The overthrow of Zionism is incompatible with a Hebrew nation, argues Tony Greenstein, in this reply to Moshé Machover
No national consciousness?
Moshé Machover, who I count as a friend and comrade, is a legend in his own lifetime. One of the founders of Matzpen, the Socialist Organisation in Israel, Machover more than any other single person has helped educate a generation of socialists in a Marxist approach to the question of Zionism and Israel.
When I grew up, there was a myth, common amongst the left, that Israel was an example of socialism. The kibbutzim were held out as the socialist ideal - a communal way of living and producing. Little did we know that the kibbutzim were the pioneers of stockade and watchtower colonisation, that they owned industries which exploited the labour of Arab and Misrahi Jewish workers, that they were Jewish-only organisations and that they provided the officer corps for the paramilitary Haganah and Palmach, which spearheaded the massacres and ethnic cleansing of 1948. But, then again, we grew up with the fable that the Arabs in 1948 fled Palestine on instructions from the Arab leaders in order that they could conquer the country and commit another holocaust.
As a teenager groping my way towards a socialist analysis of Zionism, the first thing I read that made sense on the subject was an article in the New Left Review by Moshé, Akiva Orr and Haim Hanegbi, which was reprinted as a pamphlet by the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers Party).1 It is therefore with some hesitation that I disagree with my teacher.
Moshé argues cogently and forcefully in his article, ‘Palestine and Hebrew self-determination’,2 that without an acceptance by the Palestinians that the Jewish or Hebrew inhabitants of Israel constitute a separate Hebrew nation there can be no resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only by making this concession and accepting the reality of two nations is it possible to find a solution to the existing conflict.
Firstly let me explain that I agree with Moshé and Matzpen that it is impossible for the Palestinians, by themselves, to overthrow Zionism. A solution to Zionist colonisation will not be found within the confines of what was the British mandate territory of Palestine. The balance of forces is such that it would be impossible for the Palestinians to repeat what the black masses achieved in South Africa when they overthrew the apartheid system.
What then is the pathway to a solution? Moshé argues that the only agent for change is the Israeli-Jewish (Hebrew) working class: “... the only social force able directly to achieve this overthrow [of Zionism] is internal: the Israeli masses, primarily the Hebrew working class.” The Israeli-Jewish working class must be tempted into abandoning the advantages that it presently enjoys, or perceives that it enjoys, in a Zionist state based on Jewish supremacy. How is this to be achieved? By granting it the right to form either a separate Hebrew state or, hopefully, it will be enticed to join a wider socialist federation of the Middle East. This is where Moshé and I part company.
My initial response is that of Martin Luther King when remonstrating with white clergymen, who argued that he should have kept quiet over segregation and racism, allowing the law to take its course.
Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.3
The first thing that should be said is that there is no empirical evidence to support Moshé’s theory. It is based on nothing more than an assertion that, in certain circumstances, the Hebrew or Israeli-Jewish working class will abandon Zionism and act as a revolutionary agent of change. Scientific theories are usually based on existing facts, which they then try to explain. Further observations and predictions based on the theory confirm whether the theory is true or not.
The suggestion that the Hebrew working class is a potential agent of revolutionary change is based on no existing facts, evidence or observations. Per contra Israel’s Jewish working class is the most reactionary section of the Israeli-Jewish population. The Marxist idea that the working class is the gravedigger of capitalism only applies in situations where the major cleavage in society is between those who live by their labour alone and those who live by exploiting the labour of others.
However, there are certain capitalist societies where life is not so simple. In these societies - ethno-nationalist or based on racial supremacy, primarily settler-colonial societies - an alliance forms between the ruling class and its ethnic counterpart in the working class. Such examples include the deep south of the USA, where the white working class saw its main enemy as the black working class. It is a situation repeated over and over again in the white dominions of Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. In such situations the Marxist theory of the proletariat did not work.
