferously "anti-imperialist" Arab bourgeois regimes - and to adopt their vision of Israel as the main enemy.

Instead of independent working-class politics, the left adopted the politics of demonising Israel and identifying Arab nationalism as the revolutionary force in the area ("the Arab revolution"). The left thus broke with the basic ideas of Lenin: where there is national conflict, socialists advocate working-class unity as the first principle, and conciliation of the national conflicts as the means to promote working-class unity across the national divisions.

The position of the left-wing "anti-Zionist" who fervently and often denies being an anti-semite might be summed up thus:

Why do you misconstrue my views?

Believe me, I don't hate no Jews;

For seeing what pure love will do,

What need have I for hatred too?

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