By Jim Higgins
It is always a pleasure to see Sean Matgamna in full spate and my enjoyment of his piece, “Paul Foot, philo-semite” (WL 32), was abated only by the fear that the might do himself a serious mischief, carrying that immense weight of heavy irony.
What a spiffing wheeze, Sean must have though, to belabour Footie with Hilaire Belloc, because one thing is sure, whatever Foot’s prejudices may happen to be, Belloc was a brass-bound and copper-bottomed anti-semite, the author of the lines: “How odd of God, to choose the Jews.”
Now I have not read, and I hope I do not have to do so, the Paul Foot articles that have so aroused Sean’s rage, but I assume that it is anti-Zionist and that it sees the state of Israel as the single greatest barrier to socialism and peace in the region. If that is the case then Paul Foot has adopted, in this case if no other, the only tenable position for a Marxist.
There used to be a man, I do not know if he is still alive, called Pat Sloan. He was for many years the secretary of the British Soviet Friendship Society. If anyone suggested in the press that Joe Stalin had smelly feet or Molotov was “old stone bottom” Pat would write in to say that he personally owned two pairs of Stalin’s socks, and they glowed in the dark, suffusing his bedroom with a perfumed aroma like Channel No5. As to Molotov, his bum was in fact made of the finest Ferrara marble, which like aeroplanes, cars, radio, TV and the air conditioned pogo-stick had been invented in Russia. Sean on Israel puts me very much in mind of Pat Sloan in full apologia mode.
Let us take the question of the expulsion of a million Arabs from their homes. Sean says, “In fact Israel was proclaimed in May 1948, in territory allotted by the United Nations, without any Arabs being expelled. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs did flee — the great majority not expelled — after Arab states with the backing, naturally enough, of the Palestinian Arabs, invaded Israel.” In this case Sean is guilty of exactly that of which he accuses Foot, distorting history. As the result of a plan conceived in January 1948, the Zionists moved in April of that year. The Irgun Zvei Leumi bombarded Jaffa for three days, Haganah attacked the Arab community in Jerusalem, and on the 9th April, the Irgun and the, fascist-trained, Stern Gang attacked the Arab village of Deir Yassin, killing in cold blood 254 men, women and children. It was the news of these massacres which set the Arab refugees on the move and it was their land expropriation that enabled the Zionists to increase their share of the partitioned state by 25% before the UN resolution was even passed. In 1948 the Arab armies, apart from a few Egyptian troops, all fought on Arab land.
In a sense, the detailing of who did what to whom is not very productive. What the Arabs did to Jews in 1929, and on several other occasions, or what Jews did to Arabs in 1948 and have done consistently ever since, suggests an equality between Arabs and Jews that does not exist. It suggests that they were acting as in a vacuum. It really was not like that.
From the very beginning of the Zionist movement, its leaders attempted to get the support of powerful backers. Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, tried unsuccessfully to approach the German Kaiser and the Sultan of Turkey. After his death, Weitzman had a first meeting with Arthur Balfour in 1906, that bore fruit in 1917 in the Balfour Declaration for a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Balfour was not only giving away a land already occupied by Palestinians, but also was effectively disposing of the spoils of war that had yet to be won.
Weitzman, however, had chosen wisely, and a Jewish population that had stood at 130,000 in 1914 under the British increased by half a million by 1939. Naturally enough, this represented no great British sympathy for Jews — Balfour in fact was an anti-semite — it did represent a useful counterbalance to the Arabs and made it easier to control Palestine which was important strategically for its proximity to the Suez Canal and as a vital link for the sea route and air routes to India and the East. Oil from Iraq flowed through the pipeline to Haifa, which was known as the Singapore of the Middle East.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s British imperialism put on a virtuoso performance of divide and rule. They blew up Arab houses, they demolished villages to punish “collective guilt”, established concentration camps, which they justified on the basis of protecting Jews and Jewish property. On the other hand the British would turn off the immigration tap to punish Jews and reward the Arabs. Any sign of Arab-Jewish rapprochement would be met by a sold alliance of Arab feudalists, Zionists and the British administration.
At the beginning of the war in 1939, the Zionists recognised that Britain was in decline and that America was a much more powerful patron. America in its turn sought to replace Britain as the power in the Middle East; Zionism was a useful weapon in this project.
The role that Israel has played in the Middle East was nicely summed up by the editor of the Israeli daily newspaper, Ha’aretz, when he explained in 1951: “Israel has been given a role not unlike a watchdog. One need not fear that it will exercise an aggressive policy toward the Arab states if their will contradicts the interest of the USA and Britain. But should the west prefer for one reason or another to close its eyes one can rely on Israel to punish severely those of the neighbouring states whose lack of manners towards the west has exceeded the proper limits.”
Israel has certainly lived up to its promise to punish those failing to show proper respect and in the process has taken on more an more of its neighbours’ territory. Of course, they have learned, like other invaders before them, that it is not always easy to keep the natives quiet, even if you pursue a humanitarian Rabin policy and just break the arms of stone throwing children.
Sean makes much of Tony Cliff’s 70th birthday statement: “I used to argue that poor Jewish refugees should be allowed to come to Palestine… That was an unjustified compromise…” To which Sean responds: “Think about it. What is he saying here but that, if countries like Britain and the US could not be persuaded to let Jews in, then it would have been better that they were left to the mercy of Hitler than that they should go to Palestine?” There is, however, a slight problem here, because at the Bermuda Committee in 1943 Roosevelt suggested that all barriers be lifted for the immigration of Jews from Nazi persecution. To avoid offending British sensibilities Palestine was excluded from consideration. Zionist reaction was immediate and hostile, alleviation of Jewish misery was to be in Palestine or not at all. As Dr Silver told the 22nd World Zionist Congress: “Zionism is not an immigration or a refugee movement, but a movement to re-establish the Jewish state for a Jewish nation in the land of Israel. The classic textbook of Zionism is not how to fund a home for the refugees. The classic textbook of our movement is the Jewish state.” You cannot get much clearer than that. Hal Draper, a Marxist with some prestige in Workers’ Liberty circles, records: “Morris Ernst, the famous civil rights lawyer, has told the story about how the Zionist leaders exerted their influence to make sure that the US did not open up immigration (into the US) to these Jews — for the simple reason that they wanted to herd these Jews to Palestine.”
Sean, quite correctly it seems to me, says the answer is the unity of Arab and Jewish workers. He then goes on to spoil it by suggesting they then set up separate sates. What kind of states are these? Is there a mini-Palestine on a bit of the West Bank, plus the Gaza Strip, and a bigger, much more prosperous Jewish state, or has Sean got some complicated scheme for population exchange, like he used to have for Ireland? Surely, what is needed is a secular Arab-Jewish sate based on socialism and democracy in all of Palestine.
Paul Foot, of course, can speak for himself, and why not, it is his favourite subject, but there is nothing manifestly anti-semitic in the points Sean attributes to him. Indeed what is strange about Sean’s piece is the absence of any mention of the role of British and American imperialism in the Middle East. There is nothing Stalinist in a recognition of Israel’s client status to US imperialism. Nor is there anything anti-Semitic in recognising that a Zionist state smack in the middle of the region, is the greatest enemy of peace and socialism for all the Jews and Arabs of the Middle East.