Lenin observed that in imperialist societies, the proletariat shares in the oppression and exploitation of the colonised. It is this which is the material basis of the political backwardness of the western working class to this day and the attraction of national chauvinism. Lenin described how,
The Roman proletarian lived at the expense of society. Modern society lives at the expense of the modern proletarian. Marx specially stressed this profound observation of Sismondi. Imperialism somewhat changes the situation. A privileged upper stratum of the proletariat in the imperialist countries lives partly at the expense of hundreds of millions in the uncivilised nations.4
If the western proletariat, in the heartland of imperialism, was able to overcome racial/ethnic divisions and extend solidarity to the colonial masses, to at least a partial extent, the settler-colonial working class was totally incapable of reaching out to the working class of the colonised societies. White workers came to the colonies as part of the colonisation process and from the beginning they identified with their own ethnic ruling class rather than the natives. They swapped the oppression they experienced in the mother country for the role of an oppressor in the colonies. Indeed this was the cure for all manner of social ills by colonial reformers such as Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who advocated the emigration of the unemployed to the colonies in order to stave off disorder at home.5 Marx envisaged this when he wrote that “the nation that oppresses another nation forges its own chains”.6 Marx was thinking of Ireland, but what he wrote is applicable to any colonised society. As long as British workers supported British imperialism in Ireland, so long would it be in hock to its own ruling class.
Moshé’s thesis is a utopian fantasy based on a failure to understand the class nature of the settler society. In particular he fails to appreciate that one of the principal characteristics of a settler-colonial society is the intra-class alliance that is formed between the settler bourgeoisie and the settler working class. That is what makes Israel such a stable and reliable state for US imperialism today.
There are, of course, times when the settler bourgeoisie and the settler working class come to blows. This was true of the seamen’s strike in Israel in 1951 and the continued militancy of the Ashdod port workers from the 1960s until today. Indeed the Israeli-Jewish working class has often been a very militant one, even though at the same time it has rejected any alliance with the Israeli Arab working class. The major organisation of the Israeli-Jewish working class, Histadrut, was founded on the rejection of any form of unity between the Jewish-Arab working class and it put this into practice with its destruction of the joint Jewish-Arab railworkers union, which had been formed in 1919.7 Repeatedly Histadrut and the Labour Zionist movement set out to destroy, in the name of Zionism and Jewish intra-class unity, all attempts at Jewish-Arab collaboration.
For example in the postal, telegraph and railworkers strikes that began on April 9 1946 in Jaffa and Tel Aviv, before spreading to other cities, Histadrut exerted every muscle in order to destroy the unity which had seen joint Jewish-Arab pickets outside post offices.8 Former Hadash MK Tamar Gozansky described how,
The extensive joint activity of Arab and Jewish workers was not aborted only by the armed conflict, but, in large measure, by the policy of the Histadrut, the Jewish labour federation founded in 1920, which pushed for separation between Arab and Jewish workers.
Nor was Israel unique in this respect. Repeatedly in Ireland the Orange card was used to prevent the unity of Catholic and Protestant workers and peasants. The most famous example was in Belfast in the 1930s. The outdoor relief strike of 1932 had been an example of joint Catholic-Protestant working class unity, in which two workers had been shot dead. The strike and riots achieved many of their aims, but the unionist establishment was determined to destroy this unity. In the words of Lord Brookeborough, Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, “We are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state.” 9The fruit of British divide and rule was seen three years later in the sectarian riots in Belfast.10 In the 1920s Catholic workers had been driven out of the docks in unionist pogroms.
Kevin Johnson describes how, in the Harland and Wolff shipbuilding yard,
Even the unskilled [Protestant] men saw themselves as privileged, better off than Catholics. Only twice did the downtrodden workers, Catholic and Protestant, come together to stand against their employers. In 1907, James Larkin held them together for a whole summer, before the call of sectarianism became too great. During the depression of the early 1930s, Protestant and Catholic unemployed managed to stand together for a time. Once again, sectarianism broke through in the end and working class solidarity was deferred indefinitely.’11
In South Africa too there was a militant settler working class, which staged the armed Rand Rebellion in 1922, marching to the chant of “White workers of the world unite”.12 But Moshé avoids any analysis of the settler working classes by engaging in the equivalent of a political conjuring trick. He argues that the settlers as a whole in South Africa formed an “exploiting quasi-class” - which is to some extent true. But it is equally true in Israel and similar societies. In such societies there is a distinct privileged white/settler-colonial working class, protected by the equivalent of a colour bar, formal or informal, which identifies with its own ethnic ruling class.
