Zionism and anti-Semitism

This interview with Israeli communist and Weekly Worker writer Moshé Machover was conducted by the Croatian online publication Slobodni Filozofski

What is the meaning of Zionism today, almost 70 years after the formation of Israel, and why is it such a buzzword? Are we talking here about a particular form of nationalism or is it something a little bit more complex? What is its agenda?

This is not really one question, but four … Let me start with their core. Zionism is what it has been from its beginning, more than 100 years ago: in its essence it is a political project, the project of colonising Palestine by Jews and turning it into a nation-state with an overwhelming Jewish majority. Israel is both a product of this project and an instrument for its further continuation, because the project is not yet at an end: the colonisation of Palestine is proceeding in full swing. And Israel is faced with what Zionists call a ‘demographic peril’: there are ‘too many’ Palestinian Arabs in Palestine and not enough Jews to secure an overwhelming majority.2

So the agenda of militant Zionism, which is the dominant Zionist current, is to complete the project: colonise as much land as possible and leave in place as few Palestinian Arabs as possible. The latter would require additional massive ethnic cleansing, on a scale similar to that perpetrated in 1947-49. There are actually plans for doing this, if and when an opportunity presents itself.3

Is Zionism a particular form of nationalism? Superficially it is, but a very peculiar one. Zionist ideology certainly has many features of nationalism. But its peculiarity is that the ‘nation’ of which it is supposed to be the nation-alism is a fictitious one: an ideological construct. All nations are to some extent ideological constructs, but this one is more so than others. The idea that all Jews around the world constitute a nation does not hold water. Nation in the modern sense is a secular concept, but the only thing common to all Jews is the religion (Judaism) which they practise or which was practised by their parents or grandparents. And the only way in which a non-Jew can become Jewish is by religious conversion.4

By the way, throughout this interview I make a terminological distinction between ‘people’ and ‘nation’. The former is more general. I do not know if you make such a distinction in Croatian, but in Russian there is such a distinction: people = narod; nation = natsia. The same distinction exists in French (peuple/nation) and in German (Volk/Nation). But note that the term ‘people’ in English is ambiguous: in addition to its meaning as a singular noun, explained above, it is also used as a plural noun, the plural of ‘person’.

Is ‘Zionism’ a buzzword? I am not sure it is. But in recent years there is certainly a great controversy around it. An important reason for this is that many ordinary people around the world have become aware of the true nature of the Zionist project, as a project of colonisation, and there is a growing movement to delegitimise it and defend the individual and national rights of its victims, the Palestinian Arab people. The Israeli leadership is getting increasingly worried about this, fearing that it may hinder its chances of bringing the project to completion. So it has mounted a big propaganda campaign, alleging that Zionism is the same as Jewishness, or that at least Zionism is an inherent essence of being Jewish; so that anyone condemning or opposing Zionism is anti-Semitic. According to this propaganda, anti-Zionism is the ‘new anti-Semitism’. Of course, no decent person wishes to be branded as an anti-Semite …

When talking about Israel a lot of its critics, especially those coming from the left, talk about ‘settler colonialism’ as form of nation building. What is your opinion on that?

This is roughly correct; although I prefer the term, ‘exclusionary colonisation’, to describe this project and process. Marxists have distinguished two basic models of colonisation. In both models the indigenous people are dispossessed. However, in one model - the exploitative model - they are reintegrated economically as the main source of labour-power. The political economy of this model depends on exploitation of the labour of the indigenous people. In the second model - the exclusionary model - the settlers’ political economy does not depend significantly on indigenous labour-power, so the indigenous people are excluded: pushed aside, ethnically cleansed, and in some cases (as in Tasmania) exterminated. This distinction between two models of colonisation goes back to Marx, who made it en passant, and was theorised by Karl Kautsky.5

As should be clear to any Marxist, the distinction between these two types of colonisation, with their very different political economies, is absolutely fundamental. It has many crucial consequences. In exploitative colonisation, the settlers are a small minority, and usually form a dominant exploiting quasi-class. This was the case, for example, in Algeria and South Africa. In contrast, wherever exclusionary colonisation took place, the settlers formed a new nation. Such was the case in North America, Australia and New Zealand. In fact, I do not know of any exception to this rule.

