The SWP and Israel

Submitted by Matthew on 3 March, 2013 - 2:48

Cliff first appeared in the international Trotskyist press in 1938-9 as “L Rock”: the rock would grow into a cliff. He contributed to a discussion on Palestine in the American Trotskyist publication New International. He was obviously a young man trying to think things through. It was an inconclusive discussion, but in 1938-9 he was in favour of the right of Jewish migration. He would criticise himself on that much later, in an interview in the SWP magazine in 1987.

In late 1944 Cliff wrote an open letter, published in the RCP journal Workers’ International News, to the delegates at the Labour Party conference held in December 1944. The open letter set out to blacken as much as possible, in the eyes of the conference delegates, the Jewish population of Palestine.

It was not signed, but you can tell it was Cliff. Cliff would later on recycle chunks from it in his other writings. The conference had a motion, which it would pass, supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and the open letter was aimed at dissuading the delegates from supporting it.

Since the outbreak of World War Two the British had been placating Arab opinion by limiting Jewish migration into Palestine. In practice during the war there was a sizeable movement of Jews finding any way they could into Palestine, and there was open conflict between some of the Zionists — right-wing Zionists, in fact — and the British authorities over that.

The Palestinian Arab leader of the 1930s, Husseini, had been in Bosnia during the war, trying to raise a Muslim army to fight for Hitler. The British were doing what they could to placate the Arabs.

In 1944 the full extent of the Holocaust was not known, but that there had been mass killings of Jews was known. The British army would liberate Belsen early in 1945, and the whole thing would become public, but even before that much was generally known.

For Cliff to write what he wrote, making the Jewish population of Palestine look as bad as possible, and for the RCP to publish it in the midst of the European Holocaust, seems to me to show political disorientation. Cliff was now against the right of Jewish migration into Palestine.

In the mid-1940s he wrote a series of articles which were later put together as a pamphlet in a number of languages, The Middle East at the Crossroads. It was a strange pamphlet, full of background facts about oil production and so on, but with few political conclusions. As ever, Cliff wrote background papers and left the political conclusions to be worked out in a separate process.

Cliff came to England in September 1946 and became a member of the majority of the British Trotskyist organisation, the RCP, led by Jock Haston, Ted Grant, and others.

From 1948 to 1967, there is simply nothing about Israel in Cliff’s publications. Nothing at all. In the mid-50s one of the big points causing scandal around the Communist Parties was that it came out that there had been anti-semitism in Russia. All the Trotskyists denounced the anti-semitism.

There was an article in Socialist Review written, I guess, by Michael Kidron, which makes the obvious points against the anti-semitism in Stalinist Eastern Europe. But there was nothing in SR’s publications about Israel.

Other people were paying attention: for example, there was an article by Ellis Hillman on Israel in the Healyite magazine Labour Review of May-June 1957. But from SR and IS there was nothing until the 1967 war, in which Cliff came out for full-scale defeat of Israel. So, I should say, did Workers’ Fight come out against Israel.

We didn’t understand that defeat would mean destruction for Israel. You would think that Cliff would understand that. On the other hand, he might have been indulging in demagogy knowing that American backing for Israel, though it wasn’t what it is now, would stop things going as far as destruction of Israel.

Cliff published a pamphlet in 1967, The Struggle in the Middle East, which repeats some of the stuff from the 1940s. In his speeches at that time, he certainly repeated some of the horror stories from the open letter of 1944.

In 1967 Cliff was still sufficiently constrained by the background and tradition of Trotskyist politics to warn that “an anti-Israeli campaign quite easily degenerates into a ‘jihad’,” (he took it for granted that would be a bad thing, and not, as for the SWP today, a good thing!). He stated his solution in terms which implied, if unclearly, the same rights of national self-determination for the Israeli Jews as for the Kurds: “a socialist republic, with full rights for Jews, Kurds and all national minorities”.

After 1967 Israel became a colonial power in the West Bank and Gaza. Naturally socialists opposed it. Nevertheless, the question arose: what is our policy for the Middle East?

Up to the late 1960s the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was dominated by Egypt. Its leader was a man called Ahmed Shukeiri. He used to call for “driving the Jews into the sea”. As far as I know, no socialist in Britain condoned that, though there was very little discussion about the issue.

In 1969 the PLO changed its policy from Shukeiri’s clear statement to demanding a “secular, democratic state for Jews and Arabs” over all pre-1948 Palestine. In fact that was a bit of political repackaging. You couldn’t get such a state without Israel’s agreement, and nothing but physical conquest would make Israel, or what was left of it, agree. In practice it was the same policy as Shukeiri, dressed up differently.

However, it fooled people, including me, because of our hostility to what Israel was doing in the occupied territories. We wanted to believe that the conflict could be resolved by merging the two nations into a single state. We did not want to face up to the sharp choice: did our support for the Palestinians mean that we were willing to see Israel overrun and destroyed?

I think if that choice had been posed plainly to us, we would have answered no. But the “secular democratic state” formula seemed to answer all the problems: to give Jews rights in a secular democratic state satisfying the Palestinians.