It is arguable that socialist ideas made far greater strides in the white South African working class than amongst the Jewish workers in Palestine. Communist councillors were elected and there was even a communist MP, until the Communist Party was banned in 1950 by prime minister Daniel Malan. There was nothing that the Jewish working class in Israel possessed that the white settlers of South Africa did not have - be it language (Afrikaans), separate religion (Orange Free Church) or territory. Arguably a socialist consciousness made far greater strides in South Africa than in Palestine, where Histadrut was viciously anti-communist. In Palestine the major conflict within the Jewish working class occurred in the 1920s between the work brigades, Gdud Ha’avodah, Histadrut and Ahdut Ha’avodah.13
The fatal flaw in Moshé’s schema is his belief that the Hebrew/Israeli-Jewish working class can be won over from their extreme racism and chauvinism by the prospect of forming their own state. In fact they already believe they have such a state and there is no possible reason to believe that they will abandon their ‘Jewish’ state for a pie-in-the-sky Hebrew state in a socialist confederation in the future. A racist bird in the hand is far preferable to two socialist birds in the bush.
Moshé’s schema is a mechanistic and economistic one. It contends that a political alliance between the Israeli-Jewish working class and its ruling class can be broken by an appeal to the abstract ideas of socialism. I cannot find any more reason to believe this of Israeli-Jewish workers than I can for similar working classes in other settler-colonial societies.
The Zionist movement was quite unique, in that it consciously sought to create a working class under the slogan, ‘From class to nation’. The role of the working class in labour Zionism was a nationalist one. It is this which has shaped the political formation of Israeli-Jewish workers.
It is not simply a question of material benefits. No greater advocate of partition and the ideas of Protestant supremacy in Ireland has there been than the Protestant working class. Yet it is a class that has objectively barely benefited at all - it has suffered almost as much as the Catholic working class. Indeed there are some socialist groups - the former Militant Tendency for one - which argued that there was no difference between housing conditions on Shankhill Road and the Falls Road. Sometimes even the tiniest fragment of political and economic advantage over another section of the working class is enough to cement unity between workers and the bourgeoisie. Indeed I would go further: even the illusion of power over another section of the working class on ethnic grounds is enough. The history of the British empire is littered with such examples.
Of course, the balance of forces between the settlers and the indigenous population in South Africa and Israel is completely different. In South Africa the whites constituted less than 20% of the population and after the mid-1970s the friendly Portuguese colonies that lay to the north of South Africa had been replaced by the newly independent countries of Mozambique and Angola, which gave sanctuary to the African National Congress. By contrast, conditions could not be less favourable to the Palestinians, politically, militarily and strategically.
In South Africa there was a militant black working class based on the gold and diamond mines, whereas Israel has consciously avoided becoming dependent on Palestinian labour. Faced with hostile Arab regimes of Jordan and Egypt, Palestinians confront a very different geo-strategic situation to that of the South African black working class. That is why the Palestinians, by themselves, are incapable of overthrowing Zionism. To this extent I agree with Moshé. However, the belief that the Israeli-Jewish working class might provide a substitute for the black working class and, with the advent of socialism, throw off the chains of Zionism, if only they are granted the right to self-determination and a Hebrew republic, is more than just mechanistic and economistic. It is pie in the sky.
On the contrary, I would argue that until Zionism is defeated socialism will be off the agenda in Israel and the Arab east. Zionism is the guarantee against any unity between the Jewish and Arab working classes.
The utopian nature of Moshé’s solution to the Palestine question is summed up in the first of Matzpen’s theses, which contends that the conflict can only be resolved as part of a socialist transformation rather than in a “bourgeois democratic” framework. Socialism is part of the living struggle. Palestinians cannot wait until socialism is achieved. On the contrary, it is only with a solution to the problem of the Palestinians and the oppression of the Arab masses that we will see socialism. Contrary to Moshé’s argument, the overthrow of Zionism and its reactionary Arab counterparts can only come as part of a bourgeois democratic struggle that produces a regional-wide social movement. But in this the Jewish working class will play, at least initially, a subsidiary role.