The Zionist colonisation of Palestine - which definitely belongs to the exclusionary type - is certainly no exception: it led to the formation of a new nation, the Hebrew nation, which uses Hebrew as its language of everyday discourse, and has all the objective attributes of a distinct nation. But in this particular case there is a peculiar twist. Zionist ideology refuses to recognise the existence of this new nation. Zionism is like a father that refuses to recognise his own child. This is because, according to Zionist ideology, there is a worldwide Jewish nation, and the settler community in Palestine/Israel is just a part of this mythical nation - the vanguard that is reclaiming its old, god-promised homeland.

In the past, even Zionists, while denying that the Hebrew-speaking settler community in Palestine was a new nation, recognised its distinctness and referred to it as ‘the Hebrew people’. This is how it is referred to in the original Hebrew text of Israel’s declaration of independence. But later on this term was suppressed in Zionist discourse, and replaced by ‘Israeli Jews’. The official English translation of the declaration is accordingly falsified.6

How does the claim made by Binyamin Netanyahu’s government that Israel is the Jewish state find reflection in everyday life in Israel?

The claim made is that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people - which means that it is not the state of its inhabitants or of its citizens, but of all Jews around the world, of the alleged worldwide ‘Jewish nation’. This claim is made not only by Netanyahu’s government, but is common to all the main Zionist parties. In fact it is enshrined in one of Israel’s basic laws, which have a quasi-constitutional status.

Before discussing its implications in Israel’s internal everyday life, I wish to stress that its main purpose is to legitimise Zionist colonisation of Palestine and the Israeli settler state.7

Briefly, Zionists do not claim legitimacy for Israel as realising the right to self-determination of its actual majority nation, the Hebrew nation (whose very existence Zionist ideology does not recognise, as I have pointed out). Such a justification would immediately raise the question as to when and how that right was acquired; and it would also raise the issue of the prior right to self-determination of the indigenous Palestinian Arab people. It would thus raise the question of the legitimacy of Zionist colonisation. Instead, they claim legitimacy for Israel as the nation-state - not of a real nation, but of an alleged one: the ancient Jewish ‘nation’. Zionist colonisation is thereby legitimised as a ‘return’ of the Jews to their ancient homeland. To be a Zionist you do not necessarily have to believe in god, but you do have to believe that he promised that land to the Jews.

Now, as a very convenient by-product, this claim at the same time also provides formal justification for treating Palestinian Arabs as mere interlopers. This includes those who are citizens of Israel - the remnant community that avoided the major ethnic cleansing of 1947-49, and now constitutes about 20% of Israel’s population. They are second-class citizens, severely discriminated against, according to some laws (such as the laws of citizenship and land tenure) and a host of regulations and informal practices in all spheres of life.8

Recently, Israeli minister of justice Ayelet Shaked attacked boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigners for their alleged anti-Semitism.9 What is your opinion of BDS? Does the movement have any perspective and is it anti-Semitic?

I think that the BDS initiative is eminently justifiable. It is a non-violent act of conscience on the part of ordinary people, who wish to express their horror at Israel’s oppression of its Palestinian Arab subjects, and solidarity with the latter. The so-called ‘international community’ - which is a fancy name for the government of the USA and its camp followers - does nothing to restrain Israel’s violation of the human and national rights of its Palestinian victims, but, on the contrary, supports this rogue state. So it is up to ordinary people to take action.

Note that BDS is not aimed at individuals. It does not advocate a blanket boycott of individual Israeli academics, artists, etc. It is institutional: aimed at institutions that are part of the Israeli matrix of occupation and oppression.

I should add that we must not exaggerate the likely effects of this tactic. It will not by itself bring to an end Israeli colonisation of Palestine, let alone overthrow the Zionist regime. But it is already contributing to a mobilisation of civil society and is helping to create a political climate in which Israel will find it harder to perpetrate greater atrocities, such as massive ethnic cleansing. So BDS may in the long run have a restraining effect.