IS adopted the secular democratic state, too, and publicised the Palestinian struggle. From about 1969 or 1970 it gave explicit support to the Palestinian guerrillas. IS made propaganda against Israel in the spirit of Cliff’s 1944 open letter.

Over the years Israel was more and more demonised in the IS/SWP press. Of course, there was a colonial war in the occupied territories in which the Israelis were the villains and it was right to side with the Palestinians. Complications arose because the Palestinians and Arab nationalists generally wanted the whole of Palestine.

In 1947 the United Nations had decided on two states, Palestinian and Israeli. In the war that followed the Arab invasion of Israel in 1948 the borders were shifted, and the supposed Palestinian state was carved up, a little bit going to Israel, a little bit to Egypt, and most of it to Jordan. The “two states” idea was half forgotten.

In the early 1970s some people started to argue for a two-states settlement. I think the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine originated it. It made sense because the secular democratic state was impossible of realisation, and meant pushing back any redress for the Palestinians to so-called Greek Kalends. The insistence on the “secular democratic state” formula was fundamentally hostile to any solution that would give the Palestinians a liveable situation. It meant seeing them as “anti-imperialist” cannon fodder, or as symbols, or as Islamic heroes if you were from that background.

In 1988 the PLO changed its position and began to call for two states. That was an important turning point. All sorts of questions were left unanswered, but the idea of two states presented the possibility of an early measure of liberation for the Palestinians combined with allowing the Israeli-Jewish nation to continue.

By this stage the majority of the Israeli Jewish population were not immigrants. They were the children or grandchildren of immigrants. The idea that they had no collective rights was in conflict with any socialist outlook. In national conflicts, socialists never side with one nation unrestrictedly and totally, or become chauvinists of that nation: we advocate self-determination for both nations. Unless you believe that there is such a thing in history as a bad people, that is what you have to do.

And Israel was the product of the debauch of mass murder which overtook the Jews in the 1930s and 40s. The Zionist idea, the idea of a Jewish state, won the Jewish majority quite late in the day. It was Polish anti-semitism in the 1920s and above all the terrible deeds of the Nazis that made so many Jews decide to flee to Palestine. The USA had stopped its open borders policy in 1921-4, so that was not an option for many of them.

To see the resultant conflict between Palestinians and Jews as entirely the fault of the Jews is nonsensical. It betrays a bias which means that you don’t really think about the issues. You demonise the Jews. You become a species of anti-semite.

When we say that, SWPers tend to respond that we are calling them racists. No, we are not calling them racists. There are many anti-semitisms in history. A doctrine which at its centre wants to destroy the Jewish state and will support any force to conquer Israel, even Saddam Hussein in his time, is hostile not only to Israel but to the vast majority of Jews across the world into whose post-Holocaust consciousness Israel has been built by events.

I never heard of anyone on the left who was a Holocaust denier; but then, as there are different sorts of anti-semitism, so also there are different sorts of denial. The attitude of the SWP is to acknowledge that all the terrible things of the Holocaust happened, but then to proceed as if they happened and they had no weight in the subsequent story. It’s not denial, but it’s minimisation.

The SWP got caught in this mindset, and has been driven on by righteous and just indignation against Israel’s misdeed, until its policy has become identical with the most chauvinist Arabs or Islamists.

For ourselves, we began to rethink the question in the late 1970s, and we concluded in 1986 that “two states” was the only democratic solution and also the only solution possible in the short or medium term. From that point onwards we have vigorously opposed those whose policy amounts to the call for the destruction of the Jewish state or the forcible incorporation of its people into an Arab state.

The SWP changed its approach on the issue radically around 1986-7, at the time of its general “anti-imperialist” turn signalled by its switch to backing Iran in the Iraq-Iraq war. Around that time it produced its pamphlet, written by John Rose, which on the cover depicts Israel as a mad dog.

The SWP had until 1987 opposed taking sides in the Iran-Iraq war. They had opposed siding with Argentina in the Falklands war of 1982. But the practice of effectively siding with the designated “anti-imperialists” on their own terms had taken root, and there was a long-standing antagonism to Israel to build on, a real personal hostility on the part of Cliff, certainly. A search for “anti-imperialist” forces to support gathered momentum in its politics.

That was part of the process leading the SWP into the Respect adventure of 2004-7, in which they accepted as their own what they took to be the politics of the oppressed Muslim populations in Britain. That attitude is not Marxist politics, especially when the leading figures from the oppressed group, the Islamists, are part of an aggressive and extremely rich world-wide reactionary movement.

It has been one of the most terrible things in the history of the SR-IS-SWP organisation. They have demonised AWL as unresponsive to the Palestinians, but when in the Socialist Alliance of 2001-3 we moved that the Alliance support Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, the SWP voted it down. They wanted to stick with the Arab and Islamic chauvinist position which demands the destruction of Israel even at the cost of opposing immediate redress for the Palestinians.

When Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death by the Islamic Republic in Iran, all sensible socialists backed him and his right to publish. The SWP did too. In recent years, SWP writers from Lindsey German to Alex Callinicos have revised their position to the point where they suggest they were wrong to take that stand, and that they would take the opposite stand in any similar case in future.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.