Given that nowhere in the world, since 1917, has there been a successful working class revolution, what Moshé is in effect saying is that the Zionist dispossession of the Palestinians may never be reversed. Waiting until socialism has been ushered in for a resolution of the conflict is a recipe for no solution. This resembles similar arguments over women’s liberation.
Israel is not supported because the imperialist countries feel some form of guilt over the holocaust and wish to recompense the descendants of those murdered. Israel is an indispensable ally of imperialism. It was apartheid South Africa’s closest ally, an indispensable ally to the military juntas in South America during the 1960s and 70s, and it has acted as a bulwark against revolution in the Middle East, actively seeking to destroy radical Arab nationalism through the Suez War and then the 1967 war, through its interventions in the Lebanese revolution and its support for the reactionary Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, to say nothing of Jordan and Egypt. Imperialism operates through its junior partners in the Arab regimes in the Middle East and Israel is there to ensure that this situation continues - which is the real reason why it wishes to see an end to the Iranian regime. Israel brooks no challenge to its regional hegemony.
It would therefore seem obvious that, if Israel is supported because of its role in supporting reactionary and counterrevolutionary regimes in the Middle East, conversely, it is only with the building of a movement that overthrows these regimes that Zionism itself will be overthrown. The defeat of Zionism through a revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East, which at least initially will take a bourgeois-democratic form, is far more likely than via Moshé’s chosen instrument, the poor whites of Israel.
Moshé is quite correct when he points to the absurdity of the attempt to portray Zionism as a movement of Jewish national self-determination. The suggestion that there is a Jewish nation that crosses all existing national and state boundaries originates in the anti-Semitic idea of a Jewish world conspiracy. A conspiracy based on the idea that, wherever they were to be found, the Jews formed one coherent transnational political body.
Moshé asserts, however, that there is a Hebrew nation. There is no ‘clean’ definition of what constitutes a nation - it is a metaphysical entity. The best that can be said is that some of the features of a nation include a common language, common economy, common territory and also a sense of self-identity or consciousness. Above all a nation is a political body that is usually, but by no means always, confined to a single state. As Moshé quite rightly says, a state might consist of two or more nations and, on the other hand, a nation may be spread over more than one state: for example, the Kurds.
Israel is quite unique, in that it is a state not of its own citizens, but of the Jewish people - those who live both inside and outside that state. That is the meaning of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ or more precisely a ‘state of the Jews’. It is quite uniquely a state without a nationality. The dominant nationality is not based on residence, but on the myth of a previous Jewish political presence. The predominant nationality in Israel is based on an imagined ethnicity.
This was made crystal clear in 1972 in Tamarinv State of Israel, where the judge stated
... the desire to create an Israeli nation separate from the Jewish nation is not a legitimate aspiration. A division of the population into Israeli and Jewish nations would … negate the foundation on which the state of Israel was established
The court ruled
There is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish people. The Jewish people is composed not only of those residing in Israel, but also of diaspora Jewry.14
This decision has more recently been reaffirmed in Uzi Ornan v State of Israel 2013.The Israeli state was the creation of the Zionist movement, which consciously saw the state of Israel as the embodiment of its mythical Jewish nation. For a Hebrew nation to exist that nation must, at the minimum, declare itself. It must have a consciousness of itself, yet the supposed Hebrew nation is not a conscious nation. In the Pew Research Centre’s ‘Israel’s religiously divided society’ a plurality - 46% - of Israel’s Jews saw themselves as Jewish first and Israeli second.15 The latter corresponds to Moshé’s ‘Hebrew’ nation. Only 35% saw themselves as Israeli first and 20% did not even know. All three religious categories - Haredit, Dati and Masorti - saw themselves as Jewish first. Only secular Jews - Hiloni - saw themselves as Israeli first, by 59% to 20%.