The claim that BDS is anti-Semitic is not only a vile and stupid lie; it is also logically absurd. It is an example of what philosophers call a ‘category mistake’. BDS is a political initiative directed against a state, which is a political institution. Anti-Semitism is hatred of, discrimination and violence against Jews as Jews, a group of people having a certain religious background (or belonging to a certain ‘race’, according to racists). So these two things are not only different: they belong to different categories.

As I mentioned in reply to an earlier question, the Israeli propaganda machine cynically uses the accusation of ‘anti-Semitism’ to deflect and denigrate the growing criticism against its actions. I should point out that, paradoxically, this mendacious propaganda itself has an anti-Semitic implication. By conflating Israel with the totality of Jews and claiming that hostility to Israel is hostility to that totality, this propaganda implies that Israel is acting in the name and on behalf of all Jews. But from this false proposition it would follow that all Jews are somehow complicit in the atrocities committed by Israel, that all Jews are to blame for what Israel is doing to the Palestinian Arabs. So anyone who hates what Israel is doing, but is stupid or naive enough to take seriously that claim of Israeli propaganda, may develop negative feelings against all Jews.

What actually is anti-Semitism in the 21st century? Is it more of a European issue, connected with the rise of the extreme right, because of the death of the left and migration, or is it a more complex issue?

It is indeed more complex. Currently there are two types of anti-Semitism.

First, there are remnants of the ‘traditional’ anti-Semitism that was widespread, mainly on the political right, in Europe (and to some extent in America) during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. It reached its climax in World War II, with the Nazi mass extermination of European Jews. Following the war, this rightwing anti-Semitism has become discredited and has greatly declined. It is no longer fashionable even among the right. It has largely been replaced by Islamophobia. In Europe and America Muslims are the Jews de nos jours. But, at the rightwing backwoods margins, there are still some remnants of this old-fashioned anti-Semitism. Examples of such groups are Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary. There is also an undercurrent of populist, rightwing anti-Semitism among ordinary people; but it is no longer acceptable to voice it in polite company …

I should point out that between Zionism and that old-style anti-Semitism (excluding its most extreme variety that wished to exterminate the Jews) there was a large degree of mutual understanding. They both shared a basic view. Let me put it this way. Suppose you met a man in a bar, and over a drink or three he told you that in his opinion Jews should not be living among non-Jews, but go and live among their own kind. On your way home you might ask yourself, was he an anti-Semite or a Zionist? Could be either.

In fact Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the founder of political Zionism, was quite explicit about this common ground between Zionism and anti-Semitism. This view was shared by many leading anti-Semites and Zionists. Even in Germany in 1934, soon after Hitler came to power, Joachim Prinz, a leader of the Zionist movement in Germany, published a book pointing out the wide area of agreement between Zionism and the racist policy of the Nazis, designed to separate Jews from non-Jews. Of course, this was several years before extermination of Jews became Nazi policy.10

The second type of anti-Semitism is relatively new. It is the stupid anti-Semitism I alluded to in my previous reply. Its dialectical relationship with Zionism is not one of partly shared ground (as was the case with the old rightwing anti-Semitism), but is a relation of mutual reinforcement.

In order to be quite clear and avoid misunderstanding I will illustrate this with a somewhat analogical case: the dialectic between Islamophobia and Islamist jihadism. I am sure you would agree that they reinforce each other, provide fuel for each other. Please note that I am not saying the jihadism is really, objectively, justified by Islamophobia, or vice versa. Neither of them is really justified. But jihadis are largely motivated by the insult and injury inflicted by Islamophobia on its victims. And, since jihadis claim - falsely - that they represent and act on behalf of all true Muslims, many politically unsophisticated people take them at their word and react in an Islamophobic way.

A somewhat similar perverse dialectic exists between Zionism and the second type of anti-Semitism. The latter is common not on the extreme right, but can often be found among unsophisticated, politically uneducated, would-be supporters of the Palestinian struggle. There are also a few, isolated, people like this on the left. It is the anti-Zionism of fools.