Moshé says that “Obliterating the distinctness of the Hebrew nation was motivated by the need to legitimise the Zionist colonising expansionary project, past and future.” I think it is more complicated than that. Zionism has always been predicated on the myth of one Jewish people, of which Israeli Jews are but a component. It was therefore with this in mind that the political separateness of the Israeli-Jewish population was downplayed.
In that sense Israel is unique, because the South Africa whites never considered themselves part of the English or Dutch nation, for example. But the counterpart to this was the conscious eradication of diaspora Jewish language and culture in the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine). Yiddish, when it was used in a theatre in Tel Aviv in September 1930 with the staging of Mayn Yidishe mame (‘My Jewish mother’) provoked a riot outside of several thousands.16 Zionism faced two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, Jewish Israel could not be cut off from the hinterland, the Jewish diaspora. On the other hand, there was a conscious rejection of the values of galut (exile), summed in the foundational idea of the ‘negation of the diaspora’.
So how would I describe the Israeli Jews, or Hebrews? They are a settler people, but, being an oppressor group, it has no right to self-determination, either now or in the future. National self-determination means the right to be free from national oppression. What is clear is that what unifies the Israeli Jews or Hebrews is, like other settler groups, their antagonism to ‘the other’ - in this case the Palestinians. It is those they dispossessed or who exist at the margins of Israeli society - its Arab population - who provide the majority Jewish population with its core identity, albeit as a negative. As Moshé admits, “More than six decades after their state was founded, Israelis still grapple with their identity.” Far from being a solidified nation, the Israeli Jews are a people in search of an identity.
That is why if, in a future struggle, Zionism is overthrown, it would be absurd to imagine one could grant the Hebrew population the right to form its own state without rekindling the very ideas of supremacy and struggle that led to the overthrow of Zionism to begin with. In such a scenario, which is admittedly hard to envisage today, such a call would indeed be a reactionary one. If Zionism were overthrown, then Israel’s Jews would very likely divide into their politico-religious parts. What holds Israeli Jews together is the Palestinians.
Moshé argues that my refusal to accept that the Hebrew population in Palestine constitutes a nation must mean that Israel is an exception amongst the exclusionary modes of colonisation. Moshé gave as examples of the latter the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I would suggest that Canada and New Zealand incorporated the indigenous population rather than excluded them. However, with the exception of New Zealand, where the settlers were unable to defeat the Maoris, all the others decisively defeated the indigenous population, often exterminating them in the process. Clearly in such a situation a settler nation emerged, but again the right to self-determination would be a nonsense, since that nation is not oppressed. South Africa combined exclusion (Bantustan-isation) with exploitation and found it did not work. Indeed it is arguable that an American nation is still a fiction. The mass alienation of its black, former slave, population continues to this day. The existence of groups like Black Lives Matter testifies to the deceit that the American nation constitutes. What does a nation actually mean in such a situation of extreme racial oppression.
What then are the Israeli Jews? It is clear that their ultimate fate is similar to that of the whites of South Africa and the Protestants of Northern Ireland They are Jewish Palestinians and the Palestinian nation will in consequence be part Arab and part Hebrew.
Moshé argues that a democratic, secular state is a bourgeois liberal idea and therefore should be rejected. No doubt the slogans of liberty, fraternity and equality to which the French Revolution gave birth were equally a product of bourgeois liberalism. However, in the context of the Middle East and Zionism in particular they are revolutionary because they pose a challenge to the existing order of settler colonialism, religious chauvinism and sectarianism. When people in this country ask, as they do, what it is that the Palestinians are fighting for, then it is right to counterpose a secular and democratic state to that of the existing order. Democracy is revolutionary in the context of the Arab countries. The problem of the Arab masses is that they have never had the equivalent of a bourgeois revolution because of the way in which the west has succeeded in freezing the organic development of their society.
No national conflict
In one sense, of course, the Palestinian Arabs suffer a form of national or group oppression by Israeli-Jewish society, but it is wrong to see the conflict as a national one. It was always a settler-colonial one and the Palestinians were eradicated or expelled as part of the fate of the colonised, as they were in other similar situations. Long before the Palestinians had even coalesced into a recognisable nation they were the subject of the settler-colonial process.