You were involved in the 1960s Israeli left. At that time you wrote the famous text, ‘The nature of Israeli society’, with your comrade, Akiva Orr. What can you tell us about the Israeli Communist Party, Matzpen and the Israeli left of that time?

I am going to pass on the main part of this question, because it would require a long essay, if not a whole book. You can find a great deal of relevant historical material on the Matzpen website.11 But I wish to take this opportunity to say something about the article you refer to, which was written in 1970 and published widely in various editions.12

A few years ago, in 2012, I published a collection of articles and essays I had written or co-written since 1966.13 In collecting material for this book, I noticed something paradoxical. Those articles, many of them written long ago, have remained topical. This is because the conflict they discuss and analyse has not changed fundamentally, although it has been exacerbated over the years. But there was one exception: the article you referred to - which is indeed by far the most famous of all the political writings in which I had a part, in fact the only famous one - is completely outdated.

The reason is that since the 1970s Israel has undergone very great internal socio-economic changes. Partly this is in line with what happened in all capitalist countries: neoliberal globalisation, large-scale privatisation. But in Israel these changes have been more pronounced than in most countries that were capitalist in the 1970s. In this sense Israel is intermediate between those capitalist countries and bureaucracy-ruled countries that were calling themselves ‘socialist’ in the 1970s, in which the private sector of the economy was relatively small, mostly confined to the black and grey economy. In the Israel of 1970 the private sector comprised only about half of the economy - a much smaller part than in advanced capitalist countries. So the rate of privatisation in Israel had to be especially steep in order to reach the present position, in which the private sector share in Israel is more or less in line with other advanced capitalist countries.

Another important change is the very great development of the Israeli economy. In 1970 Israel’s rate of internal capital accumulation was about zero, and its productivity was low. For both investment and maintaining an acceptable standard of living for the Hebrew population, Israel was totally dependent on large external capital and aid inflow - subventions mainly from the US, but also from Germany. Most of this inflow was channelled through the state, which used it to ‘irrigate’ the economy. In this way, not only was the capitalist class dependent on the state and controlled by it; but also the standard of living of Israel’s working class - or more precisely its Hebrew majority - was in effect subsidised via the state. All this has changed dramatically. Israel has become in many socio-economic respects - including its class structure - similar to other advanced capitalist countries. The UN Human Development Index ranks Israel 18th, between South Korea and Luxembourg. (For comparison: the UK ranks 14th and Croatia 47th).14

Israel still receives a very large amount of US aid - it is in fact the top recipient of US aid - but this is almost entirely military, and is in any case a far smaller proportion of Israel’s GDP than it was in 1970.

Moreover, in those early years Israel’s main value to the US imperialists was as a reliable guard dog - a military ally that proved its usefulness in weakening and defeating secular Arab nationalism, which dared to defy American imperialism. Now Israel has become an important asset for the US-led military-industrial complex - a powerhouse of innovation in the technology and techniques of surveillance, long-range assassination, smart warfare and mass ‘pacification’.15

Yet another big change is that Israeli Hebrew society is no longer composed predominantly of immigrants. In that article we pointed out that in 1968 only 24% of the Hebrew population were born in the country; the rest were immigrants. By 2008 more than 70% were born in the country; and this proportion is increasing from year to year, because immigration to Israel has declined since then (with a brief spike in the early 1990s) in absolute numbers and a fortiori in relative terms.16

So the Israel of 2016 - while, of course, still a settler state - is socio-economically very different from the Israel described and analysed in our old article.

Even though now you live in the UK, do you still have connections with the Israeli left? What does it look like today? Are there any groups with internationalist positions?

First I must make it clear that in Israeli discourse - the discourse of the Israeli media and general public - the meaning of the term ‘left’ is not the same as in most other countries. This peculiar Israeli usage takes no account of a person’s views on socio-economic matters, but only on questions of war and peace. So a person who is against the occupation and is not a chauvinist counts as a ‘leftist’, irrespective of whether s/he is a socialist.

But I suppose you have in mind ‘left’ in the more usual sense. Yes, I have some connections with the very tiny Israeli left, through personal contacts. But for a detailed answer to this question you would need to interview a comrade who is living in Israel. I can only give you a brief outline.

The state of the left in Israel today is rather sad. There is, of course, the Israeli Communist Party, which is the main component of the Democratic Front for Change (known by its Hebrew acronym, Hadash, which is also a word meaning ‘new’). The membership of Hadash is mostly Arab, but it has some Hebrew members. Hadash in turn is the leading component of the Joint List, an electoral bloc with two Arab parties, which in the last elections to the Knesset (March 17 2015) won 13 seats, making it the third largest faction. The Israeli CP/Hadash, like most of its ‘official’ communist sister parties, has undergone a natural transmutation from orthodox Stalinism to centre-left reformism.

To the left of the CP there are some small single-issue protest groups, whose courageous activity against various aspects of the occupation and ongoing colonisation is truly admirable. An example of such a group is Anarchists against the Wall.

But after the demise in the 1980s of the Socialist Organisation in Israel (Matzpen) - which had been greatly weakened by splits motivated by Trotskyist and quasi-Maoist sectarianism - there has not existed in Israel a non-sectarian revolutionary socialist group. In my opinion this is vitally needed: a revolutionary socialist, broadly Marxist, organisation with a democratic internal structure, allowing different tendencies to coexist and debate openly, without rushing to split over secondary differences, as unfortunately is common practice almost everywhere in the radical left.

You have developed an interesting thesis on how a solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine lies in the whole region instead of within the ‘national box’. Could you outline this thesis for our readers?

Let me put it more precisely. The thesis that I and other Matzpen comrades have put forward on numerous occasions is that the framework for resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be the confined ‘box’ of Palestine (a country created by imperialism in 1922, ruled by Britain under a League of Nations mandate from 1922 to 1948, and currently ruled by Israel), but must be the entire region of the Arab east. Nor can the resolution be confined to a so-called ‘bourgeois-democratic’ format, but must involve a socialist revolutionary transformation of the region. This view was adopted by Matzpen long ago, before the June 1967 war.17

The reasoning behind this thesis is not based on any generic formula applicable to all colonial and national conflicts. It is based on the specific (and rather exceptional) features of this particular conflict. I have explained this at some length in my articles.18

Here I can only outline this reasoning. It is based on assessing the balance of power, which is very favourable to the Israeli settler state, and very adverse to the Palestinian Arab people. This is obscured by false analogies with South Africa under apartheid, which was based on a different model of colonisation, as I mentioned before, and in which the balance of power was very different.

In South Africa the settlers were a relatively small minority; they needed the majority black population, the black working class, because the economy depended on its labour. But they could not go on indefinitely subduing this majority and denying it political rights. The settlers’ leaders understood that they had to give way. Decolonisation there did not involve a socialist transformation; it was a bourgeois deal, achieved without bloodshed. The settlers were not expropriated. The majority, the black working class, remains extremely exploited, but it has nevertheless won a great deal politically; it has achieved political rights.

In Israel/Palestine the situation is very different. The majority of victims of Zionist colonisation, the bulk of the Palestinian Arab people, are external, not an internal labour force vital to the Israeli economy. Decolonisation of Israel/Palestine would require the overthrow of the Zionist regime, the deZionisation of Israel. But the only social force capable of overthrowing this regime is the Israeli people, primarily the Israeli working class. However, the Hebrew majority of this working class has nothing to gain from a bourgeois decolonisation. On the contrary, that would mean exchanging its present position of an exploited class possessing national privileges for a position of an exploited class without national privileges.

The only way in which the Israeli working class may be attracted to the idea of overthrowing the Zionist regime is if that would mean exchanging its position of an exploited class for being part of a ruling class. In other words, a socialist decolonisation. Clearly, this can only take place as part of a regional transformation, involving the entire Arab east. This is also the only way in which the present imbalance of power can be redressed. In this context the Hebrew working class would gain even if that would involve giving up its national privileges and accepting equal national rights.