That is why the interpretation of the conflict as one of two clashing nationalities, implying a two-state solution, has been so disastrous. Even were it possible, it would not have been a solution. Partition of Palestine is not and never has been the answer. In that sense the key fight for Palestinians, both on the West Bank and in Israel itself, is for equal rights against the racist regime that subsists. Zionist colonisation was not and never has been primarily a national conflict, but one of settler-colonisation. Whether in the US or Israel, what this meant was the removal, by one means or another, of the indigenous population on a racial, not a national, basis.
Moshé poses his solution on the basis of a hypothetical future situation: viz the existence of a Hebrew people in the future that may experience a form of national oppression. No struggle can be conducted on the basis of a hypothetical future. If a social and political struggle convulses the whole region, the Israeli-Jewish population may well divide ethnically or politically or indeed religiously. We simply do not know, but if Israel’s Jewish population today is only held together by its antagonism to the Palestinians it is not going to unify under such a possible scenario in the future.
Moshé’s other argument in favour of a Hebrew nation is that there are tens of thousands of people who are not Jewish, but who are assimilated in Israel’s Jewish or Hebrew society. This is true, for example, of the Russian Jews, but also of those converted by non-orthodox rabbis, etc. What is common to these people, however, is that they are predominantly white settlers. All the indications are that their Jewishness will be accepted by various sleights of hand in order that the settler community is not divided.
There are already indications that the orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion is being breached, as is the control of the orthodox rabbis over entrance to the settler community. The Jerusalem Post recently reported,
In the latest blow to the religious establishment, the High Court of Justice ruled on Thursday afternoon that non-Israeli nationals who convert in private orthodox rabbinical courts conducted in Israel should be eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.17
It is but a matter of time before the same is accorded to non-orthodox conversions.
One of the ironies of Zionist colonisation is that it created the Palestinian nation from the existing Arab peoples. The other irony is that the settlers themselves, rather than becoming a discrete national group, are themselves, like their white South Africa cousins, non-Arab members of the same national grouping. It is the destiny of the Israeli Jews that they will become Jewish Palestinians with all the rights that attach to such a group.
1. New Left Review January-February 1971
2. Weekly Worker January 12 2017
3. ‘Letter from a Birmingham jail’: www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
4. ‘Imperialism and the split in socialism’, October 1916: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm
6. International Socialist Review October-November 2000: http://isreview.org/issues/13/marxism_nationalism_part1.shtml
7. Z Lockman, ‘Railway workers and relational history: Arabs and Jews in British-ruled Palestine’ Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol 35, No3, July 1993, pp601-27
8. ‘Class warfare: how “Hebrew labour” destroyed Jewish-Arab solidarity’ Ha’aretz March 7 2015: www.haaretz.com/jewish/books/.premium-1.645483
10. B Rolston and R Munck, ‘Belfast republicanism in the 30s: the oral evidence’ Oral History Vol 16, No2, autumn 1988
11. The Irish Times November 29 2008: www.irishtimes.com/news/sectarianism-and-the-shipyard-1.916936
13. A good analysis of the anti-socialist nature of the Zionist labour movement and parties is given by Ze’ev Sternhell in The founding myths of Israel Princeton 1998. See also A Shapira, ‘“The left” in the Gdud Ha’avoda (Labour Brigade) and the Palestine Communist Party until 1928’ Zionism - studies in the history of the Zionist movement and of the Jewish community in Palestine Vol 1, Tel Aviv 1975
14. O Kraines The impossible dilemma: who is a Jew in the state of Israel? New York 1976, p67. Tamarin v State of Israel (1970). Professor Uzi Ornan v State of Israel 2013. ‘Supreme Court rejects citizens’ request to change nationality from “Jewish” to “Israeli”’ Ha’aretz October 3 2013: www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.550241. T Greenstein, ‘Israel’s Supreme Court confirms that there is no Israeli nationality’: http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/israels-supreme-court-confirms-that.html
17. ‘High court strikes another blow against chief rabbinate monopoly on religious life’ Jerusalem Post March 31 2016: www.jpost.com/Israel-News/High-Court-strikes-another-blow-against-chief-rabbinate-monopoly-on-religious-life-449880