Why do you think that the Israel-Palestine conflict has such an impact on the world’s left? Until the current situation in Rojava there has been no national conflict which has attracted so much attention and almost every left group or initiative has a unique opinion about it.

There are several reasons. This conflict, which has the superficial form of a national conflict, is, as I have explained, in essence a conflict of colonisation - between a settler state and the indigenous colonised and dispossessed people. If you look at it in this way, you realise that it is very special, in the sense of being the only remaining major conflict of this kind. All conflicts arising from colonisation have been resolved one way or the other. Some ended during the 19th century with the total triumph of the settlers, with the indigenous peoples pulverised and subdued, reduced to relics, clinging to the vestiges of their ancient cultures. Others ended during the second half of the 20th century with decolonisation. (By the way, all cases of decolonisation occurred in exploitative colonies; there is no historical precedent of decolonisation in places where colonisation was exclusionary.) The colonisation of Palestine remains in the 21st century as the only survivor: an anachronism.

Moreover, this conflict - which shows no signs of being resolved any time soon - is located in what is arguably the world’s most sensitive and strategically important region. It has been compared to a keg of gunpowder standing among many barrels of petroleum. But the keg of gunpowder is in reality Israel’s large nuclear arsenal.

And this conflict is a constant irritant that has not only caused several regional wars, but is a grievous provocation to the Arab masses and to Muslims everywhere. Thus it is a major contributing cause of insult and humiliation felt by many, which impels them to choose the desperate and destructive blind alley of terrorism.


1. http://slobodnifilozofski.com.

2. For a fuller coverage, see my article, ‘Israelis and Palestinians - conflict and resolution’ (www.matzpen.org/english/2006-11-30/israelis-and-palestinians-conflict-and-resolution-moshe-machover).

3. For details see my article, ‘Quest for legitimacy’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014.

4. For a more detailed discussion, see my article, ‘Zionist myths: Hebrew versus Jewish identity’ Weekly Worker May 16 2013.

5. For a critical discussion of Kautsky’s typology of colonies, see my article, ‘Colonialism and the natives’ Weekly Worker December 17 2015.

6. I discuss these matters in greater detail in my article, ‘Zionist myths: Hebrew versus Jewish identity’ Weekly Worker May 16 2013.

7. I have dealt with this in detail in ‘Quest for legitimacy’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014.

8. The Adalah (Justice) website lists more than 50 Israeli laws that discriminate against Arab citizens: www.adalah.org/en/content/view/7771. A recent Adalah report contains information on Israel’s discriminatory land and housing policies in 2015: www.adalah.org/en/content/view/8771?mc_cid=85cee170ff&mc_eid=e1ce773f14.

9. http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ngo-law-protects-israel-from-existential-threats/.

10. You can find more about this symbiosis, with references to sources, in the article, ‘Zionism and its scarecrows’, which I co-authored with Mario Offenberg: www.matzpen.org/english/1978-10-10/zionism-and-its-scarecrows-moshe-machover-and-mario-offenberg/.

11. http://www.matzpen.org/english.

12. See, for example, M Machover and A Orr, ‘The class character of Israeli society’ (1972): www.matzpen.org/english/1972-02-10/the-class-character-of-israeli-society.

13. Israelis and Palestinians: conflict and resolution Chicago 2012.

14. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Developed_country.

15. See J Halper War against the people: Israel, the Palestinians and global pacification Chicago 2015; and my review: ‘The dog and the tail’ Weekly Worker October 8 2015.

16. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Israel; www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Immigration/Immigration_to_Israel.html.

17. For an early official formulation, see the Matzpen statement, ‘The Palestine problem and the Israeli-Arab dispute’ May 1967 (www.matzpen.org/english/1967-05-18/the-palestine-problem-and-the-israeli-arab-dispute).

18. See ‘Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a socialist viewpoint’: www.matzpen.org/english/2009-02-10/resolution-of-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict-a-socialist-viewpoint-moshe-machover; and ‘Belling the cat’ Weekly Worker December 12 2013.